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Explainer: West Virginia public schools are underfunded, understaffed and underperforming. Why?

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter

By Ian Karbal, Mountain State Spotlight

Addressing the issues facing West Virginia’s public schools is an uphill battle. The state is grappling with a number of unique challenges, from social factors like high rates of drug abuse and poverty, to a relatively small state budget, to a teacher shortage. And student scores in math and reading are dropping. 

Already, lawmakers have begun to introduce and move bills that will address some of these problems piecemeal. That includes a bill championed by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, as well as a similar one introduced by Senate Education Committee chair Amy Grady, R-Mason, that aim to increase the number of teacher’s aides in large classrooms and bring more kids up to grade-appropriate literacy levels by the 4th grade.

But even with a willingness, lawmakers have a long road ahead, and ultimately, no single solution will address all the problems facing the state’s schools. Here are some of the key metrics that together tell a story about the biggest problems facing West Virginia schools.

22% reading proficiency

By almost any metric you look at, West Virginia students are underperforming the majority of their peers across the country.

The state’s most recent standardized test scores show a student body struggling to keep up with the expectations of their grade level.

While test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — commonly called the Nation’s Report Card — showing literacy and math proficiency dropped nationally during the pandemic, the drop in West Virginia was severe, and a continuation of a trend that began even before COVID-19 landed in the state.

The results of the recent tests are alarming: Only 22% of the state’s 4th-grade students are at or above proficient reading levels. By 8th grade, the number drops to 21%. 

Looking at average test scores, and the percent of students found to be proficient in the measured subjects, West Virginia’s scores are among the lowest in the country. And when you look at the percentage of high school students who enroll in college shortly after graduation, West Virginia’s rate has dropped from nearly 60% in 2010 to 46% in 2021.

$14,163 per student 

As a state with high rates of poverty and relatively few major businesses, West Virginia is in a tight spot when it comes to funding public education.

Advocates for cutting funding to public education in the state like to point to a statistic that shows that West Virginia spends a larger percentage of the state’s total taxpayer income — 4.3% — than a large majority of U.S. states on K-12 education. 

But the metric may be misleading.

According to 2020 U.S. census data, West Virginia spent $14,163 per student in grades K-12, which ranked the state 31st in the nation. 

The juxtaposition of these two figures represents one of the largest challenges in West Virginia: a lack of money. Even though West Virginia spends a larger percent of its taxpayer money on schools than other states, it still isn’t enough to keep up with them.

The most recent proposed budget to come out of the Governor’s office has increased the amount of spending on public K-12 schools, anticipating the passage of Hanshaw or Grady’s teacher aide bill. But this still wouldn’t be enough to significantly change West Virginia’s standing among states.

1500 open positions at K-12 schools around the state

For years, West Virginia has faced a large teacher shortage, with over 1500 staff positions unfilled statewide at the K-12 level according to the state Department of Education. That problem was exacerbated during the COVID pandemic, which saw students switch to remote schooling.

There are two causes for this shortage: problems recruiting new teachers and problems retaining more experienced ones. 

In West Virginia, teacher starting salaries are about $38,000, and top out at about $62,000 for teachers with master’s degrees. That starting salary is among the lowest in the country, and less than the starting salaries for teachers in every state bordering West Virginia except Kentucky, according to the National Education Association.

But even once teachers start working in West Virginia schools, they often don’t stay. 

According to recent numbers from the West Virginia Department of Education, about a third of West Virginia’s teachers leave the classroom in their first four years. This means that the state is losing teachers before they become very experienced. 

“What you see mostly here in West Virginia are efforts to get more people to become teachers, and not enough focus on how to keep the teachers we already had,” said Matthew Campbell, a West Virginia University professor who has studied teacher recruitment and retention. “That is a lot to lose. No number of brand new teachers would ever fill the gap from a number of experienced teachers who continue to leave the profession.”

That problem is starkest in West Virginia’s most rural areas, said Erin McHenry-Sorber, a WVU professor who has studied challenges faced in rural schools, in West Virginia more specifically.

“Some of the schools that seem to have the biggest challenges are schools that are in geographically isolated places that serve predominantly low-income populations,” she said. 

Factors include the cost of transportation, the distance from colleges and other hubs of teacher training programs, social isolation and the generally lower pay of teachers in these areas.

Finding solutions to the problem is “a trickier question,” McHenry-Sorber said. She advocates increased support for “grow your own” programs, which encourage high school students to enter the field of education and remain in their hometowns.

Grady hopes a soon-to-be-introduced companion bill to her literacy-focused one will help. Its goal is to create a program allowing 11th and 12th-grade students interested in potentially becoming teachers to serve as teachers’ aides in exchange for college credit.

“We may even find some students who didn’t know they wanted to go into education and say, ‘wow, I didn’t know I really wanted to do this,’” Grady said.

Recently, the Legislature and the Governor’s office have made attempts to raise teacher salaries as part of broader state employee raises: Justice’s most recent budget that he hopes the Legislature will pass includes a 5% pay raise for state employees. But the efforts, according to Campbell, may not be enough.

He pointed to an ongoing effort in neighboring Maryland to drastically increase the base pay for teachers across the state as something that West Virginia legislators could consider bringing here. But legislation alone may not be enough. Fred Albert, President of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation for Teachers union, has pointed to a 2014 bill that set a goal of raising base salaries for teachers in West Virginia to at least $43,000 by 2019. While it passed, it was never acted on.

Reach reporter Ian Karbal at iankarbal@mountainstatespotlight.org

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