Albemarle County teacher Cheryl Knight doesn’t enjoy being in a large crowd, but on Monday, she marched with thousands of others in Richmond to advocate for more state funding for public education.
Knight, president of the Albemarle County Education Association, said she wanted to make her voice heard. Teachers clad in red chanted “Virginia can do better” and “Fund our schools” as they walked to the steps of the Capitol Building.
“I haven’t been to anything quite like it before,” said Knight, a special-education teacher at Virginia L. Murray Elementary School. Monday’s rally was her first.
The Virginia Education Association, one of the rally’s organizers, estimated that 4,000 people attended. Virginia Educators United, a grassroots organization, initially spearheaded the march from Monroe Park.
Brian Teucke, with VEU, said earlier this month the event was an “opening salvo” as educators work to lay the groundwork for next year, when state lawmakers will adopt a two-year budget.
“A lot of teachers don’t know their rights,” he said. “We’re trying to change that. … We are in it for the long run.”
Monday’s demonstration continues a nationwide trend of teacher activism. Last year, teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina and Oklahoma protested a lack of state support for public education. Most recently, teachers in Los Angeles went on strike for six days as they sought lower class sizes and a pay increase.
VEA President Jim Livingston said earlier this month that a goal of the rally was to “call attention to the fact that we need to reinvest in our schools and our kids.”
State support for K-12 education has yet to return to pre-recession levels, when funding is adjusted for inflation, according to budget documents for Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools.
Additionally, Virginia’s average teacher salary lags behind the national average by about $9,000, according to a 2018 study from the National Education Association. The state average salary is about $51,000.
Gov. Ralph Northam proposed a 5-percent pay raise for teachers in December. During the rally, the House of the Delegates announced that its budget will include that pay raise, as well.
“Virginia has some of the finest teachers in the country, and that has led to Virginia students consistently outperforming nationwide peers on standardized tests, college admissions and graduate rates,” Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said in a statement. “To maintain that success, we must ensure our teachers are fairly compensated and know the hard work they do each and every day is greatly appreciated.”
Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools have built Northam’s proposed pay increase into their budgets.
Knight said she heard about the 5-percent pay raise at the end of the rally, “which is great.”
“It’s one of the things we’ve been trying to get funding for,” she said, adding that it’s a start.
In addition to rallying, she met with local lawmakers to discuss education issues.
“It felt like a very productive day,” she said.
Knight said the rally kicked off VEA’s Fund Our Future campaign, which aims to improve conditions for students and staff.
“It was wonderful,” she said of the rally. “People were really united. It was a powerful experience.”