May 31, 2017
Demonstrated Harm: In Wise County Public Schools
Reduced state support for public education has negatively impacted Virginia classrooms, from the bustling shorelines of Hampton Roads to the green mountaintops of the Appalachians. In Wise County, in far southwest Virginia, these cuts have significantly harmed day-to-day operations and forced schools to not fill critical positions and cut back on services their students need in the classroom. And as teachers and administrators in Wise point out, this carries real consequences for the county’s children.
State support for public education has fallen 18.1 percent per student in Wise County since 2009 in real dollars.
As a result, Wise has 75 fewer teachers than in 2009, and have decreased the number of counselors, librarians, and support staff, which includes custodial staff needed to maintain facilities. All told, Wise has over 200 fewer staff in its schools than in 2009. Meanwhile, the percentage of school-aged children living below the poverty threshold has increased 12 percent since 2009, increasing demands on school teachers and staff.
Teachers and other instructors make up about two-thirds of school staff in the state, and this makes it hard for schools to balance their budgets without looking to cut back on these positions. Wise County Public Schools made the tough decision to not refill instructional staff positions when staff members leave. Not refilling these vital positions has resulted in a larger student to teacher ratio.
A Wise County teacher explained, “We’re running 30-31 [students] in classes now [compared to] the 20-25 we used to have…In my school, last year, we only had four seventh grade teachers [for] 120 kids.” He later added, “We don’t have the money to replace the [teachers].”
Additionally, some schools have cut back on resource positions. One teacher explained that her school used to have a resource teacher who helped students with remedial reading. “We don’t have that [position] anymore,” she said. “That was cut.” Another teacher explained, “60 percent of our students are [at] at-risk reading levels” and that makes reading intervention positions like literacy coaches or resource teaching “incredibly valuable.”
In addition to instructional staff, support positions such as school counselors and transportation staff have also been impacted by state cuts.
Due to the limited number of counselors available in some divisions and their growing list of duties, many counselors across the state spend a considerable portion of their time doing more administrative tasks, such as assisting with testing and class scheduling. One Wise County administrator explained that one of their schools lost their guidance clerk, and, as a result, the school counselor has to do more administrative work, which takes away from her time to work with students.
“Every piece of filing she has to do…, every SOL label she has to affix to a folder, all of that takes away from working with kids,” he said. “So, instead of spending 30 minutes working with a young man on some issue…she might hurry it up to 15 minutes because she has to fax over the record for the next student.”
Safe transportation of students is another critical challenge in Wise County. Educators spoke about potential safety concerns with the age of their buses and the number of students per route. One educator explained that they have several buses that are 15 years old or more. A change to the state budget increasing the assumed lifespan for buses to 15 years – without evidence of the impact on safety – resulted in the need for schools to keep buses in use longer than the previously recommended 12 to 15 years. A 2016 report notes that at least 1,900 buses statewide are near or past the recommended 12 to 15 year replacement cycle.
Teachers and administrators also identified challenges recruiting bus drivers, which has resulted in instances of overcrowding on buses for certain routes. A teacher from Wise, who is also a bus driver, said “I went from having roughly 30 something kids [to] 40 something kids [on my route]…in the past year, to this past week I had 68 students [on a bus].” Multiple other teachers chimed in after this comment, saying: “that’s not safe.”
The resource challenges faced by Wise County and school divisions across the state stem from cuts to state support made during and after the recession when lawmakers diluted the state’s education funding formula. In the past couple of years, lawmakers made important progress in beginning to restore support for public education, yet this has only replaced about a quarter of the per student cuts in real dollars and hasn’t fixed the damage done to the formula during the recession.
Virginia’s economy demands a future workforce that is prepared with the skills, knowledge, and competencies to help make it thrive. Providing all Virginia children with a high-quality public education is an obligation of our commonwealth, and it is also a smart investment in our future.
State lawmakers need to take these resource challenges seriously and respond with substantive action to restore much needed support for public education. A good start would be for lawmakers to use the blueprint handed to them by Virginia’s Board of Education to adequately support Virginia schools.
This is the second in a series of blog posts based on The Commonwealth Institute’s recent report, Demonstrated Harm: Cuts to School Funding are Hurting Virginia Classrooms. The Commonwealth Institute conducted focus groups in six school divisions across the state during the summer and fall of 2016. The purpose of the focus groups was to gain understanding of the key challenges and opportunities facing school divisions from the perspective of on-the-ground teachers and administrators. The report summarizes the findings from those focus groups and features experiences from educators and administrators from all over the state to better understand the array of challenges Virginia schools face.