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Striking school workers held signs and chanted inside the West Virginia Capitol last week in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo by Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images

5 important stories that have nothing to do with the White House

These days, it’s hard to stop news from Washington, D.C., from flooding your news feed. We take a moment every week to bring you important stories beyond the White House and the Capitol. Here’s what we’re reading now.

1. West Virginia leaders pass bill to raise teachers’ pay, ending strike

Striking school workers hold signs and chant inside the West Virginia Capitol last week in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo by Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Striking school workers hold signs and chant inside the West Virginia Capitol last week in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo by Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images

West Virginia lawmakers have passed legislation that will give teachers and state workers a 5 percent pay raise, ending a strike that closed schools for nine days.

Gov. Jim Justice signed the bill into law Tuesday afternoon, nearly two weeks after educators walked off the job on Feb. 22, protesting a previous bill that raised their pay by just 2 percent.

In response to the protests, the governor, union leaders and the House of Delegates agreed to raise pay by 5 percent. But the Senate initially opposed the figure and offered a 4 percent raise instead.

That all changed Tuesday, as the Senate agreed to “recede” from its initial opposition, according Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair (detailed here by CNN).

The new bill seeks to cut state spending from general services and Medicaid by $20 million to pay for the raises.

“These are deep cuts,” Sen. Blair told the Associated Press. “This has been the fiscally responsible thing to do, in my opinion, to get us to the point we’re at today.” [The Associated Press]

Why it matters:The teacher strike, which suspended classes for 277,000 students and 35,000 employees, was the longest in state history, according to The State Journal’s Jake Jarvis.

The Associated Press reported that the strike forced working parents to find child care for their kids during working hours. Volunteers also collected food for students who relied on free school meals. Many teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the nation, said they donated their time, money or food to help the children however they could. Roughly 17.9 percent of West Virginians live below the poverty line, the AP noted.

Some educators have suggested the West Virginia strike will prompt teachers in other states to walk out of class over similar issues. Teachers in Oklahoma, a state where some school districts have switched to a four-day school week to cut costs, are now threatening to strike, too. The state has the second-lowest average teacher salary in the U.S., and the Oklahoma Educators Association has set an April 23 deadline for educators to resolve pay issues before they walk out.

2. An article in a Vatican magazine suggests nuns are being exploited for cheap labor

Pope Francis greets a group of nuns during the general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

A report by an official Vatican magazine suggests nuns are exploited for cheap labor by the male leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.

The article was published Thursday by “Women Church Word,” a monthly magazine of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Its author, Marie-Lucile Kubacki, interviewed nuns who said they’ve been systematically underrepresented, underpaid and undervalued by the church.

It describes how nuns are required to perform duties including cooking, cleaning and waiting on tables for cardinals and bishops, but are paid little to nothing for their work.

One nun, who used the pseudonym Sister Cécile, said “nuns are seen as volunteers to have available at one’s calling, which gives rise to abuse of power.”

Many nuns also said that while the work of men is valued, the work of women is not. The church has not appeared to respond to the report. In a separate preface for a book about Francis and women, however, the pope wrote that “I am concerned that in the church itself, the role of service to which every Christian is called, often, in the case of women, slides into roles of servitude rather than service,” the New York Times noted. [Women’s Church World]

Why it matters: The magazine, which is an official Vatican publication, is taking the unprecedented step of publicly denouncing the way nuns in the church are treated.

Magazine editor Lucetta Scaraffia told The Associated Press that’s something no one has dared to do — until now.

“We try to give a voice to those who don’t have the courage to say these words,” she said, adding that she wants the magazine to push the envelope on issues that matter to women in the church.

The article also points out that despite the praise Pope Francis has received as a champion for  gender equality in the church, little has been done to address the issue.

3. Scientists concerned that the North Atlantic right whale faces extinction

The endangered North Atlantic right whale could finish this year’s winter breeding season without any new births, sparking concern among scientists who fear the species faces extinction. Photo by Reuters.

The endangered North Atlantic right whale could finish this year’s winter breeding season without any new births, sparking concern among scientists who fear the species faces extinction.

The population of the right whale has been declining steadily over the past few years.  According to the New York Times, from 1990 to 2014, an average of 17 whales were born. But in 2017, scientists counted just five births. That same year, scientists say at least 17 whales died.

“The story is just a simple one of arithmetic,” Charles Mayo, director of the Right Whale Ecology program at the Center for Coastal Studies, told USA Today. “If you have fewer births and higher mortalities, extinction is around the corner.”

Today, there are roughly 430 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, with just 100 potential mothers, according to The Guardian.

Mayo said it’s possible scientists will find a few newborns later in the season. [The New York Times]

Why it matters: Scientists interviewed by The Guardian believe the dwindling numbers are due in part to warmer waters caused by climate change. When temperatures rise, it depletes the whales’ primary food source: plankton. This shifts their migration patterns to areas where they’re more likely to die or get hurt.

Heavier fishing gear intended to capture lobsters and crabs has also contributed to the decrease in the right whale population. Whales often get entangled in fishing ropes and die from “gruesome” entanglement injuries, Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told National Geographic.

This has prompted experts to call for new regulations on fishing gear. Baumgartner says the use of more breakable ropes would allow whales to break free and escape entanglement.

4. Why some of the country’s major food companies are leaving one of the biggest industry’s trade groups 

A shopper walks down an aisle in a newly opened Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago September 21, 2011. The 27,000 square foot (2,508 square meters) store is the first in Illinois with an emphasis on groceries and basic household goods. REUTERS/Jim Young

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade group that represents some of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies, appears to be losing its klout.

In the past nine months, several major food companies — including  Campbell Soup, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Kraft Heinz, Hershey, Mars,and Dean Foods — have parted ways with the organization. (Politico has been tracking these departures). Few of those companies offered specific reasons, but in a deep-dive into the departures, Quartz found that many companies disagreed with the GMA’s stubbornness on things like transparency over GMO and sugar content. Embracing those things  has allowed smaller companies (like Chobani) to gain footing in the market, the news magazine said. [Quartz]

Why it matters: The shift will likely mean more power for consumers. One of the largest complaints from companies that have left the association is that it was too slow to embrace buyer demands, NPR reported, including more transparency over labeling and what goes into food products.

It also likely means food companies will need to be more publicly accountable for their decisions, Quartz points out.

“Before, food companies could defer questions about their practices to GMA; now, each company is forced to take on an individualized public-facing role,” on everything from how it’s sourcing its products to wage and labor practices. And “this will extend to lobbying as well,” the article suggests.

5. Cremation is no longer the taboo it once was in the U.S.

Eco-friendly cremation urns are displayed during the Asia Funeral Expo 2008 at the Macau Tower Convention centre April 23, 2008. REUTERS/Victor Fraile (CHINA)

Burning the dead is a practice that has existed for centuries, dating as far back as the Stone Age. But, as explained in this Popular Mechanics story, cremation in America wasn’t always the preferred way to memorialize the dead.

Nearly 40 years ago, fewer than 5 percent of Americans were cremated after they died, according to the National Cremation Association of North America. Today, that number has jumped to about 50 percent. [Popular Mechanics]

Why it matters: Popular Mechanics’ Caren Chesler acknowledged that the changing attitude around cremation was in part aided by shifts in cultural and religious acceptance of the practice. But, also, it costs a lot less.

For example, a grave at a New Jersey cemetery can cost around $4,000, including a $1,500 charge to break ground for a casket. As for cremation? That same cemetery charges $180 to burn the body, Popular Mechanics reported. That doesn’t include the costs for an urn and other services, but still, the difference is stark.

Jim Koslovski, president of the Rosehill and Rosedale Cemetery, told Popular Mechanics that the cemetery “saw a big uptick in cremation when there was the economic downturn in 2008, when people were losing their jobs. Cremation is a less expensive alternative.”

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