Opinion

January 18, 2019 - Volume 39 Issue 2

Commentary

  Opinion

By MetroNews Talkline Host Hoppy Kercheval

One of the mistakes often made when discussing West Virginia’s economy is looking at the conditions in a monolithic way—the state is doing better, doing worse or staying about the same. This over simplification is often rooted in the monthly release of state tax revenue figures.

If tax collections are running at or above estimates, we surmise that the state is doing better. If those collections are below estimates, then we conclude that the state’s economy is underperforming.

However, this macro picture is not a fair representation because economies of various regions of the state perform quite differently. Dr. John Deskins, director of the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research, broke down the state’s economic pros and cons region by region in a presentation to the legislature last week.

Here are some of his findings:

  • The state has added 8,700 jobs since 2017, all but 300 of them in just eight counties—Jefferson, Berkeley, Monongalia, Marshall, Harrison, Doddridge, Ritchie and Jackson Counties. Coal/natural gas and pipeline construction accounted for more than 7,000 of those added jobs.
  • The southern coalfields are struggling mightily. The Bureau’s study finds that in Wayne, Lincoln, Boone, Mingo, Logan and McDowell Counties, real wages have dropped 30 percent and employment is down 22 percent since 2013.
  • The Metro Valley (Kanawha, Putnam, Cabell) is holding its own. Since 2013, real wages are up four percent, but employment is down two percent.
  • North Central West Virginia (Monongalia, Marion, Harrison, Taylor, Preston) is a growth area, driven primarily by Monongalia County. Wages have risen 18 percent in the last five years while employment is up six percent.
  • The Eastern Panhandle (Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan) is booming. Wages have risen 15 percent since 2013, while employment is up nine percent. The growth there is different from other parts of the state because the eastern panhandle has no coal or gas production.
  • Deskins defines Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel, Tyler, Doddridge and Richie Counties as the “Shale Boom Region.” Employment has held steady, but wages have risen 16 percent in the last five years.

Deskins concludes that West Virginia has “reasons to celebrate.” However, he adds, “Improvement is not happening everywhere… many challenges remain.”

Those challenges are all too familiar now—the opioid epidemic, stagnant population, lack of economic diversification, shortage of trained workers. However, just as with the economic plusses, those obstacles are more significant in some parts of the state than others.

Governor Jim Justice has been touting the monthly revenue figures as a sign that the state’s economy has turned around. However, as Deskins’ research shows, the degree to which the economy has improved depends on what region of the state you are talking about.


Editor’s Note: This commentary was published Jan. 14. Reprinted by permission. Kercheval’s contact information is hoppy@wvradio.com / @HoppyKercheval

Kercheval is considered the radio “dean” of West Virginia broadcasters. He joined West Virginia Radio Corporation in 1976.

By Mark A. Sadd

The West Virginia Constitution requires the Legislature to provide for a “thorough and efficient system of free schools.” But like the old saw about the Holy Roman Empire, West Virginia’s public schools are neither thorough nor efficient nor free.

Let’s review.

There is nothing free about West Virginia’s public schools, at least free in the sense of spending.

Despite the indoctrination you have received, West Virginians are by no means cheapskates when it comes to public education. West Virginia spends as much as it reasonably can or should on public education.

Public schools consume an ever greater share of public dollars, currently 44 percent of the state’s general revenue budget, one of the highest percentages among the states. Still Gov. Jim Justice says he is committed to another five percent across-the-board raise and an unscheduled $100 million contribution to the teachers’ already generous health insurance system.

Increased spending on our public schools will have its victims elsewhere in next year’s budget. This year, higher education’s public colleges and universities may suffer a $35 million hit to their budgets arguably to enable bigger spending on lower education.

Our public schools aren’t efficient despite the constitutional mandate that they be so. Let’s not complicate the analysis. A few statistics show this. At $14,275 a year, West Virginia ranks 14th in the U.S. in per pupil spending. The U.S. average is $11,650 a year. Yet the average public school teacher annual salary in West Virginia is $52,000, or 39th in the nation. The average West Virginia worker makes far less.

If spending in the classroom is our goal, then West Virginia’s public schools are hardly efficient. Rather they are highly inefficient.

Measures of efficiency in public education have to include more than spending and spending ratios. The system doesn’t exist to compensate teachers. The system exists to teach children.

So, efficiency measures foremost must include standards of student performance. Are our public school children well-educated? Are they being prepared for lives open and dedicated to work, stable families and lively communities?

By all of these measures, relative to spending, they certainly are not. Test scores are near the bottom in the nation. Our college-going rate is among the lowest. Our labor participation rate is the lowest.

Our public schools are not thorough. Rigor and with it discipline, order and self-control are not valued much less imposed throughout our public schools. (These things don’t really cost anything.) Truancy is epidemic among both students and teachers. At the moment, there are 700 classrooms without certified teachers in them. To the dismay of some, administrators and school boards are lowering curricular and graduation standards to give the appearance of higher achievement.

In the discussion about West Virginia’s public education, it would be unjust to place all of the ills of our poorly performing students at the feet of public schools. But who among us, other than the highly paid teacher union lobbyists, is prepared to defend the current regime of low regard in our public schools?

Once, after a speech to a group of county school board members, I engaged an old hand among them who spent his entire career in teaching, administration and then governance. “Why after decades of relative failure is there no change?” I asked.

“Nothing will change because none of us really wants change.” He grinned and winked his eye.

We both knew that he was right.

By “us” he meant the legions of retired teachers who sit on school boards. He meant the state educrats who have great pay and the finest benefits relative to most West Virginians. He meant the legislators, regardless of party, who either fear the public school worker unions or are married or related to their members.

I told him that I counted among the satisfied a group that he did not name: the vast majority of West Virginia families. They, I theorized, want change perhaps the least of all.

I suspect that the Legislature will gear up again for another annual session of failure to have systemic reform.

What is the evidence that this year will be any different? Let me be skeptical about the bold ideas floating around the Statehouse. Bold ideas mean nothing when bold actions do not follow.

In my cynicism, I am betting on the status quo and would be delighted to lose my bet.


Editor’s Note: This Opinion column was published in the Jan. 16nedition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail (Daily Mail Editorial section). Used by permission.

Daily Mail Opinion columnist Mark Sadd is a Charleston attorney and former Daily Mail business editor.

Reach Sadd by email at msadd@lewisglasser.com or on Twitter @mark_sadd.

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