What’s very wrong with education funding in Virginia? The answer — vast and unjustifiable disparities in per-pupil spending between wealthy and poorer communities in the state.
That’s what former Virginia Tech dean and education professional Wayne “Dempsey” Worner wrote about in a series of two recent commentaries in the Roanoke Times. Mr. Dempsey is right; the General Assembly is failing to fund its proper share of education, thereby placing the burden on poorer communities in the state, which they are unable to bear.
In my commentary, I provide additional detail supporting those conclusions and some recommendations to address the problem.
According to the Virginia Department of Education website, below are the annual per-pupil spending levels for the five Northern Virginia districts with the highest annual per-pupil spending, followed by the five districts in the state with the lowest annual per-pupil spending:
Northern Virginia’s Top Five in Annual Per-Pupil Spending
Locality Per Pupil Dollar
1. Arlington — $19,797
2. Falls Church — $18,442
3. Alexandria — $17,533
4. Fairfax — $14,897
5. Loudoun — $14,317
Virginia’s Bottom Five in Annual Per-Pupil Spending
Locality Per Pupil Dollar
1. Norton — $9,500
2. Wise — $9,500
3. New Kent — $9,613
4. Appomattox — $9,687
5. Scott — $9,740
Those spending gaps average about $7,500 per student. Sadly, those kinds of disparities are a feature of the General Assembly’s education funding policies. For example, there’s a $6,500 gap between the average of the per-pupil expenditures of those 5 Northern Virginia districts above and that of the 20 the poorest districts in Southwest Virginia.
So, what needs to change? The answer is at least the following four General Assembly policies that work together to undermine education funding in the state. These policies stack-the-deck against the state’s poorer districts; it’s where U.S. income and wealth disparities begin.
(1) The General Assembly’s main school-funding formula, which it misleading calls “Standards of Quality” (SOQs).”
It’s the General Assembly’s responsibility to define SOQs that identify the actual resources necessary to educate Virginia’s students. However, the General Assembly doesn’t do that — a fact undisputed by state and local education officials. Instead, it deliberately understates the need and then funds only that level of effort. That, in turn, forces the localities to make up the difference between what is actually needed and what the state will help fund — because if they don’t, their students will fail the state’s Standards of Learning tests (SOLs), their facilities will become outdated and they will not meet the state’s other accreditation requirements, including graduation percentages.
Not surprisingly, high-poverty communities in Virginia are unable to make up the difference between the state funding and what’s actually necessary to educate their children. Those districts don’t have the resources — but the state does. Virginia is one of the richest states in the richest country in the world. Recently, JLARC (the Joint Legislative Auditing and Review Commission) a General Assembly advisory group, reported that while Virginia is 11th out of the 50 states in per capita personal income, it’s only 42nd in state government support for education.
(2) The General Assembly’s method of compensating for wealth differentials in the allocation of SOQ funding among the state’s localities.
The General Assembly calls this policy the Composite Index of Local Ability to Pay. As clearly evidenced by the vast disparities shown above, the Index falls well short of the need. It is the General Assembly’s responsibility to fairly allocate SOQ funding to create a more level playing field among the state’s localities.
(3) The General Assembly’s requirement that public-school buildings are the primary responsibility of the state’s localities.
Here the General Assembly has absolved itself of responsibility for the condition of school buildings, even for poorer communities that are obviously unable to bring their school buildings up to modern standards. The General Assembly should be a partner with local school districts in keeping school facilities up-to-date.
(4) The General Assembly’s additional funding for children in poorer communities at risk of failing the SOLs – the At-Risk Add-On Program.
Currently, the state only allocates from 1-to-13 percent additional funding for such children. This, as is the case with the General Assembly’s other policies, shortchanges the education of children in poorer communities. The average for the United States for similar programs is 29 percent. However, Virginia’s Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis reports that research shows that as much 150 percent additional funding is actually needed to bridge the gap between children of poorer families and children of wealthier families.
State legislators and Governors of both parties have been aware of the underfunding of schools in poorer communities for many years, but they have ignored it — leaving our children to suffer the consequences.
It seems that major additional dedicated funding should be appropriated to close the enormous and morally unjustifiable funding disparities between wealthier and poorer communities.
When we do that, maybe then we can legitimately call ourselves the Commonwealth of Virginia.