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Thousands of Virginia teachers march to state capitol demanding more funding, better salaries

January 29th, 2019 | Casey Quinlan

Thousands of Virginia teachers left their classrooms and rallied in Richmond on Monday to demand more education funding and higher salaries. Teachers gathered in front of the state capitol building, just as their fellow educators did during strikes and rallies last year in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and North Carolina.

Virginia Educators United (VEU), which organized Monday’s rally, wants schools to have adequate support staff, such as nurses and social workers, competitive wages for support staff, improved school infrastructure, and better recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers. VEU encouraged teachers to take a personal day to attend the rally.

“I just think it’s one of those things where we have been waiting patiently and we always say, the [Great Recession] this, the recession that. That was 2008; we don’t have time to wait anymore so we need to fund education now,” Kevin Hickerson, president of the Fairfax Education Association, told ThinkProgress. 

Hickerson said that in Fairfax, like many other school districts across the country, it’s common for teachers to be working two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. The district needs to take additional steps to ensure support personnel, such as custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers, can afford to live in the communities in which they work.

In an analysis of states’ funding formulas by the Education Law Center and Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education, Virginia received a grade of “F” on its funding distribution. Virginia’s average teacher salary is slightly less than average at $56,861, compared to $58,353, but in the Richmond area, the average teacher salary is just $51,064, state data shows. According to the National Education Association, Virginia ranks 34th in the nation in average teacher pay.

Salaries aren’t the only reason teachers decided to protest; the schools themselves desperately need improvements, according to Hickerson.

“Our infrastructure needs a lot of upgrades and improvements. When you don’t take care of things now in terms of buildings, they just cost more later down the line. We need to upgrade our buildings and we need to get out of trailers,” he said. “We have close to a thousand trailers here in Fairfax County and I don’t want my daughter going into a trailer to learn and I don’t want other kids to also have that experience.”

Hickerson added that there are mold problems, heating issues, and leaks in trailers and on top of that, trailers may not be the safest place for students to learn.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) proposed a 5 percent pay increase for teachers and $268.7 million in new money for public schools in December. Republican leaders in the house of delegates have said they support a 5 percent pay raise. The Republican-controlled state senate has said it wants more flexibility for how local governments spend increased education funding.

When asked why Virginia teachers aren’t ready for a statewide strike like other states, Hickerson said that in addition to legal issues teachers may encounter due to public employee strikes being prohibited, the upcoming state elections present an opportunity to make change.

“I think we have a golden opportunity this election season with both our chambers up for bid in the house and the senate. I think we have a great opportunity to get public education-friendly candidates into those seats,” he said. “I think there is a good chance we can flip the house and the senate and bring public education to the forefront where we don’t necessarily need those strikes and collective action that makes us remove ourselves from our job. That doesn’t mean we stop lobbying or the momentum we started but at the same time that’s where we need to be putting our time and effort right now.”

Teachers unions haven’t dialed back their concerns about school funding after the 2018 statewide strikes. In Los Angeles, teachers went on strike for a week and won major concessions. Some of the improvements include a 50 percent reduction in standardized testing, turning 30 schools into community schools, and ensuring that schools have nurses working five days a week.

This month, Denver teachers voted to go on strike after more than a year of negotiations. Teachers there want to change their performance-based compensation system, which they say is confusing and limits opportunities for some teachers to improve their pay.

There are also ongoing discussions of work stoppages in West Virginia and Oakland, California. In West Virginia, the state senate advanced education legislation that embraces school choice, something teachers unions have opposed. West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee told the press, “everything is on the table” when asked if another teacher walkout would happen in response to the legislation.

In Oakland, Ismael Armendariz, vice president of the Oakland Education Association, said the L.A. strike has energized teachers, who have been working without a contract since 2017 and are asking for a 12 percent pay increase over three years.

“One thing that resonated with our members is that when you fight, you win,” Armendariz said.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

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