RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A raise for teachers is on the table in the Virginia General Assembly, but some lawmakers want to require schools to reopen first.
The House and Senate introduced their spending plans earlier this week. Each chamber is expected to vote on their respective proposals on Friday, which will be followed by extensive negotiations between the bodies. After that, Gov. Ralph Northam will have an opportunity to weigh in.
The chambers are taking different approaches but both go further than the 2 percent minimum raise for teachers Northam endorsed in his State of the Commonwealth address last month.
The boost follows months of financial uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted state lawmakers to reverse course on big investments in public education.
As it stands, the House would provide a 5 percent raise on July 1. The Senate is still taking a more conservative approach, proposing a 3 percent increase on Aug. 1, as long as there’s enough revenue to support it by the end of the fiscal year.
A bipartisan proposal in the Senate’s plan would also require school districts to begin offering in-person learning by July 1 to be eligible for state education funding, according to Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford). He said some students would be able to continue virtual learning if they want to.
“I’m not sure why we would be funding schools if children aren’t getting educated,” Stafford said. “It’s really a crisis and it’s incredibly frustrating to me that the teacher’s unions are the ones blocking school reopening.”
Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) also supports the budget amendment. He said it sends a clear message that in-person learning is the expectation for next school year. Petersen said school districts in compliance will have the option at the local level to withhold raises from individual teachers who refuse to return to the classroom.
“I don’t disagree with that. In fact, I think it’s probably fundamental at this point. You have to have employees at work in order to pay them,” Petersen said. “We had schools shutdown for almost a year, it’s enough. The kids have to go back.”
It’s not clear if the requirement will make the final budget plan.
In an interview on Thursday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Del. Luke Torian (D-Prince William) didn’t take a firm stance on the idea.
“You just have to weigh the risks. I’m not saying I’m opposed but I’m open to the discussion,” Torian said.
The push from the Senate comes as Gov. Northam calls on school districts to open their doors even sooner. At a press conference last week, he urged localities to begin offering in-person learning options by March 15.
Gloucester Education Association President Brian Teucke has been teaching in-person in some capacity since the end of October. Still, he’s frustrated by the push from state leaders.
“I think it’s hypocritical but it’s also dangerous. I mean the governor said he didn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all return,” Teucke said. “To hold this like ransom money, I just don’t think it’s fair and it’s not going to help students.”
Chesterfield Education Association President Sonia Smith, who got her first COVID-19 vaccine dose on Thursday, is also skeptical of tying long-awaited teacher raises to the push to re-open schools.
“Unfortunately, we still have educators who feel as though they need to choose between their lives and their livelihood,” Smith said.
“We have educators who are the bread-winner and are barely making it by. There are educators who can and do apply for food stamps. This is a conversation no one wants to have,” she continued.
Even the proposal for a 5 percent raise doesn’t put Virginia at the national average for teachers salaries, according to Smith. Meanwhile, schools statewide are struggling with a teacher shortage made worse by the pandemic.
Teucke said these raises are critical to recruit and retain teachers as the Commonwealth competes with higher-paying states.
The House Appropriations Committee failed to act on a bill that would’ve required public school teachers to be compensated at a rate at or above the national average, effectively killing the proposal for the session.
“It feels like a broken promise,” Teucke said.
Beginning July 1, 2022, the legislation would’ve locked in a 4.5 percent annual increase for teacher salaries through the 2026-2027 school year.
When asked why he didn’t give the bill a hearing, Torian said, “Trying to make such a commitment is risky because the economy–it fluctuates.”