Thursday, March 08, 2018

West Virginia teacher strike highlights underpaid rural teacher crisis in other states

W.Va. teachers and supporters celebrate the end of the
strike. (Beckley Register-Herald photo by Rick Barbero)
The teacher strike in West Virginia ended this week with a 5 percent pay raise for all state employees, but many rural teachers in other states are still underpaid. "If those issues are not resolved, we could see rural teachers in other states follow the example of the striking teachers in West Virginia, where over half of all schools are considered rural," Erin McHenry-Sorber reports for Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

The issue of rural teacher pay is complex: in W.Va. the state legislature sets a statewide pay scale. Wealthier areas like those near Washington, D.C., can add more to the baseline salary to make their districts more attractive to teachers. But places like McDowell County, the poorest in the state, struggle to find teachers, especially in math and special education. North Carolina has the same problem: the rural teacher shortage is exacerbated by wealthy districts that poach more experienced teachers.

In Pennsylvania, where teacher salary scales are set at the local level instead of the county level, the pay disparity between rural and urban teachers is more dramatic. In the Turkeyfoot Valley Area School District in rural southwestern Penn., the average teacher salary is $36,709, but Lower Merion School District in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb has an average teacher salary of $97,480.

"Highly dependent on local tax revenue, rural school systems in Pennsylvania find themselves unable to compete with urban and suburban districts in terms of teacher pay – not just across the state, but within their own counties," McHenry-Sorber reports. "Unlike countywide systems, poor, rural community school districts in Pennsylvania see no benefits from economic growth in neighboring districts within their county borders."

Rural school districts face three disadvantages in attracting teachers, according to a 2003 study by the Rural School and Community Trust: rural teachers are paid less than other rural professionals like registered nurses or computer programmers, largely rural states pay less than largely urban states, and rural areas pay teachers less than urban areas within the same state, McHenry-Sorber reports.

The study is still relevant today, with the rural teacher shortage reaching "crisis levels" in states like Oklahoma and Arizona. "Numerous states, like West Virginia and Oklahoma, have attempted to deal with the lack of certified teachers through emergency certifications, alternative certification programs and diminished standards for teacher certification," McHenry-Sorber reports.

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