‘Fund our Future’

By George Copeland Jr. | 12/13/2018, 6 a.m.
Ty Logan has his eyes set on a bright future and wants the State of Virginia to properly support it. …
Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kamras addresses the marchers from the steps of the State Capitol last Saturday. Among those on the podium with him are, from left, Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney, who led the March for More effort, 4th District Congressman A. Donald McEachin and Shadae Thomas Harris, chief engagement officer for Richmond Public Schools. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Ty Logan has his eyes set on a bright future and wants the State of Virginia to properly support it.

“When I grow up, I want to be a doctor. I want to be a lawyer. I want to be an astronaut,” the junior at Richmond Community High School said. “I want more investing into our education right now. I want the state to care about our learning, not test scores.”

The call for more state funding for Richmond Public Schools and public school systems around the state was championed by hundreds of students, parents, elected officials and supporters last Saturday as they gathered at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in the East End and marched to the State Capitol in Downtown.

The “March for More,” as the event was called, is the first of several planned to draw attention to the current level of financial support for K-12 education and to request that more money be ponied up for schools by the Virginia General Assembly, which convenes in January.

The rally at the Mosby Street school had the same sense of urgency as the larger Richmond March For Our Lives rally last spring against gun violence following the school massacre in Parkland, Fla. That rally also stepped off from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, with marchers making the 1.2 mile trek to the State Capitol.

“I have lost multiple students to gun violence, including one last weekend,” RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras said, “and yet I have a social worker that has 1,000 students on her caseload.”

Mr. Kamras was joined Saturday by other high-profile supporters, including Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney, members of the Richmond, Henrico and Lynchburg school boards and 4th District Congressman A. Donald McEachin, with 7th District Congresswoman-elect Abigail Spanberger sending her regards from Washington.

“We cannot expect our children to learn and lead when they are forced to study in buildings that are dilapidated and obsolete,” Mr. McEachin said, pledging to advocate for more funding on the state and federal levels.

Mr. Kamras noted that a 9 percent decrease in public education funding statewide since 2008 has come as Virginia’s student population has grown by 5 percent, leaving schools underfunded and teachers and staff overwhelmed in a state that ranks 33rd nationally in teacher pay.

“We’re closing out the second decade of the 21st century, and we’re running our schools on tech from the end of the 20th century. Is that right?” Mr. Kamras asked the rally participants.

“No!” came the booming answer from the crowd.

“I want you to be in their face each and every day when the General Assembly is there,” Mayor Stoney told the crowd as the trek to the Capitol was about to begin. “I want them to hear Virginia! I want them to hear Richmond!”

The crowd, led to Capitol Square by the RPS All City Band, was energized and motivated even in the chilly December air. People carried a wide variety of signs: “Commit to Kids,” “Money for Education, Not a Coliseum,” “Boost the Budget,” “Fund Our Future” and “Knowledge is Power.”

The signs spoke to the diversity of those assembled, from Virginia Educators United, the Justice and Reformation for Marcus-David Peters Movement, the Richmond Branch NAACP and other groups.

As part of its legislative package, the Richmond City Council unanimously approved in October a resolution requesting increased funding for public education from the state during the 2019 General Assembly session.

“Virginia is a great state, and we can and we will do better,” Richmond City Council President Chris Hilbert, 3rd District, told the crowd. “But you know when that will happen? When we demand better,” he said. “We’re not going to cut our way to educational excellence.”

Attending the rally with Mr. Hilbert were council Vice President Cynthia I. Newbille, 7th District, and Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District.

Mr. Kamras and Rodney Robinson of Richmond noted that the lack of increased state support for public education stands in sharp contrast to the millions in state funding being spent on the construction of a new General Assembly Building underway at 9th and Broad Street and to attract Amazon’s second headquarters to Northern Virginia.

Both projects have been celebrated by state figures and politicians, including Gov. Ralph S. Northam and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The irony wasn’t lost on those attending the rally, as Mr. Robinson lambasted the state’s priorities in focusing their economic resources on “the world’s richest man, (Amazon founder, chairman and CEO) Jeff Bezos” while neglecting the state’s crumbling education infrastructure.

“No student should be forced to learn in these conditions,” said Mr. Robinson, who was recently named Virginia’s Teacher of the Year for his work with teens at the Virgie Binford Education Center in the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center.

He said the failure of state legislators to approve more education funding would be remembered on Election Day 2019, when all 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly will be up for election.

“We will boot you out of office because our kids deserve better!” he said to cheers.

Although Mayor Stoney and Mr. Kamras have been warned by area lawmakers that a significiant increase in funding was unlikely, Richmond Delegates Delores McQuinn and Jeff Bourne and Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico County, D-Henrico attended Saturday to show their support for Richmond’s goals.

Another rally led by teachers is planned for Jan. 28.