VEA Members Visit Capitol, ‘School’ Legislators About Public Education’s Needs
February 22, 2023
February 22, 2023
By Tom Allen
When educators gather in Richmond to get the attention of legislators and policymakers, class is very much in session, and VEA members who came to the State Capitol for “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” Lobby Day had some very specific lesson plans in mind.
Their objectives included making it very clear that our public schools can no longer withstand the consistent underfunding of Virginia’s Standards of Quality, which are really just minimal standards set by the Virginia Board of Education. The “classroom for a day” in Richmond also featured a review of the facts that Virginia, a wealthy state, has no excuse for ranking so low in per student state aid for schools or for paying teachers so far below the average salary of their peers across the nation.
Here’s how Katie Seidemann, a Montgomery County Education Association member, laid out the salary situation for the crowd—and members of the General Assembly—at the rally that kicked off the day: “Call me crazy, but I believe that doing this meaningful work as a certified, educated, and experienced professional should also come with the dignity and respect of a living wage. The fact that, along with my fellow educators, we do what we do because we love our students, does not mean that I don’t also deserve a salary that reflects my education and experience as an educated professional. The fact that I love my students does not mean that my master’s degree is worth any less than anyone else’s master’s degree. The fact that I love my students does not pay the bills. And as educators, we should not be made to feel guilty or accused of not caring for our students while also advocating for a fair and meaningful living wage. We are educated, experienced, and dedicated professionals and we deserve to be paid like it.”
Education Association of Norfolk member Patrick Barry had some very personal lessons to impart to his representatives. “I’m here for both myself and for my six-year-old daughter,” he said. “If we can fund schools better, she can have the life she deserves and I can be a better provider for her.”
Educators must be heard by policymakers, said Reagan Davis of the Chesapeake Education Association: “I want to make sure that students and employees of public schools have a voice in the things that affect their lives every single day,”.
At the rally, VEA President James J. Fedderman told the educators, “We are here today for truth, to speak truth to power, so lawmakers in Virginia can hear us and know our position. What happens in the next year or two can set up down two very different paths: On one side is darkness and cowardice; on the other is bravery and enlightenment. If we don’t come together and raise our voices, speak that truth to power, we will never get what we need as a profession, and our students will never get what they need from us.”
Taking Dr. Fedderman’s words to heart, members left the rally to make the rounds in the General Assembly offices, putting faces on public schools and letting elected officials know what our students, educators, schools, and communities need most.
Husband and wife Loudoun Education Association members Hugo and Cory Brunet visited Delegates David Reid and Suhas Subramanyam, sharing with them the importance of fully funding the Standards of Quality, supporting teachers who make the exceptional effort of pursuing National Board Certification, and the need to significantly boost salaries for education support professionals.
“I’m a school bus driver,” said Hugo. “We do very important work, and we must earn a living wage.”
Fairfax Education Association member Kimberly Adams led a group of FEA members into the office of Delegate Ken Plum, where she told him that the billion-dollar tax cut proposed by Governor Youngkin “is not helpful when we are in a position to do so much for public education.”
Plum, a VEA-Retired member and former public school teacher and administrator, agreed. “We need funding so we can add counselors and other mental health staff,” he told the FEA delegation. “There is so much trauma in our student population, and we have to take the burden off our teachers.”
Stephanie Lovelace of the Franklin County Education Association was among FCEA representatives who spoke with Senator William Stanley, pointing out how low teacher salaries are contributing to a critical staff shortage in K-12 schools. “We’re very understaffed locally,” she said. “In fact, we don’t currently have a chemistry teacher, which is forcing students who need that class for college to take it online, where they can’t do labs.” She points out that a higher percentage of those online students are failing the class than when there was a classroom chemistry teacher.
FCEA members Shannon Brooks, Heather Quinn, and Ashley McKelvey also had a chance to meet with Senator David Sutterlein and convey similar messages.
A group of Richmond Education Association members, led by REA President Katina Harris and Vice President Darrell Turner, urged Delegate Lamont Bagby to support lifting the support cap, a funding mechanism put in place a decade ago that limits the number of education support professional positions in schools. They also talked about the ongoing process in our state of creating new history Standards of Learning and the controversy surrounding that effort.
Several legislators left their Capitol offices to step into the January cold and offer support for rally participants, adding to the Lobby Day optimism. “Virginia is consistently ranked about number four among states in the nation for both achievement and safety,” Senator George Barker, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the crowd. “We really do have excellent schools, and you’ve done that in a state as diverse as any other state.”
Delegate Schuyler Van Valkenburg challenged his legislative colleagues to do better. “We all know that public education is a pillar of democracy,” he said. “But for years now, the General Assembly has neglected it. And now, when we have an opportunity to put our foot on the gas, we have a program that takes money out of public schools,” referring to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s proposal to shift budget funds into “laboratory schools.”
Other speakers included Senator Mamie Locke, Delegate Michelle Maldonado, Newport News Education Association President Dr. James Graves, and Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette, Jr.
Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.
Dr. James Graves, president of the Newport News Education Association and a technology teacher at Denbigh High School, spoke to the rally crowd in the aftermath of a teacher being shot and seriously wounded by a student at Richneck Elementary School in his city in January. Some excerpts from his remarks:
It’s been a long week. I have to say it’s been very hard for us, and not only for me, but for our executive board and our entire community. Please continue to pray for us, that things will change in Newport News and across the state of Virginia.
Gun violence and school safety are complex and intertwined problems, and I won’t stand here and act like I have all the answers. I cannot do that. It’s going to take all of us—legislators, parents, students, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers. All of us have to come together to get a solution to these issues. I want you all to continue to strive and continue to fight—and to continue to pray for Newport News Public Schools. Make sure that your voices are heard in your school board meetings.
Miss Abby [Abigail “Abby” Zwerner, the teacher involved], we love you.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers in Virginia earn 32.7% less in weekly wages than other (non-teacher) college-educated workers. Virginia’s teacher wage penalty is the worst in the nation.Take Action Now