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Virginia Journal of Education


A Fair Piece of the Pie

What can be done about Virginia's educational disparities?

by Tom Allen

The famed educational philosopher John Dewey once said, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely.”

Well, there are some “narrow and unlovely” things going on in public schools in Virginia.

If you’re one of those good and wise parents of whom Dewey spoke, and you want the best possible educational opportunities for your children, where are you going to feel best about sending them off to class—Arlington, for example, where public schools receive $14,095 per student for instructional purposes, or New Kent County, where they get $6,261 per student?

If you’re an outstanding teacher who believes that the work you do with young people is among the most important work there is, where are you going to be more likely to do it—Alexandria, for example, where the average salary for teachers is $67,002, or Grayson County, where teachers make an average of $36,396?

If you’re a business owner or manager looking, in a tough economy, for a locality in Virginia to operate your business and have access to top-notch workers, where might you go—Falls Church, for example, where funds are available for the schools to provide 100.07 instructional staff members per 1,000 students, or King George County, where the schools provide 70.15?

And the last big “if”: If you’re a legislator or other education policymaker in our commonwealth, what can you do to help families who worry desperately about their children’s futures? Or the educators in some parts of the state who are earning just-above-poverty-level salaries? Or the businesses that must choose between localities?

A quick disclaimer: We’re not mentioning the cities or counties that we did in order to either praise or criticize them. They’re merely examples of some of the educational disparities that exist in our state. Most communities here are doing the best they can to meet the needs of their schools and students, and there will never be an absolutely level playing field for public schools across Virginia.
Further, we recognize that it takes more than an infusion of dollars to make our schools work as well as we’d like them to. However, resources, including funds, do play an important role—and it’s clear that there are gross inequities in those resources in public schools here.

Fixing those inequities will require a very complex solution, because local property taxes are the fundamental source of public school money. That means if you are a student from a family in a relatively wealthy area, you are quite likely to have more and better resources in your school than will a student whose family lives in a lower-income area.

That’s not fair—but it’s not new, either. The problem has been with Virginia for decades.

“Using property taxes as a basis for paying for our public schools is a recipe for inequity,” says VEA President Dr. Kitty Boitnott. “I have worked in Virginia schools for more than 30 years and I’ve seen firsthand the impact of economic disparity—it shows up in the age of school buildings, the materials available for use in the classroom, and even in the level of community support and involvement. The children who attend these ‘have-not’ schools are every bit as deserving of an opportunity for a bright future as anyone else.”

While Boitnott acknowledges that Virginia, like the rest of the country, faces some serious economic challenges, she sees the need to correct school disparities as too important to postpone until a time when it’s easier to address. “Our legislators are sworn to uphold the state’s constitution,” she says, “and the constitution says that it’s their duty to provide the framework for a high-quality education for every child within our borders. If we don’t make some progress now, we can’t go back and fix the lives of the children who are shortchanged.”

The issues that come along with fixing disparity are more than ticklish. Is it right to take funding from wealthier areas of Virginia and give the money to struggling communities? Is that just? And what to do about localities that, based on their financial resources, are making less of an effort to support their schools than some communities that have less are making?

Make no mistake: significant progress toward reducing and eliminating educational disparity in Virginia will only come with hard, hard work.  But justice and democracy require that we make the effort. One of the reasons public schools are so indispensable to our country is the role they play as a great equalizer. In America, our public schools are where the children of millionaires, immigrants, farmers, welfare recipients, corporate executives, and everyone else is supposed to get a fair shake.

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.





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