CHARLESTON, WV (CBS News) – West Virginia’s public schools are closed for a third day today because of a teachers’ walkout. Nearly 20,000 public school teachers have walked out.
This walkout is expected to impact more than a quarter-million students.
The National Education Association says West Virginia’s teachers are the 48th lowest-paid in the country, with an average annual salary just over $45,000. That’s nearly $13,000 below the national average.
Last night educators and supporters gathered at the State Capitol in Charleston for a candelight vigil to fight for better pay and benefits.
“Our teachers and our public employees are getting less in pay per year every year, and people are fed up and fired up about it,” said Morgantown High School art teacher Sam Brunett.
Ohio County teacher Ruth Bankey said, “We’re united. We’re all standing strong: teachers, service personnel. We are here and we are going to stay. We now need Charleston to wake up and smell the coffee.”
The statewide walkout began Thursday, one day after legislators passed a bill that would give teachers their first raise in four years. It includes a four percent increase over the next three years.
But teachers argue it is not enough, and won’t offset rising healthcare costs.
The teachers’ union says it will not back down until its demands are met.
Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia, said, “We have to see a real strong commitment. We’re asking to move us in the right direction, and to take care of our health insurance at a level that we can see our checks go up, not have them go down.”
While this is the first statewide teacher walkout, a majority of West Virginia counties went on strike in 1990 to protest low pay. The 11-day strike ended with salary increases and new support programs in schools.
“We can’t keep watching all of our colleagues go out of state because they can’t make a living wage [here],” Campbell told CBS News correspondent Don Dahler. “We want to stay here. We want to be with our students. And our students deserve that education.”
More than 277,000 students will be out of school for a third day. But parents are showing their support.
“This whole situation is difficult for everyone,” said parent Lindsey Dolan. “But, I believe this is all for the right reason. I think we need to make education our top priority. We need to invest in our children and encourage people to stay here, and then maybe we can be a wealthy state.”
A work stoppage like this is actually illegal in West Virginia. The State Attorney General says he supports teachers’ “cries for higher salaries,” but will help local authorities enforce the rule of law.
The West Virginia Education Association say its lawyers are ready to handle any challenges.