Officials of West Virginia's two big teachers' unions found themselves in something of a quandary recently, regarding a study of the power wielded by such organizations in this and other states. On one hand, they were happy the report recognized how strong the unions are here.
But on the other they seemed apprehensive lest the public gain too much appreciation of their power.
West Virginia has the 13th strongest teachers' unions in the country, according to a study published last month by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now.
Some of the study indeed needs to be elaborated upon, as officials of the West Virginia Education Association and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers noted. For example, the report stated that in our state, employers - that is, county boards of education - contribute a relatively large amount to employees' retirement accounts. As the union leaders explained, much of that is to pay down unfunded liabilities from the past, not to help teachers in the future.
But teachers' unions do make use of a tremendous amount of political clout in West Virginia. They have managed to stymie attempts to provide incentive pay for good teachers as well as geographic pay differentials that could help some border counties attract and retain educators now lured away by higher-paying states such as Virginia and Maryland. The unions have blocked a state charter school law as well as improved teacher evaluation methods.
No one involved in West Virginia politics doubts the power the unions can bring to bear, especially against governors and legislators who cross them.
Public school reform is likely to be high on the Legislature's to-do list when lawmakers gather for the annual regular session in January, especially with the recent Republican gains in the House of Delegates where the House Education Committee has long been a place where bills not supported by teachers unions go to die. With 11 Republicans elected to the House last week, House Speaker Rich Thompson's stranglehold on committees may be considerably lessened.
If teachers' union officials are serious about their oft-repeated slogan that "it's for the kids," they will not block reforms necessary to improve schools.