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June 24, 2015

Middle of the Pack Doesn’t Make the Grade

In Virginia we’re proud of our schools. But now there is disturbing news that we’re just keeping up with the rest of the nation when it comes to making the investments needed to make sure our schools stay great and our students get the education they need to compete in the global economy.

In fact, 25 states and the District of Columbia all invest more in their schools on a per student basis than Virginia, a new report by the Census finds.  

That’s not leadership – it’s the middle of the pack.

And the only reason we’re that high on the list is because Virginia localities pony up a larger amount for their share of the cost than in many other states. When you look at only state funding, Virginia ranks much lower: 38 states provide more funding per student for their schools. Only in nine other states does a larger share of school funding come from localities.

But relying so heavily on local governments to bear all of the costs of their schools isn’t fair, because not all of them are able to pick up the tab. And when struggling localities can’t afford to cover these costs, the students who live there go with fewer teachers, rundown facilities, and other problems.

When the state cut education funding in the wake of the last recession, it didn’t do so equally across divisions. The cuts in per-student state funding fell three times harder on the highest-poverty school divisions than the lowest.

That’s because when the state cuts funding for things like support staff and textbooks, the localities have to make up the difference or make cuts that hurt our students and teachers. And the school divisions that lose the most when the state reduces funding are the ones that relied the most state funding in the first place – in the very localities that are least able to make up the state cuts.

So where the need is greatest, we’ve seen the greatest cuts in support. Sadly, the federal government and Virginia’s localities haven’t been able to close all of the gap.

What makes this frustrating is that Virginia can do more to support our schools, but our lawmakers just don’t seem to want to.

It’s hard to conclude otherwise. When you look at state support for schools in the context of our state’s economy, by putting  total school funding in terms of statewide personal income, we come in 38th in the nation. When you drop out local and federal funding and focus just on state investment, we drop even further – to 46th.

We can do more to invest in our schools, and we need to do more to make sure that students in struggling communities have the resources to get ahead. As it creates the next two-year budget, the administration should take a different approach and roll back the damaging cuts made in the wake of the recession.

Because we can’t expect our schools to get by on a shoestring as they’re getting our students ready for Virginia’s economy. And lawmakers can take steps to make sure that they don’t have to.

–Mitchell Cole, Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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