MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jill Hale, a native of West Virginia, has been teaching for the past 14 years in North Carolina’s public school system. She would love to come home to Parkersburg, but the low teacher salaries and benefits in this state are keeping her and her family away. Hale is far from alone.

Many observers think low salaries and inadequate benefits for teachers in West Virginia have contributed to a major teacher shortage in the state.

The state Department of Education recently reported more than 200 job openings in its public schools and those statistics leave out several counties in West Virginia.  According to WV MetroNews, there were more than 700 teaching vacancies in West Virginia at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. In Raleigh County alone, there were more than 50 job openings for teachers at the beginning of this school year, the WV MetroNews reported.

These teacher vacancies, experts say, can be traced directly to the low salaries and benefits that West Virginia’s public school system offers teachers. West Virginia ranks 46th in the nation with an average annual salary of $45,086, according to a 2013-2014 report from the  National Education Association.  Teacher salaries in the Mountain State compare unfavorably to neighboring states like Ohio and Pennsylvania where the average annual salaries for teachers were $63,701 and $55,913 respectively in the same time period.

Indeed, many say the low teacher salaries have a direct impact on the quality of West Virginia’s public school system

West Virginia ranks the lowest in starting teaching salaries when compared to its neighboring states.

Teacher Salary Chart

“West Virginia is a direct reflection on our inability to make our pay competitive with our surrounding states,” says Dale Lee, President of the West Virginia Education Association.“We as a state, haven’t put a priority on education and of maintaining quality educators in the state.”

Starting teacher salaries for teachers in West Virginia also rank as among the lowest in the nation at an average of $32,533. Maryland’s starting teacher salaries average around $64,546 and Pennsylvania’s around $41,901, according to the National Education Association.

“When you can make anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 more in any of the [neighboring] states or in any other profession you’re not going to attract key people into the classroom,” Lee says.

In recognition of this problem, West Virginia state legislature passed a measure this past January that would increase teacher salaries from $33,000 to $43,000 by 2019. But Lee and other educators say it isn’t enough.

The legislature also passed a law allowing Teach For America and new local and state school board-approved instructor education programs to provide alternative certified teachers in West Virginia. Programs like Teacher For America offer the opportunity for new college graduates to enter into the teaching profession without education degrees and learn on the job.

Leanne Sturm, who teaches in a Catholic elementary school in Parkersburg, says another way to keep teachers in the state is through initiatives such as incentive pay.

“I think incentive pay is a good option,” Sturm says. “For example, we want teachers to be more educated in technology.  If you are wanting that teacher to use the Smartboard and do that type of technology learning, then giving them an incentive such as a $2,000 grant or [an increase] in their own salary would help.”

Jill Hale says she and her husband considered moving back to her home state because they’d like to be closer to family. But they have decided against it in large part because of the inadequate benefits that West Virginia offers to its teachers.

“[If] I retire in North Carolina I get to keep my insurance, whereas West Virginia teachers, when they retire, have to pay for their insurance benefits,” Hale says.  “It would be worse for me to move back [to West Virginia] because the benefits I am getting here are better.”