Monday, March 9, 2020

We Have a Conference Budget

The General Assembly voted on Saturday to extend the session until Thursday at midnight. Part of that vote was to allow them to continue to debate bills that were in conference, but it was also because there had been a budget impasse on a few items. By late Saturday night news had come that the budget impasse was over and that the budget would be available today around noon. That is important because before the budget vote can be happen, it must be available for review by legislators and the public for 48 hours. With the budget being available today, legislators can come back on Thursday to take a final vote on the 2020-2022 biennial budget.

The conference budget amends the budget that was introduced by the Governor in December. Where the conferees added money, that is above what was included in the Governor’s budget. Where there are reductions, that is, again, from the Governor’s budget. We are still looking at numbers, but overall, the conferees made additional investments to K-12 over the Governor’s proposals. Over the next 48-72 hours, the VEA will be digging into the numbers and get out our summary along with the state support amounts by school division. For now, I wanted to share some high (and low) lights.
The conferees listened to the VEA and rejected the idea of a one-time bonus for SOQ positions. They funded a full-year 2% salary increase for all SOQ positions in both years of the biennium. I know many want more, and the VEA requested 5% in each year. There are a couple of things to keep in mind, though, as you argue for salary money. These two increases extend the years of state support for salary increases to four. Each of these four years have been a full year. The last time there was a string of four years of state support for salary was 1998-2001. None of those four years was a full year of funding. So, while this is not as much as we wanted, there is a very clear indication that the General Assembly recognizes the need to sustain its efforts on salary.

The other thing to keep in mind is that any salary increase is only for the SOQ-funded positions. Salary increases for any position not indicated in the current SOQs in Code is 100% the responsibility of the local governments. Also, since school employees are not state employees, salaries are a shared responsibility between the state and the local governments. That means the local governments are responsible for their share of the salary increase for all the SOQ positions in their divisions. We must realize that until we offset the burden for so many of the costs of K-12 from the localities, many, if not most, can’t afford to give the salary increase even with the state support. The VEA will always fight for state support of salary increases, but we are short sighted if we don’t also look at ways to offset the local burden on the overall cost of K-12.

One way to do this is to implement the SOQs as issued by the VA Board of Education this fall. While the General Assembly did not adopt many (most) of the revisions, they did adopt improved staffing ratios for school counselors and teachers of English language learners. These changes will, ultimately, increase the number of positions that are now covered with the salary increase money as they are SOQ funded positions. So aside from all the good these additional teachers and counselors will do for our students, they will also offset the costs for some divisions.

The conference budget also added an additional increase to the At-Risk Add-On Funding proposed by the Governor. Again, the VEA would have liked to have seen the approach issued by the VA BOE, but in the last two budgets, there has been a significant increase in the at-risk funding. Every single school division in the Commonwealth benefits from this funding source, and it is the only direct funding we have for our students who meet the federal definition of poverty. The VEA has been fighting for increases in the At-Risk Add-On for years.

The conference budget includes enrollment-loss funding to support our small and rural school divisions. These are vital dollars that help our small divisions maintain programs as they lose students. Since VA funds K-12 on a per-pupil basis, even a loss of 10-20 students can have a significant impact on many of our divisions. Again, the VEA would have liked to have seen the pre-recession era funding levels restored, but it is important to have this funding included in the biennial budget.

The conference budget does not include significant investments in school construction, but it does increase the per-pupil allotment dollars and restores the requirement that they go back to being used for non-recurring costs. Non-recurring costs include school construction, additions, infrastructure, site acquisition, renovations, school buses, technology, and other expenditures related to modernizing classroom equipment, plus debt service payments on school projects completed during the last 10 years. This is not the big fix schools need but is a step in the right direction to using these funds as they had been used prior to the recession.

There is a very big win for our Education Support Professionals in the budget. The budget includes almost $2 million to provide a health insurance credit of $1.50 per year for services to retired non-teacher school division employees having at least 15 years of total creditable service. The VEA has been fighting for this benefit for years, and we worked hard this session to pass House Bill 1513, establishing this benefit. We are grateful to Delegate Delores McQuinn for her work on this issue.
There are lots of other details in the budget, but I find the studies, workgroups and language changes interesting. First, there is language to establish a collective bargaining workgroup that will give a report to the General Assembly before the next session. The labor coalition had asked for that language to be included on the bill but thought we would need to get the Governor to add it. The language in the budget was a surprise and we are glad it is there. That will compel the General Assembly to talk about collective bargaining next session.

There are other studies in the budget that foreshadow some action we may expect next session. The budget asks that data be collected on the prevailing practice of planning time for our elementary school teachers. This has been an issue for years as it is so hard to build into the day. There were two bills this session (HB273 VanValkenburg/SB134 Stuart) that the VEA worked closely on, and we used our data to inform the legislators’ votes. Senator Stuart, in particular, highlighted the data we have collected. Our work led to this language in the budget and the work the DOE will now need to do to determine the actual prevailing practice and, hopefully, lay the groundwork to increase planning time for our elementary teachers.

The budget also included $100,000 for the Department of Education to study the teacher licensure process and any required assessments in the licensure process for any inherent biases that may prevent minority teacher candidates from entering the profession. This was a specific recommendation from the inaugural Teachers of Color Summit, and the VEA brought this issue to Senator Locke, who worked to pass this study this year.

There is also money in the budget to require the Department of Education to collect and report information about vacant positions in each school division and the number of individuals graduating from education preparation programs, by endorsement area. Basically, the DOE will need to identify the actual vacancies in positions and look at the pipeline for these positions. We thank Delegate Willet for championing this legislation. These studies show that the budget conferees want to dig into the teacher shortage and school employee working conditions. That is good news.

One other interesting language item addresses standardized statewide tests (the SOL tests) and performance assessments. While the VA Board of Education revised graduation requirements a few years ago, their work was overruled by the General Assembly. For the last few budgets, the General Assembly included language that prohibited the issuing of verified credits for graduation through performance assessments. The Board of Education recognized that there are better ways to assess student learning and the verification of a credit towards graduation then a bubble test. The General Assembly disagreed and prohibited any test that wasn’t an SOL-type test. The VEA opposed this action as it is a clear overstep of the constitutional authority of the General Assembly into the work granted to the Board of Education. Today, the budget strikes the prohibition language and grants the BOE the authority to issue verified credits using locally developed performance assessments. I tell folks all the time, our budget has lots of important numbers, but there is a whole lot of impactful language as well. It was about time this language was removed.

Overall, the conference budget continues the work that started with the last biennial budget. There is still a long way to go. The road will not be easy as there will need to a real look at new revenues—not casinos, or games of skill, or on-line lottery sales—that can be invested in K-12. We cannot keep shifting money from one priority to another. We must develop a real plan to move more money into all our public services including, and especially, public education. It is well past time.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Victory! We have a collective bargaining bill!

Today is a historic one, as just a few hours ago the General Assembly passed its bill permitting collective bargaining for school employees (and many other public employees).

This is a tremendous win for students, for schools, for education employees, and for communities.

Some of you reading this may be aware (but most of you probably are not) that when the Va. Supreme Court in 1977 struck down negotiated agreements between school boards and educators in about a dozen Virginia localities, those agreements were in force covering about one-third of all Virginia teachers.

Today we celebrate! Read our news release summarizing what we've won and what it means. One analyst calls this win "the most significant change in Virginia labor law in decades."

But there is much hard work ahead. For your Local Union to win collective bargaining, you will have to organize employees to become members, and you will also have to push your local school board to pass a resolution to initiate the process.

To be ready, you must:
1. Build your membership. You will need to have at least 30% of the potential members in your district and you will need 51% of the potential members to force a vote.
2. Build strong working relationships with your School Board and local governing body (Board of Supervisors or City Council). They will likely decide how collective bargaining works in your school division. We need to be talking with them and answering their questions about the process. There is a lot of work to do here.
3. Take a good look at the elections in your locality this November. Do you have school board or local government elections? If you do, what will your local be doing to determine the candidate who will support collective bargaining at the local level. How will you help support their election?

Remember, a bill won’t make collective bargaining happen, only your action will. The VEA and NEA are knee deep in planning and resource development for all our members. Expect to hear from us frequently about our plans and support.

I will post in a few days with more reflections on the bill and the path it took and what it means.

But for today, let’s celebrate this win and the huge shift we have seen in Virginia!

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

No Budget Yet; Senate Collective Bargaining Conferees Named

There is currently no indication that the conference budget is coming today, and even tomorrow looks unlikely. Today ,one of the House budget conferees commented that they are still working in small groups on smaller sections of the budget. Again, not a good indication that the conference budget will be available tomorrow. Here’s why that matters. Each body of the General Assembly adopts rules on how they will operate during the session. The House Rules on conference reports and the budget conference report are very clear:

Rule 75(c). Any conference committee on the Budget Bill will complete its deliberations and make the report of such conference available to the House as soon as practicable. The House will consider such conference report no earlier than 48 hours after receipt, unless the House determines to proceed earlier by a vote of two-thirds of the members voting. The conference report will clearly state the funding of any nonstate agencies, any item that was not included in the Budget Bill as passed by either house, and any provisions from legislation that failed during that session

That rule means that the conference budget will need to be available for at least 49 hours before there is a final vote on the budget. Yes, there is a 2/3 rule, but the usual process is 48 hours. If we don’t get a budget conference tomorrow (Thursday), the House can’t vote in time for the planned Saturday adjournment. When we see the conference budget, we still have 2 days left of session. Part of what is complicating the budget conferees coming to agreement is they have had limited time to actually meet and work through the budget. Both the House and Senate still have hundreds of bills to debate and hundreds of conference reports on many other bills still to hear. As Senate Finance Chair and Senate budget Conferee Janet Howell said yesterday on the floor, “The longer we are on the floor listening to long speeches and debate, the less time the budget conferees have to work on the conference budget.” She was urging the Senate to remain focused, not take bills by, and to work on all the other bill conference reports. I agree 100% with Senator Howell.

One of the hundreds of bills still to be debated is the House version of the Collective Bargaining bill, HB582. The bill will be on second read in the Senate tomorrow and up for passage on Friday. The bill will then go back to the House where they will reject the Senate Substitute and call for a conference. The Senate has already completed that work with SB939, and the House insisted on a conference. To get to conference, we need the Senate to ask for a conference committee to be named. The Senate bill conferees were named today, and they are Senators Saslaw, Barker, and Norment. Once the House conferees are named, the six legislators will work out a compromise. We will likely not see that conference report until Saturday or, if they go into overtime, Sunday. We will see. We are still working with the patrons on all the possible outcomes and trying to get the best bill we can out of conference. I knew this bill would be among the very last to be taken up for a final vote, and that is certainly the case.

Governor Signs Important Anti-Discrimination Bills Today

Today Governor Northam followed through on a promise he made to the VEA’s Fitz Turner Commissioners. After the blackface scandals that rocked the Governor’s office more than a year ago, VEA’s Fitz Turner Commissioners were invited to the Governor’s mansion to have a frank discussion about racism and discrimination in the Commonwealth. At that meeting, Governor Northam told our Commissioners that he was committed to bring stakeholders together to remove racist language from our Code and to strengthen Virginia’s anti-discrimination laws. The VEA has worked hard this session supporting these efforts. Today the Governor signed two bills that move us all in the right direction. Below is an excerpt from his press release. You can read the full release here.

Repealing Discriminatory Language Relating to Racial Segregation in Schools

Governor Northam signed House Bill 973, sponsored by Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, which repeals discriminatory language on Virginia’s books relating to racial segregation in Virginia schools. This bill is identical to Senate Bill 600.

Governor Northam established the Commission to Examine Racial Inequality in Virginia Law to study the Virginia Acts of Assembly, Code of Virginia, and administrative regulations and identify racist and discriminatory language that may no longer have the effect of law, but remains on Virginia’s books. The Commission identified nearly 100 instances of discriminatory language in its interim report, and will continue to make recommendations to address laws that were intended to or could have the effect of promoting or enabling racial discrimination or inequity. This is one of several bills passed during the 2020 legislative session to remove this language.

“During the Jim Crow era, racism and discrimination were written into laws that were used to enforce segregation and inequality across the Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “Words matter, and there is no reason for this overtly discriminatory language to remain on our books. I am proud to sign this bill to move Virginia forward.” 

“As an educator who has spent fifteen years teaching the Constitution, its values, and Jim Crow’s perversion of both, I am humbled to have played a small part in removing some of these last stains of the Jim Crow era from Virginia’s code,” said Delegate VanValkenburg. “This is an important step in the direction of justice for communities that have long suffered the injustices of racial segregation.”

Banning Racial Discrimination on the Basis of Hair

Governor Northam signed House Bill 1514, sponsored by Delegate Delores McQuinn, which bans discrimination on the basis of hair. The bill clarifies that when the law bans racial discrimination “on the basis of race,” that includes “traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists.” This bill is identical to Senate Bill 50.

“It’s pretty simple—if we send children home from school because their hair looks a certain way, or otherwise ban certain hairstyles associated with a particular race—that is discrimination,” said Governor Northam. “This is not only unacceptable and wrong, it is not what we stand for in Virginia. This bill will make our Commonwealth more equitable and welcoming for all.”

“A person’s hair is a core part of their identity,” said Delegate McQuinn. “Nobody deserves to be discriminated against simply due to the hair type they were born with, or the way in which they choose to wear it. The acceptance of one’s self is the key to accepting others.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

VEA Supports Raising the Minimum Wage

March 3, 2020

This session the VEA has been working with the “Raise the Wage Coalition” fighting for a $15 minimum wage in Virginia. Like much of our work this session, being part of a strategic partnership is vital to getting the best bills to pass. We have been in regular meetings with the minimum wage coalition and working with legislators to help them understand the impact this action will have on many of our school support personnel. Below is the text of a letter that the Raise the Wage coalition (including the VEA) is sending today to the conferees working on the final bill.

Raise the Wage Coalition Letter

Virginia’s minimum wage workers have not seen a raise since 2009, representing the longest stretch without an increase in history. The legislation in conference, HB 395 and SB 7, offers an opportunity to right that wrong and provide working people in the Commonwealth with fair wages for the important work they do that builds the foundation for our economy and our communities.

Everyone in Virginia working a full-time job should be paid enough to provide for their family. However, for many this is not the case. Nearly two-thirds of Virginia families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold have at least one adult who is working, yet they are paid too little to make ends meet. Virginia’s current minimum wage, set at $7.25 an hour to match the federal minimum, is the lowest in the country when accounting for the typical cost of living in our state.

Both bills share some commonalities, but there are significant differences in key areas. In this letter, we lay out our views on how those differences can be resolved to help the most workers thrive while strengthening our economy.

  • First, increases to the minimum wage need to be robust and sustained to achieve $15 an hour. We urge conferees to agree upon a path where the minimum wage in the Commonwealth is set at $15 an hour by 2025, as provided in the House bill.
  • Second, the time has come to repeal several exemptions in Virginia’s minimum wage.  The House bill makes important strides towards eliminating those provisions, many of which are rooted in Jim Crow, and we support this approach in conference.  These include eliminating exclusions for: domestic service workers (including home care workers), agricultural workers, employers with “4 or fewer employees,” and workers 16 & 17 years old.  We oppose provisions that would expand exclusions to the minimum wage laws, such as for employees in an “on-the-job” training program who would be paid only 75% of the minimum wage for 90 days and for students under 22 years old who work under 20 hours per week.
  • Finally, Virginia must reject a “regional minimum wage.” We oppose regionalism because, as currently laid out in SB 7, it would widen inequality in the Commonwealth. For example, under the current provisions of SB7, Northern Virginia would reach a $15 minimum wage by 2027 in nominal dollars. Assuming an annual inflation rate of 2.4%, Richmond and Hampton Roads likely would not see a $15 minimum wage until 2032, or even later. Southwest Virginia may not reach $15 until 2043. Black workers would be particularly likely to be left behind by its approach because only 23% of Black people in Virginia live in the area that would receive the largest minimum wage increase. Regionalism would fuel gender inequality by lifting the wages of fewer people. The majority of working people—nearly 60%—who would benefit from raising Virginia’s minimum wage to $15 statewide are women. 

We recommend that the conferees adopt an approach where the General Assembly studies and fully understands the complexities and potential pitfalls of a regional minimum wage rather than implementing an approach that would leave so many workers behind. For additional context, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Raise the Wage Act” (H.R. 582) in 2019, sponsored by Virginia’s Congressman Bobby Scott, it rejected the idea of a regional wage. That was in part because a federal regional wage would have excluded more than 15 million working people, over 40% of whom are working people of color.

In closing, we want to thank each of you for your efforts to raise the minimum wage in Virginia. As we approach the end of the session and the conference discussions related to this legislation, we look forward to continuing to work together to develop a final bill that provides economic security and opportunity to as many working Virginians as we can.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Last Week of Session- Where are the bills?

The General Assembly is supposed to adjourn Sine Die on Saturday. That assumes they have agreement on all conference bills, including the budget. Today is the last day of committee work this session. All remaining bills should be in the floor or in conference by tomorrow. The rules of the House and Senate require that when the budget conferees complete work on the budget, the bill must be available to members for at least 48 hours before they vote on the bill. That means we will need to see the budget conference by Thursday of this week for session to end on time. The VEA has an action alert on the budget asking members to send emails to the conferees. You can click here to send your email now. We are running out of time to make our voices heard.

Of course, the other big bill we are following is collective bargaining. The Senate will hear the House bill today in Finance and then it will go to the floor tomorrow. Bills, in general, spend three days on the floor before they are passed. The Senate can suspend the rules and move bills along more quickly, which they will need to do as the bill needs to pass and go back to the House. Once that happens, each body will ask for a conference on the bills since they deal with the same Code sections but are different in their approach. Conference is a negotiation on the final bill. There are no committee meetings or testimony in front of the conferees. The are expected to know the bills on which they are working and to have been involved in the committee hearings of the bills. Conference is one of the actions at the General Assembly that still happens under a cloak of secrecy in many ways. I will tell you that often there can be a text message sent to a lobbyist checking a detail, but in general, they work on their own. We will not likely know the outcome of the conference on collective bargaining until Friday or Saturday. Conference bills cannot be debated once they are on the floor for a final vote. They are a yes or no for passage, with conference bills overwhelmingly passing.

So, what will the conference bill include? Hard to know for sure, but I believe we will get something far more like the Senate bill than the House bill. There aren’t enough votes in the Senate to pass a version that is very close to the House bill. Regardless of the final bill there are three things all VEA members should be doing to prepare:

1.       Build your membership. You will need to have at least 30% of the potential members in your school division and, if there isn’t strict guidance on the recognition of the bargaining agent, I would suggest you need 51% of the potential members.

2.       Build strong working relationships with your School Board and local governing body (Board of Supervisors or City Council). They will likely decide how collective bargaining works in your school division. We need to be talking with them and answering their questions about the process. There is a lot of work to do here.

3.       Take a good look at the elections in your locality this November. Do you have school board or local government elections? If you do, what will your local Union be doing to determine the candidate who will support collective bargaining at the local level? How will you help support their election?

We will know more very soon, but this is not the time to wait. It is the time to organize, build membership, and build your PAC. A bill won’t make collective bargaining happen, only your action will.