The academic year has begun for the 1.2 million public school students across the Commonwealth. As many of you know, classes resumed in our region before Labor Day. By now, many school districts have adopted a calendar that starts before the holiday. As a reminder, state law remains the same requiring 180 days of pupil instruction.
The General Assembly continues its due diligence to ensure the best education possible for Virginia’s children. I believe there is no greater value for the taxpayer than investing in public education, which has far-reaching effects for all Virginians. And I am happy to note that as I visit neighbors in the 35th District, they share this same value. The education pipeline begins in early childhood, continues through K-12 and into the handoff to post-secondary education or a workforce credential.
The fundamentals that continue to guide my votes related to education policy include equity of opportunity, an adequate supply of high quality teachers, school safety, and facilities that are clean and functional. I am a member of the Senate Finance Committee’s, Subcommittee on Education, as well as a senior member of the Education and Health Committee. As legislators, I believe that one of our primary duties is the judicious management of funding and how best to achieve and maintain a world-class learning environment that is appropriately staffed.
Here are some of the hard facts we face when discussing education. On a statewide basis, Virginia’s average spending on K-12 education from both local and state sources is $11,383/pupil, ranking the Commonwealth 24th in the nation in this category. If one isolates just funds from the state, that ranking drops to 40th. There is imbalance in opportunity throughout Virginia when local governments, with varying local tax resources, are called upon to subsidize pupil funding.
In our Northern Virginia region, localities are better positioned to and do generously budget for the hundreds of thousands of K-12 students. This is not necessarily the case across Virginia, where poverty limits more than spending power. It is inescapable in the classroom and ultimately in earning power.
Make no mistake about it, NoVA has its fair share of poverty and its challenges. For example, online textbooks require students have computer and Internet access after hours, a luxury some simply cannot afford. That is when corporations become good partners for our students. And when we need to seriously fund other sources for access to Wi-Fi, for example, we are fortunate that our community steps up to address the challenge.
Another program worth funding is an initiative to minimize hunger in the classroom. The biennial budget includes $1.1 million per year to support breakfast meals through programs like Breakfast after the Bell, Grab-and-Go, and Second Chance Breakfast. Serving millions of breakfasts throughout the academic year has had positive results. We have noted an increase in attendance and a decrease in tardiness and discipline referrals. This is a positive ROI for all Virginians. I will continue to work toward ensuring funding for this program, which was most recently championed by former First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe.
Recruiting and retaining teachers remains a high priority. The average salary of K-12 teachers in Virginia is $50,834 and puts the Commonwealth at 29th in the nation. Fortunately, salaries tend to be higher in Northern Virginia and the state funding formula has a Cost of Competing Adjustment that helps retain teachers who might leave for a different state. I will continue to fight for our educators – they deserve compensation that can support themselves and their families.
Our current First Lady, Pam Northam, is a retired teacher. She knows first hand how important early learning is for long-term success. I applaud her involvement and sage input on this issue. She is touring the Commonwealth kicking off the school year.
Governor Northam brings perspective to school safety, an initiative we are working to develop tangible action items on. His service to the country and work as a pediatric neurologist bring significant insights for creating a safe and nurturing environment where our children can learn. I look forward to supporting legislation in 2019 that begins to address the continued scourge of gun violence in the classroom.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]