Sunday, February 10, 2013

Christina Nuckols: Unpleasant answers about education

Christina Nuckols

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Christina Nuckols grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and worked at several newspapers in western Virginia, including The Roanoke Times, before moving to Richmond to cover state government and politics. After 14 years at the state Capitol, she returned to Roanoke in 2011 to become the editorial page editor. christina. | 981-3377

From the RoundTable blog

Last week, state senators voted in favor of a study to determine whether they are adequately funding public schools in Virginia.

The sponsor, Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw, knows the answer. "We're not even coming close," he said in a phone interview.

Sorry, I should have issued a spoiler alert. Not that you're likely to read that study anytime soon. A similar proposal died in the House of Delegates. Saslaw is hoping to persuade House Speaker Bill Howell to save his study from the same fate, but it won't be easy.

Most legislators, like Saslaw, know they are cheating public education. It's been a subtext during this winter's General Assembly session as legislators fight over transportation funding and as Gov. Bob McDonnell pushes for education reforms. But the school funding problem is usually buried deep in those news stories, rather than blaring from the headlines.

If the team of analysts with the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission tackle the topic, it'll finally hit the headlines, and many legislators aren't eager for that to happen. Worse, those pesky policy wonks at JLARC would offer suggestions for solving the problem, most or all of which would cost money. Still another reason for lawmakers to just ignore the problem. But it isn't going away, and in fact it's getting worse.

Legislators decide what constitutes an adequate education in Virginia and establish funding formulas to meet that goal. The formulas are kept artificially low to minimize state aid. But those formulas don't begin to cover what virtually every parent in Virginia would consider adequate for their children, so cities and counties pick up the slack.

A recent report by the Virginia Department of Education admits that in the last academic year, every single school division in Virginia spent more on education than state funding formulas require. That's right, even the most dirt poor counties in Virginia exceed state spending guidelines. And school budgets show every city and county in the state plans to do the same thing again this year.

The average school division spent 85 percent more than the required local share last year. Roanoke, Salem and the counties of Roanoke and Montgomery were among the 47 localities that spent more than double the mandated share for education. That amounts to $12 million in Salem, $19 million in Montgomery, $26 million in Roanoke and $33 million in Roanoke County.

"If you don't have that local effort, you're really hurting," said Rebecca Irvine, director of finance for Covington schools, where local aid more than tripled state requirements.

State aid has been on the decline. Since 2009, state per-pupil funding has fallen from $5,274 to $4,811. The state's share of total operating expenses slid from 45 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2011.

While legislators may prefer to ignore the issue, it's been shadowing them ever since they arrived in Richmond last month. Senate Democrats, led by Saslaw, blocked McDonnell's transportation plan in large part because the governor wants to divert $49 million from the state's general fund, or operating budget, to transportation projects. Public schools are the primary recipients of dollars from the general fund, and McDonnell would increase the amount drained away for roads in future years.

The governor is also getting push-back on his education proposals. McDonnell wants the state to take control of chronically failing schools and turn over management to a charter school company, public university or some other entity. But he's discovered that he can't afford to run a school on the laughable amount he'd get under the state funding formulas.

Both of the governor's bills now wending their way through the legislature contemplate forcing localities to pay extra even for students in schools they no longer oversee. That's a sore subject with cities and counties, because that is money they've gotten by making the difficult decision to keep real estate rates high enough to cover the shortfall in state aid. Local officials maintain that if the state wants to run a school, the state should pay for it. It's hard to argue with their logic.

What's interesting about the dilemma is that McDonnell has answered Saslaw's question without a study. State funding for schools is indeed inadequate. Too bad the governor isn't willing to take the next step and tell legislators what they should do about it.

Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.

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