RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Inspired by similar efforts in other parts of the country, thousands of Virginia educators marched on the state capitol Monday to demand increased school funding and better pay for teachers.
Rodney Robinson, Virginia’s 2019 teacher of the year, teaches social studies at Virgie Binford Education Center in Richmond – the school inside the city’s juvenile detention center. And while he’s proud of his work and accolades, he told the crowd he was sick and tired of the needs of teachers and students being ignored by elected officials.
“Enough is enough,” he shouted to legislators from a podium on the steps of the state capitol building. “Your judgment day will not be your final day on earth, but on Election Day.”
Monday’s protest in Richmond was part of the Red4Ed teachers’ movement demanding more spending on education. It began last year in West Virginia and spread to other parts of the U.S.
Virginia’s educators have bore the brunt of budget cuts since the 2008 recession, when school funding was the first cut to balance a hard-hit budget. While other state programs have since an increase in funding, the education budget has stayed the same.
That puts Virginia, the 12th wealthiest state per capita, 34th in teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.
This was a sticking point for Princess Moss, an elementary music teacher from rural Louisa County. Moss was once head of the Virginia Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, and is now secretary-treasurer for the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the nation.
“We’re ranked by Forbes as the number one place for business, and we’re soon to be a new home for Amazon,” she said before leading the crowd in a chant of “I know, you know, Virginia can do better.”
Energy around boosting school funding in Virginia has been building for some time, and Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, whose wife is a teacher, has proposed a 5 percent increase in teacher pay as part of the next round of budget negotiations.
And while similar efforts have been stymied in the state’s GOP-controlled House and Senate in the past, the Virginia Republican Party released a statement Monday as thousands of teachers marched agreeing to the 5 percent increase ahead of budget talks in the coming days.
“Virginia has some of the finest teachers in the country and that has led to Virginia students consistently outperforming nationwide peers on standardized tests, college admissions, and graduate rates,” Delegate Steve Landes, R-Augusta, said in a statement. “To maintain that success we must ensure our teachers are fairly compensated and know the hard work they do each and every day is greatly appreciated.”
Landes is vice chair of the state’s House Appropriations Committee.
House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, a former teacher, also expressed support for the increase in the statement.
“We must make it a priority to keep great teachers in the classroom and that starts with making sure our teachers a fairly compensated,” Cox said.
Though the pay increase might address part of the teachers’ demands, there’s still the state of the schools themselves.
Jessica Shim, a fifth-grade teacher in Richmond, said she can’t use a large part of her classroom because paint chips are falling from the ceiling and a faulty pipe has made sections of the floor unsafe.
“It gets frustrating,” she said, noting she should be spending her time grading papers instead of marching in the streets.
A member of Virginia Educators United, a grassroots organization for teachers aiming to bring changes to their schools, Shim said the demonstration the capitol was directly linked to similar protests in Arizona, West Virginia and other states that brought teachers to the streets and forced change.
“I think [the other protests] got a lot of people really amped up,” she said. “I love my job, I love my kids, and I love going to work every day. But it’s like [the state] is taking advantage of me – I’m using my own money to support the kids in my classroom.”
Shim was glad to hear about the possibility of a 5 percent raise, but said she is more concerned about funding for school infrastructure.
“It’s more important to fund the school itself,” she said, admitting she doesn’t have a family to support so other teachers might feel differently. “The conditions in the schools are miserable. It gets too hot or too cold, there’s mold… there’s paint chipping off the ceiling”
Republicans control both the House and Senate in Virginia, although their margins in both have faded. That could lead to bipartisan support for increased education funding as more moderate Republicans look to defend their seats in a state Donald Trump lost by five percent in 2016 and saw the creation of the “blue wave” in 2017.
The November election will see all 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats up for grabs.
The state budget is due by early February.