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March 21, 2019

What’s Equitable When It Comes to School Funding: A National Report Sheds Light for Virginia Schools

Every parent, every teacher knows that each child is not the same. They have different strengths, interests, habits, and yes, different challenges too. So when it comes to allocating resources to schools, it’s important to look beyond just enrollment, and to look at the demographics and services that students are going to need to be successful. A national report shows funding for many Virginia school divisions is insufficient to achieve better outcomes for students living in poverty.

The national report released last year by researchers at Rutgers Graduate School of Education and Education Law Center unpacks the drivers of spending variation and looks at what it would cost to support students in reaching equal outcomes (as measured by achieving national averages on language arts and mathematics assessments). They find that most states fall below the funding levels necessary for children living in poverty to achieve national average outcomes, with some states spending more than ten thousand dollars short (per student) of what is needed to achieve this relatively modest goal. This national report creates helpful context for school spending discussions by factoring in the actual needs of the schools and the students they serve – their model includes measures of poverty, population density, cost of living (using the comparable wage index), and school size among other factors.


Virginia is among the states underfunding higher poverty school divisions. Schools in Virginia’s highest poverty school divisions are spending $10,762 per student – $6,623 below what their model estimates is needed to achieve national average outcomes. Further, it shows that Virginia’s lowest poverty divisions are actually spending $11,495 per student – $2,629 above what is estimated to meet this same benchmark. Of course, meeting the national average on standardized tests should not be the goal for any school – whether high or low poverty. As such, these spending levels are more instructive for allowing a fair comparison between what it costs to achieve similar outcomes, not necessarily ideal outcomes, in these two different environments.

Looking more closely at school divisions in central Virginia, Richmond City and Petersburg spent about $13,600 and $12,300 per student respectively in the 2016-2017 school year. These amounts exceed those of some nearby counties like Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover that spent closer to $10,000 per student. Yet, as this model makes clear Richmond City and Petersburg should be spending more than these other divisions. In fact, they should be spending much more.

According to the model, the highest poverty school divisions in Virginia should be spending $17,384 per student – that’s $4,151 more per student than Richmond City actually spent during that time period (2013-2015) and $5,987 more than Petersburg spent.

Having adequate funding is critical, because as recent research demonstrates, increased investments in schools has pronounced impacts on student outcomes – including higher graduation rates, higher adult wages, a lower likelihood of adult poverty, and students from low-income households benefit most from increased spending.

The study also helps provide clarity for conversations about efficiency and waste. If you ignore poverty, cost of living, transportation needs, and economies of scale, and simply look at per student spending and outcomes, then you’re looking at a distorted picture.

As the authors of the report state, providing equal educational opportunity “requires a recognition that achieving those outcomes varies in cost from child to child, location to location, and setting to setting for a variety of reasons. It is critical to consider all factors that influence costs in an integrated manner; failing to account for these factors will lead to specious comparisons between states, school districts, and schools.”

State leaders in Virginia should modernize our school funding system to consider these factors too.


Chris Duncombe

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