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Northam vows to raise teacher pay 10 percent. Will it happen?

Va. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) speaks in Arlington in November. (Pete Kiehart/Bloomberg News)

A previous version of this story misstated the source of Gov. Ralph Northam's proposed $2.4 billion boost to education funding. It would come from general funds, not coronavirus relief funds.

In his final weeks as governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam (D) has proposed increasing teacher salaries by 10 percent over the next two years — but it is far from clear if the raise will come to pass.

Northam suggested the raise as part of his two-year budget — which, to become law, must surmount two possibly formidable hurdles. It must get through the Virginia General Assembly, including the Republican-controlled House. And it must get by Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who will take charge in January, gaining the power to modify Northam’s budget.

In an interview Thursday, Northam said he is confident his successor will follow through on the teacher raise, although he has not discussed the issue with Youngkin in their two “very productive” meetings so far. He noted that Youngkin promised on the campaign trail to bump teacher pay.

“This should really be a nonpartisan issue,” Northam said. “It’s about the future of our children: We want to make sure every child has equal opportunity for a world-class education.”

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Asked whether Youngkin would support a 10 percent teacher raise, spokesman Macaulay Porter sent a transcript of an interview the incoming governor gave to TV news outlet WLNI this week.

“Our Day One Game Plan ... absolutely includes increases in salaries for teachers and for law enforcement,” Youngkin told WLNI. “I deeply appreciate Governor Northam including it in his plans.”

Northam’s budget would add $2.4 billion in state funding for prekindergarten through 12th grade over the next two years — a figure that includes the 10 percent raise.

The average Virginia teacher salary clocks in at slightly less than $55,000 a year, according to the National Education Association, the country’s biggest teacher union — while the national average is about $65,000 a year.

In the fading days of the Northam administration, some teachers’ groups are hailing the proposal as a godsend.

“It basically means that educators will be compensated their worth,” said James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, which represents 40,000 school employees statewide. “It will allow them not to have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet.”

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, was less optimistic.

He said it seems likely teachers in Virginia will see some sort of significant pay increase in the next few years because the state’s budget is flush with record amounts of cash right now. He noted that Virginia has historically struggled to stay competitive when it comes to teacher salaries, making it difficult for districts to attract and retain quality teachers, especially in the expensive Northern Virginia suburbs.

But, Farnsworth added, Republicans are unlikely to support so large a teacher pay increase as 10 percent — which Northam probably knows, Farnsworth said. He theorized that political and image considerations may have factored into Northam’s proposal, coming as it does at a moment when Republicans are increasingly using divisive educational issues to motivate voters.

“I think it pivots the education conversation in a way that’s helpful to Democrats,” Farnsworth said of the teacher raise. “I think it sets the measure for what the Democrats would have done if they were in power — and it represents a challenge that the Republicans will be judged against.”

He added, “It’s at least possible that this is a Democratic strategy to make a new Republican governor who ran on education a little bit uncomfortable.”

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Northam framed the proposed raise as the culmination of his long-standing goal to bump Virginia teacher pay above the national average — which the 10 percent increase would do. His spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, pointed out that Northam raised teacher salaries by 10 percent over the last three years, “so this isn’t a sudden action on his part.” State law also requires the outgoing governor to present a spending plan for the incoming governor to consider and amend, in conjunction with state government.

Northam said in the interview that he has seen firsthand the effects of his state’s failure to keep pace with national teacher pay rates. He noted that he grew up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, adding that he knows some teachers will drive across state lines to work jobs in other places where pay is higher.

That has to stop, Northam said — and now is the perfect time.

“ ‘Why now’ is because our economy over the last four years has done extremely well,” he said. “We have a record surplus of $2.6 billion, it’s the highest Virginia has ever had.”

Youngkin will inherit a Virginia government stuffed with cash, but what he can do with it remains uncertain

The state’s coffers are brimming. In addition to the $2.6 billion this year, surpluses could amount to more than $3.5 billion above projections for each of the next two years, per state estimates.

State officials attribute the extra money to an unexpectedly swift recovery from the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Virginia residents, they say, are flocking to spend money in shops and on real estate as everything starts to reopen, generating added tax revenue. Wages are also up, which helps too. Democrats say strong leadership from the Northam administration fueled the boom.

Still, even if the state is well-positioned to bump teacher pay, it’s less clear whether localities can do so — a requirement of Northam’s proposal. If the General Assembly agrees to raise teacher salaries by about 5 percent for each of the next two years, under Northam’s budget, local districts would have to match the increase.

Fedderman said this potential snag — not Youngkin’s upcoming inheritance of the governorship — is his biggest worry.

“Whatever the local match is, that may not be able to happen, and that could put the overall raise in jeopardy,” he said.

Spokespeople for two of Virginia’s largest districts, Fairfax County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools, did not respond to requests for comment on Northam’s proposed raise.

Northam said he does not think county governments and school boards will struggle to match state boosts to teacher pay.

“The reason is, our economy has done well in almost all parts of Virginia,” he said. “The localities, cities, counties have received a lot of federal funding this past year, especially through the recent [American Rescue Plan Act] funding, so I think they’ll be able to do it.”

Virginia’s state and local governments received more than $26 billion in federal stimulus and coronavirus relief money — and officials can expect hundreds of millions more from the Biden administration’s infrastructure package.

Farnsworth, though, said many elected officials may feel cautious because they are “flying blind” on budgetary matters right now due to the ongoing pandemic, especially the rise of the delta and omicron coronavirus variants. He said state and local governments know that a sudden worsening of the pandemic could force them to divert resources in unplanned-for ways — to the health-care or business sectors, for example.

“We simply do not know what the status of covid is going to be two weeks from now,” he said. “Elected officials struggle to plan very far ahead.”

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents about 4,000 school employees in Virginia’s largest school district, said she is closely tracking the fate of Northam’s raise proposal.

She noted educators nationwide are beset by troubles right now, from the strenuous pandemic-era nature of teaching to fears of school shootings to culture wars that have spilled into education, costing some teachers their jobs. She said the future of teaching in her home state may hang on whether Northam’s promised raise materializes.

“We’re still working as educators to continue to attract new talent to the profession,” she said. “Everything we can do now to improve teacher salaries and respect for educators in the field encourages more students to go into teaching.”