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Virginia Journal of Education

Politics Is Not a Spectator Sport

What elected officials do affects you and your students every day.

We sometimes like to think that because we’re the ones who work directly with young people, we’re the ones doing the work that really matters face-to-face with students, that we’re in charge of what goes on in our schools and classrooms. The truth is that just about every decision made about public education policy is a political one. Think about important things like the size of your class; the materials you use; the qualifications you must meet to teach; the amount on your pay stub; and the cost of your health care, just to name a few. All that is determined by the men and women we elect to office.

That’s why, as much as many of us would like to, steering clear of political involvement doesn’t help either our students or ourselves. Newport News member Joseph Todd Emerson will talk more about that, beginning next, and VEA President Jim Livingston will weigh in on page 11. On page 12, we feature VEA’s Legislative Agenda, some of the important things Association members have agreed are important to accomplish in the 2018 General Assembly session. Also, be sure to check the VEA Fund for Children and Public Education’s website at to see who the Association’s political arm has recommended in races around the state.

Read on to see why you have an important role to play in the future of public education in Virginia, and how you can get started.


Political involvement is an effective way to demonstrate your commitment to your students.

By Joseph Todd Emerson

Several years ago, when I was serving as president of my local VEA affiliate, a colleague told me that teachers shouldn’t get involved in politics. In her sincere opinion, rather than use our political power, our job was to “love our students.” Perhaps you work with someone who has a similar mindset. I’ve often wondered if there is anything we can do to persuade these individuals to understand what every VEA president has repeatedly emphasized—that “every education decision is first a political decision.” I’ve reflected upon this conversation for years, and I’ve come to the conclusion this colleague was on to something: We display our “love” for our students by serving as their political voice and advocates.

Sadly, over the course of my two-and-a-half decades as a classroom professional, I have witnessed our noble calling come under increasing attack from politicians, business leaders, parents, and even some administrators. In addition to the numerous pressures we endure every day facilitating the Standards of Learning and the unremunerated obligations of serving as surrogate parents, counselors, and advocates, we also have to fight the battles of inadequate funding, lack of professional respect, and bureaucratic blindness to educational reality. From the current administration in Washington, which seeks to divert public tax dollars to private schools, to a Virginia General Assembly that has never met its constitutional obligation to fully fund its commitment to public education, we are needlessly balancing the needs of our students with the machinations of outside stakeholders seeking to wreak havoc upon public schools.  

All of which makes the forthcoming election for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the House of Delegates even more important. The VEA Fund for Children and Public Education has recommended strong candidates, all committed to ensuring our classrooms are fully funded, our voices as trained professionals are respected, and a fair implementation of ESSA is achieved. These men and women stand as our profession’s guardians and they must be elected to the important offices they seek. And, given that the governor is constitutionally charged with appointing members of the State Board of Education, along with Virginia’s Superintendent for Public Instruction and Secretary of Education, he or she serves as the chief education official of the state. To this end, we must work to ensure that Ralph Northam is elected in November.

As educators, we have several effective ways to help profoundly change the voting behavior of public officials. One of the best is to personally connect with public officials through face-to-face contact, phone calls, or e-mails. Those of us who have participated in VEA Lobby Day can attest to the effectiveness of these meetings. However, we need more than just a one-stop relationship. VEA members need to start having these important conversations with legislators and their assistants prior to the start of each General Assembly session, preferably during the summer when legislators are actively campaigning, raising contributions, and soliciting constituents.

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill once quipped that “all politics is local.” Therefore, we should involve local City Council and Board of Supervisor members in these communications. After all, they’re charged with crafting the actual budgets that affect our salaries, health insurance, and classroom allocations. In doing so, use these meetings as a concerted effort to honestly educate these public servants. Tell your personal story about how your students are going to be affected by their political decision-making.

Knowing how to get your message across in these meetings is just as important as having them. Cultivating positive, productive, and professional relationships leading to the successful passage of our member-driven legislative agenda needs to be the ultimate goal. Use positive, upbeat language. Seek common ground, especially with a legislator who did not receive our recommendation. Approach these possible contentious meetings with an arc of moderation, avoiding partisan entrenchment, and stress that the VEA legislative agenda is an “investment” in Virginia’s future by supporting classroom teachers. 

VEA’s Division of Government Relations does a remarkable job finding the right representative to sponsor and advocate for a specific bill. Local associations should do the same thing. When I served as a local president, a member of my Board of Supervisors indicated a willingness to support an increase in the county’s school allocation if the School Board recognized a local holiday on the school calendar. While serving as an intermediator between one member of the Board of Supervisors and the School Board was not part of my official job description, it did help to build a much-needed relationship. In politics, one never knows when such relationships will be called upon to help advance the needs of our members.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to cast a principled vote for or against a piece of legislation, especially when the bill seems antithetical to the legislator’s base of support. Therefore, never hesitate to publicly and/or privately express gratitude for voting on our behalf. It sounds simple, but  many politicians only hear negative comments from constituents. The mere expression of thanks could help change previous misconceptions, foster positive relationships, and provide an avenue for future policy alliances.

Finally, as Virginia begins to wean away from toxic testing, we should never be afraid to cite federal legislation, the state constitution, or even the legislator’s own words as part of an overall lobbying strategy. When our representatives take their oaths, or when they fail to live by the promises they made to support public schools, they should be held accountable for failing to meet the “Standards of Legislation,” just as every educator across the Commonwealth is similarly held accountable for meeting the SOL measures imposed upon us.

So, how do we respond to our colleagues who either refuse to get involved in the gritty world of political activism or want us to cede that responsibility to outside interests? We do what my colleague suggested. We “love” our students—by fighting within the realm of politics for increased state and local funding, school breakfast and nutrition programs, environmental protection so our students can have clean air to breathe on the playground and safe water to drink at home and at the water fountain, an affordable health care system so their families can visit a doctor, and the respect we deserve as the noble professionals we are.

Dr. Emerson, a member of the Newport News Education Association, teaches psychology at Denbigh High School and is the author of two novels, Donald’s Cross and The Lions’ Dens.


Political Reality: Your Colleagues Speak

In workshops around the state, VEA Government Relations staffers often pose this question to educators: “What part of your job is affected by politics?”

Here’s what some of them had to say:

• Course offerings.
• Licensure requirements.
• Raises and salary scales.
• Bus times and schedules.
• Class size.
• School start times.
• Planning time.
• Stipends (or lack thereof).
• Grading scale.
• Health insurance.
• Length of the school day.
• Retirement benefits.
• Performance evaluations.
• Funding for resources.
• Amount of standardized testing.
• Contract language.
• Textbooks.
• ESL and ELL accommodations.
• Charter schools.
• Suspension policies.
• Outsourcing of school services.
• Curriculum decisions.
• Remediation support.
• Summer reading lists.
• Free and reduced-price meals.



Message from the VEA President

VEA Has Wide Influence; Protect It in November!

Our Association’s influence is amazingly far-reaching; our members and staff are at work every day in ways many educators don’t realize. But they feel the benefits of those efforts.

For instance, as I write, members of VEA’s Teacher Evaluation Committee, co-chaired by Precious Crabtree of Fairfax and Carol Bauer of York, are preparing to sit down with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven Staples here in Richmond. They’ll have a candid discussion on constructive changes to the way the state evaluates classroom teachers. We’re also regularly talking with Dr. Staples about items like ESSA implementation and the Standards of Accountability.

Chesapeake member Toney McNair, last year’s Virginia Teacher of the Year, and VEA staff member Antoinette Rogers just completed their service on the Taskforce to Diversify Virginia’s Educator Pipeline, to which they were appointed by the governor.

I serve on the state’s Standards of Learning Innovation Committee, along with VEA member Karen Cross of Bristol, and together we’re helping make the SOL teaching and testing process better, and more fair, for both students and educators. I’ve also been appointed to the new Governor's Workgroup on Teacher Recruitment and Retention.

Several Association members currently serve on ABTEL (Advisory Board for Teacher Education and Licensure), representing the professional rights of classroom teachers.

Other members, along with Association staff, have been meeting with members of the State Board of Education, making plans to work together during the 2018 General Assembly session on the Standards of Quality and other issues that will make a big difference in our schools.

I’m writing about all of this for two reasons. One, it’s important that our members know they’re being represented whenever public education decisions are made. Your voices are heard in Richmond, every time, when important K-12 policy is deliberated and created. No other organization can tell you that.

The second reason is that it’s desperately important, in these times, for that representation and voice to continue—which brings me back to November’s elections. Ralph Northam has worked with us for years, continues to consult with us regularly on public education, and promises that we’ll have a seat at the table in his administration. Without that kind of access, decisions will be made about our public schools that are not in their, or our, best interests.

Mr. Northam’s opponent, on the other hand, has not worked with or consulted with us, and makes no promises about our Association having any input into the policies of his administration.

Having a voice in our professional futures is a vital way to protect our students, our schools, and ourselves. We have that now. If we want it to continue, our choice for governor couldn’t be more clear. Cast your vote on November 7!


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