Op-ed: Is the Governor Gaslighting Virginia about K-12 Education funding?

Op-ed: Is the Governor Gaslighting Virginia about K-12 Education funding?

By Marianne Burke, PhD

March 12, 2024

As the 2024 General Assembly draws to a close, the drama over the budget continues to ramp up. Much of the discussion about the budget revolves around the underfunding of Virginia’s public schools which can affect public schools across Virginia. Although, if you ask the governor or his recently appointed Chair of the Board of Education, public schools in Virginia are “adequately funded.” What is the truth, and what is an attempt to gaslight Virginians?

Final week of the 2024 General Assembly 

There was a flurry of activity at the statehouse last week as the House of Delegates and the State Senate worked to finalize bills during the last official week of the 2024 Session. The successful priority K-12 education bills can be found at this link. Twelve priority education bills passed the General Assembly.

However, getting the bills out of the General Assembly is just one step in the process. Each bill must still be considered by the Governor, and even if he signs them into law, many bills will not be implemented unless they are funded through state appropriations via the budget. Many of these bills are not currently funded in the Governor’s budget, so keep a close eye on this.

This week, the Joint Senate and House Budget Committee produced another budget that was a compromise between the House and Senate Budget Bills (HB30 and SB30) and contains proposed amendments to the Governor’s proposed budget bill.

The Budget Conferees included the key investments that are needed to ensure every student in Virginia’s public schools receives a quality education. Public school advocates know that these investments are needed for a quality school system and that funding these investments will show that Virginia values our teachers, our staff, our students, and our public schools, and will help bridge the achievement gap between low income and more affluent communities in Virginia.

To fund or not to fund public education? 

The question remains whether Virginia will fund or continue to underfund its public schools. The House, Senate, and Budget Conference all proposed in their budget bills that substantially more funds be allocated to Virginia’s public schools than did the governor in his bill.

This was because the House and Senate took to heart the recommendations made by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) on how to resolve the deficiencies in public school funding and the teacher pipeline.

Unfortunately, Gov. Youngkin appears to have dismissed the reports by this non-partisan and highly respected commission, and this difference has set the stage for a battle over the budget. Much depends on whether the governor accepts the amendments to his budget proposed by the Budget conferees. It should be noted that many organizations in Virginia have already said Youngkin’s proposed budget is unacceptable.

All indications are that the governor will challenge critically needed K-12 education funding that was already identified and passed via bills in the General Assembly. In his March 1, 2024 letter to the budget conferees, Gov.  Youngkin challenged the JLARC recommendations for greater K-12 funding as being unnecessary, but as it turns out, his claims were based on a flawed analysis and erroneous assumptions.

His dismissal of the JLARC recommendations and his claim that their analysis was faulty led to an immediate rebuttal by JLARC as well as criticism by the Virginia Education Association and other financial experts. Apparently, Youngkin’s analysis contains “inaccuracies and mischaracterizations” that led to his flawed claims. This is unsurprising, since Virginians are well aware that the governor’s Department of Education has trouble with numbers. Remember when they lost over $200 million in public school funding?

Sadly, this appears to be another attempt by the governor to gaslight Virginians with misinformation.

From his March 1, 2024 letter, it is apparent that Gov. Youngkin does not understand how to properly analyze the data he used to make his claims. For example, he claimed that the increase in state funding in 2020 more than made up for the 14% underfunding by the state, but this is incorrect for a number of reasons.

It was not state funding but instead the overall (federal, state and local) funding that underfunded schools by 14% compared with the average budgets for public schools in the United States. The governor should have used 56% as the amount Virginia underfunded their school systems relative to the national average, not 14%.* In Virginia, localities use property and other local taxes to try to make up for the state funding shortfall, but less affluent communities have a difficult time doing this, and as a result, are severely underfunded.

Figure 1-2 from JLARC report: School divisions received $20.1 billion in state, local, and federal funds (FY21)

If the governor used the correct state funding and inflation data to compare Virginia with the average state funding levels, Virginia would underfund its schools by 17 to 22% (including federal and local contributions) compared to the national average in 2023. This contrasts with his claim that Virginia closed the shortfall “with room to spare”.*

Another erroneous claim made by Gov. Youngkin is that Virginia’s average teacher pay outpaces the national average. His use of mixed data sources with known differences between them lead to this erroneous conclusion. If he used the correct data and based the calculations on his Department of Education’s estimates and budgeted teacher salary increases, average teacher pay for educators in Virginia in 2024 would still be several thousand dollars below the national average for teacher pay.*

This contrasts with the governor’s claim that Virginia has closed the gap in teacher pay relative to the national average, again an attempt to convince legislators and Virginians that there is not a need for additional K-12 funding.

Our governor asserted that, “We have no greater shared priority in the Commonwealth than fulfilling our Constitutional and moral obligation to provide a quality education for our students” yet he used a flawed analysis to dismiss recommendations by a respected commission that was directed by the legislature to review and audit public school funding and the teacher pipeline.

The watchdogs are watching the governor and Virginians should, too.

* These statements are based on an unpublished analysis provided by Laura Goren at The Commonwealth Institute.


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