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February 17, 2016

Lots of Concern But Fewer Dollars for Students in Failing Schools

In the midst of Republican and Democratic disagreement over charter schools, lawmakers have expressed concern that Virginia is failing to provide a high-quality education to all Virginia students. Their concern is welcome. Yet it is in sharp contrast to their record when it comes to financial support for schools that have the most students living in poverty.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have hotly debated a constitutional amendment that would shift the final authority to approve charter schools from the local school boards to the state. Wrapped up in these discussions is a growing concern for students attending schools that are failing to meet the state’s accreditation standards, often in high-poverty areas with higher percentages of minority students.

In passionate speeches, some lawmakers have called it “indefensible” that we have students receiving a “world-class” education in some areas and a “third world” education in others. They have implored other members to take action, saying, “My God, we have kids we are ruining.”

These concerns are well-placed. Low-income, minority, disabled, and students with limited English proficiency underperform on Standards of Learning assessments in every subject when compared to other students, are less likely to graduate on time, and are more likely to drop out, according to Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction in a presentation to the House Appropriations Committee.

But, rather than laying all the blame on the local schools or the parents, we should look at how little the state supports the education of these students.

The state and local governments spend about one-sixth less per student in Virginia’s poorest communities than in its wealthiest. This divide in support for poor schools and wealthy schools is the fifth largest in the entire country. Virginia received an “F” for the fairness of the state’s funding distribution in a recent review by Rutgers University. The report cites Virginia, alongside Alabama and Missouri, as the only states that did poorly on all four measures of the fairness of the state’s education funding. These measures look at the level, distribution, effort, and coverage of funding relative to child poverty rates.

It also doesn’t help that recent cuts to education funding made by the state since the recession have disproportionately hit schools in high-poverty areas. State cuts were almost three times larger for school divisions in Virginia’s poorest areas than for those in its wealthiest.   

Instead of just blaming schools, state lawmakers could direct some of that attention inward to their own policies. They could take action this year by adopting the proposed increase of $50 million in the governor’s proposed budget targeted to help at-risk students. These funds are distributed based on the percent of students qualifying for free lunch and would boost support to high-poverty areas.

In future years they could look at the local composite index (LCI) that allocates state dollars across local school divisions. Lawmakers tabled bills this session, such as HB 532, that directed the state to change the LCI and take into consideration student demographics, such as family income, when allocating state funds. A review of the LCI and comparison to other states could explain why the funding divide is so large in Virginia.

Lawmakers are rightly concerned about the quality of education being provided to students living in the poorest areas of Virginia, and they should take action, by fixing Virginia’s model for funding schools. What they should not do, is just give up on these schools, and these kids.

–Chris Duncombe, Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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