W.Va. didn’t fund education. Now it can’t make a budget

There’s a special irony in the West Virginia Legislature calling for a national constitutional convention over fiscal responsibility when the state can’t even pass a full budget this session because it faces a possible $465 million clawback of federal COVID funds.

Over the last several years, West Virginia, like many other states, has been drawing millions of dollars from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund. The important caveat on these dollars was that spending on education had to remain proportional to what it was before the pandemic, in comparison to spending changes in other areas (e.g., health care or transportation). Spending on sectors like health care soared during the pandemic; spending on education, in comparison, did not.

West Virginia allocates funds for education based on student enrollment. Those numbers have been declining, which means funding for education hasn’t exactly been increasing — hence the potential clawback.

Apparently, this is not a new issue. The governor’s office applied for a waiver in 2022, citing “declining enrollment” but an increase in per-pupil spending along with promises of future teacher pay raises and more building maintenance funds as reasons the federal government shouldn’t take back its money. That waiver was granted in 2023, but federal authorities noted that West Virginia had under-invested in education by about $23 million.

Instead of correcting its mistakes, West Virginia continued through Fiscal Year 2023 doing the same things and has requested yet another waiver, citing the same reasons as before. Except this time, it’s not a matter of $23 million in ESSER funds — it’s $465 million.

The bill hasn’t yet come due, and there’s still a possibility the federal government could grant another waiver. But the whole situation has left the state in financial limbo.

Brian Abraham, chief of staff for the Justice administration, said on Talkline that the only ways to direct funding into education is through pay raises and the School Building Authority. He offered this up as an excuse for why West Virginia hasn’t put enough money into education — as if the state isn’t hemorrhaging teachers and its schools aren’t largely outdated bordering on dilapidated.

Teacher pay raises has been a longstanding issue, especially for border counties that are losing good educators to better paying positions across state lines. That could have covered a good portion of the “proportional” spending required to keep ESSER funds. The state could have also invested more in continuing education for existing teachers or offered to cover certifications or trainings for teachers interested in special education (a specialty that is in short supply).

The state could have also given more money to the SBA with special funds earmarked for counties or districts that don’t have the tax base to support their schools. In Mon County, we are spoiled — we have a broad and generous tax base that supports both physical and intellectual expansion in our schools. But some counties just don’t pull in enough revenue to cover large-scale projects, like replacing or updating a 100-year-old building or constructing recreation facilities.

The state could have spent more on education. Obviously, the money was there. It chose not to — lawmakers seem to always choose not to — and now the state faces losing $465 million and has no choice but to pass a temporary skeleton budget until the issue is resolved. That doesn’t exactly sound like “fiscal responsibility” to us.