RICHMOND — Hundreds of Virginia teachers descended on the state Capitol on Monday, following in the footsteps of educators nationwide who have launched a wave of activism highlighting the plight of public education.
They protested low wages that force educators into second jobs, decrepit school buildings that sometimes leave students shivering and a dearth of school support staff — issues that have animated protests in Los Angeles, West Virginia, Oklahoma and elsewhere.
“We’ve got kids in crumbling school buildings. We’ve got students with textbooks 15 years old. We’ve got teachers and support staff paid far below the national average. We’ve got technology that either doesn’t work or doesn’t exist,” said Jim Livingston, president of the Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It’s time to fund our future.”
They were clad in red, the color worn in teacher protests that began last year in Republican-led states, as they marched through downtown streets flanked by police. They spanned several city blocks, halting traffic as people watched and captured video from balconies and stoops, the public library and a YMCA.
They carried signs that declared “Education is a right” and chanted “Fund our schools!”
They marched until they crowded the steps of the Capitol, where speakers including Virginia Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson waited.
Unlike the demonstrations in other states, the Virginia march wasn’t expected to evolve into a days-long walkout or strike. Sarah Pedersen, a march organizer, described the march as a first step to put the General Assembly “on notice.”
Public school enrollment has grown 5 percent in the past decade, while the amount of money the state spends on each student has fallen, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond think tank. That has forced school systems to disproportionately rely on local dollars. And that has exacerbated inequities: Wealthier communities are able to put money into the schools that their less fortunate counterparts can’t match.
Virginia ranks 34th nationally in teacher salaries with educators earning $51,049 on average, according to the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. That’s about $8,600 below the national average.
Lorena Cavan, an elementary school teacher in suburban Richmond, said she makes just $15,000 more than an entry-level teacher despite having a master’s degree and 29 years of experience in the classroom.
“We need funding to recruit good teachers and keep good teachers because they’re not going to come into the profession with our salary,” said Cavan, who tutors to supplement her income.
Her friend Carolyn Harlow said she has taught for 21 years and still makes less than $50,000 a year in Chesterfield County Public Schools.
“It’s just a matter of showing us respect,” said Harlow, who carried a sign that asked, “What’s your child’s future worth to you?”
Several school systems in Northern Virginia and Richmond had teacher work or professional development days scheduled for Monday, including Arlington, Prince William and Henrico counties and Richmond. Students were given the day off in those districts.
Organizers encouraged educators to take a personal day to participate in the march, which coincided with the day that the Virginia Education Association devoted to lobbying lawmakers.
Association members spent the morning pushing lawmakers to support $269 million in expanded school funding proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D). That money would be used to boost teacher pay 5 percent, refurbish schools and increase spending on students.
As the teachers rallied, business continued in the General Assembly. Del. Steve Landes (R-Augusta) said on the House of Delegates floor that a proposed House budget will include the 5 percent raise for teachers.
Tracie Lane, a librarian at Cardinal Ridge Elementary School in Loudoun County, said she travels an hour to work each day from her home in Warren County because she can’t afford to live where she works.
Lane, a single mother, said she drives for ride-hailing company Lyft up to 15 hours a week to make ends meet. Over the weekend, she purchased books from a thrift store for her school library.
“I’m hoping I get reimbursed, but I don’t know,” she said, laughing. “It was such a good deal.”
Budget constraints, teachers say, deeply affect students’ classroom experiences.
Bloated class sizes have kept Andrew Garcia, a special-education teacher at Fairfax County’s Chantilly High, from giving students the help they need, he said.
“In special education, where every child needs a lot of attention . . . it’s harder to reach each kid,” said Garcia, who came by bus without about three dozen Fairfax educators. “It definitely affects their performance.”
In Norfolk, preschool teacher Toni Johnson said teachers need access to faster computers, copiers and printers.
Alex Roadley said more money is needed in her Henrico elementary school to help cover students’ basic needs, including snacks and warm clothing.
“It’s not just teacher salaries,” she said. “If my students are not fed in the morning, I notice a huge difference in their ability to learn and their ability to stay awake and their ability to have a successful day in class.”
At Huguenot High School in Richmond, there aren’t enough psychologists to help students navigate the trauma of family members lost to violence, lack of health care and segregated housing, said Lara Coggin, who runs a college-and-career center at the school.
“Our schools lack the basic essential resources to function in a humane and educational manner,” Coggin said.
Presidents of the country’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, marched with the Virginia educators.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, National Education Association president, told the crowd of educators assembled at Monroe Park that they were “fighting for the schools that Virginia students deserve.”
“What I see out here makes me cry with pride,” she said. “It’s not one school district. It’s not one state. It’s every educator standing up.”