CHESTERFIELD, VA — At Falling Creek Middle School, students spend 15-minutes a day reading a book of their choice under a program called Sustained Silent Reading. In theory, it is “a great way to make sure [students] are making reading a part of their everyday routine,” 8th Grade English Teacher Emma Clark said in an interview. But with few books to choose from save the random, second-hand collection of “free stuff” on the classroom bookshelf, some students get stuck reading stories they can’t relate to while others get frustrated over words they can’t comprehend.
“What I would love to do for next year,” Clark said, “is go and find all the books that I loved as a kid and that I know other people loved at this age and create a library of really quality books that are at a variety of levels so that I can meet my kids where they’re at.” But on a meager Virginia teacher salary, she can neither afford to buy the books that are at the appropriate level of reading for her students nor the novels she knows they’ll love.
Virginia offers teachers some of the least competitive salaries in the country, about 31 percent less than earnings of comparable college-educated workers in the Commonwealth, according to a 2019 report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. That’s the third-worst “wage penalty” in the United States.
Like Clark, new teachers might enter the profession expecting a lifetime of modest income, but once they reach their mid-20s, and their friends are earning more, getting married, and pursuing their versions of the American dream, it’s tough to double-down on a financial strategy best suited for a young single person without kids.
Missy Cotter Smasal, a Democratic candidate for state Senate, said in an interview that she heard similar stories from other Virginia teachers along the campaign trail. Inadequate compensation for teachers is putting “people into a profession where they’re almost forced to have to be married,” or to have someone else with another income to “live a middle-class type life.”
Average salaries for all Virginia teachers are $8,483 less than the national average. The average starting salary for a Virginia teacher with a master’s degree is about $43,000.00 while their average starting debt is about $51,000.00.
In a 2018 report, The Education Law Center at Rutgers University ranked teacher wage competitiveness across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Here, too, Virginia was at the bottom of the list at number 49 of 51.
Though state lawmakers did boost teacher pay by about five percent this year, it may be too little, too late. According to the nonprofit research group Learning Policy Institute, the turnover rate for Virginia K-12 educators is higher than 44 states and the District of Columbia.
It’s not uncommon for young teachers to leave the field early once they “reach the age where it’s like, ‘look I want to buy a house, I want to start a family,” Clark said, and come to realize they can’t do those things on a teacher’s salary.
Nor will the raise likely to be enough to lure more teachers into the profession. The number of unfilled teaching positions in Virginia increased 40 percent from 2007 to 2017 and is a “crisis” specifically in high-poverty school divisions, according to a 2017 report from the Advisory Committee on Teacher Shortages.
Heidi Milgrim, a special education teacher from Montclair, told The Dogwood that over her two-plus decades as a Virginia public school educator she has watched many teachers leave their field for financial reasons, “which is unfortunate because they were great teachers.”
Clark, who’s been on the job for just three years, said she’s already feeling the pinch and is uncertain how long she can stay a teacher. “Teachers are constantly facing a choice over doing what’s best for their family or doing what’s best for their classroom,” she said, “… that is such a shitty position to put them in.”
The teacher-shortage makes it harder for schools to keep class sizes low and provide support staff like principals and guidance counselors. Since 2009, enrollment in Virginia schools has increased by 53,376 students, according to a 2017 report from the Virginia Department of Education. Teacher and staff positions, on the other hand, have declined by 1,242 over the same time period.
To address shortfalls and other lapses in education funding, in 2016 the Virginia Board of Education approved a litany of measures aimed at undoing the post-recession school budget cuts to ensure schools have adequate staffing and resources. The Republican-controlled House and Senate have not adopted a single one of their recommendations, according to The Commonwealth Policy Institute, a Virginia economic research group.
A little pay could go a long way. The Learning Policy Institute report found that 70 percent of former teachers nationwide said they’d return to their job if they got an increase in salary. But equally problematic, Clark said, is the underfunding of the schools themselves.
In Virginia, state funding for K-12 schools has lagged behind pre-recession levels for over a decade. Despite recent progress, state support will be down 9.1 percent per student for the 2018-2019 school year compared to 2008-2009, according to analysis by The Commonwealth Institute.
“It limits your dreams for the classroom,” Clark said. “You have to scale back your ambitions for your lesson plans. You have to scale back your creativity because there’s just like a financial limit to what you can do.”
“We are working with our schools at these recession-era levels,” and lawmakers are not “fulfilling their constitutional duty to fund education properly,” Cotter Smasal said.
Virginia Democrats say Republicans in the General Assembly are to blame for failing to restore education funding to prior levels. In a Facebook post last week, Del. Lee Carter (D-50) wrote, “Low teacher pay isn’t an accident or a consequence of factors beyond our control, it’s a deliberate policy choice that Republicans in the General Assembly have been making for years.”
Republicans have held majorities in the House since 2000. Democrats have not controlled the state Senate since 2014.
On Twitter, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-72), a public school teacher, said Democrats need to win control of the House to increase public education spending past pre-recession era levels.
Clark said that regardless of whose in control, “I don’t think they’re going to get serious unless there is a work stoppage.”
A teacher strike could be on its way. The Red for Ed campaign, the grassroots movement behind teacher strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky and North Carolina made its way to Virginia in 2018 via the formation of the nonprofit group, Virginia Educators United. The group says that lawmakers have failed to fully fund K-12 education and are demanding reforms including increased teacher pay, infrastructure improvements and other measures introduced in the 2016 Virginia Education Board report.
“I would hate to see the teachers have to go on strike,” Cotter Smasal said, “… but I would support them if they chose to because they deserve to be adequately paid.”
In January, hundreds of teachers cut school to march in Richmond as part of VEA’s first organized march in the Commonwealth. Unlike in other states, the protest was not designed to evolve into a days-long walkout. “Public sector employees in VA can’t strike, so participating in one can actually lead to teachers in VA potentially losing their jobs and their teaching licenses,” VEA Communications Director John O’Neil said in an email. “We had a huge turnout, but teachers took approved leave to attend.”
A work stoppage, however, is not entirely off the table, according to Clark. Though with little financial security and concerns over losing their jobs, teachers in the Commonwealth are hesitant about that approach. “It’s this spirit dance that we do where everybody wants to [strike]. We just have to convince enough people that everybody’s going to do it. So as long as you can do that, then everybody’s on board.”
Cotter Smasal said, “the best thing we can do is send representatives to Richmond who will value teachers and schools by actually funding them.”