The great philosopher Bob Dylan told us that “you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Likewise, I don’t need to be Nostradamus to make this political prediction: This fall, both parties will say they’re for education. And both parties will say the other one isn’t.
The Democratic and Republican views on how Virginia’s public schools are operated surely differ, and ultimately voters will get to adjudicate that by deciding which party they want to put in charge of the General Assembly.
In the meantime, I’d recommend some not-so-light reading: the recent report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission on K-12 school funding. There’s nothing like a report by the General Assembly’s so-called “watchdog” to slice through all the political rhetoric. After 18 months of study, JLARC — commonly pronounced as “Jay Lark” — has produced a sobering 164-page report that details more deficiencies than I have room to list here.
When the report came out last week, Democrats probably liked it a lot more than Republicans — it said the state’s schools are underfunded to the tune of $3.5 billion. Republicans complained that the report did not take into account the $3.2 billion in additional school funding that’s in the current state budget or the $427.7 million that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed in budget amendments that have yet to be acted on as negotiations to amend the budget have stalled.
Regardless, some things are clear: Schools are expensive to operate and are becoming more so. The report repeatedly points out examples of where modern-day economic realities are out of sync with some time-honored Virginia practices.
Let’s take a deeper dive into this report.
Before we do, one reminder that we all sometimes need: State school funding matters more in rural areas than in other places. In Northern Virginia, localities pay most of the cost for their schools. However, this report points out, “about two-thirds of divisions rely on the state for the majority of their funding. In a few divisions, state funding accounts for at least 70 percent of total funding.” Those localities that rely the most on state funding are historically in Southwest Virginia.
And now, on to the numbers.
Based on data through fiscal year 2020 (which does leave out the current spending), Virginia’s schools receive less money on a per-student basis than the national average — and than three out of five neighboring states. So, yes, Kentucky, Maryland and West Virginia fund their schools at a higher level, on a per-student basis, than Virginia does. West Virginia — the state we like to make fun of — funds its schools at a 25% higher rate than Virginia does.
Nationally, other states fund their schools at a 14% higher rate than Virginia. Even when compared to other states in the Southeast, those states fund their schools at a 4% higher rate.
OK, maybe we don’t want to compare ourselves to other states, so let’s just compare ourselves to our own internal benchmarks. Even then, though, Virginia practice lags behind Virginia goals. “Virginia divisions receive less funding than what three Virginia-specific funding benchmark models suggest is needed to provide students a quality education,” the report says. “Depending on the benchmark, Virginia school divisions were estimated to need 6 percent to over 30 percent more funding. Between 73 percent and 89 percent of the state’s school divisions receive funding that is below benchmarks, depending on the model and assumptions used.”
Maybe the Youngkin administration is right and the recent funding has substantially closed the immediate gap. However, this report makes clear we need to sustain that funding year after year.
In a formal response to the report, state Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera and Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons called Virginia’s system for funding schools “indecipherable” and I certainly would not dispute that. The JLARC report attempts to decipher that “indecipherable” system and finds that some of the formulas used to calculate funding are out of date. For instance, in a discussion of the Standards of Quality: “The historic decline in state revenue during the Great Recession led to a series of changes to the SOQ formula that reduced funding. Many of these changes remain in place as of late June 2023 — more than a decade since the Great Recession ended.” The report attributed a lot of funding shortfalls to those recession-prompted changes.
The report also says the SOQ methodology “relies on an outdated measure to determine the number of at-risk students.” For instance, the state historically relied on the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. “However, with the establishment of a new federal program in 2014, a large portion of schools and divisions are no longer required to collect free lunch applications,” the report says. “The state’s policy, as directed in the Appropriation Act, is to continue using the last application-based free lunch rates reported by those schools and divisions. However, for some schools and divisions, that data is now several years old and actual student poverty has increased.” I might recommend some copy editing so we don’t have two “howevers” so close together but on a substantive basis, it’s probably not good to base state policy on outdated measures, right?
This report is full of little gems like that. One pleasant surprise: The report finds that the state’s often-hated Local Composite Index — a formula used to compute a locality’s ability to pay for its schools — is pretty accurate. The LCI was developed in the early 1970s and so is now 50 years old, but the report finds that its original assumptions “are still reasonably close to today’s revenue sources.” This may be a good thing because I can explain Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity easier than I can explain the LCI.
Here are some things I can explain:
The report says that state funding formulas don’t fully account for uneven local labor costs. I am particularly partial to this part of the report. Some calls for increased school funding are greeted with a response that “throwing money” at a problem won’t always fix it — which is true, but then we devolve into philosophical arguments and, my admiration for great philosophers with musical ability aside, I’m not particularly philosophical. Labor costs, though, are something that aren’t all that amenable to philosophy: The free market doesn’t care what Democrats or Republicans think — or what the General Assembly does, for that matter.
The state already factors in a Cost of Competing Adjustment for teachers in and around Northern Virginia because those localities have higher costs of living. (I recently had a lawyer in Fairfax County tell me he didn’t do much legal work downstate because he had to charge such high rates to account for the cost of hiring staff in Northern Virginia.) However, the JLARC report says the formula the state uses is — I know this will surprise you — out of date. It was first devised in 1991 and hasn’t been updated since 1995. That was basically the dawn of the internet age. Now there’s a lot more data available, and computer power to crunch it, but we’re still working with the equivalent of Stone Age formulas.
The report says these adjustments understate what it actually costs to live in these places. But then it points out that there are now 25 localities outside Northern Virginia where living costs are high enough to qualify for adjustments — but don’t, because they’re not in the law. Specifically:
- Albemarle County and Charlottesville.
- Madison County and King George County on the edges of Northern Virginia.
- Rockingham County in the Shenandoah Valley.
- Chesterfield County, Hanover County, Henrico County and Richmond, in the Richmond area.
- Hopewell and Prince George County.
- Virtually all of Southeast Virginia.
I feel compelled here to point out that some of these counties are rural counties which, by definition, have fewer resources available. It’s one thing if fancy-schmancy Northern Virginia has a high cost of living, but this map shows that even Greensville County — one of the poorest counties in the state, based on income — makes the list. How is that supposed to work in terms of recruiting and retaining teachers?
Let me also look at this map through a political lens: Originally this Cost of Competing Adjustment mostly went to localities that vote strongly Democratic, with some Republican-voting localities on the edge of Northern Virginia thrown in. Now, as those high-cost localities expand, they’re expanding into a lot more Republican localities. What might that mean for the politics of the matter?
Speaking of rural areas, the report points out something we’ve known all along: It costs more per student to operate some rural school systems than more metropolitan ones. That’s because it’s harder for the smallest localities to achieve economies of scale — they have to pay for a principal no matter how many students are in the school, for instance. Or, as the report puts it, “Compiling a financial report or supervising a room of test-takers requires the same staff time regardless of the number of students.” The report goes on to say: “Very small divisions have the highest costs per student in Virginia. For example, a division with under 500 students, such as Highland County Public Schools, can require 50 percent or more additional funding per student than a large division with 10,000 students.” Needless to say, those small systems in Virginia are all in rural — and therefore Republican — areas. Tennessee has a new funding formula that increases state funding for the smallest school systems for that very reason, this report says.
I could go on but you get the idea: Democrats and Republicans can have a spirited debate over how much we ought to be spending on schools but regardless, this report spells out how many of our funding assumptions and formulas are simply out of date. That doesn’t seem a good thing no matter what level the appropriations are.
Also: David Woodard, president of the Virginia School Board Association and a member of the Tazewell County School Board, authored an opinion piece earlier this week on the JLARC report.