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Report ranks state teachers unions 13th strongest

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Leaders with West Virginia's teachers unions are grateful to be recognized in a study that ranks the state as having the 13th strongest union presence in the country, but say that not all the report's claims stand up.

The study, publicly released today and conducted by The Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now, is a comprehensive analysis of American teacher unions based on factors such as involvement in politics, scope of bargaining and perceived influence.

West Virginia's policies are better aligned with traditional union interests than any other state, according to the report.

"The state does not support performance pay and does not require student achievement data to factor into either teacher evaluations or tenure," the reports states. "Seniority is the sole factor in layoff decisions, while teacher performance is not considered at all."

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said that's not accurate at all. "A lot of things like certification and evaluation come into play. Seniority is a very small part of that."

The report goes on to say, "Employers contribute nearly three times more to teacher pensions than employees do -- only in Louisiana do teachers give comparatively less to their pensions."

But union leaders say that claim is misleading because the state is playing catch up for unfunded liabilities acquired over the years.

"That's because we're paying for the sins of the past," Lee said. "We're putting more than $250 million dollars in because the state hasn't put in the contribution over the years."

American Federation of Teachers president Judy Hale agreed that the study's claims about pensions are unfair.

"The reason pensions are so much isn't because we have lucrative pensions, it's because policymakers went for about 12 years without paying the state's part. As a result, we created this huge unfunded liability in our pension system," she said. "Now, we're in a payback period to make up for what wasn't there before."

The study also points to the state's lack of a charter school law, but WVEA executive director David Haney said that's not an option for West Virginia.

"Charter schools don't work in West Virginia. Quite frankly they haven't anywhere, but in our state particularly. In rural populations and with our needs for children, we just don't see that as an improvement in terms of moving children forward," he said.

Nearly 70 percent of teachers in West Virginia are unionized, and the report ranks the state in the bottom tier when it comes to resources and membership. The report says K-12 education accounts for about 10 percent of state spending -- the smallest in the nation. Despite the low allocation, total per-pupil expenditures are fairly high, with about half of the funds going toward teacher salaries and benefits, according to the report.

"I'm not sure what they're referring to there. I don't understand," Lee said. "The amount of money we put into Promise scholarships could be counted as education dollars, and we have a growing number of kids receiving the Promise that shows us our schools are doing a good job of preparing students."

Haney was thrown off by those numbers, too.

"I'm not sure how they came to that calculation, but the most important aspect is the teacher that's in front of the students every day -- not the computers or textbooks. It's about the teachers," he said.

Hale shared their confusion about the claims concerning teachers' benefits.

"Our health plan is in no way a Cadillac plan. In the last 10 years, we've suffered cutback after cutback," she said.

The report also ranks West Virginia's unions as the fourth-most-involved in politics and as having the sixth-highest perceived influence in the country.

"In the past 10 years, West Virginia's teacher unions were more involved in state politics than their counterparts in nearly every other state," the report says.

Teachers unions play a significant financial role in political campaigns, with donations accounting for 1.6 percent of all contributions to candidates for state office, according to the report.

The report also claims that more than 15 percent of West Virginia's delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions identified as teachers union members.

Survey respondents ranked the unions as one of the two most influential entities shaping education policy, behind only the West Virginia Board of Education.

"Our teachers clearly understand what the issues are and they make very passionate pleas to their legislatures in terms of what they want to see and what they think is beneficial to students. They are great lobbyists," said WVEA spokeswoman Kym Randolph. "Fordham is a very conservative group with an anti-union agenda.

"Stakeholders agree that teacher unions are effective in protecting dollars for education even in times of cutbacks, and in warding off education reform proposals with which they disagree," the report states. "While they report that policies proposed by the governor during the latest legislative session were only somewhat aligned with teacher union priorities, those that were enacted were mostly aligned with union priorities."

Those accolades are something the state's unions are proud to see in the report.

"I make no apologies for getting involved in politics. We don't have any collective bargaining contracts in West Virginia, so in order to have input in our education policies, we have to go to the state Legislature because it's the Legislature who [enacts] the laws that control almost all of what's done in the classroom," Hale said.

"We're very proud of our involvement in politics. We feel like we have to have a voice in the decisions that are made," Lee said. "I'm very proud we're recognized for having the strength and input in West Virginia. Who better to have input in public education than the people who deal with children each and every day in the classroom?"

Despite concern with some of the claims, union leaders are pleased to have their strengths recognized.

"I'm very pleased because we are a member-driver organization and our members control everything we do. I'm happy to see we are viewed as a powerful force in West Virginia education. Some of it just doesn't make sense, but I'm glad someone else has recognized it's the WVEA who has stood strong," Lee said.

"I agree with a lot of it, but some is not accurate. I'm happy about the rankings that recognize our political involvement and that speaks to our membership," Hale said. "What better people to have on the front lines of education than the teachers?"Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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