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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

A Long, Dark Night

by Richard Hess

According to my trusty Farmer's Almanac, the 2007 winter solstice began in Virginia at 1:08 a.m. last December 22. But for me and the more than 100,000 educators who work in public schools in the commonwealth, it actually began about five days earlier, when Governor Kaine made public his proposed budget for the 2008-2010 biennium. This longest night of the year will last well into 2009, which is when the governor proposes to begin keeping his campaign pledge to raise Virginia's teachers' salaries to the national average. The only problems are inflation of more than 3 percent, for probably two consecutive years, and the fact that other, more progressive states will reward their hard-working public school employees with salary increases of over 6 percent, making the governor's pledge that much tougher to keep.

That makes four of the last five governors who have seen fit to let the salaries of teachers lag in order to balance the books-a move, no doubt, which earned these governors praise in some circles but has created a time bomb for future public school students here in Virginia.

Virginia teachers already trail their colleagues' average national salary by more than $6,000. When it comes to the earning power they need to support their families, Virginia's teachers rank 31st in the U.S. in salary, in a state that ranks ninth in total wealth.

We're all well aware that no one gets rich being a teacher. But future students are going to be unable to afford to be a teacher, even though they may feel the call. Who can blame them? Although I can tell prospective teachers that there are many rewards for taking up a noble and essential profession, there certainly appears to be fewer financial ones. Circumstances have reached a point here where, in good conscience, I can no longer advise my students to go into teaching.

Yet our educators continue to do an excellent job. In any real way of measuring student progress and individual school achievement, the stories of our school employees are remarkable. More than 90 percent of Virginia's public schools are now fully accredited by the state, and that's in a state that leads the nation in the tough accreditation standards she sets for her public schools. More of Virginia's high school students are taking the SAT and, in 2006, they ranked ninth in the nation. In fact, Virginia was named the top state in the nation for a child to grow up and experience success by Education Week, thanks in large part to her outstanding public school teachers.

We must present these accomplishments, and others like them, over and over again until it sinks in. The public doesn't know the whole story and it has a right to, so let's get the word out! The commonwealth's educators work long, hard hours each day and we've had success after success-yet our real income continues to shrink.

I teach in Russell County and school employees here will have a little brighter future awaiting them over the next five years. Encouraged by some hard work from members of the Russell County Education Association, county leaders worked together last year to come up with a salary improvement plan to bring county public school employee pay to the top of Southwest Virginia. This plan will raise school employee salaries 5 percent each year for five years, or 2 percent more than the surrounding counties average raises over five years, whichever is greater. Russell County leaders will be able to this in part due to new industries that are bringing around 800 new jobs, and in part due to dollars freed up after the completion of school building renovations. I can tell you from experience that the lesson that salary improvement was needed was re-taught many times, until county officials realized to win in the business world of the 21st century, you must build and sustain the finest education system possible.

In nature, when the winter solstice has passed, the days become progressively longer. Let's hope that in Virginia the new biennium brings a spring of better wages for the thousands of hard working, dedicated and highly successful education professionals who live and work here. Some people love to tell us that the solution to low public school salaries is merit pay, or pay for performance. To me, it looks like Virginia's teachers already have the merit, we just lack the pay.

Educators must work together to bring the light of Virginia's public schools' successes to the citizenry and our elected leaders. We must be victorious in this battle over ignorance or the educational failure of our commonwealth's students will be the price. That is a Virginia I do not want my grandchildren to grow up in.

Hess, a member of the Russell County Education Association, teaches world history at Honaker High School and also drives a school bus each morning and afternoon. He serves on the VEA's Board of Directors.



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