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Virginia Journal of Education

Educators March

A big day at the State Capitol lets Virginia know how serious our need to Put Kids First has become.

By Tom Allen

On an outrageously beautiful Saturday afternoon in April, some 2,000 people gathered in Richmond to draw attention to some very ugly facts.

Supporters of public education made up the crowd, and among the ugly facts they chanted and made signs to point out were these: Not only does Virginia seriously underfund our schools, but the students who attend them learn in overcrowded classrooms and take too many standardized tests. And those are just some of the challenges our educators and students face every time they enter our schools.

The message of the day was this:  It’s time to change the conversation about public education in our state.

VEA President Meg Gruber asked the crowd an important question:  “Our elected leaders always tell us they’re all for kids and that they support our public schools. So why does our state rank 41st in the country in the amount of money the state puts into K-12 education on a per-student basis?”

The crowd, and educators around Virginia, are still waiting for an answer.

The occasion that spring afternoon was the Put Kids First rally, an opening salvo in the joint Put Kids First campaign led by VEA and the Virginia PTA, the two largest organizations in the Commonwealth representing educators and public school families.

Rally participants, who also marched from Richmond’s Convention Center to the State Capitol, were in no mood for platitudes and lip service. “This is not easy, and this will not be the last march,” they were told by Rev. Ben Campbell, a Richmond minister, before leaving the Convention Center, “but we will march with joy, and we will not settle for anything less than the education and true nurturing of every child in Virginia.”

Campbell, director of Richmond Hill, an outreach and ministry center, added, “It has become normalcy in Virginia to defame public education and spend less and less on it, and for the legislature to make higher and higher demands for test scores and then give less and less support.”

With that, the sign-waving marchers, accompanied by a police escort, drew the attention of passers-by and local and state media as they raucously crisscrossed about eight downtown blocks on the way to the Capitol.

Once the marchers arrived, a lineup of speakers, including students, teachers, parents, superintendents and school board members shared their stories of what it’s really like in our schools today. Conspicuously absent from that list of speakers were politicians.

“We’re not here today to provide wallpaper for elected officials to make great statements about how much they love public education,” said Philip Forgit, VEA’s executive director. “This is a day for them to listen to us.”

Gruber and Virginia PTA President Brenda Sheridan joined forces to kick off the rally. “We just want our local and state leaders to match the commitment our members make to our schools every day,” Sheridan said. “The time has come to reduce class sizes and the number of mandatory standardized tests, and allow our teachers to actually teach our children.”

Over-testing was on the minds of many rally speakers and attendees, as educators try to let the world know that some Virginia students are spending up to one-third of their classroom time either prepping for or taking standardized tests.

“My children tell me that their teachers are so stressed out because they always have to get ready for testing. Is this what you want to hear from 10- and 13-year-olds?” said Kelly Kinnear, a parent and PTA member in Virginia Beach.

“I’m tired of my fourth-graders with IEPs wasting six-and-a-half hours of their lives on a math test that can’t possibly measure their true learning,” said Tracey Mercier of the Bristol Virginia Education Association. “I’m tired of students losing sleep, breaking down and vomiting over tests that don’t measure what it takes to be successful in life. I’m tired of teachers losing sleep, breaking down and vomiting over tests that don’t measure what it takes to be successful in life.”

Dawn Shelley of the Fredericksburg Education Association may be uniquely qualified to speak on the subject of over-testing. She’s not only a teacher and a parent, she’s also a member of the Spotsylvania County School Board. “I see what’s going on in public education from all three perspectives,” Shelley said, “and I don’t like what I’m seeing. I hate the stress that testing puts on my students. If we stopped giving our students so many tests, we’d have more money to actually educate them.”

Having more money to use more effectively on behalf of students was another recurring theme throughout the day, as numerous speakers described the obstacles they face because they don’t have the resources they need.

Perhaps no one spoke more eloquently to that point than Elijah Coles-Brown, an 11-year-old from Henrico County, who’s already an accomplished motivational speaker. He told the crowd his school had recently earned recognition as a national Blue Ribbon School and said, “The art room in my school looks like an art studio. The library looks like a small public library. The music room is like orchestra rehearsal. Every kid in the Commonwealth deserves to go to a school like mine! Every school should be provided the same needed resources!”

The bespectacled fifth-grader’s speech was greeted with loud cheers, and Elijah finished by leading the crowd in a chant of, “Put Kids First, because we know our value and we know our worth!”

Other speakers shared stories of the harsh realities that come with underfunding. “Minimal funding is simply not enough to help our kids reach their potential,” said Lorraine Hightower, a Loudoun County parent and PTA member. “Year after year, the resources aren’t there. We can’t keep pace with advances in technology, our class sizes are too large, and even in our wealthy county we can’t even offer all our kids full-day kindergarten.”
Under those circumstances, local schools are leaning more and more heavily on their parent groups to make up funding shortfalls. “We’re raising over $10,000 this year to provide tablets for students,” said Hightower. “That kind of fundraising isn’t the purpose of the PTA.”

Educators also feel the pinch of inadequate funding every payday. Hanover Education Association member Lynn Adams, an experienced school bus driver, described for the crowd the special driver’s license and professional certifications she had to earn to qualify for her position, and the many hats she ends us wearing, including disciplinarian and nurse.

“We’re responsible for picking up your children every day and delivering them home safely after school,” she said, “and we love our jobs. But after taxes and health insurance are deducted, I take home $51.61 a week. Is this a living wage? Can drivers make ends meet on these wages?”

Virginia Beach Education Association member Kelly Walker, who brought along some of her Tallwood High School students, noted that she now takes home less pay than she did five years ago. Virginia’s teachers work for almost $6,800 less than the national average salary for teachers.

“I’m here to tell my story,” Walker says. “I want people to know how budget cuts are affecting my district, my students and me. My workload has increased 20 percent. You can imagine how difficult it is to grade papers for 160 students, differentiate instruction for individual students, and encourage students with special needs in this environment. Do our elected officials really value public education?”

Another unanswered question from VEA President Gruber: “Why have we had to cut 5,000 education jobs at a time when student enrollment has increased by 30,000?”

Two Virginia superintendents, Mark Lineburg of Winchester and Rex Gearhart of Bristol, both VEA members, also took to the podium for a shared presentation expressing their frustration with how our schools are currently funded. “Public education is the world’s most important institution,” they said, “and right now it’s the best it’s ever been. Why are we being punished by our elected officials? How did we become the bad guys?”

Lineburg and Gearhart then took turns reading actual newspaper headlines from around Virginia dealing with school funding problems. The list of struggling localities was so long that their allotted time ran out before they’d had a chance to read the entire list.

As the crowd prepared to head back to the buses that had brought supporters from 26 Virginia localities, the Rev. Campbell had the final word.

“A passivity has grown in our populace and in our state,” he said. “We now live in an insane environment where we have more wealth but less willingness to pay. We don’t have a budget problem as much as we have a moral problem.”

His marching orders were clear: “What we must do is stay with this. We can’t be passive anymore. We must tell this story and we must do it before we lose our system of public education.”

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education



Going Forward with ‘Put Kids First’

We’re well out of the starting gate but not into the home stretch yet.

Rallying at the Capitol and “Wearing Red for Public Ed” have both been effective public demonstrations of our commitment to kids and public schools, but the Put Kids First campaign is far from over. The effort must and will go on building awareness and support through Governor Terry McAuliffe’s budget-writing process this fall and into next year’s General Assembly session.

Keeping PKF’s momentum alive means local meetings and events that solidify the relationship between local Associations and other community groups. It means letters to the editor and reaching out to keep local media focused on our schools’ desperate need for better funding. And it means continuing to let policymakers and elected officials know that we’re watching and that we’re holding them accountable. In addition, the VEA Fund for Children and Public Education will be assessing candidates for office throughout the summer and fall and recommending those deemed most likely to Put Kids First.

Virginia is steadily climbing out of the Great Recession and revenues are on the upswing. It’s time for the Commonwealth to reinvest in the education of its children, and to lead the fight for equal opportunity. To truly Put Kids First, we must revamp many of our Standards of Quality, in areas such as class size and funding for instructional resources and capital improvements.

For details, keep in touch with your local Association’s leaders and stay tuned to the PKF website (, the VEA website (, the VEA Facebook page (, and the VEA Twitter account (@VEA4Kids).



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