Sen. Ryan Weld: Keeping Our Young Educators in West Virginia

Editor’s note: This guest column has been corrected to list the author as W.Va. Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, and not Sen. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio.

During the past week, much of the discussion in Charleston has been focused on the issue of pay raises for teachers as well as other concerns surrounding their benefits. This isn’t a recent development and has been a point of contention between their unions and state leadership for more than a decade.

Teachers and many other state employees have significant evidence to support their claims that they are underpaid. Recently, we’ve heard stories about correctional officers who, even though they guard some of our state’s most dangerous criminals, qualified for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps) as a result of their severely low pay.

But as I’ve looked at the information provided to us by all the groups involved in this problem, I began to think of perhaps approaching it from a different perspective.

Depending on the source, West Virginia has either the third or fourth oldest population in the nation, at approximately 42.2 years old. By contrast, the average age nationwide is 37.8 years old. Generation West Virginia estimates that 44 young people leave our state each day.

When I was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2014, I was 34 years old. Now, in my first term serving in the Senate, I’m 37. My entire reason for getting involved in public office from the start was because I had seen so many of my friends from high school and college leave West Virginia because they couldn’t start their careers here at home. My goal as a legislator has always been to do all I can to help reverse the tide of young professionals from leaving, and to also help bring back those who had left.

According to the most current information from the National Education Association, one of the national teachers unions that represents members here in West Virginia, the average starting teacher salary in Pennsylvania is $41,901. In Ohio, it’s $33,096. And in West Virginia, it’s $32,533. While this information is from 2013, you can clearly see that we as a state are lagging behind what we are paying our newest and youngest teachers as compared to our neighbors.

So what if we could find a way to accomplish something that would help two of our state’s major issues at once: young educators leaving the state to begin their careers elsewhere and teacher salaries that are below that of our neighbors?

The current focus in Charleston has been around a bill that would give all teachers a pay raise which averages out to about 1 percent per year for the next five years. This plan will cost the state a little more than $9.5 million per year. However, what if in addition to giving all teachers this small general pay raise, we also took the salaries of teachers in their first, second, third, and fourth years and raised them by another 2 percent each year? For a relatively even exchange, we could make it a bit more attractive to those young teachers just out of college to begin their teaching careers here instead of across our borders and stay here.

Currently, West Virginia has more than 700 vacant teaching positions. More than 700. Those vacancies represent material that isn’t being taught in the classroom and students missing out on educational opportunities. If we were to make it more attractive for recent graduates with teaching degrees to stay here by offering them a more competitive starting salary, we would in return make it easier to fill those hundreds of vacant positions.

Another aspect of the plan to help our state retain our youngest teachers at home would be to update the way a school system determines which teachers are let go from their jobs when the county has a decrease in their teaching positions due to things like declining enrollment or school consolidation.

Currently, the only factor that determines which teacher may keep his or her job is seniority. While experience on the job is obviously important, this system can also lead to some awkward situations. Last year, the Kanawha County School system lost 72 teaching positions. And as a result, 34 teachers from the system were forced to pull numbers out of a hat to see who would remain for the 2017-18 school year and who would be dismissed.

Can you imagine that? Being forced to pick a number out of a hat to determine whether you keep your job? If that was all that stood between me and losing my job through no fault of my own, I would definitely feel as if something had failed me along the way.

One way to fix this would be not to abolish the seniority system altogether, but to allow for the determination of who keeps their job and who doesn’t to be based on other factors as well. In addition to seniority, things such as a teacher’s amount of experience and specialized training relevant to that position, any advanced degrees held by that teacher, and past performance evaluations, as well as other factors could all be considered when deciding the future of a teacher’s career.

By adding other pieces of criteria to this process, we could help add security to the careers of our young teachers by giving them confidence in feeling that they won’t automatically be eliminated from their job simply because they haven’t been there long enough, but that the decision will also be based on their performance, education, and other factors.

None of this is intended to diminish the contributions of those teachers who have spent decades in our classrooms. However, hundreds of teachers retire every year, and we absolutely must do what we can to make our young people want to stay here to fill those positions.

We cannot let preserving the status quo prevent us from preparing for the future.

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