Virginia Democrats fight to address underfunded, understaffed education system

On average, school divisions across the US get about $1,900 more per student than they do in Virginia, according to a 2023 study done by the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission. (File photo)

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By Michael O'Connor

April 29, 2024

Underfunded and understaffed schools across Virginia are watching and waiting for a new state budget that will determine the fate of their finances.

As a school counselor at Metz Middle School in Manassas, Shaniqua Williams sees first hand the strain that comes when education professionals are stretched too thin because underfunded schools cannot afford to hire enough staff.

“The state side could be doing more to help,” Williams said of education funding. “Our school boards are having to make some tough decisions.”

Local budget decisions across Virginia are currently up in the air while Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly wrangle over a new state budget. Education funding is an important area where the governor and Democrats disagree, leaving local budgets in limbo until a state budget is finalized.

Democrats are fighting for more school funding while Youngkin wants less money given to students and teachers. The General Assembly passed a budget in March that includes $1.2 billion more in state general fund direct aid for K-12 schools than what Youngkin has proposed, analysts say.

Compared to the budget passed by the General Assembly, Youngkin has proposed at least $162 million less for students from low-income families; $47 million less for English learner services; and $2.5 million less for a school breakfast program, according to an analysis by The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.

“The governor’s proposed amendments to the budget signify a stark reduction in support for students and will cause particular harm for students who face the greatest barriers,” said Ashley Kenneth, the Commonwealth Institute’s president and CEO. “It’s important that lawmakers and the governor really do all that they can to make progress needed to address this decades long issue of the state chronically underfunding its students.”

Last year, the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission, the state government’s nonpartisan research agency, concluded Virginia funds its school divisions well below the national average. The agency’s study found that on average school divisions across the US get about $1,900 more per student than they do in Virginia.

The underfunding of Virginia schools has coincided with a massive teacher shortage across the state and a surge in provisionally licensed teachers who don’t have traditional education training. School divisions with large populations of Black students have especially high teacher vacancy rates, according to the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission.

“It’s a double whammy for many of these students where they might have a permanent sub in one class and an untrained teacher in another class,” said Chad Stewart, a policy analyst for the Virginia Education Association.

A lack of support, higher workloads, ineffective school leadership and low salaries were among the top reasons Virginia teachers said they were unhappy with their jobs, according to a recent state survey. Teachers like Tammy Potts at Osbourn High School in Manassas struggle to pay for housing even as she spends thousands of dollars each year on school supplies for her students. Both the General Assembly and Youngkin are backing a 3% annual raise for teachers.

But the fact that the state is not getting its budget together on time just adds to the frustrations.

“They want data from us at a certain time,” Potts said. “They tell us when we test, when we do things, right? Like at least be on time for your shit. That’s the basics.”

  • Michael O'Connor

    Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering Virginia news since 2013 with reporting stints at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Virginia Business, and Richmond BizSense. A graduate of William & Mary and Northern Virginia Community College, he also covered financial news for S&P Global Market Intelligence.

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