All 680 of West Virginia’s public schools are closed today, marking the fourth straight day public school classes have been canceled in the country’s fifth poorest state as teachers strike, demanding higher wages and better health care, CNN reports.
West Virginia ranks 48th in the United States for teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association, the national union for US teachers. But despite lagging behind neighboring states in teacher pay, West Virginia hasn’t given teachers a raise since 2014.
BREAKING: West Virginia teachers still aren’t going back to work. Union leaders just announced that the strike will continue for all 55 counties. pic.twitter.com/mqTtDjItl8— Jake Jarvis (@NewsroomJake) February 26, 2018
The cash-strapped state risks losing its teachers to neighboring states if it doesn’t find a way to devote more money toward its education budget, multiple teachers told the Huffington Post at a rally in the capitol this week. And a widespread loss of teachers could hurt an entire generation of students, they noted.
According to the West Virginia Gazette Mail, the state’s minimum salary for teachers is $33,000, and the average pay is $45,000, which is $5,000 to $20,000 lower than average teacher salaries in neighboring states.
Teachers began to strike Feb. 22, after the state legislature and Gov. Jim Justice proposed a 2% raise to go into effect in July, increasing to a 4% raise within three years, which teachers said still fails to meet rising costs of living. State House Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, (R-Morgan), even warned teachers to take the deal because striking is illegal in West Virginia, according to the West Virginia Gazette Mail.
Still, the union declined the offer. The two sides have continued discussions, but as of Tuesday morning, no deal had yet been reached, according to the Gazette Mail.
“This is a cumulative strike,” the union’s director of communication Kym Randolph told the Washington Post. “I mean, the pay and the benefits have been problems for years, and there’s constantly been the promises of, ‘We’ll take care of this, we’ll take care of this.’ It’s finally gotten to the point where, you know, the promises aren’t enough.”
The state responded to the strike by saying they may ask a court to issue an injunction on the strikers, according to CNN.
“We need to keep our kids and teachers in the classroom,” Justice said. "We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid and this is a step in the right direction to addressing their pay issue."
One teacher, Jacob Fertig, an art teacher in Belle, West Virginia, said that teacher salaries were so low that he and his family needed to enroll in public assistance programs just to get by.
"There were a lot of times where we got to choose between groceries and health coverage for my family,” Fertig told CNN. “This isn't just an issue of a bunch of people squabbling over a little bit of insurance benefits or a little bit of pay — we are really in a bad place here as far as that stuff goes."
Another teacher said she had to use part of her salary to pay for school supplies.
“Our state is not providing the resources for our students,” Cindy Nester told the New York Times. “Generally, in a year, I probably pay anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 out of my own paycheck, and those are just for miscellaneous supplies.”
Teachers have also said that high deductibles and premiums have made health care unaffordable, according to the Times report. The state’s initial offer of a 2% raise came with the promise of a freeze on health insurance premiums.
Research has shown a critical link between teacher pay and student performance.
According to a 2000 Stanford University study, a 10% increase in teacher salaries was shown to reduce dropout rates by 3-4%. This relationship holds up internationally, as well — where, according to a different study, a 10% increase in teacher salary was associated with a 5-10% increase in student performance.
Read More: 10 Barriers to Education Around the World
When it comes to teacher pay, the US is ranked far below other developed countries, such as Finland, which is widely touted as one of the best educational systems in the world.
Compared to other developed countries, the US ranked 22 out of 27 in teacher pay, according to the Huffington Post. The US also ranked 21st of 27 OECD countries for high school graduation rate, WAMU reports.
Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, and ensuring access to quality education is goal number four. This goal calls for “safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments” for all students, which can only be achieved if teachers and students are in school and actively learning. You can join us and take action on this issue here.
In the wake of the recent strikes, more than 250,000 students have been left without these resources, and some have had to spend the past three days at community centers and churches, according to the CNN report.
For West Virginia, where nearly one in five people live below the federal poverty line, ensuring these kids don’t fall further behind will require a quick legislative solution.
Hopefully this time, teachers and administrators can come to an agreement more quickly than they did during the last teachers’ strike, in 1990, which lasted 11 school days.