By Parker Barnes, Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — An education coalition and lawmakers on Friday hosted a press conference to highlight legislative priorities, including teacher compensation. Several bills to improve teacher pay are working through the General Assembly.
Nearly three-quarters of Virginians recently surveyed think improving K-12 education should be among the top priorities of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and legislators, according to the Wason Center’s State of the Commonwealth 2024.
The Virginia Public Education Coalition, comprising 12 state education associations, on Friday discussed legislative priorities including teacher pay, priority recommendations from a 2023 state commission report, mental health resources and modernization of infrastructure.
“We are systematically underfunding public education in Virginia,” said Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, and vice chair of the House Education Committee. “And it pains me because we are a wealthy state.”
Vacancy rates for teacher and staff roles in Virginia remain high this year, according to state education data. That is despite a 115% increase in the number of teachers with provisional licenses since 2012, based on data from a 2023 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study. A provisional license is a short-term, nonrenewable license for educators who have not completed a traditional higher education program.
Inflation effectively has kept teacher salaries lower than pre-pandemic pay, according to James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association.
“It’s no wonder Virginia is one of the few states to have seen teacher shortages get worse in the 2022-2023 school year and not better,” Fedderman said Friday.
The average teacher salary in Virginia was just over $61,000 last year, ranking at No. 22 nationally. The average weekly wage rate for Virginia teachers is the third least competitive rate in the country when compared to other similarly educated professions, according to an Economic Policy Institute report from last year.
“We understand that schools certainly need teachers, but we also view the shortage as very much a manufactured issue in the state of Virginia,” said Chad Stewart, VEA policy analyst. “We pay remarkably uncompetitive wages for teachers.”
Some of the proposed General Assembly measures to address vacancy rates by reducing standards for teacher licensure might be well-intentioned but fail to solve deeper issues, according to Stewart.
“We don’t think the answer right now is to water down our standards in order to just get warm bodies in the classroom,” Stewart said. “Every student deserves a high-quality instructor.”
“Just getting to average shouldn’t really be our end goal,” Stewart said.
The two bills reported from committees with strong support, and have been placed in money committees.
Those committees will be the big deciders on what actually gets funded, according to Laura Goren, director of research and education policy for The Commonwealth Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for racial and economic justice.
School funding decisions are often handled through the budget process, not by legislation alone, Goren said.
“I think it’s unlikely that a bill to invest in our students would pass both chambers, and be funded in the budget, and then get vetoed by the governor,” Goren said.
Lawmakers also want to increase support staff positions in schools, which were limited during the 2009 recession.
“The recent shortages in support staff, exacerbated by the pandemic, have negatively impacted our schools,” said Scott Brabrand, executive director for the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. “Lifting the support cap is not just a financial decision, it’s a commitment to providing our students with the resources necessary for a quality education.”
Proposals in the governor’s budget include reading specialists and flexible funding for student mental health services.
Students with disabilities and English language learners are the student groups most affected by underfunding, according to a JLARC report. The funding for all students is not much better, Goren said.
“We need to help the student groups that are receiving the least support and then we need to also increase the adequacy overall,” Goren said.
Lower professional pay affects teacher morale, according to Cara Alexander, the Powhatan Elementary School math coach.
“Teachers I think naturally want to work hard for their students and give the best that they can to help the students achieve and learn as much as possible,” Alexander said. “In order to do that, it takes a lot of time.”
But not all allocated funds set students up to win because of restrictions on how the funds can be spent, Alexander said.
The $418 million ALL In VA program to help with learning gaps from the pandemic is an example of state funds with spending stipulations. The program requires districts to purchase certain materials to aid student learning.
“Personally and professionally I feel like there’s nothing that is going to replace the teaching that a teacher provides a student,” Alexander said. “You can’t replace that with a computer program.”