ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The deal to raise the wages of public school teachers in West Virginia is welcome news for Dale Lee. He taught in West Virginia schools for 22 years and is now president of the state's largest teachers union.
DALE LEE: We're just thrilled. I mean, it shows the power of united and standing together. You have to remember West Virginia's a non-bargaining state, so our members across the state took it upon ourselves to bargain in a way that the legislature understood. And that's to come to Charleston and have our voices heard collectively.
SHAPIRO: The president of the state Senate says this is going to have to come from somewhere, this money. And he says Medicaid is going to be one of the programs to experience cuts. How does that sit...
SHAPIRO: ...With you and the rest of the teachers?
LEE: You know, I think that's just an attempt to throw the message away from us and the message away from what our teachers and service professionals across the state did. The governor's revenue projections are there, and the House, I believe, will be able to backfill the money with the new revenue estimates. So I'm not - I don't believe that this is going to affect any other citizens in the state of West Virginia. It's just a way to kind of take one last dig at us.
SHAPIRO: When you look at the long-term impact of the strike, what do you think the repercussions are, positive or negative?
LEE: I think this is very positive. I think it's - we had the community's support. One of the things that I'm most proud of is immediately after we announced the work action a couple Saturdays ago, our members went out, and they made sure that their kids were going to be fed. They started working with communities and food banks and churches to provide hot meals for kids during the day, to do the backpack for food so the kids wouldn't go hungry and to provide day care for kids.
So our members across the state - our teachers and service personnel did what they do each and every day. They took great care of their kids. And the real winner in all this are the kids of West Virginia because we're making an investment in public education. We're making an investment for their future.
SHAPIRO: So West Virginia has 700 teacher vacancies, and teachers have had to combine classes. They've been asked to take on subjects that they might not be certified in or trained to teach. Is this 5 percent raise going to fix that problem?
LEE: It's the first step. It's the first step to helping us be competitive with our contiguous states. Now, the thing we have to remember is you can't give us this raise right now. You can't come up with the fix to our health insurance plan and then turn around for the next two or three years and do nothing. It's the first initial investment. We have to continue that investment so that we make sure that we're competitive and that people and our young teachers want to stay in the state of West Virginia, not go to the surrounding states where they're going to make so much more.
SHAPIRO: What about teachers in other states who are looking at West Virginia frustrated with their own rate of pay? What lessons do you think they will take away from your experience?
LEE: Well, actually what I hope is twofold - one, that united and collectively your voices can be heard. But what I'm actually hoping is that governors and legislators in these other states realize that you have to make the investment in education. And they don't have to go the same route that we did, that our teachers and service professionals in these other states unite, demand to have their voice heard and that their legislators and governors hear them before they have to take such action.
SHAPIRO: There must have been some negative consequence of the strike, even if only students missing out on days of classroom education.
LEE: You know, I'm sure we can debate the positives and the negatives of this in time to come. This is a historic event in West Virginia. It's the first time all 55 of our counties have been united. It's the first time all organizations have been united. There are so many positives that you will let history decide what the negatives were.
SHAPIRO: This strike seems to have been illegal under state law in West Virginia. Do you expect there will be any penalties for any of the teachers?
LEE: Well, while the strike may have been illegal, what you have to remember is superintendents called school off every day. It wasn't that we were taking a wildcat action. The superintendents are the one who called the school off each and every day. And under our calendar statute, we will make those school days up.
SHAPIRO: Do you expect teachers to use this experience as a teachable moment in the classroom? Do you think it'll be incorporated into what they teach their students?
LEE: Not only will it be a teachable moment in the classroom. It's going to be a teachable moment for them in their own lives. They realize now that they have to be involved. You know, teachers - sometimes we have tunnel vision. We care about our kids. We worry about our kids. We now understand that you have to stay involved in the process. You have to stay involved in the political process because the people that we elect to go to Charleston are the ones who are making decisions about our livelihood.
SHAPIRO: Dale Lee, thank you very much for speaking with us.
LEE: Thank you very much for having me.
SHAPIRO: He's president of the West Virginia Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state of West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.