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On Point

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

By Andy Kiser

As Virginia continues its slow crawl up out of the Great Recession, lawmakers and policy-deciders face tough choices between maintaining strong public schools and other, competing fiscal priorities. The small, rural county in which I work is no different than many other areas of the state, and the funding decisions that have been pushed down to the local level – not just for schools, but also law enforcement and other services – add additional pressure. A frequent cry is, thus, to cut the “bloated” education budget, and make them “do more with less.” In my experience, that is a mistake for a number of reasons.

For starters, Virginia’s Constitution mandates that the public schools provide a “free and appropriate education” for students. In many corners of this state, public schools are the only option available for children to even entertain the dream of going to college, or of getting a good job. Providing such an education requires public tax dollars, so that costs are spread over a larger number of taxpayers. Our children are our greatest resource and our greatest legacy, and what we choose to invest in them speaks volumes about our priorities.

Those priorities look a little questionable at the moment. State funds for public schools are already below what they were in 2007, despite increased federal and state mandates and growing enrollments. Many school divisions are struggling to upgrade their IT infrastructure, or to purchase up-to-date textbooks or teaching materials, or to make sorely-needed capital improvements, or are putting off hiring additional staff to decrease rising student-teacher ratios. “Doing more with less” very often translates to “doing less with less,” as the quality of instruction is directly affected by the financial support behind it.

Some would argue that “school choice” or the “free market” would solve these issues, and would push crippling “vouchers” or “tuition tax credits” through the General Assembly. This would be a mistake. It would siphon already-tight funds out of the general fund so that students could go to private schools – which do not have to have the same standards of instruction or teacher quality that public schools must meet. Also, this does not address special-needs students, as many private schools are not set up (or do not want to accept) students with disabilities, while public schools must educate every child that comes through their doors. Educational disparities would only increase in such an environment. Next, the idea of running education as if it was a private business is a fallacy. We’re not producing widgets on an assembly line; we’re taking individuals, each as unique as the snowflakes that have recently fallen across the state, and assessing them and giving them the best education possible. No two children learn the same way, so it’s silly to think that such a “business” model would be effective.

Investing in public education makes economic sense, too. Over a 50-year-period, common stocks return an average of 6.3 percent a year; a recent World Bank study found investment in education return 14.3 percent annually in tax revenue and reduced government spending on social services.

Investing in our public schools also puts money back into localities and local businesses. School divisions are able to employ people; purchase supplies and materials; and renovate, expand or build new facilities. Extracurricular activities, such as teams, clubs or musicals can receive additional stipend support, which helps attract quality coaches and sponsors. That, in turn, builds those programs, which foster community pride and boost attendance at school events. Businesses looking to move into, or to increase investment in, a community look at the public schools to see what sort of education and quality of life is available for their workers’ families. It’s all connected.

In this time of “fiscal cliffs” and “do more with less,” it’s real easy to sit back and just focus on balance sheets and numbers in a ledger. But, in the end, it is imperative to remember that there are people – real, honest-to-goodness human beings with hopes and dreams and families – behind those numbers. You get what you pay for, or invest in, and a quality education requires a quality amount of funding be put behind it. If we truly want to provide a bright future for as many of our children as possible, now is not the time to shrink back from providing the necessary and appropriate funding for our schools. Now is the time to say that Virginia values its public schools, its children, and the teachers and nurses and instructional aides and all the education professionals who show up every day to work with these kids, regardless of their color, abilities, street address or surname. Now is the time to step up and make the investment that is needed, for the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term costs.

Kiser, a library media specialist at Johnson-Williams Middle School, is president of the Clarke County Education Association.

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