Low pay, crumbling schools—here’s how Virginians are helping their school systems

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

By Amie Knowles

October 31, 2023

Have you ever heard a teacher talk about being underpaid? It’s an ongoing conversation in Virginia, and for good reason. 

Virginia teachers consistently make less on average than the median salary for educators nationwide. In fact, Virginia teacher pay hasn’t topped the national average in over 50 years

The Virginia Education Association (VEA) regularly tracks teacher pay. In April, the VEA reported that the estimated average teacher pay in Virginia this year is just over $62,100 per year—that’s more than $6,300 below the estimated national average for the job. 

“In addition, analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows Virginia has the third least competitive teacher pay in the country when compared to other fields that require a similar level of education,” the VEA report read, in part.

Underfunding of public education can present differently in various school divisions, as well as for each individual. LaKeisha Williams, a Richmond Public Schools (RPS) teacher and parent, recently went to the Virginia Board of Education with health concerns about her local school buildings. Following routine procedure, the board listens to but does not immediately address concerns raised during the public comment period of the meeting. However, it’s possible that the board could address the issue at a future meeting. 

At the Oct. 19 business meeting, Williams noted that she’d been sick for several weeks, with the illness coming and going. She expressed concern about alleged mold and moisture in the schools, and made reports of malfunctioning heating and air systems. Williams also spoke about her family’s health, noting that she has two children who have chronic bronchiolitis, a lung infection. Her children’s condition required hospitalization in the past, and caused them to miss school.

“I’m also concerned, as a teacher, that if I keep taking [time] off of work, I keep being sick, keep having to pay co-pays, I’m going to put my family at risk,” Williams said. 

Williams asked that the board seek, find, and provide her local school division with support and guidance about the concerns that she raised. 

“I feel like they’ve done all they can to support me with what they have,” Williams said. 

A Broader Issue

The concerns Williams raised are often echoed across Virginia. It only takes a quick Google search to find a multitude of stories about low wages and teacher shortages in the commonwealth.

Just above the Virginia state line in Washington County, Maryland, a billboard appeared this spring. The Northern Virginia Daily, a local newspaper, covered the story, noting that the large sign displayed the salary range for teachers in the nearby Maryland school division. The lowest pay on the advertisement was still several thousand dollars more than the lowest pay in both Winchester Public Schools and Clarke County Public Schools. 

In January 2024, educators in many Virginia school divisions will receive a 2% raise, thanks to the recently passed 2023 amendments—that’s on top of the already-approved 5% raise in the two-year budget from 2022. However, these pay increases won’t come close to bringing commonwealth teacher salaries into a competitive range. 

As far as infrastructure needs go, those are oftentimes left up to local budget allocations. In the Code of Virginia, Sec. 22.1-79 reads in part that local school boards have the responsibility “for erecting, furnishing, equipping, and non-instructional operating of necessary school buildings.” 

So just how dire is the infrastructure situation in the commonwealth’s schools? Well, the Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) 2021 School Building Inventory noted that more than 50% of Virginia’s schools—1,040 out of 2,005 that districts reported—were at least 50 years old. If every school older than 50 on the list required a replacement, the estimate would exceed $24 billion. 

Ways to Support

We checked the Richmond Public Schools website to see if we could find ways to financially help support teachers like Williams—and eureka, multiple opportunities exist!

One popular option is through crowdfunding sources like DonorsChoose. The site allows individuals to pick and choose projects to help fund, with goals set by educators in those classrooms. 

So far, the site has helped raise more than $3.3 million worth of requests for RPS, with more than 6,500 projects being fully funded. As of Oct. 26 at 10 a.m., there were 166 open requests.

The dozens of requests range from necessary classroom supplies to wishlist items. Ms. Harris at Lucille Murray Brown Middle School asks for funds to help “maintain a clean and healthy classroom environment,” while Mrs. Muzik at Frances W. McClenney Elementary School asks for support to purchase “stickers, fun pens and pencils, bubbles, and keychains to reward exemplary behavior.” Snack funding is also a popular ask.

There are other requests with more specific needs, including Ms. Peacock’s desire to create a healing space for her students at Westover Hills Elementary School. In her DonorsChoose project, she asked for assistance to giver her students a “calming, peaceful space to deescalate, and the therapeutic tools to recover from the trauma they have experienced in their lives.” 

In addition to crowdfunding campaigns, the school division’s website also links to the RPS Education Foundation. The funds given to that source help cover student needs that remain unmet by existing public funding. Financial gifts can go toward music and arts, college readiness and scholarships, teacher training, after-school programming, and more, according to the foundation’s website. 

For those with specific health concerns, another way to get involved is by attending the RPS School Health Advisory Board meetings. Open to the public, the monthly meetings alternate between being in-person and virtual. Please check the school division’s website for updates and whereabouts of the assemblies. The next meeting will be a virtual gathering on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at 5:30 p.m.

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.


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