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Less than a year after West Virginia experienced a major teachers’ strike, Republican state Del. Paul Espinosa touted GOP efforts to raise teacher salaries — and attacked Democrats for causing the problem of low pay in the first place.
On Oct. 9, Espinosa, who chairs the House Committee on Education, tweeted, "From 1990 to 2015 under democrat control, W. Va. teacher pay rank plummeted from 30th in the nation to 48th. Our GOP led legislature is committed to reversing that decline through passage of the largest aggregate pay raises in our state’s history. #ResultsNotResistance #wvgop18"
Espinosa said he was citing numbers originally provided by the governor’s office, but we decided to take a look at the original data.
The numbers vary a bit from measurement to measurement, but there’s no question that West Virginia currently ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in teacher pay.
A CNN article published around the time of the teacher strike, on March 5, 2018, pegged the state at 48th in the nation -- consistent with Espinosa’s second figure. The article cited data collected by National Education Association, a prominent teachers union.
We were able to find a more recent figure from the NEA, covering 2017, and by then, West Virginia’s ranking had grown even worse. It fell for the second year in a row, to 49th.
Meanwhile, we located data from earlier NEA surveys and found that West Virginia hasn’t ranked higher than 44th since 2004.
However, we weren’t able to find NEA data online prior to 2003, so we turned instead to data collected by the federal Education Department. This data set goes back to the late 1960s.
Here’s a chart comparing West Virginia and national teacher salaries at various intervals since the 1969-70 school year. It shows that West Virginia pay has trailed national pay by a fairly consistent margin since at least 2000. It also shows that teacher pay hasn’t kept up with inflation during the last decade.
As for West Virginia’s ranking nationally, it fell precipitously between about 1970 and 1990, then spiked upward before starting to decline again around 2000.
This tracks with contemporary news coverage of the 1990 West Virginia teachers’ strike, which came when teacher pay was almost at the bottom of the rankings, according to Education Week.
In the 1989-90 school year, the period of the previous strike, West Virginia ranked 48th. To find the state rating roughly 30th in the nation, you have to go back all the way to the late 1960s.
So Espinosa has a point that West Virginia teacher pay had sunk to a couple places from the bottom by 2015 — but he’s exaggerated the heights from which it fell.
This is more of a mixed picture than Espinosa lets on.
First off, the time period is cherry-picked. The legislature had been controlled by the Democrats for decades until the GOP won control in the 2014 elections. By ending his time frame at 2015, Espinosa overlooks the period when the GOP controlled the Legislature -- a period in which the state’s teacher pay ranking has fallen, according to the annual NEA data.
In addition, the 1990-to-2015 time frame cuts out the governorship of Republican Arch Moore (who served three non-consecutive terms, from 1969 to 1977 and from 1985 to 1989). It also cuts out the current governorship of Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat but later switched to the GOP. Currently, Republicans control the governorship as well as both chambers of the legislature.
As it happens, the greatest increase in the teacher pay rankings during the period Espinosa cited came between about 1990 and 2000. During most of that period, the state had a Democratic governor, Gaston Caperton. A couple years of that time span were under a Republican governor, Cecil Underwood.
Ultimately, then, the partisan blame does not accrue exclusively to the Democrats.
Espinosa said, "From 1990 to 2015 under (Democratic) control, W. Va. teacher pay rank plummeted from 30th in the nation to 48th."
There’s no question that West Virginia teacher pay currently ranks near the bottom of the 50 states, but he exaggerated how far those rankings had fallen since 1990. In addition, the biggest rise in pay during that period came during the tenure of a Democratic governor, which undercuts the argument that the Democrats are entirely to blame.
We rate the statement Mostly False.
Paul Espinosa, tweet, Oct. 9, 2018
National Center for Education Statistics, "Table 211.60. Estimated average annual salary of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools, by state: Selected years, 1969-70 through 2016-17," accessed Dec. 5, 2018
National Education Association, "Rankings of States and Estimates of School Statistics" main index page, accessed Dec. 5, 2018
Governors of West Virginia, accessed Dec. 5, 2018
Ballotpedia, West Virginia legislature, accessed Dec. 5, 2018
Education Week, "W.Va. Teachers Go Out on Strike Over Pay Raises," March 14, 1990
CNN, "Why are West Virginia teachers on strike? Take a look at their salaries," March 5, 2018
Email interview with Sterling C. Lloyd, assistant director of the Education Week Research Center, Nov. 29, 2018
Email interview with Del. Paul Espinosa, Oct.24, 2018
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