West Virginia teachers strike ends with just one more quick fix

West Virginia teachers strike ends with just one more quick fix
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Earlier this week, West Virginia’s teachers ended a strike that had shuttered schools across the state for nine days. The issue was low wages: In West Virginia, the average teacher earned $45,622 in 2016, according to the National Education Association, placing the state 48th in the nation. The strike concluded when the legislature adopted a five percent boost in teacher pay.

While it’s hard to blame the teachers for being frustrated by lousy pay, missing from most discussions about the strike has been consideration to the ways in which their plight is the product of dubious decisions made over time by policymakers, district leaders, and union officials alike. These decisions have yielded contractual impediments, staffing practices, and benefit obligations that make it hard to pay teachers well — especially in an economically struggling state like West Virginia. Unfortunately, the strike’s resolution did nothing to help remedy any of this.

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Truth is, the strike was a bit of a “back to the future” moment for public education. While teacher strikes have been rare in recent decades, they were a frequent occurrence back during the 1960s and 1970s —  following the emergence of the two major national teachers unions. The strike frenzy peaked during the mid-1970s, when there more than 200 strikes a year across the U.S. Those strikes squeezed students and families, prompting school-system leaders to do everything they could to keep the peace — which meant giving away the store when it came to benefits and contract language.

Little noted over the past few weeks is that teacher pay has stagnated in West Virginia in large part because the state has added staff while losing students. Again, this is not the fault of individual teachers — but of political pressures and management-by-inertia. From 1992 to 2015, West Virginia’s student enrollment fell by 12 percent; yet the teacher workforce declined at less than half that rate, and non-teaching staff actually increased by 10 percent.

Using National Education Association data, we estimate that every West Virginia teacher would earn more than an additional $12,000 a year if the number of non-teacher staff had simply been allowed to decline in line with post-1992 enrollment.

There’s an iron law at work here: The more employees that schools hire, the fewer dollars they can pay each educator. Set aside the previous paragraph; there’s an even easier way to illustrate this trade-off. Between 1992 and 2014, per-pupil spending in West Virginia (after accounting for inflation) increased by 39 percent; yet, remarkably, the state’s average teacher salary fell by 3 percent. If teacher salaries had simply increased at the same rate as per-pupil spending, teacher salaries would have increased more than $17,000 since 1992 — to an average of more than $63,000 today.

For those with reasonable concerns that such policies might lead to overstuffed classrooms, fear not. Even if teacher ranks had been allowed to decline along with enrollment, the state’s student-teacher ratio would be 15.4 to 1, not markedly higher than the current ratio of 14.4 to one.  

And keep in mind that salaries are only a piece of the teacher compensation story. Chad Aldeman, of Bellwether Education Partners, has noted that teachers have the highest retirement costs of almost any public-sector profession — and that public sector employees, in general, enjoy health and retirement benefits that dwarf those of their private sector counterparts. Aldeman explains:

“While the average civilian employee receives $1.78 for retirement benefits per hour of work, public school teachers receive $6.22 per hour in retirement compensation. As a percentage of their total compensation package, teacher retirement benefits eat up twice as much as other workers (10.3 versus 5.3 percent).”

This means a big share of teacher compensation shows up in retirement benefits, rather than in paychecks. In the case of West Virginia, Aldeman notes, “While West Virginia ranks in the bottom five states in teacher salaries, it ranks in the top five in terms of retirement costs.” Factoring retirement costs into the equation lifts West Virginia from 48th to 32nd nationally in terms of total teacher compensation. Indeed, Aldeman estimates that West Virginia teachers are currently losing out on compensation equivalent to more than 20 percent percent of their salaries just to pay down pension debt.

Again, the point is not to “blame” teachers for any of this — but to explain why what teachers see in their paycheck seems so low, even while policymakers and taxpayers can’t help but note that real spending is up nearly 40 percent in the past two decades.

After all, it’s true that take-home pay for West Virginia’s teachers is pretty dismal, and that good teachers are massively shortchanged. And this five percent bump certainly helps West Virginia’s teachers in the short-term (contra Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiNancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? Pelosi: GOP's 2019 agenda a 'nightmare' for working families, seniors Dem lawmakers slam Trump’s declassification of Russia documents as ‘brazen abuse of power’ MORE, an additional $2,000 a year is nothing to sneeze at!).

But the resolution does nothing to address the inertia that’s squeezing teacher pay. Indeed, even this raise required other nontrivial tradeoffs. As Sarah Jones reports at The New Republic, cuts to finance the teacher pay boost “will reportedly come from general services, a subsidy for community college tuition, and tourism funding, among other sources. And though (Governor Jim) Justice swore on Tuesday that ‘there’s not a chance on this planet’ that the pay raise will lead to Medicaid cuts, Republican legislators have repeatedly threatened that precise outcome.”

The strike settlement amounts to a costly patch, one that gets teachers back into schools today without addressing the forces that have contributed to a frustrating status quo. In the end, for all the headlines and excitement, the strike didn’t do anything to change these dynamics or put the state’s schools on a firmer footing going forward. Long-term, sustainable fixes require a degree of far-sighted leadership — from superintendents, union leaders, and public officials — that hasn’t been much in evidence, and certainly wasn’t here.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Grant Addison is the program manager for education policy at AEI.