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Salary Snag Keeps West Virginia Teachers Out Of Classrooms


It's Monday morning, but students in West Virginia still are not heading to school. A deal to give striking teachers a raise fell through. One House of West Virginia's Legislature approved a 5 percent raise, as the governor had offered, while the other House insisted on 4 percent. Dale Lee is president of the West Virginia Education Association, one of the unions representing teachers. He's on the line.

Good morning, sir.

DALE LEE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So 5 percent, 4 percent - isn't there a deal in there somewhere? Four-and-a-half, maybe?

LEE: You know, we made a deal with the governor, with the House and the Senate. We made it in good faith. The Senate decided that they wanted to change that at the last moment after seven days of being on the lines and at the Capitol chanting. When they heard that they'd gone to 4 percent, actually, people cried because we want to be in our classrooms, we want to be with our children more than anything. But we also know that you have to stand up for your word, and the Senate didn't do that.

INSKEEP: So you are insisting it's got to be a 5 percent raise, or this strike can go on and on?

LEE: We have announced that the strike will go on indefinitely until the Senate does what they said. You have to remember, in West Virginia, we have 134 legislators and a governor. And out of those, they passed the House 98-1 in the governor. In the Senate, it was defeated 19-15. So 114 people are saying we should be doing this. Nineteen Republican leadership and Republican senators are saying, we broke the deal.

INSKEEP: Mr. Lee, I want to make sure I understand what you feel is at stake here. People who've heard about the West Virginia teachers strike are no doubt aware that teachers' salaries in West Virginia are relatively low. So we can understand why teachers would want a raise, but, of course the schools are supposed to be about the students. Do you have a case to make that low pay for teachers is harming students?

LEE: We're 48th in the nation in pay. We have more than 700 classrooms across the state without a certified teacher in them. That's doing harm to our students.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You're saying that the low pay is making it hard for schools to hire qualified teachers?

LEE: Absolutely. We can't be competitive with our surrounding states. West Virginia, more than about 50 percent of the counties are border counties with other states. You can make anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 more by driving 15 minutes across the state line. We're having trouble keeping and attracting young teachers.

INSKEEP: With a 5 percent raise, you're still going to be lower than surrounding states, aren't you?

LEE: We are, but it's a start to get us toward the competitive level. And that's what we're looking for.

INSKEEP: So what do you say to parents or other people in West Virginia who might be quite frustrated that something close to a quarter-million students are out of school in West Virginia once again today?

LEE: We're all frustrated. But we believe that the 19 people who are standing in way of our children's education need to have the pressure put on them. Parents need to call them and say, everyone agreed to the deal, you need to do that.

INSKEEP: The 19 members, the majority of the Senate that turned aside that deal.

LEE: Yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: Mr. Lee, thanks very much for your time. Really appreciate it.

LEE: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Dale Lee is president of the West Virginia Education Association. That is one of the unions representing West Virginia teachers who remain on strike yet again on this Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.