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January 20, 2017

Far From Safe: K-12 Takes Further Cuts in Proposed Budget


Virginia’s legislature is reviewing the Governor’s proposed amendments to the 2016-2018 budget. A theme in committee meetings has been that K-12 education has been kept safe from budget cuts in his proposal. This assertion stems from direct aid to public schools not receiving the off-the-top cut that many state agencies and higher education institutions experienced. Yet that does not mean K-12 wasn’t cut in other less obvious ways. A closer look shows that K-12 actually absorbed $273 million in General Fund cuts that helped to fill the state’s revenue shortfall.

The largest and most obvious of the cuts was from the elimination of the state’s share of a 2 percent salary increase for teachers and school staff – which cut $135 million for a much needed pay boost. Lawmakers made the pay increase contingent on hitting a state revenue target when they approved the budget last year and the state didn’t get there. The governor has proposed offsetting a portion of this cut by offering the state’s share of a one-time 1.5 percent bonus to teachers and school staff – which adds $55.5 million in the second year of the budget.   

That all nets out to a cut of $80 million to K-12 for compensation.

Less obvious cuts to K-12 involve supplanting General Fund dollars with revenues from the Virginia Lottery and Literary Fund that are projected to come in higher than originally budgeted.

Both Lottery and Literary funds are directed by Virginia’s Constitution to support public education and are marketed as increasing investments in public schools. Yet instead of boosting support for K-12, lawmakers have frequently used these funds as mere substitutes for General Fund dollars. The proposed budget continues this practice by using $52 million in lottery revenues and $50 million in literary funds to replace General Fund spending. This action arguably subverts the purpose of the Lottery Fund to generate additional support for public education.

Using lottery funds in this manner is particularly disturbing given that voters chose to dedicate these funds exclusively to public education in a 2000 referendum with 84 percent of voters in support. The referendum stated that “the General Assembly will no longer have the broad discretion it has now to appropriate the lottery profits for any public purpose.” It’s also misleading that the Virginia Lottery markets its products as a way for Virginians to support public education with slogans like “We’re game for public education” when these funds are often used for supplanting.

Lawmakers have used this funding shell game before, and this time it would cut $102 million from public education.

Finally, technical revisions to sales tax forecasts and enrollment estimates reduces General Fund support for Virginia’s public schools by another $90 million. While these adjustments are not policy changes, they do reduce the overall level of support for Virginia schools. The governor and lawmakers took credit for $400 million in technical adjustments to school funding – which accounted for almost half of the total increase in K-12 support – last legislative session in a process known as re-benchmarking. These technical updates, while not policy changes, still impact school finances.

As lawmakers review the governor’s amendments to the 2016-2018 budget, they should not gloss over these significant cuts to public K-12 education. With these cuts, the state’s support for Virginia’s students and future workforce is down 11.8 percent per pupil since 2009 adjusting for inflation. K-12 has borne its fair share in the state’s austerity efforts now and during the recession.


Chris Duncombe

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