RICHMOND, Va. — With only a few days left in the 2019 Legislative Session, the budget is one of the last big items being finalized.
Education spending is at the forefront of these talks, lawmakers say.
One initiative looking for more funding is called “FastForward” or the New Economy Workforce Credential program. It’s a short-term initiative, about 6 to 12 weeks long, where Virginians can sign up for credential courses through the Virginia Community College System.
The courses are geared towards each region’s needs for high-demand jobs, like trucking or manufacturing.
The freezing rain Wednesday afternoon didn’t put on the brakes for students at John Tyler and Reynolds Community Colleges in Chester, Va.
“You can make enough to survive on and you’ll be in and out within 6 weeks,” Randolph Schreck, of Mechanicsville, said.
Schreck is just a few weeks out from taking his commercial driver’s license (CDL) test.
Another student chatting with him had just passed this morning and went back to thank his instructors.
Seeing the excitement from a former classmate, Schreck explained he was looking for a new career with a sense of freedom and a change of pace.
“With trucking, you know you’ve gone 500 miles every day,” he added.
“FastForward” is geared towards industries that need more people working in them.
“We’re able to help underemployed and unemployed Virginians,” Elizabeth Creamer, the Vice President of Workforce Development and Credential Attainment at the Virginia Community College Alliance, said. “In some cases very hardworking, young adults who have been working for years but they’re caught in a cycle of minimum wage jobs. Through this program, they’re actually accessing jobs that lead to middle-class wages.”
Students that are part of the program pay one-third of the costs upfront. The rest is taken care of by the institution, through funding from the General Assembly. The catch is the student must complete the course and receive their credential before the rest of the payments are made.
Since the program started in 2016, more than 12,000 credentials have been awarded. The average cost for a course, according to a spokesperson for the Virginia Community College System, is about $3,000. There’s also a cap on how much the state will pay per student.
Overall, the program received about $9 million in funding each year. VCCS officials say they’ve stretched their budget to meet the high demand for the program. Because of this, the General Assembly is looking to add about $4 million to fund it, bumping the total to $13 million.
“We believe 4 million dollars takes care of the backlog,” Sen. Stephen Newman (R-District 23), one of the budget conferees, said.
Community College Workforce Alliance officials say a large portion of enrollees in the CDL course. Lawmakers say they are making some changes in the program to make sure other industries are getting enough workers too.
“We’re trying to make sure it’s not just doing more truck drivers, but it’s doing other things across the commonwealth,” Del. Chris Jones (R-District 76), the appropriations chair, said.
A number of other higher education budget items are being ironed out as well before the end of the week. The House of Delegates proposed freezing tuition rates for state schools, after calculating how much funding lawmakers could give to cover additional costs.
“We’ve given sufficient general fund money to supplant what they would need to raise in tuition to meet the needs and demands on campus,” Del. Jones said.
This line part of the budget is still being negotiated.
Between these initiatives, as well as the Governor’s proposed 5 percent teacher pay raise and a series of school safety bills, some lawmakers say the amount of money going towards education this year is like nothing they’ve ever seen.
“Overall, when you take a picture of this last two years, there’s just never been anything quite like it for education,” Sen. Newman said.
Budget conferees expect to be finalizing the budget up until Saturday, the last day of the 2019 Legislative Session.