Virginia Teachers Rally at Capitol to Demand More Funding

Teachers and their supporters gather at the foot of the Virginia Capitol in Richmond on Monday. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Hundreds of teachers dressed in red descended Monday on the Virginia Capitol to support education funding bills totaling $2 billion over two years, which passed their first legislative hurdles.

The Red for Ed rally drew in educators as well as their supporters to back the measures.

“A student’s education should not be determined by their zip code,” Delegate Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, said as she explained the differences between her district’s lower and higher income school systems. Poorer urban districts, she said, face dilapidated buildings and lower scholastic success while the wealthier suburban districts are “pristine.”

Aird’s legislation, House Bill 1316, aims to level the playing field between districts based on recommendations from the Virginia Board of Education known as the standards of quality. The bill hopes to have the state cover the cost of support staff such as school nurses, reading teachers, English as a second language programs and more. It passed on a 7-1 vote during Monday morning’s packed education committee meeting.

This isn’t the first time Virginia’s teachers have utilized the Red for Ed movement. They showed up en mass to the 2019 legislative session and secured a 5% raise. But the raise relied on a matching arrangement between local governments and the state. The Virginia Education Association said that about half of the state’s school systems – lower income and rural districts in particular – failed to raise the money needed for the match, leaving those teachers without the pay increase.

Aird’s bill will plug that gap, according to VEA President James Livingston.

“With the additional state dollars to pay for [school support staff], it frees up local dollars so localities can turn around and put those dollars into a salary increase so the state-share of the salary increase becomes a reality,” he said.

The Red for Ed movement started in 2018 with teacher strikes in West Virginia and spread across the country. Backed by the National Education Association, the effort has forced progressive change for teachers in otherwise conservative areas.

While Virginia’s legislature flipped blue for the first time in 20 years last fall, with liberal candidates often running on the promise of better funding for schools, the state’s history of avoiding tax increases is sure to hamper progress.

Laird’s effort comes at a high cost. While HB1316 asks for about $270 million in its first year, a mix of budget amendments and other bills hope to see schools get a total of $2 billion in new funding over a two-year period.

And while the state’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has also pushed to better fund schools, Aird’s total exceeds his proposal by about $1.2 billion over the same period.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, was also skeptical of such a high price tag. He said legislators haven’t had meaningful discussions on much of the budgeting issues they are facing this session and that would be the first step in reconciling election promises with reality.

“You can’t fund all these promises by putting a chicken in every pot,” he said. “There’s a lot to work out at this point.”

Senator Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, is sponsoring the Senate version of Aird’s bill. She also said there was still plenty to discuss about where to find the money.  She offered the first year’s $1 billion could be covered by what is usually returned to localities as part of the state’s car tax relief. Other new revenue streams from an online sales tax or newly approved gambling machines could also play a part.

“If we’re going to fully fund all of our education needs that’s the price tag,” McClellan said, pointing to the $1 billion request while noting Virginia legislators have been accused of failing to increase funding since 2008. “Public education is the foundation of everything else we’re going to do and we’re going to fight like heck for it.”

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