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December 29, 2015

Making Progress in Supporting Virginia’s Schools

Public education is on the verge of getting a much needed boost under Governor McAuliffe’s budget proposal.

Since the 2008-2009 school year, the state has cut per-student support for preK-12 programs by 13.6 percent. That’s put Virginia’s schools about $1 billion short per year of where they would have been without the cuts after adjusting for enrollment and inflation.

The governor’s proposal would inject $850 million in additional general fund support for schools over the next two budget years. Still, as important as this reinvestment is, it does not get Virginia all the way out of the hole lawmakers dug during the recession.

Here’s where the dollars are targeted, and how far they go in helping repair the damage from the cuts.

New teachers for every school division

The proposed budget includes $139.1 million to provide the state’s share of support for 2,500 additional instructional positions. This is enough to support one new position in each elementary school over both years of the budget (FY2017 and FY2018)  and two new positions in each middle and high school in the second year of the budget (FY2018). School divisions will be allowed to support a variety of instructional positions, including teachers, guidance counselors and librarians, aides, and assistant principals. The school divisions also will be given the choice of determining which schools have the greatest need for these positions. The cost will be calculated based on the prevailing salary for a teacher in Virginia.   

This is welcome news for schools that have reduced staff due to budget pressures during the recession. Virginia schools have almost 5,000 fewer staff than they did in FY2008, and if staffing had kept pace with student enrollment, there would be more than 11,000 additional staff in Virginia’s schools.

The 2,500 additional positions do not make up for the more than 11,000 missing staff. Yet, it helps. These positions can be used to recruit high-quality teachers, keep class sizes manageable, and provide counseling and career guidance to students.

Making teacher salaries more competitive

The governor’s proposed budget also provides $83.2 million for the state’s share of a two percent salary increase for teachers. This modest raise is needed because recent reports show that Virginia is lagging in its financial support for teachers, which makes it hard to recruit and retain the best ones. A report released earlier this year by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) shows that teachers in Virginia were making $6,800 below the average salary nationwide in 2014, and a report by the Education Law Center at Rutgers University ranks Virginia dead last in the nation in the competitiveness of teacher salaries.

The raise is a good start. But teachers would need close to a 14 percent pay raise to reach the nationwide average.

Support for at-risk students

The proposed budget includes $50 million in additional funds to be distributed to schools to support programs for students who are at risk of dropping out. These programs include dropout prevention, support for students who speak English as a second language, and programs aimed at increasing the success of disadvantaged students in completing a high school degree and pursuing further education and training. These funds are awarded to school divisions based on the number of students eligible for free lunch by the federal government.

This supplemental support for schools with higher concentrations of low-income students is essential, because recent state cuts have disproportionately affected these schools. State cuts since the recession were almost three times larger for school divisions with the highest poverty rates compared to those with the lowest poverty rates. The state reduced support by $1,490 per student in the highest poverty areas and $511 per student in the lowest poverty areas.

New early childhood grants

The proposal also includes $6.9 million in incentive funds to encourage local school divisions to partner with private providers in the delivery of pre-kindergarten services, and to provide training for these caretakers and instructors.

In the 2014-2015 school year, more than half of the school divisions participating in the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) did not use all the available slots for eligible children that the state would help support. One of the reasons schools do not participate is that they do not have the available space or instructors to provide these services. This grant program will take advantage of existing facilities already in use by private providers to offer early education to Virginia’s children.

But there are other reasons that schools do not fully participate in the VPI program that are not addressed by this initiative. In particular, the state’s estimate of the cost per pupil of providing pre-kindergarten services – $6,000 – is far outdated, having last been revised in 2007-2008, and is now well behind federal estimates for the cost of pre-kindergarten services. As a result, the state contributes only a part of the true cost of providing high quality pre-k instruction.

Responsible re-benchmarking

The largest single investment in K-12 education in the governor’s proposed budget is simply keeping the education funding formula current. The state undergoes a re-benchmarking process every two years, which updates the formula with more current information in terms of enrollment, student demographics, and inflation. While this update does not reflect new policy, it keeps the formula relevant over time. This update will result in an increase of about $400 million in school funds over the 2017-2018 biennium.

The proposed budget also includes inflation adjustments for school expenses other than staff salaries. This is important, because lawmakers ignored inflation costs for these expenses during the recession as a tactic to reduce state support.

–Chris Duncombe, Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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