A rally that brought thousands of teachers to Richmond on Monday had just ended when Jim Livingston took the microphone again.
The Virginia Education Association president addressed the estimated 4,000 people standing in front of the portico of the Virginia Capitol with news that caused the teachers, parents, students and community members gathered there to cheer as loudly as they had all day: The House of Delegates planned to include a 5 percent raise for teachers in its budget.
“That’s called power,” Livingston said.
Teachers from across the state — many wearing red as part of a nationwide movement to advocate for more education funding — converged on the city Monday to support Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed teacher raise while also calling on legislators, who are debating a budget for next year, to improve Virginia’s share of education spending from its current status as one of the country’s lowest funders.
While marchers gathered Monday morning in Monroe Park before a milelong walk to the Capitol, House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, told a House committee that the chamber’s proposed budget will include the 5 percent raise without increasing taxes.
“Providing teacher pay raises does not have to come with a tax on the middle class attached to it,” Jones said.
Parker Slaybaugh, spokesman for Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said work on the House’s budget started in December and the salary plan was announced Monday “to allow all the teachers visiting legislators to hear the great news firsthand.”
Livingston said the VEA is “extremely pleased” with Monday’s announcement from House Republicans.
“While we’re appreciative, 5 percent is still not enough,” he said. “We’re expecting a plan coming forward from the administration and the leaders of both chambers of the General Assembly to really move the commonwealth in the right direction, with regard to not only salaries but school funding overall.”
He added: “They know that we’re unhappy. While 5 percent is great, it’s not enough.”
Both the House and the Senate will reveal their full budget proposals Sunday afternoon.
The average teacher in Virginia makes about $51,000, according to National Education Association data, while a typical teacher in the U.S. makes about $60,000.
Northam — who was represented during Monday’s rally at the Capitol by his wife, Pam — in December proposed a 5 percent teacher pay raise, which would be available if districts match the $88 million investment. A 2 percent raise would take effect July 1 on top of a 3 percent increase that the General Assembly planned for during the previous session.
It would be the largest single-year raise for teachers in about 15 years and now, with Monday’s endorsement from House Republicans, has bipartisan support.
“We must make it a priority to keep great teachers in the classroom and that starts with making sure our teachers are fairly compensated,” Cox, a former teacher, said in a statement.
House Appropriations Vice Chairman Steve Landes, R-Augusta, drew applause from both parties when he announced the committee’s plan to fund the 5 percent raises in its proposed budget.
“It’s nice to see there’s bipartisan support for it here,” he said.
Landes, who is chairman of the House Education Committee, said the proposed budget will differ from the “all or nothing” pay raise proposed by Northam by not requiring school systems to pay their share of a 5 percent raise to get any of the state salary money.
“That especially helps school districts in less affluent areas of the state that struggle to come up with funding at the local level,” he said.
Some teachers, including those in Richmond and Henrico County schools, had teacher workdays on Monday, allowing them to attend the rally without having to take time off. Others from across the state took personal days to ask legislators to improve their wages.
Lisa Jakim, an instructional aide at Manchester High School in Chesterfield County, attended the march because she’s sick of making $7.42 an hour working with special education students.
“It’s all love that we’re there but we demand more,” she said.
Meeting first in Monroe Park before marching down Franklin Street, some attendees held signs that read: “Teaching should not be a debt sentence” and “Suffering from salary compression depression” and “WTF — Where’s the Funding?”
Since the Great Recession, state education spending per student is down 9 percent, while enrollment is up 4.5 percent.
“If nobody speaks up, then the problems can’t be solved,” said Logan Cox, a seventh-grader at Binford Elementary School in Richmond, whose red apparel consisted of a Los Angeles Angels Mike Trout jersey.
Said Virginia Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson: “Our kids deserve better.”
In a report released this month by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, Virginia ranks 43rd in the U.S. in funding per student. Localities have had to pick up more of the bill, paying for more than half of school districts’ operating budgets compared with 42 percent from the state.
“We can’t keep relying on localities to fix this problem. The localities have done what they can,” said Fauquier County Public Schools Superintendent David Jeck. “It’s now Virginia’s responsibility to fix this problem.”
Virginia became the latest state to experience a wave of teacher activism, joining the likes of West Virginia, Arizona and Kentucky, where teachers went on strike last year. The “Red for Ed” movement got its start in Virginia through Virginia Educators United, a group that convened last summer to organize Monday’s march.
The state’s involvement in the nationwide movement led the heads of the two largest teacher unions in the United States to attend Monday’s rally.
“It’s not one school district. It’s one state,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García, who attended alongside American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “It’s every educator standing up and saying, ‘If we have a collective voice, they can’t ignore us.’”
There are currently no plans for a teacher strike in Virginia.