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September 23, 2015

Eroding Support for Schools Jeopardizes Virginia’s Future

Virginia’s schools have fewer resources and higher needs than any time in recent history as made clear in an alarming report by the legislature’s watchdog. The over 100-page report the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) released Monday warns of larger class sizes that make learning harder; difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers; out of date curriculum; and neglected facilities.

No wonder state Secretary of Education Anne Holton said the report contained “a lot of canaries in the coal mine” and called for a review of how the state funds K-12 education. That would be a good start. The state has watered down the funding formula since the beginning of the recession, lowering the state’s contribution and punting school funding to local governments to come up with the rest. As a result, localities are footing a larger portion of the bill in Virginia than in 39 other states. Virginia localities paid for over half (56 percent) of the spending in the fiscal year of 2014, which amounted to $3.6 billion beyond their required match. But many localities lack the resources to make up the shortfall, resulting in a growing divide between schools in communities with limited financial resources, and those with more.

With such deep cuts in recent years, it’s clear why JLARC staff decided they needed to address the elephant in the room on education in Virginia – the basic adequacy of state funding – in order to properly address the charge they had been given by the General Assembly to look at the “efficiency and effectiveness” of education spending.

The JLARC report goes on to fly in the face of those claiming schools are inefficient and wasting dollars on unnecessary services. The report notes that private consultants have performed detailed efficiency reviews of 43 school divisions, and the schools have or are in the process of implementing 91 percent of the recommendations. While the reviews are important have saved $37.5 million annually, these efficiency reviews are not identifying concerns with the vast majority of non-instructional spending in those divisions.

The report shows schools have been forced to make tough choices in cutting funds for instruction, teacher support services, and buildings. The average Virginia school now spends 9 percent less on instruction per student than in 2005, adjusting for inflation, and almost all students in Virginia (98 percent) are in school divisions with reduced instructional spending.

The decreased classroom spending translates into fewer teachers, larger classes, and diminished ability to recruit and retain high-quality teachers. The report finds that the number of teachers in Virginia has not kept pace with growing enrollment. There would be close to 6,000 more teachers in Virginia’s schools if the number of students per teacher stayed at the level of 2009. And this problem is much more extreme in schools that can’t rely on their local governments to make up the difference. For example, in Hampton, average 4th and 5th grade classes increased by 25 percent growing to 30 students from 24.

Kids tend to do better in smaller classes: 90 percent of Virginia school divisions reported that the recent increases to class sizes have limited the ability of their teachers to meet the needs of individual students.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s students now have more needs. The report notes the number of Virginia’s students living in poverty has increased by 45 percent and the number of students with limited English proficiency increased by 69 percent since 2005. These students often require additional attention from teachers and support staff to achieve success, which is challenging for teachers instructing large classes.

While teachers are juggling more, higher-need students, they are also being compensated less and getting less professional support and development. Take-home pay for many teachers has decreased since 2005, as salaries have remained flat after adjusting for inflation and health premiums have increased. The report also notes that professional development and advisory staff have decreased, which isn’t good for the quality of teacher preparation and curriculum development.

All of this makes Virginia a less desirable place for teachers, and makes it harder for the state to recruit the best.

And it’s not just instruction dollars on the chopping block. Spending to renovate or build new facilities has decreased by almost a third – the largest decline of all spending categories – per student since 2005. As a result schools have not been able to grow with enrollment and some now exceed their capacity.

This is not a recipe for success. By supporting our schools at a level far below what it takes to meet growing needs, we put our children and our future workforce in a precarious position. Continuing to pretend that teachers and schools can do more with less, year after year, is not sustainable. It’s time to rebuild the damage done to education funding during the recession and invest in our children.

–Chris Duncombe, Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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