The recent tension between the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the School Board over approval of the budget for the public schools left one big factor out of the equation for funding schools — the role of state government in financing public education in the Commonwealth.
Public education as defined in the state constitution is a partnership between state and local governments. For some years, the state funded on average statewide more than half the cost of public education. In recent years there has been steady slippage in state support, and local governments have had to pick up the difference.
Virginia Issues and Answers, an excellent publication of the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs, took a look at the issue of financing K-12 education in Virginia in its spring 2015 issue. While the national average of state funding for public education has been around 50 percent, “Virginia, however, has provided a smaller fraction of funding with its contributions typically 10 percentage points below the national average.”
With the Great Recession, funding for education dropped nationally while in Virginia in 2010 it dropped to 37 percent to be in the lowest quartile among the states.
As would be expected, in a look at local funding the opposite is true. In Virginia, localities have been asked to pick up a greater share of education costs. The study found that on average local governments in Virginia have to put in about ten percent more for education than their counterparts in other states.
“Whereas most other states rely more heavily on state revenue to fund their schools, Virginia relies more heavily on local revenues from local property and sales taxes,” the report stated.
Federal funds typically provide 10 percent or less to the revenues of schools in the states. Interestingly, in 2009 the federal share of funding schools in Virginia increased by four percent as Virginia accepted without fanfare or objection American Recovery and Reinvestment Act monies that otherwise Virginia politicians like to rage against. The Virginia Tech study found that during the Great Recession other states cut their per pupil spending less than cuts in Virginia.
The funding for schools is complicated by the necessity under the federal Constitution to ensure that children throughout the state are equally protected to have access to public education. The equalization aspect of the state funding formula for schools results in a higher percentage of state dollars going to the poorest communities over the more prosperous ones. While the success of the formula is open to debate on equalizing access to education, reductions in the amount of dollars available disadvantage all school divisions.
Local governments in Virginia can pass only those taxes that are permitted by state government. Fairfax County cannot pass a meals tax, for example, without state authorization and approval in a local referendum.
Fairfax County residents expect the best schools and under current laws and practices have to shoulder most costs through the property tax. As the debate goes on in Fairfax City about funding our schools, we need to have a discussion about the state’s shrinking role.