Why does public education cost so much to localities?

Every year people ask me, “Why are the schools asking for more money?”  “Why does this keep happening?” Many of us may chalk it up to inflation or increased enrollment all of which is partially true but there are many more reasons.

First, let’s look at the Charlottesville City Schools budget in terms of funding sources:

Federal funds and many components of State funding pay for specific programs and staff; therefore, we call these restricted funds because there is little or no flexibility. Federal funds primarily cover a portion of the following programs: Special Education, English Language Learner programs, School Nutrition, Adult Education and Intervention funds for low income students.

Federal funding for Charlottesville City Schools is about $1,000,000 less now than it was in 2009, before the recession.  Unfortunately, the number of students who qualify for federal assistance programs has not decreased in our school division.  Well over 50 percent of the children in Charlottesville City Schools qualify for free or reduced lunch.

For State funding, many understandably think that the Lottery Funds advertised as supporting K-12 education are providing additional funding for education.  Unfortunately, Lottery Funds are simply used to cover education line items that were previously funded from the State General Fund.  Lottery Funds simply supplanted other State funds that were already going to support schools – it is critical for supporting education in Virginia, but it is not additional funding for our schools.

The Constitution of Virginia requires the Board of Education to prescribe standards of quality for the public schools of Virginia, subject to revision only by the General Assembly, reviewed every two years. Standards of Quality (SOQ) encompass the requirements that must be met by all Virginia public schools and school divisions.
Virginia State Board of Education website

Virginia State Board of Education website

State funding is largely driven by the Standards of Quality (SOQ).

The SOQ in laymen’s terms, is the required minimum of staffing and other resources that school divisions must provide in the locality’s free and appropriate education for K-12 students. In terms of state requirements for counselors, the SOQ provides funding for one hour per day per 100 students.  At this service level, each of our elementary schools would only have about 2.5 hours of counselor time per day.

Of course we staff above this minimum and each of our elementary schools has a full time counselor.  Even more stark are the teacher to student ratios supported by the SOQ for K-12.  They range from 1:21-1:35. Our City Schools has a ratio from 1:19-1:24.  This costs the School Division approximately $7 million more than the State provides. In terms of Art, Music and Gifted Education which many believe are signature programs of the City Schools, we spend on average $2 million more than the State SOQ funding model supports.

By most opinions, these “standards” fall far short in covering the actual needs of school divisions to support student learning and success. Charlottesville City Schools, and all school divisions in the Commonwealth, staff above the state minimums. According to Virginia School Board Association reports, only 67 percent of statewide K-12 positions are actually funded by the SOQ formula.

In a time where Virginia is seeing it’s student population become more poor and diverse, and knowing that students with multiple risk factors costs about 25 percent more to educate, the State “standards” for funding need to be updated to at minimum reflect the actual resources necessary to meet the State & Federal mandates for student achievement – of course, most families want more for their students than to meet minimum government standards.  Families want their children to be equipped to be successful, contributing members of our fast-paced, global society.  

Until the State updates the SOQ funding model to be more in-line with the current needs and realities of K-12 education, localities will bear the brunt of funding local school divisions.

Thank you to our locality for stepping up to help our children succeed.


Amy Laufer is the Chair of the Charlottesville City School Board. She has been an elected member of the board since 2012 and is a former Math and Science Middle School Teacher.