* This is like "Where's Waldo" except, spoiler alert, you will not find Jim Justice anywhere in this picture.
If you haven't been following along on the national news circuit, it would be pretty easy to miss that there is a major strike going on right now in West Virginia. As someone who grew up in Appalachia and still has many friends in the tri-state region that encompasses southeastern Ohio, western West Virginia, and northeastern Kentucky, my social media feed has been flooded with both pictures of the actual floods subsuming the area after record-breaking rainfall for the month and then images of the strike put on by the teachers in response to the governor's refusal to support a pay raise.
I don't teach in K-12 schools (thank goodness, I am not sure I have the patience and the college level is so much fun!) but I am a product of them and with my family and my community interest, I have a very deep concern in their success. Indiana thankfully has good, albeit not great, schools. Though we do not rank among the lower tiers of states struggling with basic reading comprehension and math skills, we still suffer from a drastic teaching shortage, with the legislative response of lowering teaching certification standards, and statewide measures that would control lessons being taught in the classroom. (I am referring specifically to Senate Bill 387 which allows schools to hire up to 10% of non-certified teachers, Senate Bill 65 which prohibits sexual education without parental consent, Senate Bill 8 which requires cursive to be taught, and Senate Bill 24 which allows students to use sunscreen as a non-regulated substance--click on links to learn more about the actual legislation). We aren't first, but we aren't last either and during points that feel particularly low I find it comforting to reflect on our overall position wherein we rank well (read: average) in most education measures.
West Virginia does not have this luxury. The state differs from ours in many ways--in their economic history, in their demographic makeup, in their partisan leanings, and, not the least of all, in their educational structures and attainment. West Viriginia ranks 50th out of 50 in national attendance of pupil's in school (Indiana coming in at 21st and Kentucky leading the country as #1), they rank 34th out of 50 in teacher-student ratio at 14.4 (compared to Indiana at 10th with 17.4 and Nevada at #1 with 25.7), and they rank 50th out of 50 yet again in terms of teacher salaries averaging $45,622 in 2016 (with Indiana next in line as 49th at $50,715 compared to national leader California at $77,179). [If you're curious, this data comes from the National Education Association's Annual 2017 Report, accessible here.] We can all cite cost-of-living differences and economic opportunities, but no matter how you gauge it, the numbers aren't equal nor are they fair.
When West Virginia teachers plead for a pay raise this year to accommodate increasing health costs and growing inflation, they were met with resistance from Governor Jim Justice. His partisanship wavers more than his opinions on education, as the once-Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-back-to-Republican first-term executive shot down options for increasing education expenditures consistently before yielding to a pithy $808 salary bump across the board for the following year. Teachers remained unfazed and began protesting last week, resulting in every public school district across the state being closed, now today for the fourth day. The governor signed a 2% increase in wages effective in July, falling short of the initial 5% proposed in legislation from the state assembly earlier this year that he vetoed. Further, the teachers complain that he has not addressed their issues in terms of health insurance, the state public employees retirement program, and a payroll options tax. The teachers have convened in the state capital of Charleston to rally in protest.
Justice won the governorship fairly candidly (with 49% of the vote, ahead from the 42% pulled by his Republican competitor) but just as he never had the full support of West Virginians on Election Day, he still fails to garner public support. He has suffered from low approval ratings since last fall and this national attention certainly doesn't lend itself to higher numbers. One of the things I remember most about the mountain state, and to this day find it the most endearing quality, is its humble pride in the little things. Its beauty is breathtaking but not boastful, and nor are its people who are proud with the relatively little they have. Getting less and less when it already feels like you were barely getting anything for the same amount of work and effort is insulting and demoralizing. Teachers work hard enough as it is doing the types of tasks most of us would never wish to pursue and yet are grateful that these leaders in our community are willing to do it for our children.
The importance of a high quality education and a compassionate, driven teacher is not lost on me one bit. I owe much of my success, professionally and personally, to a certain 8th grade Math teacher who instantly saw potential in me that no one else seemed to see and who took a special interest to see that I was challenged, motivated, and rewarded to achieve beyond my original goals. Mrs. Matthews changed my life, and many others that she had as pupils over the years. For these gifted and caring educators, I would gladly partition more money from our state to allow them to be successful in the classroom and to generate more future leaders over the years.
To the teachers of West Virginia public schools, good luck and may your efforts yield the rewards you so richly deserve. We are cheering for you.