Enshrined in the Virginia Constitution is the right of every child in the commonwealth to receive a free public education. It’s a recognition that Virginia, as a legacy of Thomas Jefferson who founded the first non-sectarian, truly public university, values an educated citizenry.
But the question has always been “On whose dime?”
The General Assembly has always seen public education as a state matter when it comes to establishing such things as Standards of Learning tests students must pass, the Standards of Quality each local division must adhere to and division calendars (no opening before Labor Day to appease the tourism industry). One mandate after another for local divisions, rarely with any funding attached.
But when it comes to state dollars actually going to localities to pay for schools, Richmond has been as tight as the proverbial tick.
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), the Assembly’s watchdog agency, recently released two reports that are eye-opening, to say the least, when it comes to the discrepancies and inequalities inherent in how public schools in the commonwealth are paid for.
According to JLARC’s Virginia Compared to the Other States, 2015 edition, the commonwealth is the 10th richest state in America with a median income of $48,838 that is trending upward.
But the fact that Virginia is one of the richest states in the country, just does not jive with three other statistics in the report:
1. The average teacher salary of $48,670 ranks 35th in the nation and is trending downward.
2. State per-pupil funding for pre-K through 12th grade of $4,426 ranks 41st and is trending upward.
3. State and local per-pupil funding for pre-K through 12th grade of $10,600 ranks 26th and is trending upward.
Just consider those three facts for a moment.
The 10th-richest state in America is worse than 34 other states when it comes to the pay of its public school teachers and is worse than 40 other states when it comes to how much in state dollars go toward public education.
The only statistic that “saves” Virginia’s reputation — and we’re reluctant even to say that — is that combined state and local, per-pupil spending finds the commonwealth smack in the middle of the 50 states.
Folks, that is pathetic and calls into question whether we Virginians are as concerned about the quality of education our children receive. Do we really value an educated populace as much as we say we do if, as the 10th-richest state, we’re as cheap as we evidently are when it comes to paying for it?
Mississippi, which is the poorest state in the country, ranks 39th in per-pupil state funding at $4,475. Let that fact sink in for a second: Mississippi funds its public schools better than Virginia.
The commonwealth manages to climb out of the bottom of the barrel only on the backs of local governments, whose own per-pupil spending brings our standing up to 26th “best” in the country.
And how is that accomplished? Simple … local taxes, with a locality’s real estate tax generating the lion’s share of local dollars for public schools.
The burden falls heaviest on Virginia’s cities.
Forbidden by the state from adding to its tax base through annexation and with school populations that are the most educationally challenging and most expensive to teach, cities have no other recourse but to turn to its residents in the form of higher taxes. Rural counties, by the way, are in similar straits.
As Lynchburg resident Jim Weigand, a frequent letter writer to The News & Advance and a frequent critic of public school spending, is fond of pointing out, Lynchburg is the third-most fiscally stressed city in the state.
Yet Lynchburg spends $4,595 per pupil to meet the state’s Standards of Quality requirements. Compare that with what Falls Church, one of the richest localities in the 10th richest state, spends per pupil: $2,149.
And yet it was Jim Weigand who brought these enlightening statistics to the attention of the public and Central Virginia’s state legislators recently, when he made the argument that Richmond must dramatically increase the amount of state support for public education.
His calculation that Richmond needs to up the ante by $2.2 billion to reach parity is open to debate, but his underlying reasoning is sound. Increasing state support would allow stressed localities to lessen their tax rates, if they choose, in order to spur local economic growth, which would lead to even strong public schools.
The ball is now in the General Assembly’s court. With the future of public education in the balance, it’s time to address this funding crisis.