Virginia students learn in trailers while state offers Amazon huge tax breaks

The Guardian – by Mike Elk

As freezing rain poured down on Virginia last week, a student dressed in only a light red sweater made a mad 40-yard dash from her modular trailer classroom across the parking lot into the warmth of McLean high school in Fairfax county.

Due to overcrowding, more than 22,000 students in Fairfax county receive their education in cheaply constructed plywood trailers, often with visible signs of green mold, like those parked next to the baseball fields next to McClean high school.  

Those trailers, the poor state of school funding in general, low teacher pay and now the huge tax breaks the state is giving to lure in Amazon have led the teachers to strike on Monday, the start of the latest in a series of strikes by educators across the US.

In Fairfax county, the third richest county in America, there are over 800 trailers serving as temporary classrooms because the school district cannot afford to build new classrooms.

“Our staff often likes to say that Fairfax county public schools is the biggest trailer dealer on the east coast of the United States” joked school board member Ryan McElveen. “We own 820 trailers, more than any other entity on the entire east coast”.

Throughout Virginia, school districts own thousands of cheaply constructed trailers that present health and safety risks. The trailers are often poorly heated, their plywood construction makes them susceptible to mold, and in some schools, students have even reported accidentally falling through their floors.

To get to the trailers, students are often forced to walk outside of their schools to nearby parking lots; often arriving to class cold and wet, sometimes even getting sick.

“In this era of school shootings, having our children in trailers, which is open to the public without any of the security that we have for the buildings is dangerous, anyone can walk in at any second – that’s not safe and that’s not a good learning environment” said Rachna Sizemore, whose autistic son was forced to transfer to a school nearly a half hour away because of the overcrowding in northern Virginia’s schools.

Just a few miles away from the moldy trailers of McLean high school is the proposed site of on Amazon’s new headquarters in Crystal City, Virginia, right across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. The influx of new residents to northern Virginia attracted by Amazon is only likely to expand the trailer parks sitting outside of many northern Virginia schools.

While Virginia’s Democratic governor Ralph Northam is proposing to increase education funding by $269m, he has proposed to spend nearly three times as much, $750m, to lure Amazon to northern Virginia. The offer was made to secure Amazon’s “HQ2” – the tech company’s second headquarters which it split between Virginia and a second – equally controversial – site in Long Island City, New York.

Teachers are pushing back and now are going out in the first statewide teachers’ strikes in Virginia’s history.

Inspired by a wave of #RedforEd strikes that have swept the nation, teachers in Virginia, who make $9,000 less than the national average, are calling on Northam to nix the tax cuts and instead invest the money into eliminating trailer parks outside of so many of Virginia’s schools.

“Like the shortfalls for education West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Los Angeles, Virginia would need to invest $1bn in order to return to its pre-recession funding levels” said Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teacher president. Virginia “is prepared to prioritize corporate tax breaks for Amazon over the needs of public schools”, she said. “That’s not right.”

In a statement the governor’s press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, said: “Governor Northam is well aware Virginia teacher salaries are below the national average, which is why his proposed budget includes the largest single-year teacher pay raise in 15 years.”

She said the governor’s proposed budget “outlines significant investments in Virginia’s K-12 education system”.

Many argue that constructing new schools could actually create more jobs than bringing in Amazon.

“It’s not just that we would create more construction jobs, but more classrooms means more teachers, it means a lower teacher-to-student ratio and better schools are a draw for everyone,” said Lee Carter, a construction worker turned democratic socialist state representative from northern Virginia.

Teachers’ union leaders and their allies say hope that public support generated by the strike pushes Northam to go bold on education spending.

The strike in Virginia comes a week after Weingarten’s union reached a tentative deal to end a landmark strike in Los Angeles against the Democratic school superintendent. While previous strikes took on Republican administrations in Oklahoma and West Virginia, now the teachers’ are increasingly turning their attention to Democratic administrations like Northam’s in an increasingly Democratic-trending state like Virginia.

Currently, Republicans narrowly control the Virginia House of Delegates by only one vote and the senate of Virginia by two votes. With elections for the state legislature set for this fall, many teachers are hoping they can push Northam to go bold in standing up for teachers.

“Teachers have been disempowered in this state for a long time,” said Carter. “You’ve got legislators in Richmond, who are faced with [the choice] ‘do we spend money on our schools or do we spend money to try to help these massive political contributions?’ And time and time again those dollars go to the donors, but now that is beginning to change.”

Back in the trailer infested school system of northern Virginia, many parents hope something does change.

“The other day, I drove by a construction site and my kid spotted a trailer and pointed to the trailer and said look, “Mommy, I see your school” and I said “no sweetheart that’s a trailer,” said Fairfax county school teacher Carla Okouchi. “It’s heartbreaking that any child would see such a structure as a school.”

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