Equity in Virginia School Funding

by Matt Hurt

Virginia Public School Region VII has demonstrated that large per-student budgets are not a prerequisite to ensure success on Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments. High pass rates indicate that the schools and divisions in the Southwest are meeting the needs of their students for basic skill attainment. However, to achieve Virginia’s 5 C’s — Critical Thinking Skills, Collaboration Skills, Communication Skills, Creative Thinking Skills, and Citizenship Skills — students need access to more educational opportunities than the current state funding formula provides. Affluent localities have provided these opportunities for their students, whereas others have not found the means.

School funding is very complicated as there are so many variables at play. Public school budgets can be broken into four funding sources — federal, state, state sales tax, and local dollars. There are differing criteria for each, which impact the overall budget for a given school division. The degree to which school division budgets vary by funding source can be seen in the table below, drawn from the 2019 Superintendent’s Annual Report. Also included is the range of per pupil funding that year.

This table demonstrates that there is inequitable educational funding in Virginia. On February 17, a House of Delegates committee tabled SJ 275, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required providing all students with equal opportunities. During this meeting, Del. Mark Sickles said he didn’t understand why folks in rural and small town Virginia couldn’t take the initiative and solve their own problems. The remark seemed to be directed towards Lee County, the division that has the lowest Local Composite Index (the index used to determine a locality’s ability to pay for public K-12 education) in the state.

Please consider some data from the Commonwealth Institute from November 2019. Their data shows that a one-penny increase in real estate tax could increase Lee County revenue by $94,700, or $31.79 per student. The same one-penny increase in Fairfax County (part of which Del. Sickles represents) would net $24,379,500, or $133.06 per student. Below are some other Census Bureau statistics from 2019 that demonstrate how Sickles’ thinking may not align with the reality of the situation on the ground.

Economies of scale is also an important consideration when thinking about school funding and providing equitable educational opportunities. For example, all divisions must conduct the same administrative functions required to operate a school division. Fairfax County can distribute those costs across almost 190,000 students, whereas in Lee County, those costs are only spread across slightly more than 3,000 students.

Given these facts coupled with the very important push for equity in state government, please consider the following questions.

It is a fact that all localities can provide more local educational funding than they currently do. Do localities such as Lee County have the capacity to provide sufficient local funds to provide opportunities equal to those enjoyed by Fairfax County students?

It is a fact that Fairfax County is situated next to Washington, D.C., and as such benefits from high-wage jobs with the federal government and its private-sector contractors. A few years ago (and maybe now), more federal dollars per capita were spent in Virginia than any other state, most going to the northern and eastern part of the state. Is it acceptable that rural students should be denied equitable educational opportunities because their locality isn’t geographically situated to take advantage of the local economies fueled with federal dollars?

Do all students, regardless of color, religion, zip code, etc., deserve equity in funding?

Are students in Lee County ineligible for equity considerations because their parents overwhelmingly vote for the party other than that of those delegates who tabled this proposed constitutional amendment?

Are the delegates who decided to table SJ 275 afraid that the citizens might approve the amendment, which would likely divert funds from their preferred initiatives?

It seems difficult to successfully argue that many localities, such as Lee County, have the capacity, even considering the Local Composite Index, to provide educational opportunities that could rival those currently enjoyed by students fortunate enough to live in Fairfax County. Unfortunately, the priorities of legislators from the more affluent parts of the state did not include equity of educational opportunities for all Virginia students. Hopefully in the future, the General Assembly will allow a constitutional amendment such as SJ 275 to be adjudicated by the citizens of the Commonwealth.

Matt Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program, a coalition of non-metropolitan public school systems in Virginia.