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Virginia Journal of Education


Squeezed


Students and educators are feeling the pinch in Virginia’s cash-strapped schools.

 

If you’ve been keeping score at home, you may have heard statistics like these during VEA’s ongoing Fund Our Future campaign:

• Virginia is the 12th wealthiest state in the U.S., but ranks 42nd in per-pupil state funding.

• Virginia teachers are currently paid $9,218 less than the national average teacher salary.

• Since 2009, Virginia’s state funding of K-12 schools has fallen 9 percent when adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, student enrollments have risen.

“Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off,” author Paul Brodeur once said. Indeed, what often seems lost in the facts and figures of school funding are the faces of the hard-working educators and just-getting-started young people who spend their days in those schools.

Real people, including some you may work with, live near, or even live in your house, are being hurt by the underfunding of Virginia’s public schools. Real lives are being affected. Real pain is being felt. Here are a few of their stories:

 

Treading Water, Slowly Going Under
The starting salary for a teacher in Russell County with a bachelor’s degree is $31,700 and $33,700 for a master’s, which ranks us 130th in the Commonwealth (out of 132 school divisions). When compared to other school districts in Southwest Virginia, we rank at the bottom. Our ranking does not get much better as one gains years of experience. It takes until step 28 until teachers reach the Virginia average and our top pay never reaches the national average.

We did get a 2 percent raise this school year, but our insurance premiums almost doubled. Each year most employees are taking home less than in the previous year. We have many who work in our afterschool programs, coach, and take on part-time jobs to make ends meet. This should not be a reality for educational professionals.

Vickie Kitts, Russell County Education Association


The Over-30 Crowd
I don’t want our students to be hurt any more than they’ve already been hurt by underfunding. We are so low, compared to other counties, in per-pupil funding. I’ve been a classroom teacher with 32 or 33 students—in a math class with that many, you’re lucky if you’re getting to the ones who are raising their hands with questions. The ones with questions who aren’t raising their hands don’t always get the time they deserve.

Our students deserve better than what they’re getting.

Michele Wickman, Stafford Education Association


Dietary Choices
Paying for things for my classroom is a struggle. For example, I had to buy three surge protectors/extension cords for our computers. That was a lot. Then I realized I needed another one because the one that the school provided me doesn't handle the computers. Another school-provided one is starting to break. I now need to buy two more power cords, but I'm tight on money. So, I have to play this game where I choose how well I want to eat or if I want the supplies my students need. 

I hate that I may have to use a broken extension cord, but I also don't have unlimited funds to keep buying all the things my students need, and that's just one example. This goes on constantly and I never feel like there's a way out of it. I want to buy everything I need and want but I don't have the means to do that. I hate that I have to decide if I want to eat PB&J sandwiches for dinner for a week so I can get extension cords, or allow myself to have chicken but have my students suffer.

Alexa Severo, Loudoun Education Association


It’s Exhausting
I’m tired of cuts to art and music programs. I’m tired of seeing teachers establish “Go Fund Me” accounts for just basic supplies. I’m tired of seeing veteran teachers leave the classroom because they can’t afford to feed and clothe their families. I’m tired of seeing new teachers get overcrowded classrooms because school divisions are unable to hire a full cadre of new employees. I’m tired of coming home with a paycheck my non-educator friends find laughable.

One of my friends, a self-proclaimed Libertarian, likes to proclaim that “money can’t solve all our problems.” While this may or may not be true, how would we know? Our General Assembly has not once lived up to its constitutional mandate to fully fund the state’s share of K-12 costs. Not once.

Joseph T. Emerson, Newport News Education Association
 

Putting Food on the Table
I was preparing to enjoy a luncheon and saw a co-worker put a burger in the refrigerator from the lunchroom. When asked why they weren’t going to eat what had been prepared for us, the reply was, “I’m taking it home for my son’s supper.”

Robbie Jones, Montgomery County Education Association
 

Working Retail
I have taken on a second job at Wal-Mart to pay off my son’s dental bills as well as my student loans.  When my husband retires in two years, we hope I won’t have to take a third job to pay the bills.

 It’s a shame that as a professionally-trained, college-educated person, I can’t afford to live in the county I work in. Teachers are worth our pay—and more—with all that we do. It is not just the reading and writing: We’re now counselors, advocates for our students, free tutors with our required after-school hours, and even educational consultants, as parents often ask for help on the best ways to get into post-secondary schools and how to apply for scholarships. We’re referees when students argue or fight; cheerleaders for kids who have no one in their corner; and activity directors when we offer clubs and activities after school, often without a stipend.

LaRina Clark, Prince William Education Association
 

Not Enough ‘Counsel’
My school has sixth- through 12th-graders, some there to catch up to appropriate grade levels, some because they’ve been suspended from their "home” school, some because they’re connected to the penal system, and others because they have coping difficulties in large schools and/or social anxieties. Our issues are vast and wide, and we don’t have adequate counseling. One year when we did have a counselor, she was only allowed to guide students on job placement! Many of our students need daily therapy sessions, and our teachers aren’t trained to deal with those who’ve been affected by trauma or mental illness, which, unfortunately, many of our students have been. Also, approximately 40 percent of our students have special needs and we only have one special ed teacher. He’s currently way above the state standard for the number of students he should be dealing with.

Afreen Gootee, Hanover Education Association
 

Running a Construction Company -- and Teaching
Our pay scale was frozen in 2008, which we were told was "temporary." While there have been a few raises since then, none have come close to the 3 percent yearly cost of living increases typically found in Central Virginia.

Since the freeze, staff turnover has increased dramatically, fewer schools have reached accreditation, and class sizes have increased. We’ve also got seventh-graders using history textbooks printed in George W. Bush's first year in office, buildings leak, and department budgets have not increased since the 1990s.

Although I'm halfway through my 28th year of teaching, I'm still being paid like I just finished year 16. I’ve had to take on additional responsibilities just to make ends meet. At one point, I was seventh-grade team leader, history department head, athletic director, and communications director for the school's TV studio. I also got my CDL to drive sports teams, taught history, started my own construction business, and was president of the LEA all at the same time. I’m still doing all these jobs, except for athletic director. It is not uncommon for me to work seven days a week.

And I’m not alone in this. There are at least three people in my building who have their contractor's licenses. We have another five who work retail. We have others who own their own businesses. We have musicians, beauticians, and artisans. What we don’t have are people living comfortably on what they earn as an educator. We don’t have people who have the weekends and evenings to rest, recharge, and better plan the next day's lessons. We don’t have people willing to stay in this demanding profession for more than a few years before moving on to greener pastures.

Karl Loos, Lynchburg Education Association
 

It's a Safety Issue
There is simply an inadequate number of professional school counselors, creating an increased safety risk to teachers and students -- and the primary goal of schools is to keep students in a safe learning environment. It's time we demonstrate that we put school safety first, that the safety of students and teachers truly matters. We need additional guidance counselors for group and individual counseling sessions, lessons and discussions on character building, and assistance in handling behaviors and crisis intervention.

Theresa Abdulbaaqee, Virginia Beach Education Association

I’m a Volunteer
Teachers in our school division do after-school remediation classes for free because the county can’t afford to pay them for it, and one of our four school buildings will not get needed renovations for the same reason.

My library budget has been cut, so I’ve canceled our monthly book shipments.

Rebecca Jasman, Madison County Education Association


Virginia has far too many of these stories—and it doesn’t have to be that way. We have the ability to start writing new ones.

Join the growing momentum in our state by sharig your own stories about the undersfunding issues you're facing at VEA's Fund Our Future website, fundourfutureva.org.

 

 

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REPORTS FROM THE FIELD


Here are more examples of what’s happening in our state’s public schools, taken from The Commonwealth Institute report, “Demonstrated Harm: Cuts to School Funding are Hurting Virginia Classrooms”:

• A Richmond City teacher said that one of the content areas in her school would not be getting books until November, two months after the start of the school year. As a result, she says, “our basic instructional materials aren’t even in the building…And that is if you get to order [books]…Our students have textbooks that date all the way back to 1998.”

• A Brunswick County teacher explained, “We have 21st century learners…and, a lot of the classrooms still don’t have Promethean or Smart Boards. With math, there are a lot of different virtual manipulatives that can be used to really simplify different concepts…I’m stuck to a projector.”

• In Norfolk, teachers explained that when it rains they have to place buckets “up and down the hallway…In our annex…most of [our tiles] are a brownish color and they are sinking and falling…And you can see water come down the walls, literally you can see the water.”

• A Tidewater administrator: “In urban environments, children most benefit when class sizes are smaller …Our class size numbers are huge: 30-35 students in our core subjects.”

 
 

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Educated at William & Mary and Stanford.. Award-winning teacher. Association leader. And now, funding casualty.


He’s got the kind of resume principals and human resources directors dream about when they’re hiring a teacher: An undergraduate degree from William & Mary; a graduate degree from Stanford; on his way to National Board Certification; winner of the 2019 Judy Flythe Teacher Leadership Award and finalist for a 2019 R.E.B. Award (both prestigious educational honors bestowed in the Richmond metropolitan area); and one of the National Education Association’s 2017 30 Under 30. Any school division in the state would love to have him.

 Association is leaving the classroom, another casualty of our state’s chronic underfunding of schools.
 What are we doing to ourselves, Virginia?

Looking into his future, Sigmon saw that he simply cannot stay in his middle school English classroom and still afford the kind of life he wants—and that his resume merits.

“I'm not leaving because of the kids—never because of the kids,” he’s quick to point out. “I’m leaving because of a system that extracts as much labor as possible out of me for as little as it can pay me. Study after study says that teachers are overworked, undercompensated, overstressed, and leaving the profession in droves. Still, the best Virginia can do, after offering $1 billion in tax breaks to Amazon and close to $40 million to Pearson for Standards of Learning testing, is cobble together a paltry raise that barely outpaces inflation and still doesn't dig us out of our massive pay gap. I have spent years demanding that my hard work be compensated better. Perhaps the only way they'll eventually listen is if I leave.”

Educators have always known that their salaries wouldn’t land them in Beverly Hills, but also knew that their retirement would be secure. Sigmon says that even that is now gone.

“My retirement program has been gutted,” he says. “Instead of a pension, I get a hybrid plan, which forces people to do a ‘defined contribution’ in addition to the ‘defined benefit.’ Pretty much all the experts agree that this not enough to retire on. And, like many people my age, I started my career with significant student loans, and after five years of teaching, I'm still paying on them.”

This fall, Sigmon starts a new direction on his career path by going to work in the information technology office at an out-of-state university. There, his financial life will get a significant upgrade.

“I'll be part of a pension plan where I'll contribute 10 percent and have 14 percent matched,” he says. “When I retire, there will be a defined benefit. I'll be making more money, which means I can pay off my loans faster, and health insurance will cost less.”

And he’ll become an unfortunate, unnecessary statistic here: “I will be one of the 40 percent of Virginia teachers who leave the classroom in their first 5 years,” says Sigmon. “I am a highly-trained, highly-qualified teacher whose training and professional experience have made me attractive to employers who are willing to compensate me more. It's a shame Virginia seems disinterested in keeping me.”
 

 


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