Following a strike that caused a nine consecutive school day cancellation, West Virginia lawmakers are cutting a deal to give all state employees a five percent pay raise.
According to the Associated Press, about 700 classrooms lack fully certified full-time teachers in West Virginia. This is argued to have stemmed from the lower starting salaries. When compared to compared to surrounding states, teachers can be paid $10,000 more than West Virginia instructors, making it tough to competitively fill positions with qualified instructors. A report done by the West Virginia Department of Education showed that almost 40 percent of high school math courses are instructed by “non-fully certified teachers.”
West Virginia teachers are among the lowest paid in the United States, do not have a labor contract with the state and on average have had stagnant salaries for the past four years. Following the strikes and rallies outside the State Senate, change is beginning to ensue. The bill has support from both the Republican controlled State House and State Senate, but senators warn about painful budget cuts in other areas following the raise including Medicaid, according to Sen. Craig Blair. On March 6, Gov. Jim Justice officially signed the bill into law.
The prospect of cutting Medicaid alarmed some Democratic lawmakers in West Virginia after it was made clear that instead of relying on hopeful revenue increases, the raise would be offset with budget cuts.
“I want to make sure there’s not a back-room deal here that’s punishing people who are too poor to go to the doctor,” said Sen. Michael A. Woelfel. “Don’t do this on the backs of the Medicaid recipients.”
The media coverage of the West Virginia education strikes have begun to shed light on just how poor the teaching conditions are across the board in the United States. There are large disparities between teacher income seen across the United States. According to Niche, in 2017 the lowest average starting salary for teachers was in Montana at $27,274, compared to D.C. who had the highest starting salary at $51,539. The lowest average salary for teachers was seen in South Dakota with $39,580, and the highest average was in New York with $75,279. For the 2016-2017 school year, West Virginia public school teachers had a median annual salary of roughly $45,700, the fourth-lowest in the nation, according to CNBC.
Besides fighting for salary increase, steady benefits and a higher standard for teacher credentialing, the strike has deeper roots involving a search for a vocal platform from a typically voiceless community of rural West Virginia. Isolated rural districts see the lowest pay and greatest devaluing of the teaching profession, resulting in tremendous amounts of teacher shortages which are projected to reach over 1,000+ vacancies in the coming years if change does not take place. The stagnation experienced in West Virginia has created an economically and socially marginalized community that the worker unions are now determined to reverse.
The five percent salary raise is an oversimplified solution to a much more complex problem, but it is a kick start to creating lasting change in West Virginia.