The Virginia Board of Education is asking the General Assembly to develop a plan for changing the state’s existing school funding formula to help divisions strapped for money but isn’t backing a proposal to remove a cap that limits the number of support positions the state will fund.
According to an earlier report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which conducts analysis and provides oversight of state agencies on behalf of the General Assembly, changing the formula could help address the underfunding of schools.
“We don’t have a good school financing system in Virginia. It is inequitable, and it’s outdated,” said Board of Education member Andy Rotherham during a special meeting Tuesday.
Virginia’s funding formula establishes how much state and local governments must provide to meet the state’s Standards of Quality (SOQ), the requirements that Virginia public schools must meet. The board reviews those standards every two years and proposes changes as necessary, while the General Assembly makes decisions about how much funding divisions should get.
In addition to backing a new funding formula, the board on Tuesday also urged the General Assembly to provide flexible funding for innovative approaches to literacy and math education, require high school students to have an opportunity to make their own academic and career plans and provide funding for a statewide individualized education program system.
Although board members noted that a decision by the General Assembly to provide divisions more flexible funds could allow them to address a range of different needs, member Anne Holton pushed unsuccessfully for the body to recommend a minimum funding commitment from lawmakers.
“Many divisions, the ones that can afford to fund way over the minimum SOQs … their kids are doing okay,” Holton said. “But the divisions that can’t afford to go way above the state and dated minimum SOQs don’t fund over it, and their kids are not doing okay.”
JLARC this summer recommended the General Assembly consider changing the funding formula after finding that Virginia schools receive 14% less state funding than the 50-state average, equal to roughly $1,900 less per student.
Virginia’s current SOQ formula determines funding for divisions by calculating the number of staff they need and then the cost of those staff.
While the Virginia Department of Education said in a Dec. 12 report that the approach worked historically, it said school divisions today are “faced with a myriad of unique student needs.”
“Funding should be allocated by student, recognizing the unique needs of each student rather than using a formula driven by staffing ratios,” the report stated.
On Tuesday, in line with that suggestion, the board recommended policymakers “investigate, model and develop a plan to move to a student-weighted funding formula for purposes of determining the required state and local shares of cost for the Standards of Quality.”
JLARC estimated that if Virginia had used the student-based rather than staffing funding formula, schools would have received an additional $1.17 billion in fiscal year 2023. Additional funds could benefit programs for at-risk students, English learner programs, gifted education, special education and career and technical education.
Most states use a student-based funding formula, according to JLARC.
JLARC contended the student-based funding model is “simpler,” more accurate, more transparent and easier to adapt to changes in educational practices over time. However, it noted some researchers have found student-driven formulas don’t always account for issues such as retirement rate changes and can provide schools “too much flexibility” in hiring.
Scott Brabrand, executive director for the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said the association is open to considering a new formula, but urged the board to continue studying the two formulas.
“Any new formula must address the key finding of the JLARC study that Virginia has underfunded all of its public school divisions,” Brabrand said. “Any new formula must increase funding across all of our school divisions. Further understanding of the pros and cons of a new formula is essential.”
Grace Creasey, president of the Board of Education, told the Mercury that “the board was clear that funding should be allocated by student and recognized that each student has unique needs that are not well reflected in a formula driven by staff ratios.”
No backing for elimination of support cap
But while the Board of Education threw its support behind funding formula changes, most members declined to recommend that the General Assembly remove a funding cap placed on support staff positions during the Great Recession.
The cap limits state funding for central office and administrative, technical, clerical, maintenance and instructional support positions.
Funding levels have never been restored, and the support cap was only partially lifted by the last state budget negotiated this past summer, which increased the funding ratio from 21 support positions per 1,000 pupils to 24 per 1,000 pupils.
“The support cap has effectively restricted the way school divisions can utilize funding to meet the needs of our students,” said Jenna Alexander, president of the Virginia Parent Teachers Association. “This is particularly problematic because over the last several years, we’ve seen increased enrollment of special education and English language learners students, both of which need additional services to reach their full academic potential.”
At a Nov. 15 board meeting, Deputy VDOE Superintendent Kent Dickey said removing the cap could cost over $100 million.
Board member Amber Northern said while she understood the need for schools to have additional support positions, she would have preferred to have a conversation about which positions best drive positive student outcomes.
“You want more people in your building, but you also want the people that are actually driving towards outcomes,” Northern said Nov. 15. “If we want to talk about support staff, we need to talk about what type of support staff we really support and the ones that actually do have more of a research base behind them in terms of driving outcomes.”
Unless lawmakers take up the board’s proposal during the upcoming session, local governments will have to wait until recommendations are due from a workgroup made up of Senate and House finance committee members next November.
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