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Hundreds rally for education reform

By Emma Gauthier

Capital News Service

Bells chiming through Capitol Square were drowned out Monday as hundreds of education advocates dressed in red chanted for lawmakers to “fund our future.”

The Virginia Education Association and Virginia American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations organized the rally to encourage General Assembly representatives to restore school funding to pre-recession levels, increase teacher pay and reinstate collective bargaining. The VEA is made up of more than 40,000 education professionals working to improve public education in the commonwealth. Virginia AFL-CIO advocates for laws that protect current and retired workers.

An estimated 600 to 800 people attended the rally, according to The Division of Capitol Police. Participants wore red in support of Red for Ed, a nationwide campaign advocating for a better education system.

Speakers took to the podium, including VEA President Jim Livingston and Vice President James Fedderman.

“We do this for our children, they are the reason we are here,” Livingston said. “They are the reason we put our blood, sweat and tears into this profession that we call public education. … Last year we demonstrated our power to tell the General Assembly that it is time, it is past time, to fund our future.”

A rally held last year called for higher teacher salaries and better school funding. Legislators announced that teachers would receive a 5-percent salary increase in the state budget.

The Virginia Department of Education stated that the budgeted average salary for teachers statewide in 2020 is $60,265; however, teachers in many counties and cities will be paid less than that, with the lowest average salary in Grayson County Public Schools at $39,567. Arlington County Public School teachers will have the highest average salary in the state at $81,129, with other Northern Virginia schools close behind.

The VDE report showed that in 2017, Virginia ranked 32nd in the country with an average teacher salary of $51,994, compared to the national average of $60,477.

“We are often putting our own money into things and we need help,” said Amanda Reisner, kindergarten teacher at E.D. Redd Elementary School. “We have buildings that are falling apart, we don’t have enough supplies, we don’t have enough technology.”

The Commonwealth Institute, a Richmond-based organization that analyzes fiscal issues, reported that state funding per student has dropped 7.6 percent since 2009, from $6,225 to $5,749. In addition, public schools in Virginia since 2009 have lost more than 2,000 support staff and over 40 counselors and librarians, while the number of students has increased by more than 52,000.

HB 582, patroned by Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, proposes the reinstatement of collective bargaining for public employees. According to the VEA, Virginia is one of three states that does not allow collective bargaining, the power to negotiate salaries and working conditions by a group of employees and their employers.

The bill would also create the Public Employee Relations Board, which would determine appropriate methods of bargaining and hold elections for representatives to bargain on behalf of state and local government workers.

“Collectively we bargain, divided we beg,” said AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays. “The Virginia AFL-CIO and the VEA, we stand hand in hand together.”