You likely don’t think of West Virginia as the Mother of Trends. More likely, you think of Jed Clampett shooting a hole in the ground and seeing crude oil bubble up. That black gold was his family’s ticket to the Golden State to become the Beverly Hillbillies.

But after a nine-day strike by the state’s school teachers ended last week, a buzz started that West Virginia might be showing the way to a new way to look at and fund schools. The buzz may be right, but I’m not holding my breath.

Strikes by public school teachers are illegal in West Virginia, as they are in many states, including Maine. But the three unions in West Virginia have plausible deniability since the strike was organized and the fervor kept up mostly through social media. Teachers posted frequent notices to shore up the will to stay out of the classroom.

They worked the crowd one post at a time.

In the end, the legislature came up with a raise for all teachers that averaged 5 percent, or a bit more than $2,000. The lowest-paid teachers will get bigger percentage raises. Now, teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona, both in the bottom 10 in teacher pay, are talking about following West Virginia’s lead.

The average teacher salary in West Virginia, according to the largest teachers union, the National Education Association, was $47,919 in 2015, the most recent year for which it has published statistics. That ranked West Virginia 46th nationally. Maine averages $51,572 per teacher, good for a 35th ranking. Maine’s ability to pay (per capita) ranks 36th, so Maine is paying pretty close to what it can afford.

Really good teachers should make a lot of money. Really bad teachers should be shown the door. There aren’t a great many in either category but we have no mechanism for separating the wheat from the chaff. Teachers are paid according to their years in the occupation and to the class credits they have taken since earning a bachelor’s degree.

Nothing in the West Virginia agreement says teachers will become 5 percent better by receiving 5 percent more money. It will make life a bit easier for teachers, but good teachers and bad teachers alike will be more likely to stay in place as the checks grow.

Here are a few examples, using federal numbers for spending per capita by state and the U.S. News annual ranking of schools, which is one of dozens of rankings. I used it because it does not count spending as a criterion of evaluation.

Federal figures show that the U.S. spends $1,904 a year per capita on primary and secondary schools. That is not spending “per pupil,” but spending per person in the country.

Indiana spends $1,477 per capita, and its schools rank 17th. Ohio spends $32 more than the U.S. $1,904 average, yet its schools rank 36th. Iowa spends $146 more, yet its schools rank 8th. New York spends $1,324 more per capita on schools, yet its schools rank 31st. Maine spends $1,814 per resident. But U.S. News ranks Maine 6th in K-12 quality, but when post secondary education is added in, its ranking drops to 35th. There is no clear correlation between school spending and school quality.

Improvement in schools is not going to come from spending more on teacher salaries or on anything else. It is going to come from accountability, leadership and surer funding.

So, you may ask how we know we’re getting our money’s worth. In two words, we don’t.

When I was on the Mount Blue School Board, some disgruntled folks organized to try to hold the schools to account. They found the system rigged against accountability. Tenure, the method for passing budgets, the incestuous nature of school boards, the state’s rules for hiring and firing, etc., all work against accountability. Constant testing is not the answer, but it at least applies a common yardstick to the undertaking.

After teaching for two years, a sort of apprenticeship, teachers in Maine receive “continuing contracts.” That is, in effect, tenure, and tenure is a lifelong job guarantee, barring moral turpitude or a reduction in force. Tenure further reduces accountability.

One of the most hopeful signs was reported on Tuesday by David Brooks in The New York Times. A study by the Universities of Minnesota and Toronto showed that the schools that improve the fastest and most have outstanding principals. Principals, for example, who visit homes to talk with the parents of the most disruptive students. Principals who visit classrooms constantly, some visiting 20 a day.

Principals, like CEOs in the corporate world, build a mindset or culture in which kids and teachers (customers and employees) can thrive. And, the study shows, principals need five to seven years to set minds, but the average principal leaves in less than four years. Maybe West Virginia and other states should be throwing money at principals.

West Virginia is in the economic doldrums. When I was picking up baby turkeys every year from a hatchery there, I always saw coal trains on the Chesapeake & Ohio rails in the Virginias. In my last three years of farming, through 2015, I did not see one coal drag along the C&O. Hundreds of empty coal cars sat idle. Empty coal cars make it hard for Mountaineers to pay for schools. States need to build shock absorbers so school funding doesn’t go into the tank when Wall Street tanks the economy, as it did leading up to 2007.

What may be new from West Virginia is the way the strike was conducted. We need to wait a while to see whether the Mountaineers started any real trends in schooling.

Bob Neal grew up in a family of teachers and walked in those steps for a few years at Miami University, the University of Maine and UMF. He also was on the Mount Blue school board for eight years.

Bob Neal


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