Measured by ability to pay teachers, West Virginians are some of the least able taxpayers in America.
BY KEN BRAUN
What was said:
How the state ranks: West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation in terms of how much it pays its teachers, according to the National Education Association. Educators said that low pay pushes qualified teachers to leave the state.
— From March 9, 2018, CNN.com news report with the title “Teachers in West Virginia went on strike — and won. Now, teachers in other states may follow their lead“
What was not said:
The ability of West Virginia’s taxpayers to pay higher teacher salaries is a very critical piece of information needed to consider whether or not the concerns of the teachers are valid. The CNN.com report fails to present this and other relevant information. Yet, according to the 2017 edition of Rankings & Estimates, an annual report from the National Education Association, West Virginia taxpayers are not well positioned to pay more for much of anything (NEA is the nation’s largest public-school employee union).
West Virginia is second only to Mississippi as the most impoverished state in the nation, according to the latest NEA data. The per-capita personal income was just $36,758 — only 76 percent of the U.S. average of $48,112.
Measured by ability to pay teachers, West Virginians are some of the least able taxpayers in America. Every additional dollar paid to teachers takes money away from other governmental functions and comes out of the pockets of the American families most hard-up to earn it.
With that in mind, consider that the NEA reports the average salary of instructional staff in West Virginia to be $48,173 — 80 percent of the U.S. average of $60,205.
So, the people with only 76 percent of the per-capita income in the nation are paying their teachers 80 percent of the nation’s average teacher salary. There is a good case to be made that West Virginians were doing the best they could by their teachers even before the recent pay hike that was deemed so insufficient as to justify the two-day strike.
And there’s more.
West Virginia is reliably ranked as a very inexpensive state to live in. A 2016 US News & World Report index ranked it with the 10th most affordable housing market and 13th least expensive cost of living.
A dollar paid to a teacher in West Virginia spends much better than most other places. The Tax Foundation ranked it sixth best in the nation last fall for cost of living, finding that a $100 bill in West Virginia buys $112.49 compared to the average U.S. purchasing power. (Hawaii is the roughest state to spend $100, where the purchasing power is just $84.18 compared to the national average.)
By this metric, the true purchasing power of the $48,173 average salary in West Virginia is really $54,189. Compare this to the deceptively high $59,855 average instructional staff salary in Hawaii that gets trampled by the high cost of living down to a purchasing power of just $50,385.
Finally, there is the workload per teacher, which by one measure — class size per teacher — shows the average West Virginia teacher might have less to do than peers in other states.
The NEA data shows the average number of students in daily attendance per teacher in West Virginia to be 13.1. This is two students fewer than the 15.1 students per teacher national average.
Keeping the class sizes low does not seem to have created exceptional schools for the state. EdWeek ranks West Virginia slightly below average in its Quality Counts 2018 scores.
Class size is relevant to this discussion because the American Federation of Teachers, the union leading the recent strike in West Virginia, “is a strong advocate for reducing class size to help raise student achievement.” But it should be noted that it is not at all clear that class size makes a lot of difference. Researchers often find no significant correlation between class size and student performance.
Many states have strikingly larger classrooms, pushing close to double the size of West Virginia’s average. California, with the nation’s third-highest pay for instructors, averages 22.5 kids for each of them. Nevada, also with higher salaries, tops the scale with 24.6 kids per teacher.
Could West Virginia get by with fewer teachers and slightly larger class sizes by keeping the very best teachers, paying them more, and exposing more kids to better instructors?
That’s a good question. But getting an answer that leads to fewer teachers paying dues, even if it’s a good answer, is not likely on the agenda of the big labor bosses who run the West Virginia teachers union.
Ken Braun is the director of policy and communications for Think Freely Media. He has served as a public policy and communications professional for four different free market policy organizations, and as a chief of staff in the Michigan Legislature. He has also been a freelance political columnist for one of Michigan’s largest newspaper chains. Ken can be followed on Facebook, and when he has something really clever to say he will even use Twitter.
What Should Be Said shows effective ways of communicating freedom principles by using a storytelling approach, taking the moral high ground, and staying hopeful and aspirational. Media, politicians and thought leaders often fail to include the freedom perspective at all by omitting critical facts. Alternatively, when they do make a sincere attempt to sell the freedom philosophy, they often do so with a stale and defensive approach that is missing stories that humanize the dry facts and figures. Here we show examples of how storytelling and emotionally compelling changes in message will make all the difference for those trying to advocate for liberty.