February 16, 2022
It’s Time To Lift the Arbitrary Staffing Cap for Supporting Students
Every student deserves a safe and healthy school environment where they are supported academically, socially, and emotionally. While teachers have the greatest impact on student outcomes, many students come to school with barriers to learning and need support beyond what even the greatest teacher can provide. Support staff play a critical role in addressing the barriers that students face so that they can focus on and engage in learning. Yet lawmakers put a “cap” on how much they would invest in school support staff. As a result, the state has underfunded these critical positions for well over a decade, denying adequate support to students. Several policymakers have proposed lifting this cap during the 2022 legislative session, and lawmakers must take this opportunity to provide students and teachers the support they need.
Students and families rely on schools to meet a variety of needs, like help accessing community resources, meals, and afterschool programming. But to adequately meet these needs, schools must have an adequate number of support staff. These critical positions include custodians to maintain a clean and safe facility, food service staff to make sure students aren’t hungry, school psychologists and social workers to address challenges students face inside and outside the building, and much more. They are in a unique position to build trust with students, encourage parental and family involvement in education, improve school climate, and provide a wide range of services that are essential in meeting the academic, social, and emotional learning needs of students in and out of the classroom.
But since the 2008-2009 school year, there has been a profound drop-off in state investment for support staff positions. In response to the Great Recession in 2009, lawmakers added language to the budget creating a “cap” on support staff funding, cutting hundreds of millions in state funding for support staff.
From that point to 2020, support staff decreased by 1,700 positions across the state, while student enrollment increased by 63,000 students. These reductions mean school counselors have taken on administrative and testing responsibilities while maintaining larger caseloads, and custodial staff has been drastically reduced to the point where schools don’t have the capacity to maintain clean, healthy environments. It also means that instructors are forced to wear the hat of social worker, administrator, and custodian, and students are left without access to vital support services and facilities without proper upkeep. Making matters worse, school districts across the commonwealth have reported support staff shortages in recent years, and the pandemic has pushed schools to a breaking point.
The students that feel these impacts most are those who may not have access to needed supports, such as counseling, career development, and mental health services, outside of the school. Support positions are especially vital for addressing and improving challenges that students from low-income families and students of color face in particular, such as chronic absenteeism, high rates of suspensions and expulsions, and overall school climate. Yet when considering positions subject to the support cap, per-pupil support staffing has declined at four times the rate for school divisions with the most students of color (as a share) compared to school divisions with the fewest between the 2008-2009 school year and the 2017-2018 school year.
The support cap also puts financial challenges on the budgets of local governments. The number of support staff positions that the state will help fund has fallen even faster than overall support staff positions, pushing more of the financial cost onto cities and counties. As of the 2019-2020 school year, the state helped pay for less than 40% of support staff in Virginia’s public schools, down from 61% in 2008-2009. This means many local governments have to fund the majority of these positions on their own and not all localities have sufficient resources to make these investments. And in years when the state offers a pay raise, like the proposed 5% annual increase in fiscal years 2023 and 2024, state dollars are only provided for the number of support positions covered by the support cap, not the number of actual staff. Local governments are left to choose whether to provide for part or all of the raise, if it can at all, or find other sources of revenue to fund a raise.
Finally, the funding methodology of the support cap does not represent actual costs, and it’s not based upon estimates of the number of needed support staff. In a 2004 review of best practices in support services, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission concluded that “school division practices and expenditures for non-instructional support services in Virginia appear to be neither inadequate nor excessive,” demonstrating that spending before the cap was appropriate.
This legislative session, several policymakers have recognized the importance of support staff in schools and put forth proposals to provide adequate funding. Delegates Bourne (137 #6h), Reid (137 #21h), and Kory (137 #12h) and Senators McClellan (137 #15s) and Barker (137 #9s) have submitted budget amendments that would lift the support cap and fund school support staff based on how many positions schools need. Lifting the support cap will help alleviate the challenges that schools face and provide students with the resources necessary for a quality education.
While pitched as a temporary strategy to save funding in a time of financial strain, the support cap has been included in every budget since its introduction. Since that time, state revenues recovered from the Great Recession and have been higher than expected in response to the pandemic-related economic crisis. Yet the support cap persists and its impacts continue to be felt by school divisions across the commonwealth. Virginia has the financial resources to fully support our students and teachers. Action is past due: Lawmakers must finally lift the support cap in this year’s state budget.
Budget & Revenue, Education