Once upon a time, the liberal critique of Virginia’s school funding system was that schools with rich kids got more money per student than schools with poor kids. The state of Virginia moved to address funding inequalities two-and-a-half decades ago. Now liberals have raised the bar. It’s not enough to provide equal resources. Now the state needs to provide poor students with more money per student than affluent students. Perhaps a lot more.
“The fact is it costs substantially more to help low-income students reach similar levels of performance as students from wealthier families,” states a new report by the Commonwealth Institute, a left-of-center think tank focusing on Virginia issues. “Studies in New York and Wisconsin find it can cost two to two-and-a-half times as much to educate lower-income students. Other studies in California, Kansas, and Missouri find costs ranging between 55 to 64 percent more.”
In Virginia, says the report, Virginia contributes 14 to 19 percent more per low-income student than other students. Yet that’s not enough, the authors say. Some other states do even more.
Virginia has more than 512,000 disadvantaged kids in its public schools, about four out of ten students.
These students face serious challenges that can make success in the classroom more difficult. For instance, they are more likely to have distractions in their home life, such as moving frequently, hunger, and parents coping with substance abuse. Many do not have the luxury of outside resources, such as private tutoring, that students from higher-income families may receive. They are less likely to be involved in organized activities like music lessons, clubs, or sports teams that can lead to social and mental development.
So, what’s the solution? The Commonwealth Institute says Virginia should increase funding for its “At-Risk Add-on,” a program created in 1992 to compensate for the fact that poor students cost more to educate than better-off students. The program pays 1% to 13% more funding per low-income student, depending upon the concentration of low-income students in the school district. The Commonwealth Institute proposes increasing that payout to 1% to 25%. “Making this adjustment would almost double the state’s share of add-on funding and would increase state support in Virginia’s highest poverty schools by more than $200 per student.”
Bacon’s bottom line. There are a number of issues here. Should we adopt the principle that it is the state’s obligation to provide a level of funding sufficient to ensure that poor kids have comparable educational outcomes to other kids? Rejiggering the At-Risk Add-On formula to steer an extra $200 per student to poor schools won’t get there. Once it’s apparent that $200 is not enough to make a difference, the Commonwealth Institute’s logic would suggest that there is no limit to what we would be morally obligated to pay.
Further, it is ridiculous to say, as the Commonwealth Institute does, that extra money for poor students “would not take away from school divisions in better off communities.” More money for the At Risk-Add On program has to come from somewhere — the pot of money the state uses to provide state aid to public education. Skimming more money off the top for poor schools would leave less to be distributed among all schools. How reasonable is it to ask middle-class families, who pay sales and property taxes to support schools in their own communities, to do with less so the kids of poor families, who already get 14% to 19% more state support than kids from middle-class families, can get even more — even as poor families pay very little into the system themselves?
It is especially unreasonable to dock funding for middle-class students when there is no guarantee that extra money would actually improve educational outcomes in schools plagued by disciplinary breakdowns, bloated and incompetent district administrations, decrepit school buildings suffering from short-changed maintenance, and a host of other ills. The underlying assumption of the Commonwealth Institute is that poor educational outcomes of poor kids is a problem that only more money can solve. That’s just not true.
I’m not heartless. I understand that little kids are not responsible for the poverty of their parents. I’d like to live in a country where poor kids get a decent shot at succeeding in life. I’m just not convinced that what we’ve been trying for the past 50 years is working, nor that doing more of the same, only with more money taken from the middle class, is the solution.