Del. Ken Plum: Time to Catch up on School Funding

Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

According to the General Assembly’s own watchdogs, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), Virginia’s local school divisions shoulder the highest share of total K-12 spending in the Southeast region.

The finding is hardly news to school superintendents, school boards, and local governments as the recession took its toll on the economy and tax revenues at all levels, student enrollment increased and the state share of education spending declined.

In FY2014, the average Virginia school division spent 7 percent less to educate each student than it did in FY2005, according to JLARC. Also not news to teachers is the JLARC finding that “divisions reduced per-student spending on instruction through a combination of employing fewer teachers per student, limiting teacher salary growth, and requiring teachers to pay a higher percentage of health insurance and retirement benefit costs.” Parents also are keenly aware that their children are sitting in classrooms with many more students.

Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova captured the details of the declining state revenue for K-12 education in a letter to the Governor recently. She wrote that “though the Commonwealth’s budget shortfall was the 20th largest in the nation, the state funding cut to localities was third highest among the states. In fact, since FY2009, structural budget cuts to K-12 have cost localities more than $1.7 billion per biennium statewide. State K-12 funding in FY2016 remains below the FY2009 level.”

She observed that “a state that is in the top ten in income should not be in the bottom ten for state education funding, but that is where Virginia finds itself at present.”

A recent report based on a survey by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents found that 92 percent of school districts in the Commonwealth have cut staff, eliminating more than 10,000 jobs, more than half of which have been teaching positions. Increased class sizes have been reported in 71 percent of school districts. Programs such as fine arts, foreign language, physical education and career and technical education have been reduced at more than half of school districts, and nearly a third of districts have reduced extra-curricular activities such as academic clubs, student clubs, and athletics.

As the president of the Association said, “School divisions simply don’t have the finances or human resources to make the changes we want and need in order to prepare our students effectively for higher education and careers.”

An analysis of the JLARC report by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis concluded that “supporting our schools at a level far below what it takes to meet growing needs, we put our children and our future workforce in a precarious position. Continuing to pretend that teachers and schools can do more with less, year after year, is not sustainable. It’s time to rebuild the damage done to education funding during the recession and invest in our children.”

Governor McAuliffe has said that he will be giving priority to education funding in the budget that he is preparing for the next biennium. The 2016 session of the General Assembly must adopt the same priority.

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