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Virginia Journal of Education


Paying the Tab

To best serve Virginia's students and educators, the 2008 General Assembly must fully fund the Standards of Quality.


by Ralph J. Shotwell

I started teaching in a rural Virginia school in the early 1960s, and in my heart I will always be a classroom teacher. In those days, there were no statewide standards for Virginia's public schools. There were state accreditation standards for high schools, but for the most part, school policies were determined by the 130-plus local school boards.

Salaries were low and educators in most school divisions paid the full cost of their employee benefits-health insurance, life insurance, and the employee's portion of the cost for Virginia Retirement System benefits. The average salary for Virginia teachers was $5,650 in 1965-66, ranking the state 34th in the U.S. There were widespread educational disparities in the state: The average cost of education per pupil in the top 10 school divisions was 1.7 times greater than the average per pupil cost for the bottom 10 school divisions.

Today, we have several sets of statewide standards for public education, including the much-publicized Standards of Learning. But the standards of most immediate concern, as the 2008 session of the General Assembly gears up, are much less well-known: the Standards of Quality (SOQs).

The SOQs, essentially, are what's required for Virginia schools to meet minimum academic performance measurements, and define what every school division must provide-at least-for its students and employees. Virginia communities tend to use the SOQs as a starting point-on average, localities exceed the required local effort by 76 percent. And while the SOQs don't get as much ink as the SOLs, they have a huge impact on the day-to-day life of educators and students. The Standards affect everything from student achievement to salaries, programs and even local tax levels.

Every two years, Virginia's General Assembly must "re-benchmark," or assess and fund the SOQs, which will happen in the 2008 session, beginning in January. Recognizing that even maintaining the status quo will cost more, will legislators put up enough money to meet the real needs of Virginia's public schools?

It's in the Constitution
A little SOQ background: In the late 1960s, Virginia's Constitution was amended by adding a new education article, and the citizens of the commonwealth overwhelmingly approved the change in 1971.

Among the mandates set up in the new education article was the establishment of Standards of Quality by the Virginia Board of Education, which could only be revised by the General Assembly. This was meant to keep public education under the control of the legislature and out of the courts. All states have education provisions in their constitutions, but Virginia's SOQs were viewed as revolutionary at the time.

The new article also required the General Assembly to "ensure" that funds necessary to establish and maintain an educational program meeting the SOQs are provided to each school division. The General Assembly must divide the cost of meeting the SOQs between the state and the locality equitably, and each locality had to put up its share of the money.

The General Assembly, then, is charged with prescribing realistic standards and must take into account the actual cost of education. The new education article in the revised state constitution brought renewed hope that educational disparities among the school divisions would be reduced, adequate funding would be provided, and the quality of educational opportunity would be enhanced. Has any of that happened?

Not in the way that it needs to.

The VEA believes that the SOQs have been underfunded by the state since the beginning, caused mostly by the state underestimating the number of instructional personnel needed and unrealistic assumptions for instructional salaries, support costs and inflation.

In response, VEA and other members of the education community have pushed for realistic SOQs, accompanied by realistic funding. Pressure in the early 1980s led the Virginia Board of Education to propose budget requests for consideration by the General Assembly that were based on the actual needs of public education. These efforts led to substantial increases in state funding for public schools from the early to the mid-1980s. General Fund appropriations for elementary and secondary education increased by over $1.5 billion from the 1980-82 biennium through the 1986-88 biennium. Although this was a large increase, the state was still trying to repair the damage from $2.5 billion in underfunding of the public schools in the 1970s. The average salary of Virginia teachers moved from $2,148 below the national average in 1981-82 to just $423 below the national average in 1989-90.

New Standards and More Money
The SOQs are periodically revised and, in 1988, they were arranged into their current format, which includes eight specific standards:

Standard 1. Instructional Programs Supporting the Standards of Learning and Other Educational Objectives (Set out the minimum content that should be taught at specified grade levels for specific courses.)

Standard 2. Instructional, Administrative and Support Personnel

Standard 3. Accreditation, Other Standards and Evaluation. (Requires the establishment of the Standards of Accreditation, which are the regulations that govern the operation of individual schools.)

Standard 4. Student Achievement and Graduation Requirements

Standard 5. Quality of Classroom Instruction and Educational Leadership

Standard 6. Planning and Public Involvement

Standard 7. School Board Policies

Standard 8. Compliance

When you look at what the SOQs govern, you can see why they shape the world of the Virginia educator, affecting every aspect of the profession. Salary increases, increasing health insurance costs, sound funding for retirement system benefits, class size, instructional materials and supplies, professional development, computers and technology, textbooks, evaluation, and even school buildings are all influenced by the Standards of Quality and their funding levels.

In 2002, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) issued a report on SOQ funding noting, among other things, that over $1 billion would have to be added to the state budget to fully fund the standards. In response, the General Assembly passed legislation during that year's session that required the Virginia Board of Education to review the standards. The Board then made eight recommendations:

. One full-time principal in each elementary school.

. One full-time assistant principal for each 400 students in each school.

. Elementary resource teachers in art, music and physical education.

. Secondary school pupil-to-teacher funding ratio reduced from 25:1 to 21:1 to support scheduled planning time for secondary teachers.

. State-required speech language pathologist caseload reduced from 68 to 60 students.

. Two technology positions per 1,000 students in grades K-12 division-wide, one to provide technology support and one to serve as a resource teacher in instructional technology.

. Revised formula for the calculation of funding support for SOQ prevention, intervention and remediation (students scoring in the bottom quarter of the student population on standardized tests).

. One full-time instructional position for each 1,000 students, to serve as the reading specialist.

The 2004 General Assembly earmarked money for the elementary resource teachers, the planning period for secondary school teachers, the technology positions, and revisions in support of the SOQ prevention, intervention and remediation program. It did not designate funding for elementary principal positions, assistant principal positions, speech-language pathologists or reading specialists. The state Board of Education asked for money for these positions in 2005, but the 2006 General Assembly again did not appropriate the funds.

The Standards of Quality Committee of the Virginia Board of Education held regional hearings throughout Virginia during 2006 to receive recommendations for the SOQs. Based on suggestions from these meetings, the Board proposed two new items for possible changes to the SOQs-math specialists and testing coordinator/data managers. The cost of these two new items, plus the cost for the four unfunded items, would require an additional $334.4 million in state funds for the 2008-2010 biennium.

How Funding Has Gone
SOQ funding got a boost during the 2004-06 budget cycle, as Governor Mark Warner and the General Assembly added $1.28 billion to the state budget for public schools, including increased funding for additional SOQ positions and SOQ remediation. These enhancements brought the SOQs more in line with actual staffing practices in local school divisions.

Some localities, however, took advantage of this additional funding and used it to fund local tax relief. Part of a sales tax increase on non-food items was designated as the Public Education Standards of Quality/Local Real Estate Property Tax Relief Fund. In 2004-05, 49 localities chose to use the money as tax relief and actually reduced local per-pupil expenditures. This development caused an unexpected outcome-a precipitous decline in pupil equity. How did this happen? The SOQ funding formula, as presently structured, permits school divisions that exceed the local required expenditures to reduce their local fiscal effort and merely absorb the increased state aid. The inevitable result was that disparities in per-pupil expenditures increased among Virginia school divisions.

Given this, steps should be taken in the future to ensure that localities do not use increased state aid for local tax relief.

Transportation funding was the dominant issue in the 2006-08 biennium, so there were no new funding initiatives for public education. Increased state funding for K-12 education in 2006-08 was largely the result of enhancements to the Standards from the last biennium and updates for routine costs. Small increases were provided for the expansion of a few other programs.

The Forecast for 2008-2010
The 2008 re-benchmarking will be based on items such as student enrollment figures, expenditure data, funded salaries, fringe benefit rates, health care premiums, the financial ability of localities, inflation factors, and textbooks. Changes recommended by the Virginia Board of Education would increase state costs for the SOQs by approximately $1.1 billion for the 2008-2010 biennium. Updates for fringe benefits, such as VRS, and child count updates could add costs to this total. The $334.4 million for the SOQ initiatives cited earlier would push the increased cost of the proposed K-12 budget for 2008-2010 to over $1.434 billion. New methods of estimating salaries and health insurance costs could result in the cost of full funding for realistic Standards topping $2 billion for the next two years.

The state is currently facing an estimated budget shortfall of anywhere from $600 million to $1.2 billion, which will produce renewed debate about shifts in funds and revenue sources. Questions will turn again to the cost of public education.

Critics of public education often admonish the commonwealth to stop "throwing money" at the schools because it will not solve the problem. This is an interesting myth that's never been tested in Virginia's public schools. The state employs over 100,000 instructional personnel and educates 1.1 million students each year. The total cost of school operation in 2005-06 was about $11.6 billion-a large total. But the total cost of operation per pupil for that same year was $9,755, and the total cost of operation per pupil per day was only $48.78-about the same as the cost of admission to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. The percentage of the General Fund going to public education dropped from 51 percent in the late 1960s to 35 percent in 2005-06. While one can debate how much money is needed, current levels of funding hardly seem to support the contention that Virginia is "throwing money at the schools."

Maintaining realistic re-benchmarking costs for the SOQs and funding the Virginia Board of Education proposals in the 2008-2010 state budget would be another step forward in aligning the SOQs with actual staffing and instructional practices in local school divisions. The full promise of a high quality education for the young people of Virginia, as called for in our Constitution, will not be realized until full funding of realistic Standards of Quality is achieved.

Shotwell, now retired, was the VEA's Director of Finance, Research and Retirement Services for over 30 years.

 


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