How much do we value Educators?

by Steve Johnson

I know all of you are having an absolute fit every morning when you wake up, scroll over your phone or turn on the news to the Trump Outrage of the Day/Hour/Moment. It’s so easy to get worked up about it, to yell, scream and fire off an angry email or phone call to a congressman or a senator. 

Which you should continue to do. That’s all well and good. But remember, the 2020 election is still more than a year away. We have some work to do in the meantime — namely, elect our great candidates to the General Assembly so they can tip the delicate scale in the state Senate and House of Delegates in our favor. 

If you need some motivation to do something positive instead of a rant about something negative, I have two words for you: teacher salaries. In the Northam administration, we are seeing some of the best gains in teacher salaries since the 1980s. Those of you with long memories will recall that Chuck Robb campaigned way back in 1981 on raising teacher salaries in Virginia to the national median, and beyond. It was a winning formula then, but as Republicans took control of the House of Delegates and the Senate (save five years) in this millennium, Virginia has been losing ground in the ability to compensate the people we entrust with our children’s learning.

Take a look at the numbers that the Virginia Department of Education puts out. Since 2006, Virginia has topped the national median only once, and it’s generally been in 30th place nationally in compensating teachers. That’s North Dakota, Maine, and Montana territory, not to cast aspersions on those fine states. In 2017-18, Virginia was 34th nationally in average teacher salaries, about $650 more than (gasp!) Alabama. From 2009 to 2016, the average teacher salary in Virginia increased by 0.61 percent a year, hardly enough to keep up with just about anything.

To be sure, economic conditions, tight state and local budgets, and the difference between suburban and rural parts of the state all come into play. But there’s no mistaking the trendline. That’s why Gov. Northam pitched an additional $88 million to bump teacher salaries up by 5 percent. “Raising teacher pay is one step to securing the quality of our K-12 education system for years to come,” he said. Thank you, governor.

How about our own Hanover? Many factors are at play, but the fact is the average Hanover teacher salary was $47,479 in 2009; five years later it had gained only about $800. But for 2019, the average budgeted salary in Hanover exceeded the state budgeted average for the first time in recorded history ($59,051 versus $58,7149, according to state data). That’s a trendline to be proud of. But even then, it’s tempered by the realization that salaries stagnate after several years of service — longevity doesn’t seem to be as high on the list as it should be — so we lose experienced educators to other jurisdictions. 

You can do a lot of things with statistics, but the teacher salary numbers are pretty clear. Guns and health care are likely to dominate this fall’s debate for the General Assembly, and well they should. But teachers have a day-to-day effect on every single child they encounter and to shortchange them is to shortchange our kids. It’s another reason to ignore the national-level blather for a spell and work on the task at hand — giving Gov. Northam more support and more tools to raise educational attainment in Virginia.