In some areas, Virginia’s state legislature is very hands-on. Until laws were changed recently, for instance, a locality could not remove a Confederate statue without the state’s consent, no matter how much said statue offended residents.
When it comes to spending for schools, though, the legislature is much more laissez faire, happy to pass the check, much of it at least, over to the cities and counties.
In a recent article in the Virginia Mercury, the disparity between the school districts of Bristol, Va., and Bristol, Tenn., which are separated only by the aptly named State Street, highlighted the problem.
Bristol, Va., according to its school superintendent, is lagging its Tennessee neighbor in public school expenditures, and especially teachers’ salaries. This is despite the fact that “our” Bristol puts 24 percent of its money into the local school budget and Bristol, Tenn., pays 8 percent.
Virginia ranks 9th among the states in median household income, more than $20,000 higher than the average in Tennessee. Yet Virginia is ranked 41st in the country in state-provided per-pupil funding, according to the nonpartisan Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.
The devil is in the formula.
In Virginia, the state government matches the school dollars provided by the localities, so poorer localities not only have less money, they also get less from the state. So the poor get poorer.
Petersburg spends a little more than $11,000 per public school student. Affluent Falls Church spends nearly $20,000. When it comes to replacing and repairing aging schools and keeping teachers, this is obviously a problem. Two children starting their educational experience in those two places likely won’t have the same outcome in 13 years or so.
The state Board of Education has something called Standards of Quality for education programs and staffing. The legislature, however, views those standards as suggestions rather than rules. This is somewhat understandable, since adhering to the Standards of Quality reportedly would cost about $1 billion a year.
In the last decade, the At-Risk Add-On was developed in Virginia to give more money to districts with high poverty rates, but the gap is still wide.
The Board of Education is pushing for an equity fund that would add to the Add-On and help close the gap between the haves and have-nots. That has not as yet been embraced by the legislature.
It should be. Poorer districts lose their best teachers to other localities (or states). Facilities crumble for lack of funds. Kids are deprived of a chance at a good education.
The United States in general is not a shining beacon when it comes to public schools. We put 11.6 percent of public funding toward education. The international standard is 15 percent. Yes, we rank fifth among 38 developed nations in per-pupil spending, but that’s because we are, on the global scale, rich.