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Fact-check: How Low Does West Virginia Rank in Teacher Pay?

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Teachers hold a rally outside the Senate Chambers in the West Virginia Capitol Monday, March. 5, 2018 in Charleston, W.V. Hundreds of teachers from 55 counties are on strike for pay raises and better health benefits. Photo: Tyler Evert/AP Photo

Less than a year after West Virginia experienced a major teachers’ strike, Republican state Del. Paul Espinosa touted GOP efforts to raise teacher salaries — and attacked Democrats for causing the problem of low pay in the first place.

On Oct. 9, Espinosa, who chairs the House Committee on Education, tweeted, “From 1990 to 2015 under democrat control, W. Va. teacher pay rank plummeted from 30th in the nation to 48th. Our GOP led legislature is committed to reversing that decline through passage of the largest aggregate pay raises in our state’s history. #ResultsNotResistance #wvgop18”

Espinosa said he was citing numbers originally provided by the governor’s office, but we decided to take a look at the original data.

Where West Virginia ranks nationally

The numbers vary a bit from measurement to measurement, but there’s no question that West Virginia currently ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in teacher pay.

A CNN article published around the time of the teacher strike, on March 5, 2018, pegged the state at 48th in the nation — consistent with Espinosa’s second figure. The article cited data collected by National Education Association, a prominent teachers union.

We were able to find a more recent figure from the NEA, covering 2017, and by then, West Virginia’s ranking had grown even worse. It fell for the second year in a row, to 49th.

Meanwhile, we located data from earlier NEA surveys and found that West Virginia hasn’t ranked higher than 44th since 2004.

 

However, we weren’t able to find NEA data online prior to 2003, so we turned instead to data collected by the federal Education Department. This data set goes back to the late 1960s.

Here’s a chart comparing West Virginia and national teacher salaries at various intervals since the 1969-70 school year. It shows that West Virginia pay has trailed national pay by a fairly consistent margin since at least 2000. It also shows that teacher pay hasn’t kept up with inflation during the last decade.

 

As for West Virginia’s ranking nationally, it fell precipitously between about 1970 and 1990, then spiked upward before starting to decline again around 2000.

 

This tracks with contemporary news coverage of the 1990 West Virginia teachers’ strike, which came when teacher pay was almost at the bottom of the rankings, according to Education Week.

In the 1989-90 school year, the period of the previous strike, West Virginia ranked 48th. To find the state rating roughly 30th in the nation, you have to go back all the way to the late 1960s.

So Espinosa has a point that West Virginia teacher pay had sunk to a couple places from the bottom by 2015 — but he’s exaggerated the heights from which it fell.

Are the Democrats to blame?

This is more of a mixed picture than Espinosa lets on.

First off, the time period is cherry-picked. The legislature had been controlled by the Democrats for decades until the GOP won control in the 2014 elections. By ending his time frame at 2015, Espinosa  overlooks the period when the GOP controlled the Legislature — a period in which the state’s teacher pay ranking has fallen, according to the annual NEA data.

In addition, the 1990-to-2015 time frame cuts out the governorship of Republican Arch Moore (who served three non-consecutive terms, from 1969 to 1977 and from 1985 to 1989). It also cuts out the current governorship of Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat but later switched to the GOP. Currently, Republicans control the governorship as well as both chambers of the legislature.

As it happens, the greatest increase in the teacher pay rankings during the period Espinosa cited came between about 1990 and 2000. During most of that period, the state had a Democratic governor, Gaston Caperton. A couple years of that time span were under a Republican governor, Cecil Underwood.

Ultimately, then, the partisan blame does not accrue exclusively to the Democrats.

Our ruling

Espinosa said, “From 1990 to 2015 under (Democratic) control, W. Va. teacher pay rank plummeted from 30th in the nation to 48th.”

There’s no question that West Virginia teacher pay currently ranks near the bottom of the 50 states, but he exaggerated how far those rankings had fallen since 1990. In addition, the biggest rise in pay during that period came during the tenure of a Democratic governor, which undercuts the argument that the Democrats are entirely to blame.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

Fact Check

Fact-check: Is Jim Justice Right About a Record Surplus in 2019?

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Gov. Jim Justice, R. W.Va., delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Charleston, W.Va. Photo: AP Photo/Tyler Evert

Shortly before the start of the 2019 legislative session, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice touted the state’s improved budget position for the 2019 fiscal year.

In a tweet sent on Jan. 8, Justice wrote, “Another month of record-breaking revenue numbers! For December, we had a $44.8 million surplus. Year-to-date we are $185.9 million above estimates. This is the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history!”

Is that correct? Justice’s office didn’t respond to inquiries, but we were able to find supporting evidence.

The tweet linked to a press release from the that detailed the list of revenues and expenses from the general revenue fund, and data from West Virginia State Budget Office supported the information in the press release.

The general revenue fund for December — the most recent completed period at the time of Justice’s tweet — had a $44.8 million dollar surplus, with collections totaling $185.9 million more than had been estimated. That’s in line with Justice’s tweet.

But is this actually the largest first-six-month surplus of any fiscal year in state history?

Numbers from WV Checkbook and the West Virginia State Budget Office, with information dating back to 1999, confirm that through the first six months of the 2019 fiscal year, West Virginia did indeed have the largest cumulative surplus since 1999.

The previous post-1999 high occurred in 2011,  when the budget surplus hit $159.9 million more than estimated.

According to the governor’s office, the rise in collections can be attributed to an increased rate of growth in a number of taxes including severance tax, corporation net income tax, consumer sales tax and personal income tax.

It’s worth noting that every year, West Virginia’s economy grows bigger, so comparing budget figures across time, as Justice did, is tricky. The state’s gross domestic product, when adjusted for inflation, was 14 percent bigger in 2017 than it was in 1999.Our Ruling

Justice said for fiscal year 2019, West Virginia had “the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history.”

We checked the historical data and found that he’s correct going back to 1999. However, that’s not the entire history of the state. We couldn’t confirm any data prior to 1999, so it’s conceivable that there was a larger surplus prior to that year.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Would One Fentanyl Seizure Be Able to Kill Every West Virginian 32 Times Over?

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In its purest form, two to three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. Courtesy: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

When President Donald Trump announced that he would go around Congress to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border by declaring a national emergency, U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., tweeted a video supporting the idea.

In the Feb. 15 video, Miller said, “West Virginia has been hit especially hard by illegal drugs smuggled across our southern border. Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

There’s no question that West Virginia has been hit hard by the opioid crisis — PolitiFact West Virginia has previously reported that the state ranked No. 1 in the nation for opioid overdoses per capita.

But what about the idea that a single federal seizure of fentanyl could have killed every West Virginian 32 times over? We took a closer look.

Miller’s office told us that they were referring to late January seizure of 254 pounds of fentanyl by Customs and Border Protection at the Nogales port of entry in Arizona. The drugs — which were “concealed within a special floor compartment of a trailer that was laden with cucumbers,” according to the the agency — represented the largest fentanyl seizure in the agency’s history.

Miller’s office also walked us through the math they used to arrive at their figure.

The seizure of 254 pounds converts to 115.2 kilograms. In turn, 115.212 kilograms equals 115.212 million milligrams.

Miller’s office said it used 2 milligrams as a lethal dose of fentanyl, citing information from the Drug Enforcement Administration that 2 milligrams is “a lethal dose for most people.”

Meanwhile, 115.212 million milligrams works out to 57.606 million lethal doses of 2 milligrams each.

West Virginia’s population in 2018 was 1,805,832. If you divide 57.606 millon lethal doses by 1,836,843, it means that amount of fentanyl could theoretically kill every West Virginian 31.8 times over. Rounded up, that works out to the 32 times that Miller cited.

To make sure the 2 milligram threshold was sound, we checked with Timothy J. Pifer, the director of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory, an expert on fentanyl and its lethality.

“Based upon research, toxicology reports and information from other agencies, two to three milligrams of fentanyl in its purest form could be fatal,” Pifer said.

However, he added that the technical details make a difference.

For one thing, if you use the 3 milligram threshold instead, the Nogales seizure would be enough to kill every West Virginian about 21 times over, not 32. There would also be a difference in lethality depending on the age, body size, and health of the individual in question.

In addition, Pifer added that “is not clear whether or not the 254 pounds is pure fentanyl or fentanyl that has been already diluted for sale or distribution on the street.” The average degree of purity would make a difference in its lethality.

One final point: Miller used the statistic to support the case for constructing a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, the fentanyl was seized at a port of entry. A wall wouldn’t prevent that type of smuggling through established checkpoints.  

Our ruling

Miller said, “Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

If you consider 2 milligrams to be a lethal dose — which the Drug Enforcement Administration does — then Miller’s estimate is very close to correct. The only caveat is that differences in purity and the health and size of the potential victim can make a difference.

That said, there’s no question that the fentanyl from the seizure, spread evenly and effectively through the population, could have killed every West Virginia resident many times over.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Does West Virginia Have the Nation’s Lowest Workforce Participation Rate?

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Gee delivers his 2017 State of the University address. Photo: Courtesy West Virginia University

Is workforce participation lower in West Virginia than in any state? That’s what West Virginia University president Gordon Gee wrote in a recent op-ed.

Gee’s Jan. 14 column in the State Journal newspaper was titled, “An effective education system is key to West Virginia’s future.”

In the column, Gee wrote, “As I often point out, our state does not have a job problem. It has a skills problem that leaves many high-paying jobs unfilled. We have the nation’s lowest workforce participation rate, which hovers around 50 percent, when the national average is about 63 percent.”

Is this claim accurate? We took a closer look.What is West Virginia’s workforce participation rate?

Economists say the most appropriate statistic in this case is the civilian labor force participation rate, which is calculated on a regular basis by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The statistic takes the number of people who are employed, adds it to the number of unemployed people who are looking for work, and divides the sum by the total population that is at least 16 years of age, not serving on active duty in the military, and not institutionalized in a facility such as a prison or a long-term-care home.

The most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from December 2018, showed that West Virginia had a civilian labor force participation rate of 53.9 percent. The figure didn’t deviate much throughout 2018, ranging from 53.7 percent to 54 percent depending on the month.

The past five years also looked similar to 2018. The average workforce participation rate in 2018 was 53.9 percent. In 2017 it was 53.3 percent, in 2016 it was 53.1 percent, in 2015 it was 52.8 percent, and in 2014 it was 53.1 percent.

He would have been a little closer using a similar, but distinct, statistic known as the employment-population ratio. This statistic takes the number of employed people and divides it by the same overall population used in the civilian labor force participation rate. In West Virginia, that was 51.2 percent in December 2018, and was close to that during 2018.

So for this part of his statement, Gee was close, and he did say “around 50 percent,” which gives him some wiggle room.Is West Virginia’s rate the lowest in the nation?

West Virginia did indeed have the lowest civilian labor force participation rate in the nation in December 2018. The next-closest state was Mississippi, with 55.8 percent. And the pattern was much the same for the rest of 2018.

In fact, West Virginia has “remained in the lowest spot since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the series on a consistent basis in 1976,” said Brian Lego, research assistant professor at West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.Is the national average about 63 percent?

The national civilian labor force participation rate was 63.1 percent in December 2018, after rising from a low of 62.7 percent earlier in the year.

So Gee is on target with his statement that the national rate was “about 63 percent.”Why does West Virginia fare so poorly in these measurements?

Lego said there are a range of factors that explain the state’s weak performance.

“The big picture reasons are related to human capital deficiencies such as lack of skills needed for jobs available,” he said. He also cited poor health, drug abuse, and a large number of elderly residents in West Virginia.Our ruling

Gee said, “We have the nation’s lowest workforce participation rate, which hovers around 50 percent, when the national average is about 63 percent.”

He was very close on all three elements of the statement, and he gave himself some breathing room by using the words “around” and “about.” We rate his statement True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact in partnership with the West Virginia University Reed College of Media.

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