West Virginia schools closed for nine days as the state's teachers went on strike for higher wages and better benefits.
At the center of the debate was the state's wages to teachers, which have been flat in recent years, and the state's health insurance program, the Public Employee Insurance Agency. Samantha Nelson, an English teacher in West Virginia, told CNN that fixing the rising health care costs in the state was a major reason behind the strike.
An agreement was signed into law Tuesday to raise teacher pay by 5%. The West Virginia Legislature had approved a proposal to give the raise last week but negotiations were stymied again Saturday night when the state Senate passed only a 4% raise.
The raise is critical, say policy analysts in West Virginia, not just because teacher salaries in West Virginia have slumped on average in recent years but because the state health insurance program had become strained, with costs increasingly being passed on to public employees.
A task force has been set up to try to find a way to stabilize the insurance program's costs.
"It's so difficult to bring down health care costs," said Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. "States just don't have the bargaining power to really bring down costs."
Those cost increases have, in recent years, greatly outgrown average teacher pay. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy determined that an average teacher with two kids and a spouse on the state health insurance program saw total health costs increase by nearly $1,000 in the last three years (up $958), while average pay is flat. School service personnel, which includes other kinds of school instructors, saw a similar increase in their health care costs.
The increases are particularly high for larger families, explained Boettner, because coinsurance rates and deductibles have gone up.