Virginia's schools have reached their breaking point. Our General Assembly has long abandoned its constitutional duty to fund them, and we educators refuse to stand aside any longer. We urge all Virginians to march with us on Richmond's Capitol Square on Jan. 28 to demand that our legislators stop ignoring an education system in crisis.
For years, teachers have done more with less. It's a long-running joke that teachers are the only professionals who steal office supplies from home to bring to work. And because our support professionals are increasingly overburdened and understaffed, teachers end up serving not only as teachers, but as untrained social workers and counselors, too. We're pushed to the brink as we're asked, over and over, why our kids — kids who don't have the support and resources that they need — aren't passing a battery of high-stakes standardized tests of questionable educational value.
Over my five years as a teacher, I've seen many colleagues come and go, either transferring out of my school or leaving teaching entirely. During lunch, I often hear my co workers wonder aloud whether they've got another year in them, or if this is their last.
So it's no surprise to me that after five years in the profession, 40 percent of Virginia's teachers do not return to the classroom. Some Virginia school divisions experience upwards of 20 percent teacher turnover every single year. Last year, Virginia's schools opened their doors with nearly 1,000 teaching positions unfilled. In my own school, we still have two unfilled teaching positions. It's December. Why are my students still stuck taking algebra from a revolving door of people not certified to teach that subject? Don't they deserve better?
Our teachers deserve better, too. Virginia teachers who leave cite several factors, such as lack of autonomy and administrative support. Additionally, their class sizes may be larger than before: While Virginia's student enrollment has risen by more than 50,000 students over the past 10 years, staffing has declined by more than 1,200. When educators finally make the decision to exit the profession, many leave behind school buildings that are dilapidated, overcrowded or underresourced.
For those teachers who stay, their paychecks don't buy as much as they used to. Fifteen years ago, adjusted for inflation, the average Virginia teacher made 10 percent more than today. To make matters worse, most teachers have expensive graduate degrees to pay off. I started my teaching career with $60,000 in student debt and I've met many teachers who owe even more than that. These factors, exacerbated by rising health-care costs, mean that many teachers cannot afford to purchase homes or raise families in the communities they serve.
Though Virginia's constitution states that our General Assembly "shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained," it's apparent that legislators have shirked their responsibility. Sure, in 2009 we experienced the worst recession since the Great Depression, and state revenues fell. But it's the end of 2018. We have a budget surplus, and there is no longer an excuse for our lawmakers' continuously rejecting recommendations from the Virginia Board of Education, deliberately underfunding our schools.
There has been a 9 percent decline in direct aid from the state over the past 10 years, and while localities have tried to pick up the slack, it's clear there's simply too much. The average school division does not merely meet Virginia's local funding requirements, but outspends them by a whopping 109 percent. If localities are spending double what the state requires and yet we continue to have students learning out of temporary-made-permanent trailers, teachers leaving in droves, counselors with unmanageable caseloads, and school buildings falling apart, perhaps you'll forgive me if I think the General Assembly's definition of "high quality" is an absolutely embarrassing dereliction of constitutional duty.
Our General Assembly members must pull their heads out of the sand. In 2017, the General Assembly unanimously resolved that Virginia's teachers should be paid at or above the national average — a $9,000 increase from where they are now. Perhaps that is a good place to start. They should follow with investments in capital improvements, salary increases for education support professionals, supports for at-risk students and better professional training.
We will be marching on the Capitol on Jan. 28. Will you?
Cody Sigmon is an eighth-grade English teacher in Chesterfield County and vice president of the Chesterfield Education Association. He is a graduate of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
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