As leaders of the largest school district and locality in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we are frustrated and disappointed by the hard truth exposed in a recent study: the Commonwealth is failing students in every part of Virginia by chronically underfunding local K-12 public schools. We trail the 50-state average, the regional average, and three border states – West Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky – in per-pupil funding.
Education funding is the foundation of a strong community and economy. If we want the Commonwealth to be an economic leader, we must lead by investing in our young people – our future workforce. We call on Gov. Youngkin and the General Assembly to make K-12 funding their top priority.
The Virginia General Assembly’s nonpartisan research arm, the Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission (JLARC), recently completed a full review of state education funding. JLARC found that Virginia’s funding is woefully inadequate compared to the rest of the country. School divisions in other states on average receive 14% more per student than school divisions in Virginia, which equates to $1,900 more per student.
Virginia’s funding of local schools is based on an outdated formula that results in chronic underfunding by the state. On average, Virginia local governments allocate 52% of their budgets to meet educational needs. In Fairfax County, that means our local government provides 69% of the school system’s budget. We do this because our residents expect and demand the best schools. But we are at a breaking point, where local tax increases to compensate for state underfunding of schools are making Northern Virginia, and other parts of Virginia, less affordable. The number one challenge for any employer is finding high-quality talent. Unfortunately, many of the people who would fill those roles in our area simply can’t afford to.
The state’s formula under calculates the true cost of education by $6.6 billion; that’s $1.2 billion for Fairfax County Public Schools alone. This is an embarrassment and must be addressed by the Youngkin administration and the General Assembly.
But it’s not just an embarrassment. It hampers the ability of localities to fully address other community priorities. From mental health to climate change to affordable housing, there are so many opportunities for local government to solve problems if we are not asked to make up for a massive school funding shortfall from the state every year.
And it's also not just about the pressing challenges local municipalities cannot afford to address. It’s about investing in what should be a community’s greatest asset and a source of civic pride – its public school system. Decades of research confirms that funding plays a critical role in the quality of K-12 education, and the likelihood of having exemplary teachers increases with sufficient funding. There is not a school district in the Commonwealth that would not welcome more funding to increase teacher pay. To be clear, the teacher shortage is a state and national crisis; it cannot be adequately addressed if local governments are forced to shoulder the burden largely alone. More funding may not solve every problem, but without it, we are missing opportunities to help our kids succeed.
We know very well in Fairfax County what great schools can lead to in terms of economic growth and competitiveness, and that is why the County funds them at such a high level. While Governor Youngkin says improving Virginia’s economic competitiveness is his priority, this cannot be accomplished without providing substantial new resources for public education rather than relying on the “smoke and mirrors” of moving scarce state dollars from one education priority to another. It is time to end his war on public education and provide relief to local governments and school systems.
State underfunding of our schools is nothing new, but this time it is very different. The JLARC report provides a new opportunity. This is not a report from a national partisan think tank with a footnote about Virginia – this is the General Assembly’s own nonpartisan commission showing us that the state is failing our students. This is a time for action and a time for the state to fulfill its constitutional duty to set a high standard for our local schools and then fund them appropriately.
For General Assembly leaders, this session you have an opportunity to use your own report and work with your colleagues around the state to begin fixing this problem.
For Governor Youngkin, to build a 21st century economy we must start with building and funding a world class K-12 public education system across the Commonwealth.
For everyone, the time is now to begin righting a historic wrong and help the Commonwealth’s students achieve greatness in their local schools. No more patches or short-term fixes. Let’s get to the root of the issue and build a better Commonwealth for future generations.
Jeffrey McKay is Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors
Karl Frisch is Chair of the Fairfax County School Board