Did Virginia lawmakers deliver on public education funding?

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Earlier this year, hundreds of educators from across the commonwealth rallied for a dramatic increase in public school funding but did the General Assembly deliver?

Lawmakers from both parties and Gov. Ralph Northam placed this as a top priority for the two year budget. This weekend, House and Senate conferees finished crafting their plan, which the full General Assembly will act on come Thursday.

Kathy Burcher, director of government relations and research for the Virginia Education Association, said the organization is still reviewing the most recent round of amendments. She said, overall, the plan is a step in the right direction but the state still has a long way to go to meet the needs of struggling school districts.

Teacher salaries

Teachers and other staff members covered by the state’s Standards of Quality will get a 2 percent raise in each of the next two school years under the current plan.

Chesterfield Education Association President Sonia Smith, a high school teacher of twelve years, said salaries will still fall far short of the national average.

“Because of that, teachers are leaving. That is a major reason why we have a teacher crisis,” Smith said. “We know we can’t get there overnight but we’re going to continue to fight.”

Support staff funding

One amendment sets aside more than $20 million over two years to increase the English Language Learner student-teacher ratio from 17 positions per one thousand students to 20 by 2022.

Another amendment provides more than $40 million over two years to fund 615 additional school counselors by 2022. That’s one counselor for every 325 K-12 students.

“At-risk” student funding

The state gives school boards money for each student enrolled in a district. An additional percentage is allocated for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The budget increases that percentage for “at-risk” students in high poverty districts.

“Research indicates it can cost up to 200 percent more to bring a 3rd grade student who has grown up in poverty to reading level,” Burcher said. “This is the only financial lift we have  specifically for these high need students and so the VEA has been fighting for years to increase that dollar amount.”

School construction projects

Burcher said the current budget “doesn’t appear” to include a proposal to restore state grants for school construction. She said these grants were eliminated to cut costs during the Great Recession.

Burcher said the budget does increase the percentage of funding per-student district’s have to put towards non-recurring costs like capital projects. “You can make the argument that any amount of money a school division would receive would not allow them to make the significant improvements they need to make,” she said.

She said school boards are often forced to neglect routine maintenance to put money towards large fixes, like new buildings.

“They’re looking under every mat to find dollars,” she said. “So while the state never had a big role, they had a meaningful role during the depths of the Recession and its well past time recover.” 

Schools with declining enrollment

The budget also sets aside additional dollars to help school districts offset state funding hits due to declining enrollment, a move backed by Del. Chris Hurst (D- Montgomery).

“If you lose five students in one school division per year, it doesn’t mean you need fewer teachers. Doesn’t mean you need fewer classrooms,” Hurst said at a recent press conference.

To qualify for the payments, a school district has to have fewer than 10,000 students and lose more than 2.0 percent of its students from the prior year.

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