By: Kayla Kesselman
Roy Stevens, a 17-year-old with Down syndrome, was not receiving adequate special education services at his high school in Hundred, West Virgina. So the local school board required him to attend another school that is about an hour away from his home. The Wetzel County Board of Education also said they could not provide transportation for Stevens so his parents have to drive him an hour each way every day.
Stevens is among many special education students who are not receiving adequate services in West Virginia’s public school system, in large part because the state does not have adequate funding for public education. Only 11 percent of West Virginia’s state budget in 2013 went toward education, the 10.5 percent compared to 15 percent in Virginia and 17 percent in Ohio, according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit encyclopedia of American Politics. Indeed, the state spent less on secondary public education than any other state in the nation in 2013.
As a result, special education teachers say they have to deal with both low pay and inadequate resources for helping students with special needs. Such difficult working conditions has contributed to a shortage of special education teachers in many of West Virginia’s counties, observers say.
“People are just not willing to deal with the pay that you get, the lack of respect out there for public school teachers and the challenges of working in a special education classroom,” says Dale Lee, President of the West Virginia Education Association.
Education officials worry that Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s decision to cut an additional one percent in state aid to public schools will only make matters worse. The recently announced budget cut for 2016 will shave $16 million from the statewide education budget.
Even before the budget cut, special education in West Virginia had been starved for resources.
“You’re kind of beating your head against the wall sometimes trying to get things that you know the kids need, but we either don’t have the resources or don’t have the money to get it,” says Cyndi Shaffer, a special education teacher in the Harrison County public schools.
While state officials say they don’t have the means to raise more money for public education, others beg to differ. Policy analysts with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy say the state should boost the severance tax on natural gas, a booming industry in West Virginia with all the drilling in the Marcellus shale.
Sean O’Leary, fiscal policy analyst of the West Virginia Center on Budget Policy recommends boosting the rate to 10 or 15 percent. Currently, the state collects a five percent severance tax on natural gas.
“When you’re looking at what our bordering states have done, and how the severance tax works, it is possible for our state to raise the severance tax a percentage point or two. We could raise additional money and not see any negative effect on the natural gas industry,” O’Leary said.
However, others say convincing the West Virginia state legislature to increase the severance tax on oil and gas production would be difficult given the power of fossil fuel lobby in the state and the amount of money they contribute to politicians in the state.
“Raising the severance tax in West Virginia is about the most politically difficult thing to do,” says Stephen Smith, executive director of West Virginia Health Kids and Families Coalition.
Smith suggests instead that the state could generate additional revenue for special education by raising the tobacco tax. “That is a way more likely and buyable political strategy,” he says.
Whatever strategy is used, Shaffer says additional funding would really help children with special needs.
“There are kids who are sitting in regular classrooms that really shouldn’t be,” Shaffer says. “They’re not gaining anything from it. They’re just kind of passing the time. If we had more teachers and extra funds, we would then be able to pull those kids out and give them the proper education on the level that they need.”
Kristi Wolford of Fairmont, who has a seven-year-old son with autism, knows well what it is like to not have adequate educational resources for her child.
“At school, he has his regular speech therapy and special education teacher, but we also have to pay out of pocket to get services that the school feels is not necessary for my son,” Wolford says.
Lee and other educators note that the entire public educational system in West Virginia badly needs additional funding.
“There should be necessary resources available for all students attending public schools across all counties in the state,” O’Leary agrees.