If you care about Virginia’s public schools, we’ve rounded up education bills that could have a big impact.
With over 2,300 bills introduced between the House of Delegates and Senate in Virginia’s General Assembly this year, it can be hard to keep track of them all.
For the inside scoop on education bills that could impact state schools and students in the coming years, we went straight to the source—the Virginia Education Association (VEA). Dogwood recently spoke with Chad Stewart, a VEA policy analyst who’s been on the ground in Richmond, advocating for those ultimately impacted by new education laws.
One of the biggest issues in Virginia’s public schools isn’t a new one. On average, the state’s teachers are underpaid.
“A big bill we’re tracking right now is a compensation bill to move Virginia to the national teacher pay average,” Stewart said.
Virginia teacher pay hasn’t topped the national average in over 50 years. In the 1989-90 school year, Virginia came within 1% of the national average under the leadership of former Gov. Gerald Baliles, a Democrat. That’s the closest the commonwealth came to meeting the national average in more than five decades.
In the 2019-20 school year, an average Virginia teacher salary topped $57,600, compared to a national average of more than $64,100 — a more than $6,000 difference.
According to Fund Our Schools VA, the commonwealth would have to increase teacher salaries by more than 10% in the upcoming 2023-24 school year to meet the national average.
Teacher pay bills made their way into both the state House and Senate this year. Stewart noted that House Bill (HB) 1566 adjusted to form a work group tasked with studying salaries that would compete, attract, and retain teachers in Virginia.
“The bill in the Senate [SB 1215] is not amended, and it would move Virginia to a posture of always being at least at or above the national teacher pay average, which has been a long-time goal on both sides of the aisle,” Stewart said. “But when we look back at the six decades of data we have on where Virginia pay has ranked compared to the national teacher pay, Virginia’s never done it—ever—before, gone over that threshold.”
Vouchers and Charter Schools
On top of the teacher pay issue, Virginia’s public schools themselves are not fully funded. That hasn’t stopped Republican lawmakers from introducing bills that would strip money away from public education funding.
House Bill (HB) 1508 seeks to set aside a significant portion of per-pupil state funding into a savings account, which parents could then use to pay private education expenses. The Virginia Education Success Account would give parents public funds to use toward their child’s private tuition, deposits, fees, and required textbooks at any such school in Virginia, including religious institutions.
In addition, the VEA is also keeping an eye on traditional voucher bills and the education improvement scholarship tax credit.
“A lot of these bills, essentially what they do is they take public money, sometimes from the school system, and they provide it to students to attend private or religious schools for education,” Stewart said.
However, funding concerns weren’t the only issue. Stewart noted that private schools and religious schools sometimes discriminate against students based on certain characteristics or disabilities.
Vouchers have a history of discrimination in the commonwealth. Take Northern Virginia, for example. Rather than desegregate schools in Prince William County, the locality closed its public schools from 1959 to 1964. In the 1960-61 school year, local white students were able to utilize a tuition grant program to attend segregated private schools. Approximately 1,300 students took advantage of the voucher until August 1961, according to research by Dr. Phillip W. Magness.
What’s more, multiple studies show that vouchers have a negative impact on student achievement. For example, in 2018, the Center for American Progress analyzed voucher program evaluations in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. The study found that students attending participating private schools performed “significantly worse than their peers in public schools—especially in math.” It’s a trend the VEA continues to closely monitor.
“What we’re seeing in every available longitudinal study that we have—and we have four right now—is that students don’t just do a little worse, but they do significantly worse when they switch to these voucher programs, and that loss is sustained,” Stewart said. “Many states see losses equivalent to more than twice the effects of learning loss from the pandemic in students who switch to voucher programs.”
Coming Down to the Budget
As the General Assembly moves closer to crossover, it’s easier to anticipate which bills have a chance of reaching Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk.
At present, Stewart said the VEA is laser focused on the budget.
“Pretty much all of our most important bills have physical costs to them,” Stewart said. “We’re going to see versions of the House and Senate budget [amendments] come out on Sunday, February 5, and they’re likely going to have very different visions for how we spend our resources in Virginia.”
Stewart expressed distaste for the current proposal.
“We are very disappointed by the governor’s budget and the fact that he only allocated 10% of the available resources to education, when normally we spend one-third of our budget on education priorities every year. So it was a big dilution of education funding and just reflected how low a priority it was for his administration. And most of their ‘investments’ were just automatic updates that would’ve occurred anyway,” Stewart said. “So we’re hoping to see a very different set of priorities in the House and Senate budgets.”
Stewart expressed that it’s possible the budget amendments could come down to two opposing priorities.
“Quite frankly, it’s going to come down to a competition between if lawmakers want to invest in students this year, or if they want to prioritize tax cuts to profitable corporations,” Stewart said. “That is the trade off that we see easily on hand in terms of the budget, and it’ll be a consideration of pitting education priorities against the tax cuts for profitable corporations.”