CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Leaders of West Virginia's teachers unions are hoping that this year's State of the State address will promise something that last year's education-heavy address did not: pay raises for teachers.
Education reform was the cornerstone of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 2013 speech, which resulted in Senate Bill 359, a wide-ranging proposal calling for everything from increased third-grade reading proficiency to more local control for county school boards.
Against a background of state budget cuts, teachers unions praised the governor's focus on education but said no real improvements could be made until salaries are increased.
Now, they're hoping Tomblin's 2014 address, scheduled for Wednesday night, will mean an across-the-board pay increase.
West Virginia teachers get incremental pay raises of about 1.5 percent annually but have not gotten an across-the-board raise since 2011, when they got a raise of nearly $1,500.
The average teacher in West Virginia makes about $45,000, which ranks 48th in the country, according to one teachers union, the West Virginia Education Association.
In September, the WVEA launched a statewide salary campaign for teachers, saying West Virginia is unable to recruit and retain qualified teachers because surrounding states offer more money.
The national salary average for teachers is about $55,000. Ohio teachers make about $57,000, and teachers in Virginia are paid about $49,000, according to the WVEA.
"Last year, we all agreed SB359 was only the first step. When you have teachers continuing to leave the profession, and when we estimate that more than 50 percent of our teachers are going to leave in the next five years, we have a serious problem, and we have to address that problem," said Dale Lee, WVEA president. "We're very hopeful the governor will include in his State of the State a plan to ensure that we can recruit and retain the best teachers in our classrooms."
The WVEA is pushing for a multi-year plan that doesn't target a specific dollar amount for teachers but aims to be competitive with surrounding states.
"We didn't get to be 48th in the nation overnight, and we're not going to get out of this overnight," Lee said. "Education has to be a priority. Teacher salary has to be a priority. Anything that the governor and the Legislature has made a priority, they've been able to do, and I can think of no better priority than our children."
Christine Campbell, president of the state's branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said the incremental raises for teachers over the years haven't made a real difference because of other increasing costs, such as Public Employees Insurance Agency premiums.