Creative Commons via Pixabay.

The Virginia Board of Education is considering a recommendation that would lay out minimum funding requirements for a state budget item used to help at-risk students, a move intended to put pressure on the General Assembly to increase education spending.

The board is going through its regular process of amending the Standards of Quality, or SOQs. SOQs provide guidelines for minimum resources in schools related to staffing, student achievement and graduation, accreditation and other areas.

According to the state Constitution, only the General Assembly can revise the board’s standards of quality. It’s also up to lawmakers to “determine the manner in which funds are to be provided for the cost of maintaining an educational program meeting the prescribed standards of quality,” as well as deciding how costs should be split between the state and local governments.

Lawmakers could fund education according to the standards — though they haven’t in several years, said Jim Livingston, president of the Virginia Education Association.

The boards’ proposed Standards of Quality are “foundational components of Virginia’s education program,” board documents stated. 

Adding a standard that addresses how much money a certain fund should get is a maneuver that puts pressure on lawmakers who have been slow to restore education funding to pre-recession levels, Livingston said.

“It’s really a way to force the hand of the General Assembly to say, ‘Look, you’ve been shortchanging K-12 for years and it’s time for you to step up,’” he said.

The standards are revised every two years (which coincides with state budgets) and this round of changes better reflects what’s actually happening in localities, Livingston said.

The General Assembly cut K-12 education funding during the recession and since then, many localities have had to pay for more staff and other items the state no longer covers.

The board discussed the new standards and changes to existing ones this week and will make a decision on them in September.

In total, the board is considering changes that would cost just about a billion dollars per year if funded as presented. Here are some of the items up for consideration:

At-risk add-on funding: The at-risk add on is money distributed for general use by school districts with high concentrations of students on free and reduced lunch. It’s allocated in the budget and can be used for anything a school deems necessary.

The state has limited information on how school districts use at-risk add on money, board documents stated. After lawmakers approved a teacher pay raise this year, some school systems said they could use the at-risk add on money for the local share of the pay raise.

At a committee meeting this week, Department of Education staff suggested clarifying that the at-risk add on had to be used for staff unless 55 percent or more of the school’s population was on free or reduced lunch. Those schools could use additional money for support positions (like nurses) or hiring and retention incentives.

The proposal would cost $4.9 to $77.4 million more a year, depending on the proportion of at-risk students in a given school district.

“If the General Assembly funds the at-risk add on as proposed, it frees up local dollars so those localities can use that money for other things like salary increases,” Livingston said.

In the most recent General Assembly session, lawmakers approved adding $25 million over two years for the at-risk add on fund. Gov. Ralph Northam had proposed putting $35 million more in the fund before the session began.

Class sizes: One budget item the Board of Education wants to move under the new at-risk add on standard is funding to keep classrooms at an optimal size.

Class size reduction money has been in the budget since the mid-1990s. The state currently pays for capping class sizes up to third grade at 19 to 24 students, depending on age and the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch.

The original proposal suggested extending class-size reduction measures up to sixth grade, for an annual cost of $213.8 million a year. 

The board has directed staff to consider cutting the class size reduction item (and some other proposals) and move that possible future funding under the at-risk add on to give school systems more freedom in deciding how to use money. 

More money for certain teachers: The other major standard change the board wanted to move under the at-risk add on was an effort to keep experienced teachers in high-poverty schools.

The proposal would make it standard practice to pay teachers with five or more years of experience $6,000-$12,000 extra a year if they teach at a school with at least 70 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch.

A higher percentage of students on free or reduced lunch would mean more additional pay. 

Specialized student support personnel: A new standard would move nurses, school social workers and psychologists into a new staffing category to remove them from the state’s decade-old support staff cap.

The cap limits how many school staff — custodians, nurses, social workers, psychologists and others — the state will pay for. Lawmakers put it in place during the recession. 

The proposed standard for nurses, social workers and psychologists would consider four specialized student support positions per 1,000 students an adequate number. It would cost $100 million more per year, VDOE staff estimated.

“While the recommendation … would not specify ratios for each individual position, it would ensure that students across the commonwealth have access to student support services,” board documents stated. “This approach would provide school divisions with flexibility to determine how these positions should be filled based upon local conditions.”

Lifting the support staff cap: The board also wants to reaffirm its 2016 recommendation to lift the support cap. It would be a $371 million annual undertaking.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, asked the Senate Finance committee to consider lifting all or some of the support cap earlier this year. She said at the time she didn’t expect lawmakers to do it all at once, so instead asked school divisions what was most important.

Their response: nurses, social workers and psychologists, which the Board of Education has proposed moving out from under the cap.

The board included a number of previously approved standards in this year’s proposal, including its preference for having one guidance counselor for every 250 students in every school.