Saturday, April 20, 2024

Legislation to Bring Virginia Teacher Pay to National Average gets Bipartisan Support

Teachers rallying in Richmond in March 2019 for more education funding, especially for teacher salaries. (Mechelle Hankerson/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Legislation to raise pay for teachers and non-instructional support positions to the national average or higher in order to reduce educator salary gaps has gotten bipartisan support from Virginia lawmakers.

“This is something that we campaigned on,” said Del. Nadarius Clark, D-Suffolk, at a press conference Wednesday. “This is something that we heard our constituents all across Virginia say that they want.”

The commonwealth continues to face a significant teacher shortage in public schools, driven by multiple factors including dissatisfaction with wages, the pandemic and political battles over education. Data previously offered by the Virginia Department of Education from school divisions, which report their unfilled positions annually on Oct. 1, show Virginia’s teacher vacancies more than doubled from 1,063 in 2019 to 3,649 in 2023. Special education commonly has the highest vacancy rate.

House Education Committee Chair Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said he has a very “open and transparent relationship” with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, which he said is eager to talk about investments in public education.

“This is a priority of both the House and Senate leadership, and we are interested in having this conversation as quickly as possible, not only amongst the chambers, but with the administration too, to get us on onto that path,” he said.

Christian Martinez, a spokesman for the governor’s office, noted the governor has signed budgets offering teachers a 12% pay increase during his tenure.

“Teacher pay remains a key priority and the Secretary of Education and the Virginia Department of Education are working on innovative solutions for teacher recruitment and retention and expect to provide recommendations to the governor and General Assembly this fall,” Martinez said. “The governor will review any legislation that comes to his desk that provides our teachers the pay and resources they deserve to provide a quality education to our students.”

Proposals

The legislation, which is being carried by Clark as House Bill 187 and by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, as Senate Bill 104, would require the state to compensate public school teachers and non-instructional support staff at a rate that is at or above the national average.

Current state law says that “it is a goal of the commonwealth” to compensate teachers at or above the national rate but does not mandate it.

“We have a shortage of employees and the reason why is because they don’t have enough money,” said Lucas, who also chairs the powerful Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.

Rasoul said Wednesday that Virginia generally pays teachers an annual salary of between $62,000 and $63,000.

The two bills require the state to increase salaries by 3% for the 2025-26 school year and by an additional 7% in 2026-27.

Lucas told the Mercury on Wednesday more financial details and penalties for schools not providing the raises will be addressed soon.

“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,” Clark said. “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.”

Bipartisan support

The proposals have gotten significant bipartisan support in both the House and Senate education committees.

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, said on Jan. 11 she “welcomed the bill,” telling other lawmakers that some teachers who live in her district have to work on the weekends selling donuts and staffing car dealerships to supplement their income.

While supporting the legislation, Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, said as the bill moves forward, policymakers will have to consider how the legislation could impact localities, which will have to fund the raises along with the state.

Republicans too have backed the idea. Every GOP member of the Senate Education and Health Committee voted in favor of the proposal, as did four GOP members of the House Education Committee on a 16-5 vote.

Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, a powerful Republican who does not sit on the House Education Committee, said raising teacher salaries could help address teacher shortages in rural areas.

“Some of our school divisions are struggling [in] filling those spots and meeting those needs, and a lot of folks are just not teaching right now,” he said. “I think it would be a good way to make sure that we recruit the brightest and best to come back to rural Virginia. We’re losing a lot of kids from rural Virginia, or are leaving and not coming back, and this might be a good way to do that.”

Defining the national average

Some Republicans, however, have worried about how the legislation would work in practice.

Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, a former educator, said he likes the concept of the bill but is concerned it does not define what the national average is. He said he’s seen multiple figures ranging from $57,000 to $68,000.

“We don’t know how much that’s going to cost because there’s no standard for what we’re going to use as our national average,” he said.

Dels. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, and Kilgore agreed with Cherry’s concerns.

Coyner, a former school board member in Chesterfield County, said she hopes redesigning the Standards of Quality formula, which is used to calculate how much the state must contribute to public school systems, will also help in addressing teacher pay.

“I’ve always been a supporter of getting our teacher salaries to be better than the national average,” Coyner said. “I think that’s how we retain and we attract the best teachers to Virginia, because people have options of where they want to work across the country.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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