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Virginia’s largest teachers association is receiving pushback on an early-April announcement by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) that it endorsed his most recent Educator Fairness Act and other education reforms.

“Starting July 1, with the support of the Virginia Education Association and other key Virginia education leadership groups, we will effectively end teacher tenure in Virginia’s public schools, while also rewarding our great teachers with a 2 percent pay raise,” McDonnell is quoted saying in a press release issued by the governor’s office.

The release goes on to detail education reforms largely opposed by teachers unions nationwide and in-state associations like “effectively eliminating teacher tenure” by allowing localities to increase the probationary period for new teachers from three to five years, implementing a form of performance pay for educators and A-F letter grades assessing schools.

Because Virginia is a right-to-work state, there are no teachers’ unions but rather professional associations. Collective bargaining, a process of negotiations between employers and a group of employees to reach an agreement on working conditions, is prohibited in Virginia.

In response to the governor’s reforms, Virginia teachers unleashed some of their disappointment on the VEA’s Facebook page.

Local teachers associations responded negatively to the reforms and VEA’s role.

“VEA went in and cut a deal with the governor on the Educator Fairness Act and no one knew what was going on,” Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Steve Greenburg said. Because of the VEA’s role in education reform discussions with the governor, state legislators thought other education associations were also on board and voted to approve the changes, Greenburg said.

“Not only did we not support it, but the Fairfax Education Association, which is [the VEA’s] largest chapter, didn’t even know about it until we did.”

VEA leaders responded saying they were also taken aback by the governor’s language in the press release and understood teachers’ disappointment in the reforms.

VEA represents more than 54,000 members.

“We didn’t endorse the governor’s entire package. In fact, as the governor presented it, we didn’t endorse any of it,” said VEA President Meg Gruber, a former Prince William County Public Schools science teacher.

“We worked really, really hard to change what he called the Educators Fairness Act to make sure it is fair,” she said, adding that the governor’s claim to end teacher tenure was misleading. “That is so misleading because teachers in K-12 don’t have tenure... The only thing we even slightly so called endorsed was the 2 percent raise.”

Gruber said while she believes the governor, who entered office with an education reform package that included increasing charter schools in state, is sincere in his desire to better public schools, “They don’t really know what public schools need.

“It was very disappointing that it was difficult to get into any deep, meaningful discussion on education,” she said.

The governor’s office says education reforms would improve the state’s ability to reward and attract qualified teachers, while also bolstering student achievement.

Fairfax County Public Schools officials said meeting the state’s requirements in offering a 2 percent raise to qualified teachers would be difficult based on limitations presented by state lawmakers.

“The challenges with the governor’s proposals are that it requires localities to provide employees with a 2 percent pay increase in order to receive the incentive funding from the state and that [also] the state funding comes with a revenue contingency,” school system spokesman John Torre said. “[I]f state revenues don’t reach a particular level, the salary funding doesn’t materialize. For FCPS to receive incentive funding of approximately $6 million , FCPS would need to provide employees with a 2 percent market scale adjustment, which would cost nearly $40 million.”

The state funding is short term, a year, and would mean an increased burden on localities to keep up with ongoing, raised employee compensations.

VEA’s local and largest chapter, the Fairfax Education Association, said it was disappointed with the reforms, but sympathetic to the backlash VEA is getting.

“I was surprised to say the least,” said FEA President Michael Hairston, who represents more than 5,000 members. “I think the VEA did the best it could in the current political environment. What the governor proposed was far worse than what eventually got passed... The VEA has been lobbying for a very long time with great success.” The difficulty, Hairston said, is getting legislators to listen.

Gov. McDonnell’s reforms may be an indication of future state-Republican leadership tones toward teachers.

On Monday, the VEA announced its endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who is running against Republican nominee and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. VEA leaders said Cuccinelli chose not to meet with VEA leadership, as McDonnell had previously done, for endorsement interviews in the lead up to its decision.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com