In case you haven't heard, teachers in West Virginia are taking a stand.
It's a big one – a statewide walkout on Thursday and Friday in protest of the feeble overtures proposed by the West Virginia State Senate in regards to teacher pay and benefits. Even with the protest looming, it appears that the highest offer the Senate is prepared to put forward is for a two percent raise. That's not even to mention the fact that lawmakers are scrambling to stop a hike in the benefits of PEIA for teachers.
If you aren't sure why teachers are outraged, consider this (among other reasons): in 2014, a goal was written into state code stating the intention for first year teachers with only a bachelor's degree to earn a minimum of $43,000 a year.
The current minimum salary for that level?
In fact, Governor Jim Justice's original proposal included just a one percent increase, a plan that over the next five years would have only increased teacher salaries by $2,000. Things don't get much better for teachers as their careers go on, either; West Virginia ranked 48th in the nation in 2016 in average teacher salary regardless of experience level.
It's no wonder, then, that West Virginia is in the midst of a significant teacher shortage problem. Numbers from as recently as 2017 showed the state with more than 700 vacant positions, a number which was rapidly rising and that the then-State Superintendent of Schools said represented a "crisis" stage.
Why does that matter?
Just take a look at the state's education rank in various measures of states, and see that the results indeed show West Virginia has consistently ranked near last in America if not in the bottom spot itself.
Some argue that West Virginia teachers are themselves the problem, and that we shouldn't reward them for the state's poor performance. Having grown up in the West Virginia school system myself, I won't disagree that there are indeed unsatisfactory teachers in the state, but there are also plenty of excellent educators here.
Even if the vast majority of teachers in the state were bad at their jobs, though, raising salaries would still be a must in fixing the system.
Simply put, there is no way that West Virginia can compete with other states when it comes to recruiting teachers. When I did my undergraduate work at West Virginia Wesleyan College, I trained with several aspiring teachers – many from West Virginia – who had tremendous potential. Many of them were prepared to take jobs elsewhere.
There is a treasure trove of potential teaching talent in our state, but much of that talent leaves or is dissuaded from training in teaching because of the abysmal pay the job offers in West Virginia.
If we are to compete on a national stage, to improve our state's struggling economy, it will be teachers at the forefront of the charge. They are at the front lines of the struggle, the first line of defense. Of course they educate students, but teachers have the power to transform lives.
For some students, a good teacher or teachers will offer the first secure attachment and stability they've had after a childhood of broken relationships and family structures. Countless people changing the world today attest that they were inspired to do so because of something one of their teachers did. And in a society where we often value our children as most precious, our children spend almost as much time in school with their teachers as they do outside of it with parents and other family figures.
It should come as no surprise, then, that evidence suggests both personal and societal economic growth is tied to quality of education. That's imperative if we want to fix things in West Virginia, where the economy is arguably worse than anywhere else in the nation.
Meanwhile, Governor Justice has stated that he doesn't want to raise taxes. something that certainly factors into the minuscule pay increase he proposed for educators. Nevertheless, he continues to frequently claim his intent to raise the state from a perpetual state of being "50th" in America, particularly in education.
Instead of doing good on that claim, Justice and other Republican state lawmakers have shown utter disdain for education, essentially spitting at the state's teachers. The truth is, tax increases would be necessary to offer competitive pay for teachers in West Virginia. It's also true that taking on additional taxes isn't easy for citizens in an impoverished state.
But if we want to improve that impoverished state, we have to be willing to invest in education, and that starts with paying teachers.
I commend the educators of West Virginia for taking a stand; now, it's time for parents, students, and other citizens to stand up with them. Call and write lawmakers, protest, tell them that enough is enough.
Teachers are the backbone of the education system, and if we fail to support them, we will watch West Virginia continue to flounder at the bottom of the barrel Justice claims he so desperately desires to rescue us from.