Teachers Rally Against Education Bills

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There were plenty of signs on hand last Saturday.
There were plenty of signs on hand last Saturday.

by Valerie Garner

Richmond legislators are shortchanging public schools again this year according to a group of 150 teachers at a rally held Saturday at the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Roanoke. “If you’re for it – fund it,” they chanted. The VEA presented petitions to legislators on Monday.

Sonya Meekins, a Giles County Special Education teacher and Virginia Education Association board member railed on the politicians. “They spend no time in a classroom yet make decisions that negatively affect children’s education,” she said.

Leanne Worley from Franklin County said that Virginia’s public schools ranked fourth in the nation according to the Education Week Annual Quality Counts report. This, said Worley, was in spite of the obstacles and underfunding by the General Assembly.

Among the bills the VEA was opposing is HB576 that does away with continuing contracts and initiates yearly evaluations based partly on student progress. The group fears that when schools are forced to reduce teacher staff due to budget cuts seniority could be bypassed in lieu of subjective performance evaluations.

Republican Richard “Dickie” Bell of Staunton sponsored the bill. Bell, a former schoolteacher, claimed that teachers should function as businesses and become “results-oriented.” Worley called on teachers to “shout down” delegates like Dickie Bell to affirm that, “Teaching is a profession.”

Worley called the current budget proposal a “bait-and-switch” touted by the governor as increased funding for public schools. The actual result is a 4.7 percent reduction per pupil compared to 2007, said Worley. “It’s 2012 and costs are higher and we have more students.”

She praised the taxation and additional revenue for schools that will come from a sales tax on goods sold online by Amazon in Virginia – “but why stop there?” Many corporations are paying no tax at all she claimed. “It’s time to mobilize – it’s not too late,” she said.

Roanoke State Senator John Edwards told the teachers that, “these last couple of years we’ve had a legislature and a governor who’s the least supportive of public education of any governor in memory.”

Two bills SB498 and HB1130 are tinkering with teacher retirement. Teachers along with all state employees depend on the Virginia Retirement System. By Tuesday a House substitute for SB498 was rejected unanimously by the Senate. HB1130 was also rejected by the Senate Tuesday. They insisted on their substitute. It is now in conference and resolution is unclear.

The language of both is confusing but Sen. Edwards’ aide helped clear it up. SB498 creates a hybrid defined benefit plan with a defined contribution component (401K) that would become effective for new employees after January 1, 2014. It would have a four-percent contribution by the employee and a one-percent contribution by the employer. For current employees it is optional to switch.

Law enforcement and the Virginia State Police are not part of VRS. To say that it will save money for the Commonwealth and localities in the long run can be debated. A reduction in cost-of-living increases is also in these bills.

Senator John Edwards was one of four Senators to vote against the HB1130, the House version of the bill and HB498. The odds of a bill making it out of this session are slim.

Roanoke County elementary teacher and VEA District 4 Vice Chair Thomas Ryder said that the pension benefit changes were a promise broken. Ryder praised the Senate for rejecting the budgets.

The VEA says there is another slippery slope for public education. HB321 exempts 70 percent of a corporation’s charitable contribution it offers in the form of scholarships to low to moderate income children so they can attend private schools. The VEA calls these “scholarships” just another name for vouchers. The cap per year for an employer is $175,000 and for the state it is $25 million. The tax credits sunset in 2017.  “That’s not supporting public education,” said Sen. Edwards.

Any slippage to private schools from public schools reduces enrollment numbers and funding to the locality that still must maintain fixed costs. HB321 passed the Senate 20-20 with votes falling along party lines. Lt. Governor Bill Bolling cast the tie-breaking vote.

At one point Virginia was ranked 3rd in the nation in student/teacher ratio now we rank 41st Edwards said. Ryder bluntly called it “the trashing of our public school system.”

Virginia teachers are paid $7,000 less than the national average. “We’re in the bottom of the country,” said Sen. Edwards. In the past the Senate held the line on public education cuts. “We not only said ‘no’ but we said ‘hell no,’” said Sen. Edwards.

It is a wakeup call for education, said the teachers.