Virginians deserve education equity

Op-ed by Senator Jennifer McClellan
Published by the Richmond Free Press 

The Virginia Constitution strives to provide all children in Virginia access to a free, public “educational program of high quality.”

But, too often, Virginia’s actions haven’t lived up to those words. Our public education system consistently has been underfunded, and too many children – particularly those in lower-income communities – are inhibited from accessing a “high quality” education. 

From rural districts in Southwest Virginia to urban districts in Richmond, school districts have struggled to access the resources necessary for quality K-12 education. According to The Commonwealth Institute, local school districts paid $4.2 billion above their expected budget, money that should have been provided by the state. This funding gap has led to a critical achievement gap: the school districts with high poverty levels and more students of color struggle the most to make up these funds, resulting in vast inequities in education opportunity across the state. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened educational disparity across Virginia. Some school systems have transitioned better into virtual learning, while others can’t ensure that their students have access to necessary learning technology at home. Schools are also struggling to provide adequate staffing, resulting in insufficient counselors, social workers, nurses, instructional aides, and administrative and custodial staff. The pandemic has only widened these gaps, and students, teachers, and school personnel need equitable funding more than ever before.

As we address the pandemic, we cannot afford to wait longer to take action on fully funding Virginia schools. That’s why I have joined Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) for the second year  to introduce bills and budget amendments that would increase school funding and end decade-old caps on support staff funding.

Last week, we introduced the School Equity and Staffing Act, a much-needed education investment bill that would help close the achievement gap in Virginia public schools and address education inequality across the Commonwealth. This bill would invest an additional $1 billion per year into Virginia schools by implementing the Virginia Board of Education’s Standards of Quality recommendations. This bill, similar to the one we introduced in the 2020 session, would create an Equity Fund to add funding for high-poverty schools, and remove the pre-recession “support cap” enabling increased funding for counselors, social workers, nurses, and custodial staff. 

These bills simply do what the Virginia Board of Education has recommended. The Board’s Standards of Quality are created to promote educational parity, support the hiring of educators and support staff, and help all schools to achieve their graduation standards—but this only works if school divisions receive adequate state funding. The schools division with the greatest needs cannot fully fund the SOQs on their own, and in turn are unable to hire the necessary staff to  support students and teachers holistically. 

Not funding the SOQs perpetuates issues with the school to prison pipeline, students with disabilities, graduation rates, and teachers’ ability to teach and earn competitive wages. 

The School Equity and Staffing Act would drastically change outcomes for students in places like Richmond, which Superintendent Jason Kamras noted in 2019 was dealing with “unspeakable challenges,” specifically regarding staffing shortages of critical staff members such as school nurses and social workers

At current levels of school funding, our Commonwealth simply doesn’t provide the opportunity for all students to achieve their full potential. This underinvestment in our students today is an under investment in our future.

Together, we must pass the School Equity and Staffing Act to begin to achieve education equity in Virginia. It is past time that we deliver a high quality education to all children regardless of their zip code.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on education equity before the General Assembly – and hearing from you. Please feel free to share your views on legislation with me at [email protected] or (804) 698-7509. You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram @JennMcClellanVA or on Facebook @SenJenniferMcClellan.