West Virginia teachers strike sheds light on stagnant wages for educators across the US

Teachers and demonstrators hold signs during a rally outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, on Friday, March 2, 2018.
Scott Heins | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Teachers and demonstrators hold signs during a rally outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, on Friday, March 2, 2018.

In an ongoing worker standoff that has captured national attention, unions representing West Virginia teachers say they will stay on strike after the Republican-led state Senate voted down a pay raise educators had negotiated with GOP Gov. Jim Justice.

As the statewide strike carried through its eighth school day, the state's teachers are protesting salary levels that are among the lowest in the nation, as well as rising health-care costs. They are holding out for a 5 percent raise after four years without any increase.

West Virginia lags most of the nation when it comes to teacher pay. Despite average spending of more than $12,200 a year per pupil, just shy of the median level for all states, West Virginia public school teachers had a statewide median annual salary of about $45,700 for the 2016-17 school year, the fourth-lowest in the nation.

The data sets on teacher salaries are a little tricky. The category spans a variety of jobs, from kindergarten teachers to high school physics teachers. For its analysis, CNBC used data from the National Center for Education Statistics on median annual salaries for public elementary and high school teachers. Data on state spending budgets come from the U.S. Census.

West Virginia teachers argue that their starting salaries are lower than for surrounding states, which makes it tough to recruit and fill empty positions.

That has led to a teacher shortage in West Virginia. About 700 classrooms lack fully certified full-time teachers, according to the Associated Press. West Virginia isn't alone, either. All 50 states began the current school year without enough teachers to fill empty positions.

While private employers facing a tight labor market have begun boosting wages to fill empty jobs, most state governments haven't budged on teacher pay scales. In many states, after adjusting for inflation, teacher salaries have been falling.

While much of the funding for public education comes from local governments, education spending represents one of the largest line items in every state budget. The share of overall spending varies widely: New Hampshire devotes about 20 percent of total state spending to education; in Utah, it's more than double that share. (Those amounts include spending on higher education.)

In states where a bigger share of overall spending goes to education, public school teachers don't necessarily see the impact in their paychecks. Massachusetts, with the third-highest public school teacher salaries (behind New York and California), spends the second-lowest share of its state budget on education (behind New Hampshire). Utah, which spends the biggest share, has some of the lowest median levels of public school teacher pay.

But those dollar values don't tell the whole story. Pay levels for similar jobs vary from one state to another, sometimes widely, along with the average cost of living. When teacher salaries are compared with the median incomes for other households, West Virginia teachers don't fare so badly. Their median salary is about 5 percent higher than the median for all West Virginia households.

That's not the case for teachers in states such as Colorado, Utah and South Dakota, where the median teacher salary is less than 75 percent of the median for the average household in those states.

Here's a look at how much your state spends on education and how teacher pay compares.

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