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Virginia Journal of Education


The Board is Stacked


VEA report shines light on the ugly truth of economic disparities among Virginia’s school systems.

By Tom Allen

One of the beautiful things about being part of a statewide organization like the Virginia Education Association is the opportunity to use the power of our joint advocacy to create positive change. Sometimes, though, to encourage change and make the beauty of our advocacy real, we have to point to some rather ugly things.

Inequity and economic disparity among school systems in Virginia are ugly things. The disheartening truth is that children in different parts of our Commonwealth go through public schools with very different sets of resources, which leads to very different sets of opportunities. The further truth is that this situation has been allowed to go on for a very, very long time.

It’s ugly that a student in Falls Church, for example, can go to a middle school in a system that spends $16,087 to provide an education for him or her per school year, while another student goes to middle school in, say, Buena Vista, where that figure is only $2,406. Eight localities in Virginia currently spend more than $10,000 in local money every year per pupil; 60 are spending less than $4,000 annually on each student.

It’s also not pretty that the teacher of a student in Alexandria brings home an average salary of $73,424, while a man or woman teaching the same grade in Grayson County only makes an average of $37,643. These types of differences are not only unfair, they’re also a critical factor in teacher recruitment and retention: If you’re an excellent teacher, whether early or late in your career, where are you more likely to be putting in an application—Alexandria or Grayson? Almost all professionals want to be well-compensated for what they do and are naturally drawn to places offering better salaries and benefits.

These figures are from the most recent report on educational disparities in Virginia published by VEA’s Office of Government Relations and Research, using data from the 2014-15 school year, the most recent for which data is available.

Before we go any further, two things should be mentioned. One, we’re not trying to present school systems like Falls Church or Alexandria as perfect. They’re not. And two, just because one community can afford to spend more on its public schools than another community can, it doesn’t automatically follow that the schools are superior in the first community. Money is not the cure-all for the many challenges that face public education, and the cost of living varies dramatically from one part of Virginia to another.

“However,” VEA’s report says, “it is also clear that school spending makes a significant difference in what our students and teachers have to work with. Without a more rigorous effort to equalize funding and resources by the state, unequal opportunities result in inequitable educational results for our children.”

Is this kind of basic unfairness really what we had in mind when we created public education for our young people? Can we be content with this?

For Jim Livingston, VEA’s president and a former teacher in Prince William County, the answer is most assuredly “no.” “Public education is absolutely foundational to our country and our form of government,” he says, “and public schools are supposed to be places of equal opportunity for all children, no matter what zip code they’re born in. This report points out, yet again, that Virginia’s children are not all on equal footing in our schools—and that’s unacceptable.”

Another ugly facet to the disparity issue that’s brought out in the VEA report: Some localities aren’t stepping up when it comes to meeting their public education responsibilities. Some local governments have the financial ability to spend more on their schools but aren’t doing so; others have less ability but are actually trying harder. The result is that some communities are making a more conscientious effort to fund their schools than others. They’re setting priorities differently.

Here are two examples cited in the report. Goochland County ranks 5th in the entire state in fiscal ability to fund public education, but ranks 128th in Virginia in the effort its making, as calculated by VEA research using the local composite index. In contrast, Martinsville ranks 129th in fiscal ability, but 13th in the effort its investing. We’d love to see more localities like Henrico County—it has a nicely balanced ranking of 38th in fiscal ability and 40th in effort for K-12 public schools.

Again, we’re not looking to make anyone the good guys or the bad guys. These are just examples of how school funding is currently being done in our state.

One reason such disparities have gone on for so long is that fixing them would be a difficult proposition, both practically and politically. For instance, should funds be diverted from one part of the state to another? How can schools be funded fairly, given that most of the money comes from property taxes? Is there a formula that can help accomplish equity? Do any of our legislators and policymakers have the courage to lead the way?

Making serious progress in equalizing opportunity in our public schools isn’t just about making political points, however. It’s one of the leading civil rights issues Virginia, and the nation, face today.

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.

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Get the Facts


VEA’s report, “Virginia’s Educational Disparities 2014-15,” published in May 2016, is readily available to Association members and local Associations. Single copies are free to members, as are the first five copies ordered by a local. Contact VEA Research at 116 South Third Street, Richmond, VA 23219.

 


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