As part of their November 19 business meeting, the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) approved the 2020 Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia. The draft report notes the disruptive impacts of COVID-19 on public education in the Commonwealth and the challenges facing local school divisions as they continue to fulfill their responsibilities to provide and maintain educational programs of high quality. This information will be formally presented to Governor Ralph Northam and the General Assembly on December 1.
COVID-19 has highlighted several pressing issues facing school divisions in addition to long-term challenges that existed prior to the start of the pandemic. Student access to broadband infrastructure, digital devices for students to access virtual instruction, and additional virtual supports for students with special needs and younger students were identified as particular concerns as many school divisions have not fully returned to in-person learning environments, and instead have opted to conduct instruction for the 2020-2021 school year virtually or using hybrid models. Though the number of school divisions conducting in-person and hybrid models increased from September to November of this year, these numbers are subject to change as local pandemic conditions fluctuate and more divisions may opt towards virtual instruction if conditions worsen.
This reinforces the importance of closing the digital divide in Virginia and addressing issues of broadband access and affordability. According to a report earlier this year from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), fully one fifth of Virginia students (K-12 and college) lack either high-speed internet or a computer in the home, both of which are essential for successful distance learning. Students living in rural areas are less likely to have broadband internet in the home compared to urban students. However, nearly 40% of all students without broadband live in or around Virginia’s cities. Half of all students without devices live in urban areas. Further inequities exist regarding Black and Latinx students.
Additionally, VBOE’s annual report concludes that many preexisting long-term challenges unrelated to COVID-19 remain. Virginia schools continue to be underfunded. When adjusting for inflation, state per pupil support for K-12 education has not been restored to pre-recessionary levels more than 10 years after the end of the Great Recession. According to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s (JLARC) report Virginia Compared to the Other States: 2020 Edition, Virginia ranks 26th of 50 for state and local per pupil funding for Pre K-12 education, and 40th of 50 for state per pupil funding. This despite Virginia localities investing $4.1 billion above the required local effort to fund the Standards of Quality in FY 2019.
The report also alluded to a short-term drop in student enrollment, otherwise known as average daily membership (ADM) as many parents choose to home school their children, delay enrollment by a year in kindergarten, or seek other non-public education options for their children. This is an issue that has implications on the state share of funding of K-12 education through Direct Aid. During the 2020 special session of the General Assembly, VACo and other education stakeholders successfully advocated that ADM funding be held harmless due to the unusual conditions brought on by COVID-19. According to a recent presentation made to the House Appropriations Committee, school divisions are experiencing an unprecedented 3.2% drop in enrollment, which equates to approximately 40,000 students. If funding based on ADM is not held harmless going forward, local governments could see a reduction of $199 million in state funding for K-12. VACo will continue to advocate on this issue during the 2021 regular session of the General Assembly.
VBOE is required by code and the state constitution to submit an annual report by December 1 that includes but is not limited to, a complete listing of the current SOQs and changes recommended by VBOE, an overview of the accreditation status of schools, and reporting requirements of local school divisions. A copy of the draft report may be accessed here.
During their meeting, VBOE also heard a presentation from Alleghany County and the City of Covington on their joint proposal to consolidate the school divisions of both localities. Section § 22.1-25 of the Code of Virginia outlines this process and the role of local governing bodies, school boards, and VBOE. Benefits of this consolidation are estimated to include improved educational opportunities for students in both localities and projected reductions in overlap in central office administration alone yielding $900,000 in savings per year. VACo recently approved adding a position supporting additional state resources and incentives that allow counties to voluntarily consolidate or regionalize K-12 services to increase operational efficiencies to the 2021 legislative program.
VACo Contact: Jeremy R. Bennett