Money Lacking For Pay Hikes

It is highly unlikely West Virginia can keep up with surrounding states that offer higher salaries for public school teachers. Admitting that does not mean ignoring the issue, however.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee announced this week the union will campaign for teacher pay raises. Union officials’ reasoning, as it has been in the past, is that West Virginia needs to do more to keep other states from using higher pay to lure good educators away.

That certainly is a concern, especially in counties neighboring Maryland and Virginia. Strictly in terms of salaries, Mountain State counties cannot compete with employment offers from those states.

The average teacher salary here is about $45,000 a year – 48th in the nation, Lee said. Though that calculation does not include the value of fringe benefits such as insurance and retirement programs, it still is clear West Virginia is at a competitive disadvantage.

But the WVEA and its counterpart, the American Federation of Teachers, have campaigned for pay equity for decades. Despite legislators’ and governors’ attempts to help, the Mountain State simply has been unable to match other states.

Money is at the heart of the problem, of course. Our state simply does not have the resources with which competitors such as Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia are blessed.

That isn’t the union’s problem, Lee said this week. “It’s not our job to find the resources for (legislators), but it is their job to place a priority,” he said. “Anything up at the Capitol that they make a priority, they’re able to find the funding for it,” he added.

He has a point, but it needs to be taken in context. In West Virginia, the context is that governors and legislators have approved very few major, ongoing new programs for several years. Where large amounts of spending are involved, such as with expansion of Medicaid or extending broadband Internet service, much of the money has come from the federal government.

And increases in the cost of government – notably, the Medicaid program before expansion – have sucked hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state budget.

Far from approving big increases in any line item, state officials have had to cut spending merely to keep the budget in balance. There is no reason to expect that to change during the next several years.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislators should be looking at ways to boost teacher salaries above the annual “step increases” already in the budget. But finding the resources to do that without increasing taxes – which ought to be ruled out entirely – will be an enormous challenge.