We Need to Talk About Public Education in W.Va.

In February this year, teachers and school service personnel in all 55 of West Virginia’s counties left the job for 13 days over issues of teacher pay and the rising costs of health insurance available through W.Va. Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). Before the 2018 Legislative Session ended, all teachers, school service personnel and state employees received a 5 percent pay raise.

Additionally, changes to PEIA healthcare benefits and premiums were frozen at existing levels until July 1, 2019, while a task force was appointed to study and propose a plan to “Fix PEIA.”

To help provide some factual background and encourage a candid and open dialogue on this topic, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce developed a paper entitled “Public Education in West Virginia: An Overview of Teacher Pay and Benefits, and Student Achievement.” This paper compares West Virginia with our five border states in areas of student achievement as well as total compensation provided to public school teachers.

Ensuring that our children are well qualified and prepared for the workforce of tomorrow is one of our most important responsibilities. Unfortunately, West Virginia falls short. Every two years, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) measures student performance in a variety of metrics, but the two most important indicators are math and reading scores in both the 4th and 8th grades.

While there has been some improvement in NAEP scores over the past several years, only 23.9 percent of West Virginia 8th graders are considered at or above proficient in math. By contrast, the U.S. average is 34.3 percent. When it comes to reading, only 27.1 percent of West Virginia 8th graders are proficient, compared to 36.1 percent nationally.

These statistics are quite surprising, considering that West Virginia is 14th in the country for spending at $14,274 per pupil — almost $3,000 more than the national average. The fact that West Virginia invests heavily in public education is to be applauded, but our results invite a robust discussion on how and where those dollars are spent.

West Virginia is currently 49th in the nation for teacher pay, though that ranking will improve when the 5 percent pay raise takes effect next school year. The current ranking also does not account for West Virginia’s relatively low cost of living, which according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis is the sixth lowest in the country.

The method by which West Virginia determines teacher pay is not the same as in many other states. Many states have given local school districts more control over education. This includes the ability to recognize regional economic factors and ensure competitive teacher salaries.

Unlike many states, West Virginia teacher salaries are set in state code, with no options for locality pay, increases for teachers in more “in-demand” subjects, or for teachers with highly specialized education that may attract high-paying job offers. While individual counties may propose an excess levy to supplement teacher pay, counties are restricted in the amount of additional property taxes that can be proposed, and those proposals are subject to voter approval.

West Virginia teachers, however, enjoy several key benefits. Concerns over Kentucky’s teacher retirement system fueled walkouts in that state this year, and retirement plans in many other states are in questionable shape. But West Virginia’s Teachers Retirement System (TRS) is in good condition.

Fifteen years ago, West Virginia’s TRS was only 19 percent funded, but thanks to a strong commitment by the state and stable market returns, the plan is now approximately 72 percent funded. This guarantees that teachers will receive a lifetime pension benefit upon their retirement.

Fully funding this plan requires considerable resources, however. This year alone, West Virginia will invest a total of $426 million (normal and unfunded liability contributions) in the TRS plan. This accounts for nearly 10 percent of West Virginia’s entire general revenue budget.

Another benefit for teachers — and for all public employees in West Virginia — is health insurance through PEIA. Despite complaints of increasing premiums, co-pays and deductibles, PEIA remains a much more affordable option than what is typically available in the private sector. According to information prepared by PEIA, the total monthly family-coverage premium is only about 80 percent of the cost of the average small group coverage plan. PEIA’s annual deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums are only about 12 percent and 38 percent, respectively, of what is typical for average small group coverage. While it is a fact that PEIA’s costs continue to rise, proposals that seek to manage costs should be undertaken with an awareness of typical health care costs in other sectors.

Understanding all these facts is important for a robust — and much needed — discussion on education funding and student performance in our state. West Virginia invests heavily in public education. But we must examine how and where these funds are spent. All ideas should be welcome, and all participants must be willing to step out of their comfort zones.

Ensuring that every child receives a world-class education should be our goal. Our children deserve no less.

Brian Dayton is the communications manager of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. You can read the chamber’s report by visiting www.wvchamber.com.

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