Following Northam’s lead on education

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Photo by Sam Jackson

An opinion column by Dale Wolf

We need a healthy future.

That’s obvious these days almost any time you look at a headline, almost any time you even think about how things are going in our tumultuous era. We cannot keep careening in our current direction. We have to do something to make things better.

Here’s the good news: Governor Ralph Northam wants to help with that.

Following through on a declaration he made shortly after his election, the former pediatric neurologist has prioritized public education. Specifically, he’s proposed a massive K-12 investment to be enacted through amending Virginia’s current budget.

Part of the investment would increase a scheduled 3% teacher pay raise to 5%. That increase would mean the largest single raise that our teachers have seen in over 15 years.

Such a raise is sorely needed. Back in May, the National Center for Education Statistics found that Virginia has America’s largest “teacher pay gap,” meaning that the Commonwealth features the largest difference between average annual teacher salary and average annual salary for all college graduates.

“We’re losing great teaching talent to our neighbors in other states, because they pay them more,” Northam said in a recent speech to the Joint Money Committees of the General Assembly.

For each of the past two school years, Virginia has had more than 1,000 open teaching positions. According to the Virginia Education Association, the Commonwealth “currently ranks 34th in the nation in teacher pay, trailing the national average by $9,218.”

“A good teacher can turn a child’s life around,” said Northam, “and we should pay them enough so they don’t have to take a second job just to get by. Our teachers deserve this.”

As Northam made clear, our children also deserve better.

He noted in his speech that suicide is now “the second leading cause of death among school aged youth, both nationally and in Virginia.” Accordingly, he has proposed $36 million to hire more school counselors across the state, which would “start us on the path to reduce the ratio of counselor to student from 1 to 425, to 1 to 250 in a few years.”

In a press release announcing the proposal, Northam said that such a move would encourage “safer learning environments” through a “more holistic approach.”

The governor’s budget amendments would also increase each school district’s per pupil funding, expand support of after school programs and dropout prevention, and improve school safety in ways that include the funding of a threat assessment case management tool.

This isn’t even a complete list of everything that Northam has put forth, but it is enough to make a clear point: When we prioritize public education, we give our children and ourselves a better shot at a brighter future.

When I was in elementary school, the roof leaked. When I was in middle school, my favorite teacher wasn’t always available for help after school because she had a second job. When I entered high school, the roof of my elementary school still leaked. God help any kid who was like me and allergic to mold.

That’s why I’m particularly happy to hear that Governor Northam has proposed injecting $80 million into the Literary Fund, satisfying every single one of its pending construction loan requests.
“We know that school divisions across the state would like to upgrade some of their older facilities,” said Northam. “They have leaky roofs and ceilings, and antiquated classrooms. It’s hard for children to learn when the school itself is distracting.”

The $80 million proposed by Northam would bring our schools one step closer to equity, but as Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) noted during his campaign in 2017, “Virginia’s school system suffers from chronic underfunding at all levels.”

Governor Northam’s budget amendments can’t fix that. They can’t level the public education playing field, but they can make it less tilted. They are a solid step towards creating a healthy future.
Or at least, they will be if they become law.

There are those who believe that actions like these won’t help make things better. When I think of such individuals I’m reminded of words from the author and former public school teacher Jonathan Kozol: “Conservatives love that word throwing. They never speak of throwing money at the Pentagon. We allocate money for the Pentagon. We throw money at anything that has to do with human pain.”

Unfortunately, the Democrats do not control the House of Delegates or the state senate. The only way Governor Northam’s proposals will become law without being substantially diluted is if he’s aided in his efforts by citizen support.

This is where you come in. After all the marches and protests of the past two years, you know the drill. Write your legislators. Call your legislators.

Do whatever you can to make things better.

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