Thursday, September 18, 2014

Special Session Resumes: Where do we stand?

As Special Session I, which began on March 24, continues, we can count our blessings.  Headlines such as “BUDGET AGREEMENT TO REDUCE SPENDING UP TO 3.5 PERCENT, SPARES K-12 EDUCATION” seem to say it all.  It appears that the Governor, the House and the Senate are in agreement regarding House Bill 5010, which will amend the current biennial budget (Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Assembly of 2014).  They had to adjust the budget to address a biennial deficit expected to be $881.5 million dollars greater than what was anticipated by the budget adopted when the regular session ended in early March.
The good news is that public school funding was not cut, and the cuts to localities were held to $30 million per year.  That is less than 0.3%.  Local governments will actually have to send that amount back to the state (reversion).  The determination of where these cuts are made on the local level is a matter of local discretion.

Thanks to our Governor, to Senators Stosch and Colgan, and to Delegate Chris Jones for these actions which will spare our schools from additional cuts.
But, let’s step back and ask a few questions.  First, is this shortfall indicative of a tax structure in need of revision?  It appears that our tax system lacks adequacy, reliability and (when one with an income of $18,000 pays that same rate as one with an income of $1 billion) fairness.  When we are relying on the Rainy Day Fund to balance the budget in a time of economic growth – something is wrong.

These stories of sparing public education from cuts mask the reality that even without cuts, we are spending $227 less per pupil now than we did in 2009, and if you adjust for inflation, it’s more like $907 (2016) less.  And does this story, which is not in the headlines, relate to another headline you may have seen, “MORE THAN 30% OF VA. SCHOOLS FAIL TO WIN ACCREDITATION”?
It’s interesting to see the many explanations for more schools failing to win accreditation.  The standards have become tougher.  The state’s demographics are changing.  I even heard too much texting and too little reading.  There are so many variables at play that no one can point to a single cause with certainty.

But, I wonder if we are avoiding what may be two significant variables.  Virginia ranks 38th in state per-pupil support and 37th in teacher pay.  As funds have been cut, classes have grown larger, elective courses have been eliminated, and after-school programs have been eliminated.  We are doing very little to attract and retain the best teachers to our classrooms.  Is the disinvestment in the education of the next generation and our failure to support the teaching profession beginning to take its toll?