For better or worse, one of the best ways to learn something is through experience —such as putting your hand on a hot stove.
A safer, but just as instructive way to learn, is to watch your neighbor put his hand on a hot stove.
That brings us to the recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia, which shut down schools in the Mountain State for nine days and finally ended with the state legislature granting teachers a 5 percent pay raise.
The strike — and the teachers’ victory — has prompted something quite unusual: Political commentators are now talking about West Virginia.
Some wonder if this means voters in the nation’s most enthusiastic Trump state might now be breaking from Republicans and their politics of austerity. Others wonder if this signals a revival of labor unions more generally. Still more speculate that this will energize teachers in other states to demand higher pay. After all, West Virginia teachers weren’t the lowest-paid in the country — merely the 47th lowest. Indeed, teachers in Oklahoma — the lowest-paid — are now threatening a walk-out April 2.
Those are all fascinating questions and we’ll know the answers in due time. That’s why we’d rather ask a different question: What can the West Virginia teachers strike teach us about building an economy?
We ask that because the outcome isn’t exactly the glorious victory for education that some may think. Teachers wanted the state to fund higher salaries by raising taxes on the state’s natural gas industry. The Republican-controlled West Virginia legislature isn’t interested in that. Instead, the Huntington Herald-Dispatch reports that it will cut other programs — including a tuition subsidy that made community college free for some students.
That trade-off seems a Hobson’s Choice — because the economic reality is that West Virginia, like the entire nation, needs both things. It needs both a decent K-12 school system — and it needs more students in community colleges. Cutting the tuition subsidy to help fund teacher pay raises doesn’t really get West Virginia any closer to building a new economy.
West Virginia decided back in 1863 to go its own way and split from Virginia, so the policy choices that West Virginia makes aren’t really our concern. But West Virginia does offer a unique prism through which to look at the challenges confronting the rural areas of the state that West Virginia left behind.
Rural Virginia often gets overlooked in a political environment dominated by the state’s urban crescent. West Virginia, though, is almost entirely rural. Its largest city and state capital — Charleston — isn’t that much bigger than our Danville. So when we look at West Virginia, we can see what amounts to a lab experiment in how to run — or not run — a rural economy.
The basic problem with West Virginia’s economy is the same one that confronts much of rural Virginia: It’s an economy based on traditional industries that are now in decline. To the extent that West Virginia has relied on coal and timber (as have parts of Southwest and Southside Virginia), it’s an economy based on resource extraction that may have made somebody somewhere wealthy, but sure didn’t make the communities that had those resources wealthy.
What West Virginia needs is a new economy, but the “new economy” taking shape before our eyes puts an emphasis on things that those places don’t have a lot of. Specifically, skilled workers. Those skills don’t necessarily require a college degree, but they do require more than a high school diploma. That’s why West Virginia’s decision to cut community college funding is so foolish — and stands in stark contrast to Virginia, where there’s been bipartisan agreement in Richmond that we need to get more students into community colleges. There’s a very direct correlation between communities with educated workers — and communities that are succeeding economically.
West Virginia is in a tough spot, because it doesn’t have many resources to begin with — and has made some policy decisions that give it even fewer. Over the past decade or so, West Virginia has cut the corporate income tax, phased out the business franchise tax, eliminated the state sales tax. Those tax cuts were pushed by Democratic governors, but are fully in line with conservative arguments that tax cuts will help increase business investment — and therefore create jobs and actually raise revenue. That clearly hasn’t been the case.
The West Virginia experiment doesn’t necessarily invalidate the tax cut argument (although many liberals might say it does). It does, though, show that tax cuts by themselves aren’t enough to build a new economy — especially in such challenging circumstances as the heart of Appalachia. That’s because what West Virginia (and again, rural Virginia, which is our real concern here) really needs is better-skilled and better-educated workers. As we peer over the mountains, it’s not clear to us how West Virginia can get from point A to point B without spending more money on both its K-12 school system and its community college system — or where that money is going to come from. At least here in the Old Dominion, we have Northern Virginia as an economic engine — the D.C. suburbs basically subsidize those of us in rural Virginia, because we don’t have the resources on our own to properly fund our school systems.
It’s not simply a matter of paying teachers more, which was the immediate issue in the West Virginia strike. It’s a matter of valuing — and funding — a school system that meets the demands of a 21st century economy. “West Virginia has so many vacant teaching positions that, in many schools, grades had been combined for efficiency, and teachers were teaching subjects for which they were not certified or trained,” the New Yorker reports. It quotes one teacher saying “we have students who have graduated from high school without ever having had a certified math teacher.” That is not exactly a sales pitch for companies to locate in the state, especially in an age where math skills are becoming more important, not less. (Note that the recent GO Virginia economic development council report on the New River-to-Lynchburg region fretted that our workers don’t have enough math skills.)
That’s why West Virginia provides a cautionary example for us here in Virginia: We should understand the short-sighted and self-defeating policies that got West Virginia in the predicament it’s in and make sure we don’t repeat them.