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October 22, 2015

Virginia’s Divide in School Funding is One of the Nation’s Worst

Virginia has one of the largest divides in the country when it comes to state and local support for its schools, spending about one-sixth less per student in its poorest communities than its wealthiest, and the divide has been growing as the state has weakened its support for education since the recession.    

High-poverty schools require more resources, not fewer, to meet the diverse needs of children who come from families that are struggling to make ends meet. By shortchanging these schools, the state has turned its back on teachers and students and made trying circumstances even more difficult.

State and local governments in Virginia spent 16.7 percent less per student in Virginia’s poorest school divisions than they did in Virginia’s wealthiest school divisions in 2012, as shown in figures recently released by the National Center for Education Statistics. This difference in support is the fifth largest in the entire country, behind all of our neighboring states. It illustrates the extremely different experiences of Virginia’s students depending on where they live.


Virginia’s large divide shows that the state is not effectively balancing out differences in local wealth when it comes to funding schools so all Virginia students get a quality education. The state attempts to adjust for differences in local wealth by splitting the costs of supporting schools with local governments based on their ability to pay. Yet, this model only works if the state is adequately meeting its share of the bargain, which it hasn’t in recent years. The state has decreased support for Virginia’s schools by making changes to how it determines the minimum level of support a school receives. As a result, local governments have needed to go above and beyond required support in order to meet the actual needs of their school divisions. This places a larger burden on individual communities, some of which simply can’t afford to make this investment. In 2014, localities spent $3.6 billion beyond the funding levels required by the state’s reduced formula.

Of course, not all localities can afford to make these investments. The result is a growing divide between poor and wealthy school divisions in Virginia.

The school divisions in communities where more families are struggling to get by, which are now receiving less in support than previously, also have more students who require extra help in and out of the classroom. Students living in poverty need more than just an education to succeed as documented in a recent exposé of Highland View Elementary in Bristol Public Schools. Due to their families’ difficult circumstances, some of these students need food, shelter, and a wide array of social services to address problems they are facing at home. As Pam Smith, principal of Highland View, says in that story, “The school is their counselor, their doctor, their cook, their nutritionist, their mother… we’re their family.” The report makes clear that schools are an essential lifeline for many of these children, but providing these services requires money. At Highland View, they recently had to cut a teaching position and ask two elementary teachers to juggle three classes due to funding problems.

To expect high-poverty schools to meet the same performance standards despite lower state and local support is a monumental ask. In fact, students living in poverty can require between two to two-and-half times as much support to meet similar levels of academic achievement as other students. Yet in Virginia, instead of receiving twice as much in support, these schools are receiving about one-sixth less per student from the state and local governments.

As US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said, “Money by itself is never the only answer, but giving kids who start out already behind in life, giving them less resources is unconscionable, and it’s far too common.”

And that’s especially true in Virginia.

–Chris Duncombe, Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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