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No More Patchwork Progress, Bold Action Needed to Fix School Funding

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From the Commonwealth Institute:

 
Virginia schools have not recovered from state budget cuts from the recession that hit high-poverty communities the hardest. Going into the 2019-2020 school year, state funding per student will be down 8% from where it was a decade ago. Lower funding has meant fewer staff assisting an increasing number of students (up 55,000 since 2008-2009). It has meant limited progress on teacher compensation. It has meant kids attend school in buildings almost a century old. 
More broadly speaking, inadequate state funding creates a system where educational opportunity varies by zip code. Right now, schools in Virginia rely more on local governments to fund their budgets than all but nine other states in the country, resulting in one of the most regressive funding structures in the nation — meaning we spend less per student in our highest poverty communities than in our wealthiest ones.
Looking around the country, we see ambitious models for taking our education system to the next level, making sure that it’s adequate for all students, and especially students from low-income families and students who are English Learners (EL). We need to stop settling for modest change, and state lawmakers need to reshape our school funding system.
Recent Successes in Other States
Massachusetts has adopted a budget that makes significant new investments in its K-12 schools following an in-depth review of the funding formula by a special review commission. Gov. Baker initially put forward a multi-year school finance reform initiative to grow overall state funding going to districts by $460 million when fully implemented in 2026. The proposal included increases for EL students ($13.6 million) and schools with the highest concentrations of students from low-income families ($12.8 million). The House and Senate ultimately agreed on a deal that went even further, investing an additional $270 million the first year of the budget in Massachusetts’ K-12 schools — $68 million more than Gov. Baker put forward. 
Lawmakers are considering even more ambitious action going forward. The Promise Act, proposed by state lawmakers, would provide nearly $1 billion more than Gov. Baker’s plan by the budget year that begins July 1, 2025. The biggest difference between the plans: the Promise Act would provide twice as much funding for economically disadvantaged students in districts with the highest concentrations of poverty. This will mark the third consecutive year that Massachusetts has increased funding for low-income school districts, and ensures that the state’s funding formula is progressive — directing resources where it is needed most. On this measure, Massachusetts already ranked 7th in the nation in a national report. In contrast, Virginia ranked 42nd.
Oregon passed its Student Success Act earlier this year, securing a $1 billion per year investment package for pre-K and K-12 schooling, which is funded through a corporate tax. The Student Success Act is the largest education investment in decades in the state, with nearly 20% dedicated to early childhood education, and strengthens culturally specific education for underserved students of color and EL students.The policy could reduce class sizes, increase free meals, and increase the resources available to students who experience higher levels of poverty, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy. Oregon further strengthened support for students by providing a boost to families with low incomes. Through a modest increase to their refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), families will be better able to make ends meet and address the needs of their children at home. 
Other states have been spurred into action after successful litigation cases have been brought against them on the grounds of inadequate or inequitable school funding, particularly for students from low-income families and schools with high shares of students of color. From 1971 to 2010, civil rights and legal services organizations succeeded in 28 states in securing court-ordered school finance reform. This has resulted in improved student outcomes, higher wages when students become adults, and increased funding to high-poverty school districts, with students from low-income families benefiting the most from increased spending. As of March 2018, school funding court cases in 12 states were pending, according to the Education Law Center.

A July 2018 ruling in New Mexico found that inadequate school funding violates the state’s constitution, including the equal protection and due process rights of disadvantaged students. Policymakers subsequently boosted the state’s public school budget by nearly half a billion dollars, which included increasing pay for school employees by 6%. (This would be a welcome investment in Virginia, where teachers are paid 14% below the national average and suffer a 31% weekly wage penalty compared to other college-educated workers, based on an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.) New Mexico also dedicated $113 million to school districts and charter schools that serve high shares of students from low-income families and students of color. Like Oregon, the state also made key investments for struggling families, including boosting their EITC by an additional seven percentage points, raising the minimum wage, and fully funding health coverage through Medicaid.

Proposals Here in Virginia
Ambitious proposals are not limited to other states. The Virginia Board of Education is currently considering revisions (Item J Attachment) to the state’s primary funding formula (the Standards of Quality or SOQ) that could call for more than $1 billion in additional state funding. This includes critical changes, such as increasing the number of school counselors to meet nationally recommended student-to-counselor ratios, requiring one principal for every elementary school, increasing Virginia’s outdated staffing standards for EL teachers, and eliminating an arbitrary reduction on support staff funding, which was put in place to balance the budget following the recession. The Board also proposes to move need-based funding for economically disadvantaged students into the SOQ, which is an important step in modernizing Virginia’s funding formula. 
In his presentation to the Joint Money Committees two weeks ago, Gov. Northam called for “equal access to a world class education” for children regardless of race, income, or place of birth. If he and other state leaders are serious about this pledge, then now is the time for action. State leaders in Virginia should not feel emboldened to categorically disregard calls for billion dollar investments — it will take billion dollar investments just to reach the middle of the pack. An increase of $2.5 billion in state funding for the 2016-2017 school year would have brought Virginia to 25th in the country in state per-student spending. 

Looking across the country, we see that bold action and dramatic investments in public education do not have to be pipe dreams. Virginia’s “F” rating on the fairness of our school funding isn’t going away with small tweaks and piecemeal investments. Let’s advance bold proposals to remake how we fund our schools.

— Kathy Mendes, Research Assistant, and Chris Duncombe, Policy Director
 

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