Hoppy Kercheval

Where does our state’s public education money go?

Most debates about public education in West Virginia  will eventually include the subject of money. Is public education underfunded? Should our outcomes be better considering how much we spend? How much more can we reasonably afford to spend? How do we compare with other states’s education systems?
These questions and many others constantly circulate, and the answers depend on not only the dollar figures themselves, but also one’s perspective on the value of a good education.

According to figures from the state Department of Education, the total combined budgeted amount for fiscal year 2020 from the state’s General Revenue Fund and two lottery funds will add up to nearly $2.1 billion. But that’s still only part of the spending.

The state annually receives about $360 million in federal tax dollars and another $50 million from various special revenue funds. Add in the  local county share of property taxes and excess levies and West Virginia will spend somewhere between $3.3 and $3.5 billion on public education in FY 2020.

For perspective, consider that the $2.1 billion represents 41 percent of projected general revenue and lottery appropriations for FY 2020. That’s a huge number, but the amount of state tax dollars the state spends on public education has been steadily declining as a percentage of the overall general revenue budget.

In FY 2005, the state spent $1.7 billion in general revenue and lottery dollars on public education, but at the time that represented 48 percent of state spending. That means over the last 15 years, spending on public education out of general revenue has risen in real dollars, but as a portion of the budget, spending has declined by 15 percent.

It’s worth noting, however, that during that same period, student enrollment has steadily declined. Figures from the state Department of Education show enrollment for the 2005-2006 school year was 279,666. Enrollment for the 2018-2019 year (the most recent available) was 265,755. That’s a drop of 13,911 students, or 5 percent.

West Virginia’s cost per student is very high. Figures released last month by the National Education Association show West Virginia spent $12,880 per student in the 2018-2019 school year. That’s a higher per student cost than 30 other states, including Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and North Carolina.

So, where does all that  money for education go?
Teacher salaries constitute the biggest single expense. State Department of Education figures show West Virginia will spend $901 million in FY 2020 paying school teachers. Service workers’ salaries add up to $305 million. West Virginia is a rural county with 55 school districts and getting children to and from school is not cheap. The state has budgeted $75 million for transportation.

Another big chunk goes to “fixed charges,” those are FICA, workers compensation and unemployment. They add up to $106 million for 2020. PEIA for teachers and service workers will cost $224 million. The contributions to the two teacher retirement funds add up to $411 million, much of which is to make up for the unfunded liability.

What does it all mean? Policy makers may decide to commit more money to public education, and it can be argued that spending represents an important investment for our state.
But as the numbers show, it is also worth noting that West Virginia already writes a big check for public education.
Hoppy Kercheval  is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.