Friday, July 21, 2023

Virginia's Education Funding Gap

 The calendar still says it’s July, yet back to school sales and ads are starting to pop up all over the place. And it just feels a bit too soon.

Unfortunately, when the kids do go back to school in just a few short weeks, public school students here in Falls Church and Fairfax will have be in classrooms staffed by teachers who are once again being asked to do more with less.


Because Governor Glenn Younkin’s Department of Education flunked math last semester and miscalculated the state’s share of education funding by about $201 million. To make matters worse, instead of passing budget amendments that would have fixed the error and added about $1 billion in additional education funding during the 2023 Session as the state Senate proposed, the Governor and his allies in the GOP controlled House insisted on billions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthiest corporations.

So, we ended the session with no new budget bill and when legislative leaders attempted to regroup after the primaries, we found we were no further along than we were last February.  Word on the street is that the Governor has stopped working on the 2023 budget amendments and turned his attention to his 2024 biennial budget proposal.

No budget compromise means no fixing this education funding gap.

Because of VDOE’s error, Fairfax County Public Schools will receive about $18 million less than expected in state funding and Falls Church Public Schools about $144,000.

And that’s just the beginning of our education funding shortfall. A recent study of Virginia’s school funding formula concluded we already underfund our schools by about $6.6 billion.

JLARC Study on School Funding

In 2021, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) conducted a study to determine the true expenses of Virginia's education system and evaluate what it would actually cost to implement Virginia’s mandatory Standards of Quality (SOQ).

The SOQ is a state mandate intended to ensure every locality has a high-quality public education system.

Currently in Virginia, we try to estimate how many staff positions are necessary to do all the things the SOQ tells a school system they have to do.  Most states (42 out of 50) allocate funding on a per-student basis. JLARC looked at what would we be spending if we joined the vast majority of states in providing funding based on the number of kids enrolled in school, not the number of staff we thought we would need to teach those kids.

The answer is we are off by $6.6 billion.

In K-12, for instance, our current approach tells us we need 113,500 FTEs statewide while the actual data shows that 171,400 staff are currently employed to cover the responsibilities of educating our kids.

It also doesn’t account for certain costs incurred because of students with higher needs, such as at-risk kids, kids requiring special education, or kids learning English as a second language (ESL). Although funding for at-risk and ESL students has increased over the years, the funding for special education has been stagnant.

This means that the financial burden rests with the localities. And some are better able to cover the disparities than others.

JLARC Recommendations

As part of the study, JLARC recommended several short-term and long-term options to improve the funding formula and better meet our education systems’ needs. Some of the recommendations are as simple as discontinuing Great Recession-era cost reduction measures that are no longer needed.

Some of the recommendations will require a longer-term commitment to redirect funding allocations to where it is needed most and at the level that reflects actual costs. This includes establishing new staffing ratios, re-benchmarking staff salaries, replacing the cost of competing adjustments with a more accurate method, and adopting economies of scale to help smaller school divisions.

Every school district must have the funding and resources they need to be successful - addressing the basics of increasing teacher pay and creating a safe learning environment. Providing additional resources for “no loss” funding due to reduced enrollment, expanded broadband access, need-based direct aid for remediating lost learning time, increasing the per pupil amount for the Preschool Initiative, and extended special education eligibility are also integral aspects of our public education system.

However, we must redefine the SOQ with more support from the state so that it reflects the priorities of a 21st Century public education system. These SOQs are only effective if they accurately reflect the actual costs the school districts incur to meet these standards. Otherwise, we are failing in our obligation to provide our kids with a productive and effective learning environment.