Coal’s demise in Appalachia leaves education in the lurch

Clean energy, other industries unlikely to move into former coal-mining areas.

Unemployed coal miner Jereme Foster in his home in Noama, West Virginia. CREDIT: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Unemployed coal miner Jereme Foster in his home in Noama, West Virginia. CREDIT: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Declining coal production in many Appalachian communities is contributing to state and local governments generating less revenue to support education and other social services. This is especially true in areas where the local economy lacks diversification.

With poorer education standards and a steady trend of people moving out of rural communities, areas of Appalachia are failing to attract companies from non-coal industries, including the clean energy sector, according to a new report. The result will be an inability to invest the necessary state and local dollars in traditional K-12 education, creating dire consequences for students in parts of coal country.

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Education is one of the most important ingredients to regional development and individual prosperity. “Unfortunately, education attainment in the Appalachian regions lags the national average,” researchers found in the new analysis, commissioned by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

With a less-educated and skilled workforce, the region has become a “less attractive place” for companies to move their operations to after coal mines shut down, the report said.

The five-part study, “An Economic Analysis of the Appalachian Coal Industry Ecosystem,” highlighted that coal production in Appalachia fell nearly 45 percent between 2005 and 2015, more than double the rate of the national decline during the same period. Prior to the start of the decline, U.S. coal production had been steadily increasing over the previous century.

Coal jobs, on the other hand, have been declining in Appalachia for decades. Appalachia lost a total of 33,500 coal mining jobs between 2011 and 2016. More than 67 percent of these jobs  –  about 22,500 jobs  –  were in coalfield counties in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.

Part of that decline in coal jobs was due to mechanization. Low natural gas prices, less use of coal to generate electricity, and the rise of renewable energy sources also cut into coal jobs.

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As a result of the decline in coal’s fortunes, the report said, per-pupil spending in parts of Appalachia fell between 2010 and 2014. “This sends a signal that schooling is not valued, a signal that can hamper efforts to recruit new businesses and promote economic development,” the report said. “Lower spending can also lead to substantive effects on student outcomes that may affect their life experience and performance in the labor market.”

As the coal industry stumbled, school-age enrollments declined by about 158,000 students between 2000 and 2014 in regions of Appalachia where the coal industry had been historically dominant.

The migration of families with school-aged children out of coal country will lead to smaller school districts that require less public funding to operate. “The out-migration is going to help solve this problem. But it’s really a sad way for the problem to be resolved,” Matthew Murray, professor of economics and director of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, told ThinkProgress.

Many former coal workers and their families, though, will stay in the region, lured by the possible return of high-paying coal jobs. However, Murray, who co-authored the report, emphasized it’s hard to imagine many of these impacted regions attracting clean energy projects or other types of industry that could support greater spending on education and other government services. It will be very difficult for them to find a new economic base that would provide the same foundation that coal provided because of their isolated geography and sparse populations, he said.

Without a new industry to replace coal-related companies, counties and states generate less tax revenue from companies as well as workers, who have moved out of the region to find new work. Coal mining counties also have worse health, on average, than non-mining counties, according to the study.

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The poor health status of a large segment of the population puts even more pressure on an already-strained health care system in a region. West Virginia, for example, has the highest incidence of heart disease, heart attack, kidney disease, and stroke among Appalachian states. Less revenue generated by coal companies also will limit the amount of money that goes toward county-run clinics that treat coal miners who have contracted a form of pneumoconiosis known as black lung disease.

The outward migration of people also is occurring in areas of Pennsylvania, including counties that have benefited economically from the shale gas boom. From 2010 to 2014, these Appalachian counties reported a significant decline in student enrollment compared with non-boom districts in the state, according to a Resources for the Future report released last August. In the Bakken region of North Dakota, the opposite was true. Student enrollment, particularly in the younger grades, was statistically higher in the oil boom districts than in non-boom districts in North Dakota, the report said.

“Despite concerns that the boom would bring a rapid influx of students to districts overlying the Marcellus play, enrollments in these typically rural districts actually continued on the previous trajectory of a steady, long-term decline,” the report said. In fact, researchers found a correlation between oil and gas development in Pennsylvania and larger decreases in student enrollments.

The pattern of residents moving out of counties where the coal industry was once dominant is occurring in rural areas across the nation, according to Murray. “What we’re seeing take place in Appalachia is being aggravated by what’s happening in coal,” he said. “Based on nationwide trends, though, we would see this kind of pattern emerge anyway. People increasingly want to live in and near metropolitan areas. That’s true in coal country. But that’s true outside of coal country as well.”

Most industries cannot operate economically in the mountainous terrain of Appalachia. Renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, would require the construction of expensive high-voltage electric transmission lines. The older demographics of the remaining population also would deter companies from moving their operations into these areas of Appalachia, according to Murray, who asked: “Where would you find 100 people in the mix of occupations you would need to run a manufacturing facility in one of these communities?”