Virginia Teachers March at Capitol to Demand Higher Pay, More School Funding

Alexa Severo, a 2nd grade teacher at Sugarland Elementary in Loudon, chants alongside Sherri Robinson and Shannon Geraghty (left to right) during speeches at the Jan. 28 march. —Photo by Jay Paul
Alexa Severo, a 2nd grade teacher at Sugarland Elementary in Loudon, chants alongside Sherri Robinson and Shannon Geraghty (left to right) during speeches at the Jan. 28 march. —Photo by Jay Paul
| Updated: January 29, 2019
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Scores of Virginia teachers marched to the state Capitol on Monday to demand an investment in the state’s public schools.

The protest, organized by the grassroots group Virginia Educators United, attracted about 2,500 teachers and other supporters, according to police estimates. Some school districts across the state had planned for Monday to be a teacher work day, so their staff could attend the rally. In other districts, small cohorts of teachers took personal days to represent their schools.

Educators clad in red marched over a mile in downtown Richmond to demand higher pay and more funding for public schools. This is the first instance of teacher activism targeting a state legislature this year, following a rash of state-level walkouts and protests last year.

Just last week, more than 30,000 educators in the nation’s second-largest school district—Los Angeles—wrapped up a six-day strike claiming several victories, including commitments from the district to lower class sizes and hire more support staff.

Still, fewer teachers in Virginia protested than in other places. Organizers have said the Richmond rally wasn’t meant to be an extended protest or walkout. It was just meant to send a message to legislators.

The conditions for teachers in Virginia have reached a “crisis point,” said Patricia Jennings, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

“When you have a profession where people are already giving a lot of themselves to do this job and then the supports that make the job possible keep eroding, you get to a point where people have just had enough, and they just can’t do it anymore,” she said.

Adjusted for inflation, state per-pupil funding has fallen 9 percent since the 2008-09 school year, according to an analysis by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based research group. Within the same time frame, the student population has grown by more than 53,000, and staffing has declined by about 1,200 positions, according to the institute.

Legislative Action

The result has been larger class sizes and fewer supports for students, according to Virginia Educators United organizers. And teachers are fed up: “Continuing to pretend that teachers and schools can do more with less, year after year, is not sustainable,” organizers wrote on the group’s website.

In Richmond, teachers held signs with phrases like “Fund our schools,” “My students are worth it,” and “Can you read this? You’re welcome.”

Teachers and supporters hold signs at the rally, organized by the grassroots group Virginia Educators United. —Photo by Jay Paul
Teachers and supporters hold signs at the rally, organized by the grassroots group Virginia Educators United. —Photo by Jay Paul

The average teacher salary in Virginia is $51,049, according to the National Education Association. That’s about $8,500 less than the national average. (There are significant differences in pay between some of the rural school districts in the state and the more-affluent northern Virginia districts, like Alexandria and Falls Church.)

Virginia’s state legislature has already approved a 3 percent salary increase that’s set to take effect July 1. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam proposed an additional 2 percent pay raise for 2019.

As teachers rallied outside the Capitol building, Republican House leaders announced on Monday that they are including the same pay raise in their budget, too. But the legislators said they will pay for it without raising taxes. Northam’s budget proposal is built on keeping the money from a federal tax overhaul, and Republicans have called it a de facto tax hike.

“As a public school teacher for 30 years, I know how hard teachers work to educate Virginia’s future leaders,” said state House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican, in a statement. “We must make it a priority to keep great teachers in the classroom and that starts with making sure our teachers are fairly compensated.”

If approved, the total 5 percent bump to teacher pay would be the largest raise there in a single year in 15 years.

In addition to the teacher pay raise that would cost the state $88 million, Northam has also proposed increasing public school funding by $180 million. In his State of the Commonwealth address earlier this month, he touted the need to put more money into schools so students are prepared for success.

Red Inside the Classroom, Too

Virginia’s secretary of education, Atif Qarni, and First Lady Pamela Northam joined the hundreds of teachers at the rally, wearing red in support. Also in attendance were the presidents of the two national teachers’ unions: Lily Eskelsen-García of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

But most teachers across the state remained in the classroom on Monday. Even so, some wore red in solidarity.

Amanda Steeley, a special education teacher at Goochland Elementary School, about 30 miles from Richmond, had originally planned to take a personal day to go to the march. But one of her students was returning to school on Monday after being absent for medical reasons, and she felt like she needed to be in the classroom to welcome her back.

“It reinforced to me why this is so important,” Steeley said.

Teachers, she said, are “willing to give whatever they can” to make sure their students are able to succeed, no matter their zip code. But teachers in Virginia are “strapped so thin,” and schools can’t afford to fund all the resources that kids need, she said.

It’s almost as if Virginia has been “stuck in time,” she added.

“We’ve got teachers who love their jobs but can’t afford to make ends meet and give kids what they need, and if this is representative of how we’re going to invest in our future, then that’s very sad for our country,” Steeley said.

This story was updated on Jan. 29 with a new estimate of the number of protesters.

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