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Virginia teachers plan to leave their classrooms for a day and march

Tens of thousands of Los Angeles teachers went on strike earlier this month.
Tens of thousands of Los Angeles teachers went on strike earlier this month. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)
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Sarah Pedersen and her husband imagined teaching careers would provide stability for the large family they wanted.

Over time, another reality became clear. Pedersen and her husband, both educators in Richmond’s public schools who have taught for eight years, do not make enough to support a second child, she said.

“The large family we envisioned for ourselves is just not possible,” said Pedersen, who has a 1-year-old daughter. “We can’t afford any more kids.”

Higher wages are among the issues Pedersen and other educators from throughout Virginia plan to trumpet when they converge Monday in Richmond for a march to the Capitol. The rally, organized by the grass-roots group Virginia Educators United, is expected to mark the latest example of educators taking to the streets to protest a lack of money for public schools.

The demands animating the Virginia march have been at the heart of teacher strikes and walkouts elsewhere, including Los Angeles, West Virginia, Oklahoma and North Carolina: boosting teacher pay, recruiting and retaining teachers, providing money for building needs and bolstering school support staff.

Unlike in other states, the Virginia march is not expected to extend into a days-long walkout or strike.

Pedersen, a middle school social studies teacher and march organizer, said her students shiver in their seats when boilers fail. WiFi and laptop access are unreliable. So are printers and copiers.

First, it was West Virginia. Then, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Now, Arizona and Colorado teachers prepare to walk out.

“We’re struggling to give them the minimum, and that’s tied to the fact that we starve our schools,” Pedersen said.

Organizers have encouraged educators to take a personal day to participate in the march, expected to start at 11:30 a.m. at Monroe Park. They are set to make their way to the steps of the Capitol at noon, where educators are scheduled to rally.

Several school systems in Northern Virginia and in the Richmond region have previously scheduled professional development or workdays for teachers on Monday. Students were given the day off in those districts, which include Arlington, Prince William and Henrico counties and the city of Richmond.

Officials in Henrico, a Richmond suburb where teachers have a “clerical day” Monday, expressed support for employees who plan to participate.

Henrico educators planning to march are arranging with principals and supervisors to complete their work at another time, said spokesman Andy Jenks. A foundation that provides money to the school system has commissioned buses that can carry up to 200 people to the rally, he added.

“We are making it clear that it’s okay to participate,” Jenks said.

A Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman said the school system does not expect a large number of teacher absences Monday.

Gov. Northam proposes $269 million in new funding for Virginia schools

Kevin Hickerson, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said more than 50 of the union’s members plan to march. They were compelled to participate knowing that some teachers and support staff, including bus drivers and custodians, cannot afford to live in Fairfax and so travel from as far as Spotsylvania County and even West Virginia for work.

Hickerson said he hopes Fairfax educators will draw attention to dire conditions in less fortunate parts of the state.

“If you take Northern Virginia out of the equation, we rank in the bottom five of teacher salaries in the country,” he said. “To Fairfax, it’s a solidarity movement with the rest of the state to say, ‘We hear you. We see your pain.’ ”

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, another teachers union, expects that about three dozen members will march, according to its president, Tina Williams.

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Michelle Klewer, a middle school special education teacher in Virginia Beach, said larger class sizes and fewer teaching assistants have kept her from spending time with individual students.

A dearth of psychologists and school social workers, she said, means there is not enough support for students facing mental-health struggles.

“I want to do the best I can. I want these kids to walk away having learned something,” she said. “I don’t want to let them down.”

State funding for schools has not returned to levels from before the Great Recession, forcing school systems to disproportionately rely on local dollars, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond think tank.

That has exacerbated inequities — affluent communities are able to infuse more cash into their schools than their less wealthy counterparts.

Virginia ranks 34th nationally in average teacher pay and is in the middle of the pack when it comes to spending per student, according to data from the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.

In December, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) proposed a $269 million boost to school funding that would increase teacher pay by 5 percent and provide money for school construction.

The Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teacher alliance, plans to lobby lawmakers Monday morning before the rally. The union’s agenda includes supporting the teacher raises Northam has proposed and reducing student-to-counselor ratios, said association spokesman John O’Neil.

Pedersen, the Richmond teacher, described Northam’s budget proposals as a “good start” but said “it would be disingenuous to say that fixes the problem.”