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Lawmakers Aren’t Fully Funding Supports for At-Risk Students, Say Some Advocates

A woman in focus standing before blurry group of people
Sen. Jennifer McClellan (Photo: Craig Carper)

Advocates and lawmakers are upset that the General Assembly hasn’t fully funded proposals by Virginia’s Board of Education to increase funding for at-risk students, support staff, and more. 

“Access to high-quality public schools is a racial justice issue,” said Brionna Nomi, education organizer for the Legal Aid Justice Center. 

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D- Richmond) and Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) carried sweeping education legislation this session that would have lowered student-to-teacher ratios, and granted greater state funding to support at-risk students and students struggling academically.

“I understand that 150 years later after public education was founded in Virginia, we are not fully living up to the promise to all of our children of a free, high-quality public education,” McClellan said during a press conference Wednesday. 

Despite success in the Senate, Democrats were unable to push the legislation through in the House, and it failed in the Appropriations Committee. It would have codified the Virginia Board of Education’s new staffing standards, and helped to address staffing and funding inequities between school divisions.

“The price tag to fully-fund our educational needs is at least $1 billion a year. We need to be honest about that,” McClellan said. “While we didn’t reach that goal, we began an important conversation.” 

There remain no state standards for staffing ratios of other support staff, like school psychologists and nurses. The only support positions addressed in budget proposals currently under consideration include school counselors and aides for English Language learners. 

Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget includes funding for one full-time aide for every 50 English Language learners. Currently, the state only funds one full-time support person for every 59 English Language learners. Virginia’s Board of Education recommended a tiered funding ratio for ELL supports based on a student’s proficiency level. McClellan and Aird’s legislation included these ratios, but they were not incorporated into the current budget proposals. 

Northam’s budget includes funding for one counselor for every 250 students, the ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association. The Senate and House budgets fund a ratio of one counselor for every 300 and one counselor for every 325 students, respectively.

16-year-old Asia Goode went to a school counselor in Richmond last year because she was having suicidal thoughts. 

“I was looked at but then overlooked because my caseworker had so many things they had to focus on that I wasn’t the main focus,” Goode said. 

She’s feeling better now, but says she worries about other students who turn to counselors for help.

“So if that’s your last resort, and they [counselors] aren’t attentive, it makes you wanna give up,” Goode said. 

The proposals would also make the ratio standard across grade levels. Right now, the ratio differs for students in elementary, middle and high school. Elementary schools receive funding for one full-time counselor for every 375 students, every 325 middle school students and 300 high school students.