Educate Every Child: A Snapshot of the 2019 Legislative Session
Our JustChildren program’s Educate Every Child campaign is one of our longest, most ambitious efforts; it seeks to fulfill the promise of our state Constitution to ensure a free, high-quality, public education to all children in the Commonwealth. Our policy work focuses on improving the critical attributes of such a system: equity, access, support, quality, opportunity, and sustainability, all of which create more justice for our clients and their families. We also specifically seek to redress the racial inequities that persist in our schools and to dismantle the effects of the racist laws and policies upon which our public K-12 education system was historically built.
During the 2019 General Assembly session, we reached some significant milestones in our ongoing work to increase support staff and decrease criminalization of students in Virginia’s public schools. As of the close of the regular session, we successfully championed the following:
Reducing School Counselor Caseloads
- Partnering with The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, we helped secure an initial $12 million to seed a phase-in plan to reduce school counselor caseloads to the nationally recognized best practice of one counselor per 250 students (1:250), across school levels. We continue to advocate for a Governor’s budget amendment for the 2019 Reconvened Session to fully fund the Year One plan at $36 million, and will further advocate for the full three-year plan (or better) in the coming biennial budget for the 2020 session.
Increased Targeted Funding for Low-Income Students
- In a continuation of our work during the 2018 legislative session, and in partnership with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, we successfully advocated for an increase—ultimately totaling approximately $25 million—to Virginia’s “At-Risk Add-On” funding stream, which directly benefits economically disadvantaged students.
Mandatory Training for School Resource Officers
- As part of our yearlong effort to direct reinvigorated focus on “school safety” towards prevention and positive supports to students, we successfully advanced bills and policy initiatives through the House Select Committee on School Safety, the Governor’s School Safety workgroup within the Children’s Cabinet, and the Virginia Commission on Youth to require all School Resource Officers (SROs) to be trained to meet minimum certification and re-certification standards established by the Department of Criminal Justice Services. We’ll continue working with DCJS to ensure those standards include training in topics like working with students with disabilities, cultural competency, the mental health needs of students, child and adolescent development, and mediation and de-escalation skills. We were also able to limit additional funding for SROs to existing positions—no small feat in an era when more law enforcement is a popular response to school safety concerns.
Mandatory MOUs for Cops in Schools
- Within that same “school safety” work with the relevant committees, we successfully advanced a legislative policy initiative to require Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between local school divisions and local law enforcement whenever SROs are placed in schools, in an effort to define and refine the scope of police duties and actions in the school environment. SROs should not be responsible for or reacting to school discipline matters. These bills emerged from the House Select Committee on School Safety through our yearlong effort to shape that committee’s focus and agenda.
Increased Transparency & Accountability in Disciplinary Alternative Education
- As the next step in our efforts to address racial disparities in exclusionary discipline and reduce its use, we successfully passed legislation to require schools to report a broad spectrum of data points on the use of alternative education in discipline matters. Currently in Virginia, there are no meaningful accountability standards, definitions, enrollment or outcome measures for disciplinary alternative education programs, which exist in widely varying quality across the state. This bill will begin to provide a scaffolding to the alternative education system, while offering a road map on how Virginia should build a system with quality standards and due process for students.
While successes like the ones listed above might seem to become fully assembled over the course of one legislative session, the behind-the-scenes story unfolds over a much longer timeline. Our advocacy to improve support staff in schools, for example, measures itself in decades.
Most recently, last year during the 2018 legislative session, in partnership with Sen. Jennifer McClellan, we brought the most recent recommendations from the Virginia Board of Education to fully fund the Virginia Standards of Quality to the General Assembly, in the form of several budget amendments designed to eliminate the arbitrary decade-old cap on school support staff and assure that students had adequate access to school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses. The presentation of those amendments in committee helped once again put the General Assembly on notice that our public K-12 system is radically underfunded, and that the Commonwealth is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide high-quality education to Virginia students.
We then leveraged the awareness we raised during the 2018 session into both broad-based and targeted advocacy within the various school safety committees and workgroups over the past year, to again demand adequate school funding for K-12—especially for economically disadvantaged students, this time zeroing in on school counselors and the At-Risk Add-On funding as priority measures. Among our efforts:
- In July 2018, we authored a letter to the House Select Committee on School Safety, the Governor and the Children’s Cabinet, and the Virginia Commission on Youth outlining detailed policy recommendations for improving school safety in Virginia schools, with proposals including: increasing school counselors, improving SRO training, and requiring MOUs when using law enforcement in schools. We secured more than 25 organizational co-signers to the letter, and many of our recommendations became a part of each of these group’s final school safety platform.
- In August 2018, with The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, we released a report, “Investing in Student Safety and Success: The Growing Importance of Effective Staffing in Virginia Schools,” which outlined the multi-faceted need for support staff in our schools.
- In November 2018, we hosted a Legislative Listening Session for current school counselors to share their experiences and recommendations directly with legislators. The event was held at ART180, in the midst of an art installation created primarily by current or formerly incarcerated students entitled “Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out.”
- Prior to and during the 2019 legislative session, we helped several legislators and Gov. Northam’s administration to draft the successful legislation that will expand SRO training and provide for the statewide use of rigorous MOUs between schools and law enforcement. We successfully advocated for the inclusion of the Department of Criminal Justice Services model MOU as a framework with which the local agreements must align. We worked diligently on this DCJS model as it was developed in 2015-2016, based in large part on our own model school/law MOU within our 2016 report on school policing, which adheres to best practices and a student-centered, trauma-informed approach.
The road to equity, access, support, quality, opportunity, and sustainability for Virginia’s schools is a highway, not a cul-de-sac. Even with these victories, our work will continue—into the coming legislative sessions, within administrative agencies, in conversation with the media, in collaboration with our organizational coalitions (which commonly include groups like The Commonwealth Institute For Fiscal Analysis and the Virginia School Counselors Association), and—most importantly and urgently—in partnership with affected communities. We will continue to prioritize racial equity and an anti-racist agenda in our policy advocacy and partnerships. And we will continue to use data to help tell the policy stories necessary to effect change. This post maps only two years’ worth of our commitment to demanding that Virginia fulfil its constitutional duty to assure every child receives a high-quality public education; the successes detailed here grow out of two decades of JustChildren’s efforts, and serves only as a mile-marker in our ongoing work. We’re grateful to our partners and the children, families, and communities we represent—building this path will take every one of us together.
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