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Virginia Journal of Education


Virginia’s schoolchildren are not on an equal footing.

By Tom Allen

Shortly after the American Revolution, leaders of our new nation began discussing a system of public education, a trailblazing idea to provide equal opportunity to both rich and poor. Thomas Jefferson was the first to offer legislation to establish public primary schools here in Virginia, in 1779, hoping for “an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity.”

One wonders what Mr. Jefferson would think of the opportunity being offered to some of the Commonwealth’s students today.

There are seven localities in Virginia currently spending more than $10,000 annually of their own funds on every student in their public schools, according to VEA research, with the highest being Arlington County, at $16,407. At the same time, there are 94 localities spending less than $5,000 per pupil, with Scott County the lowest, at $1,529. These numbers are from the 2013-14 school year, the most recent for which data is available.

Now, it’s clear that the cost of living also varies widely in communities across the state; it’s also clear that money is not the cure-all for every educational problem Virginia faces. However, one more thing is also clear: school spending makes a significant difference in what our students and their teachers have to work with.

“Differing expenditures lead to dissimilar educational experiences,” according to VEA’s Disparities Report—and to common sense. The report adds, “Affluent areas tend to have newer texts, more electives, newer technology, and smaller class sizes.”

Not exactly a “democracy of opportunity.”

Parents, legitimately, want top-notch educators in their children’s classrooms. The best teachers, like professionals in most fields, are often drawn (and recruited) to work where the pay and benefits are best. If a teacher believes strongly in the importance of the work she does, and believes she deserves to be compensated fairly for it, whose school system might she look into: Alexandria, where the average salary for teachers is $72,803, or Portsmouth, where it’s $38,872?

Probably not a recipe for an “aristocracy of achievement.”

A quick disclaimer: We’re not mentioning specific cities and counties to either praise or criticize them. They’re just examples of how economic disparity plays out in our school systems.

Some cities and counties, however, are trying harder than others. Goochland County, for example, ranks a lofty fourth in the state in its economic ability to invest in schools, by VEA calculations. It currently ranks 132nd, or last, in the economic effort it’s making for its schools. The city of Hopewell, on the other hand, ranks 123rd in ability, but 22nd in effort.

If only there were more Culpepers: That county ranks 62nd in ability and 61st in effort.

Sadly, these kinds of figures are not a stunning new development in our state. Disparities have plagued our schools for, well, ever. And they’re not going away anytime soon.

Imposing political roadblocks stand in the way of real progress. For instance, Is it right to pull funding from wealthier parts of the state and give it to struggling areas? What kind of equitable funding method can be found, given the current dependence on property taxes to pay for schools? Are there any elected officials in our state with the moral courage to build a strategy on this issue?

Education is fast becoming the leading civil rights issue of our time.

Public schools are supposed to give equal footing to the children of CEOs and to the children of families living in poverty. And not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because the stakes are incredibly high. Jefferson again: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.

Handcuffing our Schools?

“More money is put into prisons than into schools,” says Jonathan Kozol, author of the landmark 1991 book Savage Inequalities. “That, in itself, is the description of a nation bent on suicide. I mean, what is more precious to us than our own children? We are going to build a lot more prisons if we do not deal with the schools and their inequalities.”

In Virginia, according to JLARC (the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission), we spend $12,274 per year of state money per offender in our corrections system, and $10,386 per student in state and local funds in our public schools.

That puts us more than $3,000 over the national average on offenders and $1,700 below the national average on students.




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