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April 14, 2016

Local School Funding Headaches Started with the State

Localities across the state are wrestling with tough questions about how to find the money they need to support their schools. But the fact is, the state bears substantial blame for the situation. State lawmakers made deep cuts to public education during and after the recession, and are only now starting to dig out of that hole.

In Richmond, insufficient funding put the school board in the position of recommending closing five schools. In Alleghany County, eight teaching positions could be eliminated. In Botetourt County, residents could face a 13 percent increase in their real estate tax to avoid cuts to education and emergency services. Local leaders are feeling the heat over the need to allocate more funds for schools, but state policymakers should be sharing the blame for the current challenges.

Take Richmond, for example. State direct aid to Richmond City public schools was $1,291 (in 2016 dollars) per pupil lower in 2016 than it was in 2009. That’s a drop of more than 17 percent. But if the General Assembly had decided to give Richmond the same per pupil, inflation-adjusted aid in 2017 that it gave in 2009, Richmond Public Schools would have an additional $25.2 million. That eclipses the $18 million gap between the Richmond City School Board’s budget and the mayor’s.

The biggest way the state reduced funding was by making structural changes to its key funding formula, the SOQ. These changes may seem harmless – placing a cap on support positions, extending the school bus replacement schedule – but the overall result is a dramatic cut of $800 million per year in pre-K-12 funding during the height of the cuts in real dollars.  And the cuts hit systems like Richmond Public Schools – places where it’s more difficult to make up the revenue locally – harder than most, while other places like Fredericksburg and Fairfax actually saw their per pupil funding increase between 2009 and 2016.

Localities are in a tight spot when it comes to school funding. And residents are right to press their local elected officials to do everything they can to make sure kids get the education they need. But it’s important to remember that state lawmakers in the General Assembly had a large hand in creating this problem, and they have a large role to play in fixing it.


Aaron Williams

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