I experienced one of the prouder moments of my VEA presidency yesterday. Not that I am not always proud to serve as the president of the Virginia Education Association. Indeed, I always feel proud, privileged, and honored to have the opportunity to represent our VEA members and to advocate for the children of the commonwealth, but some moments are, frankly, more memorable than others...and yesterday was certainly right up there near the top of the list of most memorable moments.
First of all, I have to offer a great big shout out to the school bus driver from Orange County who made yesterday possible. Lori Gues of the Orange County Education Association proved that one person CAN make a difference. Of course, she needed help, and that is where her president, Wanda Jones, her UniServ Director, Dave Oberg, and members like Kyle Wormuth joined in. A great big shout out also goes to the Superintendent of Schools in Orange County. Dr. Bob Grimesey modestly deferred all credit to Lori and the OCEA and offered that all he did was stay out of their way as they planned yesterday's event; but surely he knows that staying out of their way was a huge contribution to the event. Not many superintendents have the kind of courage that it takes to "get out of the way" of his or her employees, frankly, so a special thanks should go to him for his support--both moral and material.
In the final analaysis, though, it was the hundreds of members who showed up yesterday that made the event truly noteworthy. There have been times in the past when the VEA has attempted to sponsor an event and the concern is always whether anyone will come or not. In this case, because it was a grassroots effort--and because the issue is so critical to the future of Virginia--the rally took on a life of its own.
As I surveyed the crowd, I was moved by a variety of emotions. I was certainly proud of the Orange County leaders for stepping up and offering leadership the way they did. They didn't let cynicism or resignation or defeatism win the day. They stared the obstacles in the face and decided to do something anyway. Good for them!
I was also moved by the number of children in the crowd. Some carried signs (like the picture above). Few probably really appreciated why we were there. Surely they can't comprehend that their governor and their elected leaders are about to set them back educationally at just the time when we need to be more competitive than ever. Surely they don't understand that the budget shortfall of the commonwealth is to be balanced on their backs or that they are being asked to pay the price for an economy in crisis. Surely they don't appreciate that their teachers are about to be laid off by the hundreds leaving them in classes that are too large and too unweildy for any real learning to take place. At least, I hope the kids don't understand. It's bad enough that the adults in the crowd understood only too well what is about to happen.
The one thing that I hope came through what everyone said yesterday from Robley Jones, the Director of Government Relations at the VEA to Kathy Burcher, the Legislative Liaison for the Virginia PTA to Dr. Grimesey to Senator Edd Houck to me is that yesterday has to be the first step in what is going to be a long, drawn out battle for the hearts and minds of Virginians. The economic crisis that we face is very real, it is extremely deep, and it is going to last for several years.
That means that we at the VEA and our members across the state need to start educating members of the community at large about the need for a BALANCED approach to our state budget. A "cuts only" approach is going to set Virginia on a backward course...a course from which we may never really recover. If we are to move forward and recover from this period of crisis, we need to start looking at realistic ways to raise revenue. There are many avenues available to us and they wouldn't have to be painful; but they will require a recognition that we have an obligation as a society to work together on matters that relate to public education, public health, and public safety. The VEA is going to have to lead the way in developing that conversation, I believe, and based on yesterday's first step, I believe we are poised and ready to move that conversation forward. Too much is at stake not to. Indeed, our children are depending upon us, and we cannot let them down.