Teachers from around the state rallied after the Virginia Education Association's Delegate Assembly in March in Richmond. Hundreds of teachers, led by a red school bus, marched near the Richmond convention center. (Mechelle Hankerson/The Virginia Mercury)

For years, Democratic lawmakers called on Republicans — who had legislative and budgetary control — to fully fund public education to the threshold set by the state Board of Education.

But if Gov. Ralph Northam’s budget proposal is approved as presented, the new Democratic majority would still fall short, advocates say, despite investments Northam calls “historic.”

This year, the Board of Education didn’t hold back when it laid out what it says schools in the commonwealth need: Close to a billion dollars for teacher training and compensation; funding for support positions like nurses and custodians; specialized teachers and money for localities to spend on local needs.

The board creates and adopts Standards of Quality, which determines the minimum amount of funding the state is constitutionally required to give to school districts. The standards address things like the number of teachers and staff in a school, class sizes and extra funding for specific school needs. The standards can and have been altered by budget language in preceding years, meaning the state hasn’t always funded the standards, passing the responsibility to localities.

Northam responded in his budget proposal, setting aside $1.2 billion for public K-12 schools, but it’s not allocated the way the Board of Education recommended. 

Virginia Educators United, the group that leads the state’s Red4Ed movement, called Northam’s education budget “unconstitutional and unacceptable to Virginians.” Red4Ed is the organized national effort advocating for better teacher pay and supported educator walkouts in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. 

About $800 million of Northam’s proposed $1.2 billion is dedicated to “rebenchmarking,” a process that gives districts more money to account for inflation and enrollment changes. It doesn’t restore any funding lost in the last decade, VEU said in a statement.

“While we recognize that it includes some necessary investments, we believe that overall this proposal falls far short of what is desperately needed,” the group said.

VEU is working with the Legal Aid Justice Center, The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and New Virginia Majority to start the Fund Our Schools campaign.

“Across Virginia, in communities that cannot afford to supplement state funding for education, student outcomes suffer while students and educators languish in crumbling buildings with inadequate technology, textbooks and other resources,” the group wrote. “Even in communities that can more easily afford to supplement the state’s investment, students who need extra support to succeed often do not get an adequate amount and lag far behind their peers.”

Teacher pay 

For the second year, Northam is proposing a teacher pay raise. He’s proposing a 3% raise in the second year of his proposed biennial budget, which is just under $1,500 more a year for the teacher making the average state salary of $49,457.

Last year, the legislature approved a 5 % raise. All the raises are dependent on local matches.  It still leaves average Virginia teacher pay under the national average of $59,539.

Northam set aside $145 million for the state’s portion of the raise. Localities are required to put up a portion of the cost, an amount that depends on its local composite index and number of staff afforded to the district by the Standards of Quality and budget.

“Governor Northam’s 3% proposal is a step forward, but we still have a long way to go to pay our educators what they deserve,” Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston said. “Our elected leaders must make this a priority.” 

Virginia Educators United was more specific in their critique of the proposal: “The 3% increase to teacher salaries amounts to a pay cut after calculating for inflation,” the group wrote in a press release.

At-risk add-on and other flexible spending 

Calling it the largest single increase to the fund, Northam wants to add $140.4 million for distribution among school districts with students considered “at-risk.” 

That can be districts with high levels of poverty or students who need English language or special education services and other circumstances that mean students need more support in school.

School districts have some flexibility in how they use at-risk add-on money. For example, some localities said they could use at-risk funding to pay for their portion of last year’s 5% teacher raise. 

Northam also wants to use a proposed new tax on emerging “games of skill” to create a per-pupil fund that will give districts some extra money based on enrollment.

Districts will be able to use that money as they see fit, like the at-risk add-on.

“This budget provides extra funding to help close the achievement gap in high-need schools, especially in urban and rural Virginia,” Northam said in a statement. “Every child should have access to a world-class education, and this budget advances that commitment.”

School support staff cap

One recurring ask from Democratic lawmakers under the Republican majority was to remove the support staff cap implemented during the recession to save money.

The cap meant the state hasn’t added funding for additional staff like nurses, custodians, social workers or guidance counselors since the recession despite changes in school populations.

School systems that had enough local revenue could add those positions, but it was an effort fully paid for with local money.

Northam’s K-12 budget proposal begins to catch up on that by providing $99.3 million for more counselors. The Board of Education has recommended having one counselor for every 250 students, a standard many school districts were already following with local money.

Northam’s change may not mean more counselors on the ground, but it will mean the state will begin paying for some of them.

Northam’s budget proposal didn’t include a language change that would lift the cap on all support positions, a disappointment for Virginia Educators United.

“When we faced economic hardship as a state, we continued to financially prioritize businesses while the belt was tightened on schools in the form of lay-offs for non-instructional personnel,” the organization wrote in a statement.

“As educators, we know how critical support staff are to the well-being of our students. That is why Virginia Educators United call for, at a bare minimum, an elimination of this arbitrary cap on support staff positions and a return to 2009 levels of funding for school support staff.”

School construction

Notably absent from Northam’s proposal was money set aside for school construction and rebuilding. 

Last year, he proposed $80 million for school buildings, a portion of that coming from Lottery proceeds. It was a bipartisan priority, with Republican Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County leading the charge.

This year, Stanley appears to be on his own in his crusade to fix Virginia’s aging school buildings. Northam proposed using $895 million for collegiate building projects but left out funding for buildings at lower educational levels.

The state typically provides funding for colleges. There is no established program to fund K-12 construction projects.

Virginia Educators United took issue with that decision and suggested a return to a pre-2010 construction grant program and increasing the use of the literary fund (from lottery proceeds) to pay for school construction costs.

Stanley has filed two bills to help school districts with construction projects. One would require the Board of Education to set minimum, uniform standards for school buildings and another establishes a grant program that would disperse money to school districts for facility construction or rehabilitation. 

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that state budget is biennial, which means it is in effect for two years. 

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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.