Something fairly unprecedented is happening in West Virginia now: a statewide teacher strike. While statewide teacher strikes are not unheard of they are extremely unusual. So what led to this statewide movement of teachers in West Virginia? While issues with pay and benefits led to teacher dissatisfaction, it’s the way that West Virginia funds its public schools that helped to make it a statewide walkout.
National news reports have consistently pointed out that West Virginia teacher salaries are some of the lowest in the country. In 2016, the most recent data available, the average teacher salary in West Virginia was $45,959. This puts average teacher pay approximately $9,200 (or 16.7 percent) behind the national average, making it the 4th lowest in the country.
Additionally, since the end of the recession, teacher salaries have not kept pace with inflation. Between 2010 and 2016, average teacher pay in the state shrank by about 1 percent — when, at the same time, the average salary for all workers in West Virginia increased by 13.8 percent. If teacher pay had kept pace with inflation, the average teacher salary in the state would be about $50,600 — approximately $4,600 more than the current average. What this means is that West Virginia’s teachers have much less purchasing power today than they did in 2010. In addition, teachers have seen reductions in their health care benefits over the past several years.
While stagnant pay and declining benefits have stoked teacher anger, the reason the strike has gone statewide has to do with the fairly unique way that West Virginia funds its schools. Under West Virginia’s school funding system, the state funds a certain number of teachers, and other educational positions, for each school district based on the district’s student enrollment. The state bases the per-teacher funding amount on a statewide teacher salary schedule. In addition, health care and retirement benefits for these school employees are decided at the state level. This means that individual districts in West Virginia have little say over the pay and benefit levels of their employees.
This funding system was designed in the 1980s to ensure that teachers across the state received competitive wages regardless of the general wealth of the district that they teach in. The system has achieved its goal of equalizing teacher pay over the past 30 years; however, this means that the state is the entity that has the authority to make decisions about teacher compensation and benefits. (In most states, decisions about teacher pay and benefits are decided at the district level.) This helps to explain why teachers in West Virginia have taken their complaints to Charleston, instead of bringing these issues up with their own district’s leadership.