Thousands of demonstrators rallied for better teacher pay and more public school funding Monday during a rally at the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Hundreds of teachers and public education advocates marched through Richmond on Monday to demand more money for teacher pay, school support staff and other educational needs.

Teachers from across the state told stories of not being able to afford supplies to make the signs they carried, limiting how often they buy their own children shoes to save money and how they’ve made do with fewer support staff in schools, administering medicines and mediating students’ conflicts. 

Capitol Police estimated the crowd was about 2,500 strong. Organizers said hundreds more were in attendance.

Virginia Educators United, a grassroots advocacy group formed by teachers, modeled the march through the city after the national Red4Ed movement, which has sparked strikes in other states that have shut down school systems. 

However, most of Virginia’s school districts stayed open on Monday or let students off for the day so teachers’ absences wouldn’t affect the classroom.

“Teachers are legitimately concerned,” said Cody Sigmon, an English teacher in Chesterfield County and one of the organizers of the march. “They don’t want their kids to show up to a school that’s unsafe. There’s all of that, and we don’t have the ability to strike.”

It’s difficult to organize without a union-like structure, he said. Something like the teacher strike in Los Angeles, which shut down the nation’s second-largest school system for days, is best organized through a union, Sigmon said.

“It can’t be just pockets of activism, it has to be all over the state, and that requires union membership,” Sigmon said.

Sarah Pederson, a middle school teacher from Richmond, said Monday’s rally may not have been a strike, but it was still powerful.

“We did have teachers walk out,” Pederson said. “They walked out of their classrooms and left them manned by substitutes. It’s not because they didn’t want to teach it’s because they want to continue to teach.”

Right now, it’s not legal for government employees like teachers to strike. If state employees do that, they could be fired and never rehired by the government.

Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, has sponsored a bill that would reverse that.

“Everywhere that people feel that our schools have been neglected, teachers are getting up, getting organized and walking out from the job and saying ‘We’re not going to allow this to continue happening, we are blowing the whistle and demanding that the state government pay attention,’” Carter said.

“And that’s a heroic act … and instead of thanking them, the Code of Virginia currently requires we fire them and deem them ineligible to work for any government in Virginia ever again and I think that’s unconscionable.”

State Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

 West Virginia teachers went on strike for nine days last year and landed a pay raise as well as a future commitment to deal with rising health care costs.

Strikes like those, as well as in places like Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina, prompted Carter to file his bill. At that time, he didn’t know Virginia teachers were mobilizing.

“Our budget that we put out every year is a statement of priorities and every year we say giving massive corporate subsidies is more important than making our schools more functional,” he said. “If teachers had the ability to come together and say that it’s unacceptable and withhold their labor even for a few days, we would see those priorities change overnight.”

Pederson said she considers the Virginia Education Association a union, though the organization calls itself a professional organization and doesn’t have the ability to do traditional union activities, like negotiating contracts for its members. Because Virginia is a so-called right-to-work state, teachers and other workers cannot be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment or be forced to pay dues.

Strengthening those organizations is one of the next steps of getting more money for education, Pederson said.

“We have to be able to show collective power, we have to be able to show that we are this frustrated and this angry,” she said. “Whether you’re grassroots or rank-and-file, you benefit from public schools and we collectively need to fight for them.”

Most school districts in Virginia have been supportive of teachers who wanted to come to Richmond for the march, Sigmon said.

Alleghany County closed school and told parents that Virginia teacher salaries rank 32nd in the nation, the state ranks 40th in the country for per-pupil spending and that Virginia is the eighth-wealthiest state in the United States.

“Virginia has the ability and can do more for its students and teachers by funding education appropriately,” Alleghany Superintendent Eugene Kotulka wrote to parents. “The governor and General Assembly need to hear from us so they will keep their focus on providing more funding for public education.”

Several school districts did the same as Alleghany, closing and busing teachers to the Capitol. Some places, like Fauquier County, stayed open but encouraged teachers to make the trip.

House Republicans announced their plan to include Northam’s proposed five percent teacher raise in its draft budget this year at the same time thousands of educators rallied on the Capitol grounds.

“That is a step in the right direction,” VEA president Jim Livingston said in a statement. “That is also a down payment on the subsequent funding increases needed to lift up our students and educators.”

Republicans said the budget would be unveiled Sunday and would accomplish the teacher raise “without raising taxes on hard-working Virginians.”

“As a public school teacher for 30 years, I know how hard teachers work to educate Virginia’s future leaders,” said Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights. “We must make it a priority to keep great teachers in the classroom and that starts with making sure our teachers a fairly compensated.”