Virginia trails the majority of states in the amount of funding dedicated to students from low-income families, according to a report released Thursday.
The research shows that Virginia provides low-income students with 14 to 19 percent more than other students, which is about half the 29 percent other states give on average.
The report, “Weighing Support for Virginia’s Students,” was put together by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, an economic think tank in Richmond.
“This became an area of interest for us as national studies have shown that Virginia does a poor job in distributing funds to school divisions relative to student poverty,” said Chris Duncombe, a policy analyst for the institute and the report’s co-author.
He said the findings are important because the number of low-income students in the state’s public schools is growing, with more than 4 of 10 students economically disadvantaged. Virginia now has more than 512,000 such students, up nearly 146,000 since 2008.
In Richmond, more than 40 percent of students are living in poverty, according to the report.
“These students face serious challenges that could make success in the classroom more difficult, (including) hunger, transience and substance abuse in the family,” Duncombe said.
“They are also less likely to have outside resources such as tutoring, or participate in organized activities. All of this leaves these students on an uneven playing field when they enter the classroom and has resulted, in Virginia, in lower test scores on average, lower on-time graduation rates and higher dropout rates.”
The problem with not giving high-poverty districts enough funding, according to the report, is that it costs about twice as much money to make sure low-income students reach the same educational level as their wealthier counterparts.
The report says these districts need additional money because low-income students need services such as early childhood education to be better prepared for kindergarten and remediation when they’re struggling. School districts, the report found, also need to be able to pay the type of salaries that will attract and retain quality teachers.
By not providing impoverished school districts with enough money to address students’ needs, the state is risking that those students will fall further behind and never recover.
Duncombe said one of the goals of the report is for lawmakers to understand what Virginia is doing wrong and to help them find ways to catch up to other states.
The report’s authors found that several states are looking at how much more needs to go to school districts with a high number of low-income students to make sure they receive the same opportunities as their classmates. The report recommends that Virginia do the same.
If the state can’t do that, Virginia should at least match other states by boosting the at-risk add-on funding it provides districts, according to the report.
At-risk add-on funding is meant to level the playing field for low-income students. The amount a district receives is based on the number of students who qualify for free lunch. For example, a school district could receive an extra 1 percent funding or an additional 10 percent, depending on the need.
The report said raising the at-risk add-on funding to 1 percent to 25 percent would increase state support by $200 per student at schools in Virginia’s highest-poverty school divisions.
The institute said if that change had been made during the last legislative session, Richmond Public Schools would have received $10 million in additional funding over the next two fiscal years and Petersburg would have received an additional $3 million.
“These types of investments have been shown to be effective nationwide in improving test scores and graduation rates, and even improving adult earnings,” the report found.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe tried to close the gap earlier this year when he proposed $49.7 million over two years for at-risk add-on funding.
The money would have been for an add-on of 2.5 percent to 14 percent, according to the Virginia Senate Finance Committee. It is currently 1 to 12 percent.
What was approved was $14.2 million. Instead, lawmakers dedicated an extra $173 million in general funds from the lottery. School districts have flexibility in how they use that money, though half must go to nonrecurring uses.