Across Fairfax County on Friday, teachers who belong to the Fairfax Education Association (FEA) dressed in all black as a symbol of unity against what they call the Virginia General Assembly's "attack on education."
"We are in mourning," read a flyer about the local teachers union protest, part of a larger, statewide Virginia Education Association initiative "to lament the lack of commitment to public education and the loss of respect accorded teachers by our elected officials."
"There's no question that we are under attack," FEA President Michael Hairston said in a phone interview Friday.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has touted education reform as one of the cornerstones of his budget plan, but the teachers say more than a dozen bills have been introduced this session that hurt legislators, public school funding, children, or all three.
"The people making these reforms have nothing to do with education. This has nothing to do with reform," Hairston said. "They're asking, 'How do we grow? How do we improve?' [But] those questions are not being asked of us."
Chief among them is H.B. 576, also known as the "teacher tenure" bill, which would significantly change how teachers are hired, evaluated and retrained, most notably by eliminating teachers' "continuing contracts" and several due process protections. Teachers who are already on continuing contracts would not be affected.
The bill, introduced in an effort to "weed out" bad teachers who may currently be allowed to "float" in local school systems for too long, passed the House with amendments earlier this week, and as of Friday, was sitting in the Senate Health and Education Committee. A duplicate of the original House bill had been introduced in the Senate at the start of session, but failed in the floor vote.
Now, teachers hired into Fairfax County Public Schools are kept in three-year probationary periods before earning contract status, which puts them in agreements typically renewed every three years.
The proposed bill, which would take effect in July 2013, would extend that probationary period to five years, with teachers, assistant principals, and principals reviewed annually thereafter. It's a move supporters of the bill say will allow school systems to better monitor both student and teacher progress and performance, but one Hairston says could allow employees to be fired without much reason or due process.
A formal evaluation would still occur every three years, according to the bill.
But there are practices in place that allow supervisors to file complaints and document issues or non-performance, Hairston said, which either gives teachers room to improve or gives supervisors an avenue to let the teacher go when their contract has expired.
"[This bill] is pointless," Hairston said. "It makes no sense at all."
Fairfax County Superintendent Jack Dale said at a press conference last month he worried about how the bill, which he called an unfunded mandate, would eat into the school system's proposed $2.4 billion budget because it originally required annual evaluations.
In response to those concerns, the House amended the bill to require the formal evaluations every three years, which Fairfax and Loudoun counties already do.
"I would not have voted for the bill if it left in the annual evaluations," Del. Jim LeMunyon said. "It would have been an unfunded mandate, and I couldn't support that."
LeMunyon (R-67th District) said he does not anticipate the bill will have significant impact on areas like Fairfax and Loudoun counties because they are already doing most of what is required in the bills.
"Where it has much more of an effect is in other parts of the state where, frankly, local school boards don't do a good enough job of just giving feedback to teachers or stating what the expectations are," he said. "As someone who is from Northern Virginia, I'm mindful that in many other school divisions around the state, much of the money they're spending on schools is coming from places like Northern Virginia. I've got a responsibility to the taxpayers I represent that their tax dollars being used well when used in other parts of the state."
The teachers also take issue with bills that propose changes to the Virginia Retirement System — including those that would require increased teacher contribution, meaning less take-home pay, and those that change their benefit plans — along with the more than a billion dollars the General Assembly has cut from schools in the state's budget over the past four years.
Virginia has also gone from third to 41st in the nation in class size, the FEA says.
Both the House and the Senate will unveil their responses to Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposed budget on Sunday.
"For as much as this appears to be about teachers, it is actually really about our children," said Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachres, a union not part of Friday's protest but one that supports the feelings behind it, he said. "Teachers give of their lives to educate our students; an attack on the qualtiy of our teaching workforce is an attack on our children."
Oakton Patch Editor Nicole Trifone contributed to this report.