“The profession is dying!” Kathy Burcher, director of the Virginia Education Association Office of Governmental Relations and Research, firmly stated her warning into the microphone, commanding the attention of everyone gathered in Richmond’s John Marshall hotel ballroom for a legislative pre-session roundtable.

She recited the statistics we are all increasingly familiar with – Virginia is lacking 1,000 full-time teachers this year, (as reported by Richmond Times-Dispatch) and qualified educators are slowly moving away from the profession.

I attended the roundtable session because social justice advocacy is a core passion of mine, and a core competency of the counseling profession I plan to enter. I am also an active member of the League of Women Voters who believes passionately in the value of a strongly worded letter, email, phone call, meeting with a representative, and, when needed, protest sign. The League hosts an annual pre-session roundtable before the General Assembly begins, so that members and the public can learn more about some of the issues that may come up during the session.

This year, the focus is on the budget. Governor Northam asked for an increase in pay of 2 percent this year on top of the 3 percent the General Assembly has already approved for public school teachers as part of his proposed budget. While willingness to pay teachers well is an important part of supporting the profession, Burcher and others speaking at the roundtable informed us there is much more on the table. For example, many school districts may not be able to accept the pay raise for their teachers because the districts themselves can not afford to contribute, as required by law. Proposed legislation this session could free districts from that requirement. Other legislation seeks to provide additional training for school resource officers (SRO), require Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between school boards and law enforcement regarding SRO duties, and end the criminalization of disruptive behavior in classrooms. 

That morning we listened to a litany of upcoming legislative items that may be of interest to future counselors, educators, and higher education professionals. Expect the 45-day legislative session to address legislation on issues including:

  • The creation of a “Virginia Loves Teachers” license plate
  • The creation of a Commission on Wellness and Opportunity
  • Increased funding for Community Service Boards.
  • Increased funding for mental health crisis care, with an emphasis on children’s crisis services.
  • Increase Medicaid reimbursement for some outpatient mental health services.
  • Increase mental health training for law enforcement.
  • Banning the death penalty for defendants with serious mental illness.
  • Increasing the capacity of the prison system to address mental health needs.
  • Permission for teachers to carry weapons inside school buildings.
  • Permission for safety resource officers to carry weapons in private or religious schools.
  • Removal of firearms from people deemed to be at risk to themselves or others.
  • “Grow Your Own” teacher funds intended to support low income students getting a bachelor’s degree and entering the teaching profession.
  • Encouraging localities to provide increase school counselor positions.
  • Advocacy for driver’s licenses for undocumented individuals.
  • Legislation requiring menstrual supplies to be free and available in all school bathrooms.
  • Legislation prohibiting the use of electroshock therapy, aversion therapy or other physical treatments as part of conversion therapy for persons under the age of 18.
  • And more – scroll through all proposed bills online: Here 

Here in Williamsburg, we are only 45 minutes away from the “sausage making” process of policy development. We have a unique opportunity every Wednesday morning to attend free legislative roundtables hosted by the state League and then spend some time attempting to educate our legislators about the issues that affect our professions, clients, students, and communities. It’s important to keep an eye on the legislative process, because the status of proposed legislation – and the emergence of new legislation you’ll care about even more – can change with very little notice.

Going to Richmond to speak to a legislator, attend a session, or speak in front of a committee is an eye-opening and truly awesome experience. It can also be terrifying, exhilarating, impactful, and frustrating as you learn how many bills simply die in the committees to which they are assigned, without ever coming up for a vote by our elected representatives. All of these emotions feel better to me than the blissful ignorance that yields to surprise when policy decisions made not too far from our classrooms impact our professions and our communities. 

Show up. Show up in the ballrooms, in the halls of power, and on the streets. Make the calls. Write the letters. Hashtag the selfies.

For those in the education field, January 28 was a critical lobby day organized by the Virginia Education Association, as part of the “Wear Red for Ed” movement to increase awareness of the value and needs of public education. The #RedForEd movement is a national effort to encourage supporters of education to dress in red on Wednesdays to raise awareness. In addition to showing support visibly in our communities and schools, individuals are encouraged to post images on social media with the hashtag, to spread the word about the importance of education and policies that support education. 

The Virginia Counseling Association (VCA)’s legislative day was also January 28. For more information about lobbying alongside the VCA, visit their website: https://www.vcacounselors.org/page/legday

Madeline Vann is a M.Ed. ’19 Counseling student and a Family, Marriage, and Couples Counseling Intern with New Horizons Family Counseling Center at William & Mary