Fully funding Virginia schools will cost $1 billion more per year. Can Democrats deliver on that campaign promise?

By: - October 25, 2019 12:05 am

William Fox Elementary School in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury 2019)

In some competitive races around the state, Democratic candidates are promising to restore funding for public schools.

But it’s not a small — or cheap — task.

Last week, the state Board of Education recommended new standards for public schools that would require close to a billion more dollars a year if lawmakers chose to fully fund those standards. Which means if Democratic candidates are serious about delivering on their promise to fully fund education, they’ll have to find that money in the state budget.

Educators in some of the most competitive General Assembly races have a range of ideas on how to better fund education, from vague commitments to redirecting some state revenue streams back into the classroom.

“The answer is simple: A budget is a set of priorities and properly funding our children’s schools should be at the top of our list of priorities. I am focused on investing in education so that we ensure that all children are given a fair shot, regardless of their zip code,” said Ghazala Hashmi, a Democrat challenging Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant in a district that includes part of the city of Richmond and its southern suburbs. Hashmi is the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

Virginia decreased education funding during the Great Recession, a decision that impacted most facets of public schools, from staffing levels to maintenance schedules. Money hasn’t been restored to pre-recession levels and many funding metrics, like teacher salaries and money for specialized instructors in Virginia schools, have fallen below the national average.

“We need to be realistic, it’s not a one-year fix,” said Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, who is a high school teacher. “The frustrating thing is that there’s been a complete lack of will over the last 10 years.”

The legislature, under almost complete Republican rule since the recession except for four years of a Democratic majority in the state Senate from 2008 to 2012, has made relatively small increases in education funding while shifting the cost of education to localities.

Total education funding in the state has increased since the recession — it was about $30 billion in 2009 and about $39 billion in the most recent budget. But the amount of money the state pitches in has fallen, according to The Commonwealth Institute. When the recession hit, the state covered about 45% of education costs, with localities covering 48.6% and federal funding making up the remainder. Localities carried about 51% of the cost burden in the school year that ended in 2018, with the state share falling to 41.6 percent.

That can create discrepancies in school funding, since not all cities and counties have the same revenue available to make up the difference.

Even with the total increase in funding, the state has regularly fallen short of what the Board of Education considers full funding.

The General Assembly can codify and fund the Standards of Quality as the board recommends them, or change them to fit what they’re willing to fund, as they have in the past.

In 1984, the General Assembly, with Democratic majorities in both chambers that year, codified the standards into state law, meaning lawmakers could change them and that those changes trump the Board of Education’s recommendations. The standards as revised would then be what lawmakers were constitutionally required to fund instead of the board’s suggestions.

Since 1988, the General Assembly has passed 197 bills changing the Standards of Quality, “the overwhelming majority of which were unrelated to the SOQs as prescribed by the Board of Education,” the board wrote in a resolution passed with the new standards.

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, was a high school government teacher for 30 years before retiring. He’s made calls for increased funding for higher education and supported the 5% teacher pay raise during the last General Assembly session.

“We have held the line on bureaucracy in education, so that we can prioritize funding to teachers and the classroom,” he wrote in a statement. “The General Assembly is returning 40% of all lottery proceeds back to school divisions with no strings attached. I am committed to continuing that success with smart investments such as raising teacher salaries to the national average.”

Internet sales tax, business subsidies on candidates’ short list

Shelly Simonds, a Democrat running in Newport News against Republican Del. David Yancey for a second time, has two priorities when it comes to education: more guidance counselors and more funding for school building maintenance.

In a digital ad by NowThis, a progressive youth-focused organization, Simonds stands in front of boarded-up doors at Huntington Middle School in southern Newport News.

“Unfortunately the school board had to close (the school) in 2017 due to overwhelming maintenance needs. The condition of the school just couldn’t handle students anymore,” Simonds said in the video. She’s been on the Newport News School Board since 2012 and was a part-time Spanish teacher in the system until 2009, when her school had to cut her position because of budget constraints.

“This is personal to me,” she said in an interview. “One of the reasons why I’m running now is to protect education funding to be sure that we never balance the budget of the state of Virginia on the backs of the students and teachers.”

Simonds said she’s not sure exactly how to restore funding and promised to work with Republicans in the NowThis ad. 

Her initial thought is to direct tax revenue from a new internet sales tax to education, an idea shared by Karen Mallard, a Democratic candidate running against Republican Del. Glenn Davis in Virginia Beach.

Impact statements for the legislation establishing the tax, which passed earlier this year, estimated it would net the state about $860 million over five years, well short of what the new Standards of Quality would require over that time.

Mallard also suggested re-routing money from Lottery proceeds that currently pay for programs that used to be paid for in the state’s general fund. Lottery proceeds come from game sales and it has been used to make up for the cuts lawmakers have made in the budget, Mallard said, leaving increasing lottery proceeds to try to plug the hole. But full education funding requires more general fund money too, she said.

Lottery money pays for a number of programs. In the current budget, it’s primarily used to increase the per-pupil funding amount, which has fallen since the recession. State funding for per-pupil money has fallen 9% since the recession despite the Lottery’s help.

It also pays for some class reduction measures and the state’s preschool initiative. 

VanValkenburg said there are a number of ways Virginia could restore full education funding: Redirect money from ineffective business subsidies to the education budget, looking at “tax reform in a way to raise revenues without hurting households,” he said and changing the education funding formula that determines how much state money districts get.

“It’s not a quick fix, but we haven’t even been trying,” VanValkenburg said. “We need to chip away and get back in the game.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.