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Virginia legislators look to update outdated school funding formula

Photo courtesy - Shutterstock
Photo courtesy - Shutterstock

In the words of Chesterfield area Republican Delegate Carrie Coyner, no one really understands how Virginia’s school districts are funded.

“You could ask all 100 delegates and 40 senators and not one of them could explain exactly how the school system they represent gets their funding and how much they get in different categories,” Coyner told Radio IQ in an interview.

This story was reported and written by Radio IQ

Still, she’s been working with legislators across the aisle like Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, who's district also includes parts of Chesterfield, to find common ground in the name of improving student outcomes.

And while education spending is expected to increase, Coyner wants to make sure that money is being well spent. She said poor data collection has led to poorly informed decisions in the past, among them a 20-year reliance on a literacy screener for K-2nd grade.

She said the state would dole out funds if schools were below benchmarks, but that didn’t often result in higher test scores.

“The highest among at one point was almost $20 million we were sending to localities,” she said. “But for 80% of kids, the needle wasn’t moving for literacy on that.”

And Coyner and her colleagues to the right and left homed in on the issue at a committee meeting Monday where three presentations offered insight into how the state’s funding model works and how it could improve.

Justin Brown is the Senior Associate Director for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee. JLARC released a  report on the issue last summer and found a need for as much as a billion more in education dollars along with formula reform:

“You need to pair [the funding] with things like accountability systems, support from parents at home, high quality teachers, the right curriculum," he told the committee earlier Monday morning. "So, there’s a complex package of things that need to be in place at a school.”

Brown noted the current funding formula relies on unrealistic and inaccurate assumptions, "many of which have no real analytical basis or relationship to how divisions actually operate today," as Coyner suggested.

Among flawed numbers was an outdated report suggesting the state schools needed about 113,000 employees when nearly 170,000 were currently employed. This also led to confusing funding stats, such as financial demands reportedly at $11 billion while school systems were spending closer to $17 billion.

Brown said the mixed-up funding differential was linked to the outdated nature of the funding formula, calling it “arcane methodological gymnastics.”

But not every part of the original formula was bad. Delegate Amanda Batten asked about the use of a local composite index which forces some districts to pay more depending on their ability to do so. She asked Brown if that index rate had shifted in an unfair way overtime and he said, “surprisingly not.”

“When you look across all divisions, proportions are the same since the 70s,” he said, before noting shocks can happen, and legislation changing LCI assessments from 2-3 years may help in “volatile” situations.

Ashley Kenneth, President of The Commonwealth Institute, also gave a short presentation on the importance of funding adequacy, equity and effort, all categories she said Virginia got a “D” grade in.

Delegate Nick Freitas, who was among the few legislators who asked about whether school vouchers or “education savings accounts” should be considered in future funding models, pressed Kenneth on her use of the term “equity” in line with recent conservative attacks on the concept.

“For every student, regardless of who they are, live or where they come from, making sure they have the same access to resources,” Kenneth said of what education equity means. “Making sure they all have the means to thrive.”

Another presentation came from the DC-based Education Trust. They included experts who were involved in the recent overhaul of Tennessee’s ed funding formula. They said a student-based model is a good path to consider.

“It allows you to better target additional resources to specific student groups according to their needs,” said Education Trust’s Qubilah Huddleston.

And while Huddleston praised the student-based model, she said that alone wouldn’t be enough. You need weights for things like rural schools with smaller populations or growing suburban district weights which may need more funds to build new schools.

Further comparisons to Tennessee’s recent education funding overhaul were made by Education Trust’s Gini Pupo-Walker. The Volunteer State notably revamped their system within a year, a record pace, but one Pupo-Walker said wasn’t impossible.

They started with a public review with 18 working groups across the state. Then they incorporated lots of different stakeholders which submitted recommendations to a working group of legislators.

“Tennessee really felt it was urgent not to just put more money in the formula, but redesign from scratch how funding is delivered, based on profile,” Pupo-Walker said. “That process was speedy; it created some heartburn in advocates… but the formula was strong out of the gate.”

Still, as Coyner admitted increases in transparency could help ensure better outcomes - whatever they may be in the final formula - are being met.

“Tennessee decided to do better, and they did,” she said. “We can’t afford to not have the outcomes we need because kids are so far behind.”