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Virginia Journal of Education


Balancing the Scales

What can be done to help narrow Virginia's educational disparities?


by Tom Allen

If you own a business and are looking at locations in Virginia to build a facility where there would be a quality labor supply, which would seem more appealing—Alexandria, for example, where the schools are able to provide about 117 instructional staff members for each 1,000 students, or Caroline, where the schools can provide about 76?

If you’re a top-notch teacher looking for a position in the commonwealth, which is more likely to get your attention—Arlington, for example, where the average salary for teachers is $64,447, or Portsmouth, where teachers are paid an average salary of $34,909?

If you’re a parent hoping to get the best education you can for your children, which looks better—Falls Church, for example, where the public schools can afford to spend $13,540 per student on instruction, or Bland County, where they can spend $6,333 per student?

If you’re a legislator or other policymaker in Virginia, what can you do to prevent businesspeople, educators and families from having to make such decisions? And to prevent students from having to bear the brunt of those decisions?

Let’s make it clear at the outset that the above examples are in no way intended to slight—or trumpet—any of the localities mentioned. Most communities in Virginia are doing what they can to support their public schools given the resources available, and there will always be some regional differences in the state. Further, money isn’t the be-all and end-all of public education. But the fact remains that there are gross inequities around Virginia in what our public schools are able to offer, and too many of our young people are having their educational opportunities either boosted or damaged by the simple fact of their ZIP code. Most of the funds for public schools come from local property taxes, so if your children attend school in an area with relatively low property values, chances are good that their school is not going to have the same resources available to schools in areas with high property values.

It’s a problem we’ve had for decades, and one that needs to be addressed.

“The very fact that school funding is based on property taxes sets up the formula for disparity,” says VEA President Kitty Boitnott. “I have worked in two school districts over the course of my career where I could easily identify the ‘have’ schools from the ‘have-not’ schools based on the age of the school, the involvement of the community, and the level of support that parents provided. The children who need the most help are often the ones who come from the most distressed communities and get the least help in the form of extra resources.”

In the real world, it’s probably not possible for all students in Virginia to have absolutely equal circumstances, but there is certainly room for improvement. Unfortunately, making strides in narrowing Virginia’s educational disparities is something of a political hot potato, as you might expect when issues of economic justice are involved.

For example, does it make sense to take funds from the wealthier areas of our state and steer them toward areas with serious economic struggles? Is that fair? Is there something the General Assembly can do statewide with school funding formulas that will help balance the scales somewhat? What can be done about the issue that some localities are making a stronger fiscal effort with their resources to support their schools than others are?

In our current economic downturn, can anything be done?

Boitnott thinks so. “Tough economic times are no excuse for shortchanging our children,” she says. “These are indeed challenging times, but we urge the General Assembly to avoid shrinking from one of its fundamental constitutional duties—providing the framework for a high-quality education for every child in the commonwealth. Shortchanging our current generation of children will have irreparable effects. We will not have the luxury of going back and catching them up when times are good again.”

Tackling Virginia’s school funding inequities will require a complex, well thought-out strategy that looks beyond political disputes and turf wars. The richer areas of the state tend to carry the most weight at the Capitol.

But it’s an effort we must make. Our public schools are the touchstone of our democracy, the places where socioeconomic differences are supposed to be wiped away.

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.


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