Funding public schools is central to the Virginia state budget impasse. While there are other issues – particularly mental health and tax fairness – our public schools are facing serious challenges. The pandemic drove uneven learning losses and classroom discipline lapses, but teacher shortages and lack of essential funding are long-standing.
In the last 15 years, Virginia hasn’t kept up with other states. Before the 2008 recession, we had managed to increase state/local per pupil spending to just above the national average. However, since 2008, other states increased total per pupil spending by over 8% on average while Virginia’s K-12 funding per pupil (adjusted for inflation) has fallen.
Raising teacher salaries, funding counselors and other support personnel, and correcting the error made in covering the end of the state food tax are the big ticket items. I spoke to other critical needs in these remarks on the House floor:
“I went to a poor rural school, Maple Grove, through the 8th grade. We had a grade and half in each classroom of 35 or so kids. I had it pretty good in the house my father built. But for Pat Wright, the most awesome slugger on our girl’s baseball team, it was different. Pat went home to a shack lit with kerosene lanterns and cardboard on the walls for insulation.
“I also had it pretty good, when I started thinking about boys. I didn’t have to feel self-conscious about being tall because Max and Gary had flunked a grade or two. Max dropped out as soon as he turned 16. Gary died in a drunk driving accident. I was the first in my family to graduate college.
“I know my childhood reality is shared by others in this Chamber – urban and rural. If you came from that kind of background and you are here, you survived. Why? A big reason I survived was Mrs. Persich, my teacher for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. Yes, all 3 years and she taught every subject, even though all she really knew was how to diagram sentences. I survived because even though Mrs Persich didn’t know math, she came to know me.
“We have the opportunity to reach kids like those in Maple Grove – kids floundering in circumstances beyond their control, circumstances they were born into. The most crucial opportunity we have before us is negotiating the Budget.
“Our Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) provided a strong assessment of how to begin to fix failing schools: Hire instructional assistants to ‘(i) help teachers provide small group and individualized instruction necessitated by widening academic needs within classrooms, (ii) help teachers manage challenging student behaviors within classrooms, and (iii) reduce teacher workloads.’ In other words, give teachers time to know their students, like Mrs. Persich got to know me. Give our teachers time to use their professional training to awaken the potential for learning that is there but that must be recognized, if there’s any hope that it can be touched.
“The House budget only helps schools if they’ve fallen below five or more accreditation benchmarks – finally throwing a line after they’ve gone underwater for the fifth time. I hope we will be able to vote for a budget that helps floundering schools long before they miss a fifth benchmark … before another Gary ends up dead looking for something in a drug high because school didn’t open any doors for him.
“I hope we will be able to vote for a budget that recognizes the reality of students like Pat by increasing the At-Risk add-on to funnel extra help based on the number of students needing free and reduced lunch.
“I hope we can vote for a budget that takes another recommendation seriously in JLARC’s report, ‘Pandemic Impact on K-12 Public Education,’ to expand the proven success of the Tiered Support System – a program that provides technical assistance and coaching to reduce disruptive classroom behavior through positive behavior interventions. Not flunk Max, not throw Max out of the classroom, not push Max into the school to prison pipeline.
“In the face of the tragic growth in student mental health problems, Tiered Support was also recommended by the Behavioral Health Commission. It has the capability to reach far more students with positive intervention – but not with token funding. JLARC underscored pleas from teachers throughout Virginia: ‘The Covid aftermath on student behavior is real. We need help.’
“Finally, Tiered Support from outside has to be backed up with ongoing support inside school walls. I hope we will be able to vote for a final budget that provides the funding – totally absent in the House budget – to provide a counselor support position for every 1000 students using social workers, psychologists, nurses, or other health and behavioral licensed workers.
“I had the blessing of stability growing up – many, many of today’s students do not. If their needs aren’t timely identified, problems will get out of control. I hope we will be able to vote for a final budget focused on quality public education for today’s Max and Pat and Gary and for the potential of me and of you that is in them. I hope we will be able to show teachers like Mrs Persich who cared about us that we care about them.”