Mayor Levar M. Stoney contributed as a guest columnist for The Virginian-Pilot on October 21, 2018. He asks residents from across Virginia to join him in the March For More on December 8 from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School to Capitol Square. The mayor’s column is reprinted below:
Richmond, VA – Virginia’s approach to education funding is failing its children. Old buildings, staffing cuts, stagnant salaries, outdated technology and dwindling school supplies are just a few of the issues plaguing the learning environments for students across the commonwealth. When we fail to take action to address the needs of our children, we compromise their futures, and ours.
As recently reported in The Pilot, Hampton Roads schools are struggling with similar issues to the ones we are facing in Richmond. Many of our school buildings are well beyond their lifespan and are literally crumbling. They are no longer the safe, healthy environments our students need to thrive. But these facilities are just one part of the education crisis facing us today – our entire K-12 education system is woefully underfunded.
While the impact is felt directly by the students, the root cause rests with the commonwealth of Virginia. For too long, the leaders of the Virginia General Assembly have failed to acknowledge the true cost of educating our children – ignoring the price of technology upgrades, transportation, debt service on new schools, broadband service, the need for additional school nurses, school psychologists, counselors and principals, and other essential components of a 21st century education.
Instead, they have established their own calculation of educating students, called the Standards of Quality, which fails to account for these costs. Even by the state’s own calculation of the SOQ, the State Board of Education estimates that the Virginia General Assembly is shortchanging public schools by nearly $600 million per year, putting even more pressure on local governments to fill the gaps.
In 2009, when the recession hit, state funding for education dropped significantly. However, we are nine years into a robust economic recovery, and the state funding level for K-12 education has not even returned to pre-recession levels. Since 2009, state funding for K-12 education funding is down 9 percent, while overall student population has grown by 5 percent. In Richmond, the numbers are even more discouraging; state funding is down 19 percent, while our student population has grown by 9 percent.
It’s the same story in Hampton Roads, where I attended Tabb High School in Yorktown and was the first in my family to attend college. The state funding for Norfolk, Hampton and Virginia Beach city public schools has fallen sharply per student, down anywhere from 13 percent to 18 percent since 2009. The inadequate funding that the commonwealth provides is not just taking a toll on urban school districts. In fact, these same challenges are faced by rural school districts and a growing number of suburban school districts, where there has been an increase in poverty and new Americans.
As the state does less, localities are doing more for education. Collectively, Virginia localities invested $4 billion above the required local share for SOQ programs in 2016-17 alone. While most localities are increasing their contributions to K-12 education, the commonwealth is not fulfilling its obligation under the Virginia Constitution to ensure that an educational system of high quality is established and maintained.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the state’s formula for funding economically disadvantaged students, a program called the “at-risk add-on.” Virginia ranks among the lowest in the country in providing additional funding for educating students from low-income families. I grew up as one of those students, on free and reduced lunch and unable to afford the deposits that would have allowed me to take my school books home. Failing to provide for the most vulnerable among us today is not just unacceptable, it is immoral.
Localities such as Richmond, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and the school districts across the commonwealth – from Lee County to Accomack, from Page to Halifax – must unite. We must call upon the members of the Virginia General Assembly this January to live up to their obligations by taking action to fully fund the $594 million gap in the Standards of Quality and then determine and fund the true costs of K-12 education that the SOQs do not cover.
More funding for better schools will lead to stronger students. It is an investment in our future we need to make now.
It is a promise to our children that we must keep.