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Dale Lee: Let's build on teacher pay efforts

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West Virginia lawmakers took some important steps for teachers during this year’s regular legislative session.

During a tight budget year, legislators and Gov. Tomblin recognized teachers and service employees were in need of a pay increase. I commend them for taking this first step to getting West Virginia teachers on the path to competitive pay.

But perhaps even more important than the $1,000 pay raise for teachers and 2 percent increase for service professionals is goal language included in Senate Bill 391 that sets a $43,000 starting salary for new teachers by 2019.

If that goal language, and honest efforts to reach it, inspires a young person to say, “I ought to become a teacher,” that’s a great thing.

New research released after the session concluded shows that teacher salary gaps between states are growing wider, which makes competitive pay in West Virginia that much more important. The average teacher’s salary in the state for 2012-2013 was $10,650 less than the national average salary, according to the National Education Association.

Further, West Virginia this year continues to lag behind all five of its neighboring states in teacher pay, and the dollar gaps over the past decade continue to widen when comparing four of those states to the Mountain State. 

That disparity makes skilled teachers who live in border counties consider their options across the state line. Couple that with a trend of young education graduates who aren’t teaching in the state -- as well as school systems that struggle to find highly trained professionals to fill classroom vacancies – and you have a serious problem.        

Over a 10-year period, 10 states experienced average salary declines of 6 percent or more when adjusting for inflation. West Virginia was among those states and had a 6.9 percent decline from 2003 to 2013.

By 1993, after a hard-fought effort to improve their salaries and benefits, teachers’ pay in West Virginia ranked 30th in the country. But over time we’ve lost that much more competitive ranking – to the detriment of our state, teachers and students.

Meanwhile, the potential for mass teacher retirements continues to loom large over West Virginia, as a growing number of our educators from the baby boomer generation become eligible to retire.

For that reason, recruitment and retention of good teachers is needed more than ever.    

But attracting these high quality professionals to teach will only be possible if we make the profession more enticing.

The allure of becoming a public school teacher and making a difference is often quite attractive for young people, who enter the profession wide-eyed and eager to make their mark, regardless of salary.

But the realities of life eventually catch up to them, and it becomes much more difficult to keep up with living costs if the pay isn’t enough.

The weight of student loans for most new college graduates is much more of a financial hurdle for today’s young adults than for those a generation ago.

When coupled with student loans and other expenses, many young West Virginia teachers struggle to buy a home and pay a mortgage at current starting salaries.                 

Everybody wants to elevate the academic achievement of our students.

To do so, we need highly qualified professionals who want to stay in teaching and, in turn, build on the valuable experience they gain each year.     

This year, Gov. Tomblin proposed -- and legislators even slightly increased -- the pay raise for teachers. This is recognition of the fact that something has to be done to make our salaries competitive.

But a multiyear commitment to salaries is the next step to securing our state’s future, both educationally and economically.

Let’s continue the progress we’ve made this year and work toward this multiyear salary increase for our educators.  

Lee is a special education teacher at Princeton Senior High School in Mercer County with 22 years of classroom experience. He is currently on leave to serve as the elected president of the WVEA.