Since 2015, the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia has advocated on behalf of the 80 school divisions that make up our membership to bring awareness to funding discrepancies that exist for students who attend small schools in high poverty areas of rural Virginia. Our message has centered on inadequate facilities, significant and unexpected losses in enrollment, the increased cost of serving an at-risk population, and the difficulty of scaling services. After reading the recent Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report, it seems our advocacy has been right on target.
According to the report, Virginia is currently underfunding public education to the tune of at least $1,900 per pupil. When a student’s economic or disability status is considered, the discrepancy is even worse. We trail our neighboring states, the Southeast and our entire nation in several key funding benchmarks. These staggering statistics shouldn’t be true in a struggling Third World country, much less one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country in the world. To have this data, provided by a nonpartisan committee tasked with advising the General Assembly on important issues, and not to immediately act is unacceptable by any standard.
At the same time, credit should be given to many legislators, like Del. Israel O’Quinn and Sen. Todd Pillion for advocating for increased appropriations to the At-Risk Add-On funding stream. As a result of their support, the percentage for increased funding in this formula has increased by 46% since 2013. Despite the recent increases to this funding stream, Virginia still trails our neighbors in providing funding for at-risk students, identifying a 382% negative discrepancy with Maryland as the most appalling. Unfortunately, state funding for students with disabilities during that same period has declined by 16%. Although the report is clear that more resources are needed by educators who serve high-need populations, it is unimaginable how abysmal this report would have been without the work of some legislators, like those in the Southwest Virginia delegation, who support adequate and equitable funding for public education.
Furthermore, difficulty in scaling of services has long been an issue for members of our coalition. However, the draconian reductions to support staff funding associated with the Great Recession had a larger, negative impact on small school divisions who serve students with robust, challenging and diverse needs, than the impact on larger, more affluent divisions. As an example, many members of our coalition have enrollments of 2,000 students or less. The JLARC report determined that some per student costs are between 15% and 50% higher, depending on enrollment, for small school divisions. That fact, combined with the high concentration of poverty in our divisions and our disproportional number of students with disabilities, causes the inadequacy of education funding for rural students to be exacerbated.
One thing I have learned after serving 28 years in public education is that timing in life is everything. The recent JLARC report is probably the most scathing testimony against Virginia’s model of education funding that I have seen in three decades of serving small and rural communities. However, Virginia’s $5 billion surplus is, without a doubt, the best opportunity our commonwealth has had in its history to address this critical and important need. Without question, this is a legacy moment for the Virginia General Assembly.
On behalf of the 80 members of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, I urge and beseech the members of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees to reconvene and adopt a budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year that addresses these critical and inequitable issues immediately. The needs of high-poverty school divisions have never been more urgent nor has the commonwealth’s ability to address those needs ever been greater. This is not the time for political differences or upcoming elections to take precedent. The message from the nonpartisan JLARC is clear. Our students and schools deserve better.
As planners begin to prepare the 2024-25 budget, our coalition also supports the following recommendations from JLARC:
1. Designate the At-Risk Add-On program as an SOQ (Standards of Quality) funded program.
2. Use the Identified Student Percentage to rectify outdated free lunch estimates.
3. Consolidate ARAO with the Prevention, Intervention and Remediation program as an SOQ funded program using a formula based on the ISP.
4. Add on economies of scale adjustment to the SOQ formula to provide additional funding to divisions with fewer than 2,000 students.
5. Include all division central office positions in the state funding formula.
6. Remove the cap on non-personal cost assumptions.
7. Account for facilities staff costs in the state funding formula.
8. Develop staffing ratios that accurately reflect how divisions are staffed.
9. Eliminate the cap on support positions.
10. Reinstate funded categories that were removed during the Great Recession.
11. Use an accurate federal fund deduction methodology.
12. Use current salary cost assumptions in the state funding formula.
13. Increase teacher salaries to be at or above the national average.
14. Develop accurate special education staffing needs estimates.