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Virginia Behind In At-Risk Funding

Petersburg Superintendent Marcus Newsome presented a list of funding requests to a group of legislators yesterday (1/25). He also spoke during a community meeting earlier this week.

“We need change with facilities, and support system, and salaries…to help our teachers do their jobs…”

In the Petersburg school district – 100% of students qualify for free or reduced cost meals. The income cutoff for free meals is just over $26,000 for a family of three.

That’s the type of concentrated poverty that many localities across the state are facing.

Virginia does have a funding tool called the “at-risk add-on” that allocates additional dollars to low-income students.

Chris Duncombe with the Commonwealth Institute says the formula has potential. “So it's recognizing that there are compounding challenges of concentrated poverty and that schools with the greatest concentrations should get the most targeted aid schools.”

However, there’s a cap on how much extra can be dealt. That’s one of the reasons Virginia received an F in school funding distribution from the Education Law Center last year.

Virginia’s at-risk add-on is currently capped at 13%. Justin Silverstein has studied school funding in over 20 states including Maryland, and says high-poverty schools require upwards of 40 percent more funding for their kids. “And there's more and more research out there that we're starting to see especially for at risk populations that if you can get more targeted funding and get that it's used wisely. Right it's not just more money. It's money used well that you can really start to see performance growth for kids.”

Democratic Delegate Lashrecse Aird and Republican Delegate Israel O’Quinn have co-sponsored a budget amendment to raise Virginia’s limit.

The bipartisan amendment would raise the at-risk cap to 18% - and broaden use of the funds to include teacher retention and recruitment.

Chris Duncombe said, “And it’s in those schools that we saw less teacher experience and lower average salaries and fewer advanced course offerings and less likely to be fully accredited by the state. And a lot of the challenges that accompany concentrated poverty has to do with teacher recruitment retention and having competitive salaries is something that school divisions need to deal with to offer if they really want to compete with maybe suburban counterparts that have lower levels of concentrated poverty.”

Newsome says teacher recruitment and retention is the number one priority for the Petersburg district. Additional at-risk add-on funding would help tremendously in this arena.

He has high hopes for other areas of improvement – and with help from the state, would like to launch a new residency program enabling 60 high school students to enroll in STEM classes at Richard Bland College.

Richmond’s public schools also have an extremely high rate of concentrated poverty. According to RPS CFO David Myers, they’d receive an additional $2 million each year over the biennium under the at-risk add-on budget amendment.

Another budget amendment that would help high-poverty schools like Petersburg and Richmond would allocate more funds to districts that’ve lost 10% or more of their student population over the last decade.

And Silverstein says, if used effectively, the extra funds can make a big difference: “One of the big things we've seen over the past five to 10 years is a real increase in the need for social emotional supports into those include counselors and social workers. Even things like having nursing in school and then when you think about four years students are coming from at risk backgrounds those types of supports are equally as important and actually more important.”

Virginia Democratic Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg has proposed an additional budget amendment to allow schools to use at-risk funds to hire school counselors: “We often see that school counselors can be the most effective way to help narrow that achievement gap. To help curb discipline problems right. To help get kids access to the things they need whether it's counseling college support you know or just planning their schedule.”

Others like Democratic Senator Maime Locke would like to see a comprehensive study of the state’s school funding system. “And you know what the saying goes if you keep doing things the same way you're going to get the same results. Obviously we're not doing it the right way. So maybe we do need to look at what is it that other states do to fund their public schools. Is there a better way.”