Virginia Democrats making major push on education priorities in new General Assembly

(AP photo/Bryan Woolston)

By Carolyn Fiddler

January 19, 2024

 Democrats made it clear in the 2023 elections that public education would be a huge policy priority in the 2024 General Assembly. Barely more than a week into this year’s session, the Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate are making big moves.

This week, the House Education Committee approved several Democratic proposals designed to address the myriad issues facing educators and students in the commonwealth – most with bipartisan support.

One broadly popular measure is Democratic Del. Nadarius Clark’s bill to not only give Virginia teachers raises over the next two years, but to also guarantee that the state’s educators and support staff are paid at a rate that either meets or exceeds the national average teacher salary.

According to current state law, “it is a goal of the commonwealth” to keep Virginia teacher pay above the national average, but it’s not mandated.

“Here in Virginia, we expect our teachers to be counselors, parents, nurses, security and many more things and we do not compensate them fairly to do so,” said Clark. “So we cannot expect our teachers to perform at the highest level if they’re worried about feeding their family and keeping the lights on.”

Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas sponsored the companion Senate bill.

“We have a shortage of employees and the reason why is because they don’t have enough money,” said Lucas.

These bills call for a 3% increase in teacher salaries for the 2025-2026 school year and an additional 7% increase in 2026-2027.

Both bills won support from several Republican lawmakers as they cleared their first committee hurdles; now they will be heard in their respective chambers’ money committees to ensure the measures will be funded.

Virginia continues to suffer from a dire teacher shortage. According to Virginia Department of Education data, the state had over 3,600 unfilled teaching positions in the 2023-24 school year.

In his proposed two-year state budget, Gov. Glenn Youngkin offered teachers much more modest raises: a 1% increase in 2024 and a 2% increase in 2025.

Freshman Democratic Del. Michael Feggans also saw one of his proposed education measures clear its first legislative hurdles this week.

House Bill 181 improves the student-to-counselor ratio in Virginia’s public school districts. The current ratio of 325 students per full-time school counselor would be reduced to 250 per counselor.

“House bill 181 is our signal to students, parents and education professionals across the commonwealth that we are ensuring our students get the best emotional support that they desperately need,” Feggans told the K-12 Education Subcommittee.

Like Clark’s and Lucas’ measures, it has so far enjoyed bipartisan support on its way to the House funding committee.

Democratic Del. Phil Hernandez moved two measures aimed at increasing access to affordable early childhood education forward this week.

House Bill 407 would make any family receiving public assistance through Medicaid or SNAP eligible to receive assistance through the Child Care Subsidy Program. House Bill 408 would require the Virginia Department of Education to periodically reimburse qualifying childcare providers on the basis of authorized child enrollment. Both received bipartisan committee approval.

“I think a lot about the stories that I’ve heard from constituents that I represent,” Hernandez said. “One woman I heard from is a nurse who had her first child last year. She’s a single mom, and she needed to go back to work because her maternity leave was ending, but could not find childcare that cost less than her rent.”

“Democrats have a vision for making Virginia the best place to be an educator,” said Del. Shelly Simonds, who chairs the K-12 Education Subcommittee and is a former teacher and school board member. “We know that our teachers are underpaid and overworked and our Commonwealth has been systematically taking advantage of their goodwill for far too long. Our task is urgent and these pieces of legislation are taking the first crucial step to addressing the problem.”

  • Carolyn Fiddler

    Carolyn Fiddler is Dogwood's chief political correspondent. She is also the nation’s foremost expert in state politics with almost two decades of experience in statehouse machinations, and her comic book collection is probably bigger than yours.

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