Op-Ed: How Virginia Can Better Support Public Schools and Educators

AP Photo/David Goldman, File

By Mary Vause

March 22, 2024

The solution to improving our public schools is to listen more and give more decision-making power to those of us in the trenches. 

Too often, teachers and school workers aren’t given a seat at the table to help make decisions in a school district. This is very unfortunate because staff and teachers frequently have first-hand experience with problems in schools and good ideas for how to solve them. Teacher and staff working conditions are student learning conditions, so educators and school staff are advocating not only for themselves, but also for the students in their districts.

Collective bargaining rights, or contract negotiations, would be a good start in giving school employees a seat at the table to address challenges in schools. 

As the AFL-CIO notes, “Collective bargaining is the process in which working people, through their unions, negotiate contracts with their employers to determine their terms of employment, including pay, benefits, hours, leave, job health and safety policies, ways to balance work and family, and more. Collective bargaining is a way to solve workplace problems.” 

Across the country, about three-fourths of private-sector employees and about two-thirds of public sector employees have the right to negotiate for stronger contracts, also known as collective bargaining. (https://aflcio.org/what-unions-do/empower-workers/collective-bargaining?fbclid=IwAR3dYD5w5Lr-KxD5f3hGX8RLL7A2ALW4eMuhLpLCpuixkQyDs_d1G1ra_DQ#:~:text=Indeed%2C%20through%20collective%20bargaining%2C%20working,the%20right%20to%20collective%20bargaining

School districts where unions have the power to negotiate for stronger contracts have achieved things like smaller class sizes, more planning time, increased health and safety measures, reducing unnecessary testing, and adequate classroom technology written into their contracts – all measures that benefit students as well. (https://www.veanea.org/o2b/

Sadly, public sector collective bargaining was illegal in Virginia for decades. Virginia was one of only a handful of states across the country to deny this basic labor right to public sector workers such as teachers and school staff, firefighters, police officers, and other city employees. 

A 2020 Virginia law finally permits collective bargaining rights for public employees in Virginia, but only if the local governing body (school board for school workers and city council or board of supervisors for city or county employees) votes in favor of a resolution in favor of contract negotiations 

(https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title40.1/chapter4/section40.1-57.2/). The law is far from ideal because it requires school employees to get permission from their district’s school board in order to be permitted to collectively bargain. This makes it extremely difficult to achieve contract negotiations in conservative parts of the state, where expanding labor rights would be a tough sell for elected officials. 

A better law would automatically allow collective bargaining rights for all public employees, not just those who can convince their bosses on their school board. (https://virginiamercury.com/2022/07/28/where-can-public-sector-employees-collectively-bargain-in-virginia/)

To better support our public schools, please encourage your state elected officials to support stronger collective bargaining legislation for public sector workers. And if you are a Virginia school employee, please join your local educators union and help them advocate for collective bargaining rights – for the benefit of students, teachers, and staff.

  • Mary Vause

    Mary Vause is a Virginia public school teacher, parent, and graduate. She is a proud union member who is working to help achieve collective bargaining rights/ contract negotiations in her school district.



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