Education Wave That Began in West Virginia Sweeps Nation

Jeff Bryant

Whether Democrats take back the House in the midterm elections may come down to races like the one in West Virginia’s third Congressional District.

“Richard Ojeda has taken a district that Trump won by almost 50 points … and turned into a toss-up,” writes Bill Scher for Politico. The article includes Ojeda in a list of 15 candidates that will not only determine control of the House and Senate, but also signal “how the party tries to oust President Trump” in 2020.

“If Democrats want to reclaim white working-class Trump voters in West Virginia, Ojeda may be their best hope to do so,” writes Elia Nilsen for Vox, “His … challenge is to persuade the Trump-loving voters of his district to send him to Congress as a Democrat.”

But if races like the one in West Virginia’s third Congressional District determine the direction of politics in the country, the fight over education will have a lot to do with it.

‘The Political Face’ of the Education Wave

Ojeda (you pronounce the “j”), a much-tattooed Iraqi war veteran who appeared in Michael Moore’s recent documentary, state senator of the district that includes counties that sparked the statewide teacher strike earlier this year that shut down schools in all 55 counties. His prominent support of the teachers made him the “the political face” of the strike, reported the New York Times .

The teachers eventually forced the legislature to fix the state employee’s health-insurance plan, raise public workers’ salaries, halt an expansion of charter schools, kill a proposal to eliminate seniority, and scuttle a bill that would take away the rights of unions to deduct dues through paychecks. Their labor action is credited with inspiring teaches in nearby Kentucky – then, in turn, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina – to also walk out of schools to protest lack of education funding, poor teacher pay, and other grievances.

Scher and Nilsen note that Ojeda is running on a populist platform that mixes some of the proposals of Bernie Sanders – such as a public option and Medicare buy-in for health care and legalized medical marijuana – with some of the rhetoric of Donald Trump, including tirades against big business, Wall Street, and the loss of jobs in coal mining and manufacturing.

What Scher and Nilsen overlook completely, however, is the impact education has, not only on Ojeda’s race, but also on the potential redirection of the Democratic party.

‘Education Is a Major Factor’

“Education is a major factor in both our federal and state elections,” Gary Zuckett tells me in a phone conversation. As Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, Zuckett leads a grassroots progressive advocacy that is canvassing and phone-banking to elect a slate of like-minded candidates who support public schools, affordable housing, environmental protections, and universal access to affordable healthcare, among other issues.

“We’re out in places like Fayette County knocking doors in towns with only 200-300 people because they are the folks we need to bring over” to the Democratic party, Zuckett says.

Zuckett considers sending Ojeda to Congress “a major focus” of his organization’s advocacy. “He was one of the first state lawmakers to come out in support of the teacher walkouts,” Zuckett explains. The movement by and large started in Mingo, Wyoming, and Logan counties. Logan is wholly in Ojeda’s State Senate district (the seventh), and the other two are split down the middle with half in his territory. He was on the floor of the capitol broadcasting live videos telling teachers how Republican lawmakers were screwing them. He was the first to warn the West Virginia State Senate to pay attention to the teacher rebellion.

“Our other objectives are also to whittle away at the Republican majorities in both chambers of our state government and build momentum to electing a Democratic governor in 2020,” Zuckett tells me. Education has become a hot button in many of those state races as well.

Grassroots Momentum

Zukett sees much of the grassroots momentum for Democrats coming from the teachers’ walkouts because of “the sense of pride going back to our labor roots,” that includes historic railroad strikes and “mine wars.” West Virginians take a lot of pride that so many teachers in other states used the teachers’ action in their state as inspiration for their own school walkouts. he feels. “I loved seeing teachers in other states carrying signs that read, ‘Don’t make me go West Virginia on you.’ That people looked at West Virginia as a ‘if they can do it, we can do it’ model continues to inspire us.”

It should be noted that the impact of the teacher walkout is not just being felt in the Democratic party. Many of the West Virginia Republicans who opposed the teachers’ demands lost in their state primary elections. Republicans – including Ojeda’s opponent for the open seat, Republican State House member Carol Miller – credit themselves for having voted to pass the pay raise, but that came after fighting the pay raise all session, notes Zuckett, calling the supposed claims Republican make for raising teacher pay “revisionist history.”

“Our Republican governor has even announced, a month before the election, that he will seek an additional raise next session,” Zuckett explains, while, in the meantime doing nothing about the constantly increasing costs to teachers for their health insurance plan. “It’s a game of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he argues

A Crossover Issue

While Zuckett concedes healthcare is truly “the top issue” in this election, he explains how that issue easily crosses over to education as well because the teacher walkouts were just as much about healthcare as they were about teacher pay and school funding. Every year, public employees, including teachers, face higher health insurance premiums and copays in the state’s healthcare plan, while salaries remain essentially flat, when accounting for inflation.

Further, Medicaid expansion is a huge issue because one-tenth of the state’s population is covered by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) which provides federal funding for the expansion. Battling the state’s horrendous opioid crisis – West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdoses in the nation – is another major healthcare-related issue.

Yet, even these issues cross over into education because teachers are often the first employees of the state to see firsthand how lack of medical care and the ravages of drug addiction affect children. Groups around the state that came together first because of education issues are now also organizing around economic, environmental, and social justice issues.

Another profound impact the teacher walkouts are having on West Virginia politics is the “heightened awareness among teachers about how the workings of state government, and their individual state representatives, directly affect their lives and livelihood,” says Zuckett. “Many of the throng of teachers who filled the capitol last year had never met as constituents with their lawmakers, and most got a quick civics lesson on political power.” That “lesson” was that, far too often, that power resided with corporations and big money interests rather than with voters.

Changing ‘The Old Rules of Politics’

Plus, the fact that teachers in West Virginia are overwhelmingly women, as they are everywhere, has resulted in many more teachers running for statehouse seats who were never in politics before, Zuckett notes.

“In this election the old rules of politics seem to be out the window,” says Zuckett. “I see more people getting fed up by the craziness coming out of Washington, DC and the indifference in our state legislature to the struggles of working people.”

Chances are, that if teachers are fed up, many more others are too.

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