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Education spending remains one of the biggest budget challenges for Virginia lawmakers

Lawmakers left the Capitol earlier this month without passing a budget, and House and Senate leaders remain divided on a number of issues. Education spending is a major budget debate heading into the special session.

In some ways, Virginia schools never really recovered from the last recession a decade ago. Spending per student in Virginia ranks toward the bottom of states, hovering between Mississippi and Missouri. Now state coffers are flush with cash, and the Senate wants to make larger investments in education, while the House is leaning more toward tax cuts.

Chris Wodicka at the Commonwealth Institute says lawmakers should be in no rush to figure this out.

"More important than quickly getting to a deal, I think, is getting to the right deal and funding things as close to adequately as possible given the budget situation we're in right now," Wodicka explains.

The Senate version of the budget has more than $200 million more for high poverty schools, and almost $40 million more for early childhood programs. Chad Stewart at the Virginia Education Association says one of the key distinctions is that the Senate budget has a 5% increase for teachers, while the House budget has a 4% increase.

"That might sound like a small difference, but it's actually a 20% pay cut or salary difference between the Senate and the House budgets," says Stewart.

Leaders on the House and Senate money committees will be trying to hash out their differences next week, when lawmakers will return to the Capitol for a special session to balance the books.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.