By Jerrauld “Jay” Jones and Todd Pillion
No matter where you travel across the commonwealth, from Bristol to Norfolk, the most important investment we can make for our communities is in our public schools. It’s where we give our children the tools and guidance to forge their path in life and where our businesses find their workforce to grow their company and, in turn, our economy.
That’s why it’s unconscionable that our children’s educational opportunities vary so dramatically in Virginia from one ZIP code to another. Students and educators in some parts of the state endure dire working conditions that threaten not only their ability to teach and learn, but also their health and safety. These conditions send students a clear message: Their education, and their futures along with it, are not valued.
It’s a message that was heard loud and clear when part of the auditorium ceiling collapsed during a band concert at the 120-year-old Maury High School in Norfolk, and one that’s sent every time class changes are disrupted in Lee County because it’s raining outside and the hallways flood. It’s a message sent to students and teachers in Chesterfield County when they are diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease because preventative maintenance was not appropriately completed for their cooling systems, and when children at Flatwoods Elementary in Lee County were dismissed multiple times in one month because of antiquated boilers filling classrooms with smoke.
And it’s not just the facilities.
Teacher vacancies mean students in some localities spend an entire year in a class taught by a long-term substitute. School counselor caseloads in Virginia have increased nearly 30% over the past decade, with an average current caseload of 385 students, which means less time for one-on-one or group work with students — a vital resource for kids who have experienced trauma or those who are the first in their families to even consider going to college. For students learning English, it means struggling across language barriers because there are no language specialists in the building.
After discussion and examination, we realized that although our people in Norfolk and Bristol might have different color skin tones, our problems are the same in our schools. It is a statewide challenge that requires statewide solutions. It is our job as legislators to understand the issues not only of our districts, but the issues facing thousands of other Virginians.
These are not naturally occurring conditions for our schools. It happens because we largely fund schools locally through property taxes, which vary by ZIP code just like our schools. Take Arlington County, for example: The tax base there is more than $300,000 per resident, compared to the tax base in Lee County, which is less than $40,000 — meaning Arlington has nearly 10 times the capacity at the local level to fund its schools. It means it has nearly 10 times the capacity to build the kind of school-to-support pipeline that struggling students need, and nearly 10 times the capacity to deliver our Virginia Constitution’s promise of a high-quality education for every child.
But we can do something about it. Our state government has the ability to counteract some of these inequities, yet Virginia ranks 40th in state-level spending per student, below many neighbors, including North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland and Georgia.
That’s why in its most recent report the Education Law Center gave Virginia a “D” for our funding level. It’s not a grade we’d want our students to bring home, and it’s not a grade we should accept from ourselves, either.
No longer can we lay this problem at the foot of the Great Recession: Our economy entered a slow recovery that our schools never did. Ten years later, our state per-student funding is still down (adjusting for inflation) and that’s particularly true for our highest poverty communities in places like Norfolk (down 12% per student) or Lee County (down 15% per student).
The majority of Virginians recognize the needs of our schools and are willing to pay more to fund them. The most recent Commonwealth Education Poll from Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School for Government and Public Affairs found that “63% of Virginians indicate a personal willingness to pay higher taxes to increase funding for K-12 education... the highest percentage measured in the 16 years the poll has asked the question.”
As we return to Richmond for the 2020 legislative session, it’s time we turn this page and send a new message to our students and educators.
Proposals have been put forward by the Virginia Board of Education on improving our school Standards of Quality — a roadmap for how to ensure our schools are equitable, high-quality places of learning. We know the how, and there will be proposed legislation and budget amendments this coming session to give us the what, but ultimately it comes down to values: We as state policymakers have to decide that we value the educational opportunity of every student in every community across the commonwealth.
We have the capacity as one of the wealthiest states in the nation to meet that commitment — but we can’t just meet it for some of our students some of the time. We can and must build that statewide bridge between Bristol and Norfolk and everywhere in between, so that every student can become everything we’d want for our own children.