Even though the timing and final format of Virginia’s upcoming biennial budget is uncertain, one thing is for sure; there will be an historic investment in Public Education. House and Senate Leadership, along with former Governor Northam and current Governor Youngkin, should all be applauded for their part in this record setting budget. However, breaking records should not be the main goal for Virginia’s elected officials as the current budget process is completed. Instead relevance, fairness, and impact should be the focus as this plan for the future is finalized. At the end of the day (or the end of the Session in this instance) a budget is simply a manifestation of our core values. If having the best system of public education in the Nation is one of our core values here are three suggestions for Budget Conferees to consider as they complete this vitally important document.
First, Virginia’s crumbling schools have been a topic of conversation for several years, dating back to the McDonnell administration. As a matter of fact, the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia “highlighted” a crumbling school in every region of the Commonwealth this summer as just a small sampling of the much greater problem. Based on the House and Senate budget recommendations, we know that at least $500 million will be available from the Commonwealth for school divisions to use on facilities once the budget is approved. While the Senate version pumps one-time grants into local school divisions, the House version, which is supported both by Delegate O’Quinn from Southwest Virginia and Delegate Knight from Virginia Beach, creates a recurring fund that focuses on high poverty schools and struggling localities. This plan will have both immediate impact and future opportunity for schools by incentivizing improvements through rebates and assistance with interest. What makes the House version historic is that it will leverage $2 Billion worth of school construction in this biennium and even more in the future!
Since a one size fits all approach does not work to address the diverse needs we experience in different regions of Virginia, and options like increasing local sales tax are not available, I recommend that a compromise be reached that ensures all school divisions receive a one-time grant for school infrastructure while still providing localities, especially those with limited resources, an incentive to build a new school for the first time in generations. This can be done simply by applying $250 million of the recommended $500 million toward both the Senate and House plans for addressing school infrastructure. This will ensure that every school division receives some help now and that many distressed localities can actually begin to plan to make improvements in the future because a recurring fund has been established. This is a win for all localities/divisions, the Senate and the House, Republicans and Democrats, and the previous and current Governor. Let’s make this happen because it benefits Virginians from the Mountains to the Metro!
Next, it is imperative to raise teacher pay in Virginia as much as possible. The Senate version of the budget provides a 5% raise in each year of the biennium with a one-time $1000 bonus, while the house offers a respectable 4% raise in both years, with a 1% bonus each year. As generous as both recommendations sound, they will not push Virginia above the current national average for teacher salaries. A 10% raise over the next two years will push Virginia above the FY 2020 national average, but by the end of the biennium we will be in FY 2024 and our ranking will fall once again. This is unacceptable for a state that ranks in the top 10 in many financial statistics. Virginia’s final budget must provide a 5% raise in both years of the biennium.
Finally, the At-Risk Add On (ARAO) is the most equitable funding formula that Virginia uses to fund Public Education. The ARAO takes into account the number and percentage of high poverty students each division has and distributes funding proportionally. This is vital because a consensus of educational research shows that it costs more to educate a child who lives in poverty due to the additional barriers to learning they face. When you consider that Tazewell County spends $8,521 per pupil in state and local dollars on education while Falls Church spends $18,614 per pupil, and that the average salary for a family Dickenson County is $29,000 while the average income for a family in Loudoun County is $142,000, it is easy to see why the At-Risk Add On is so important to rural and other high poverty school divisions. As a result, it is imperative that the final budget include the Senate’s recommendation for increasing the At-Risk Add On, which was nearly $210 million higher than what the House proposed. To do otherwise, will only exacerbate the already unconscionable funding gap between high poverty and affluent school divisions.
The current General Assembly is set to break records for education funding. As we recently saw in the Winter Olympics, records are broken every day. Instead of aiming to set a new record, I implore the General Assembly, and Budget Conferees specifically, to aim even higher. Rural school divisions, and other high poverty school divisions, have been overlooked for far too long in Virginia. By providing both grants and rebates for school infrastructure, increasing teacher pay by 10%, and lessening the funding gap between affluent and high poverty schools through investing in the At-Risk Add On, this General Assembly will not only break records but they will leave a lasting legacy that will be remembered for decades to come.