School Funding Crusade

Aug 17, 2015

As kids head back to school, parents, teachers and administrators are gearing up for a fight in Richmond – hoping to win greater state support for public education.  They say it’s time to restore cuts made during the recession  and to raise pay for new teachers as  thousands prepare to retire.  

As president of the Virginia Education Association, Meg Gruber is sounding the alarm.

“Thirty-eight percent of our teachers are 50 years and older, and if you have enough years of service in at 50, you can retire.”

But with Virginia paying teachers an average of $6,800 a year less than the national average, she says few college graduates want to teach.

“We’re sliding backwards when it comes to recruiting and retaining our quality teachers.”

The problem, she says, is the state isn’t giving enough money to local school boards.  At the Commonwealth Institute, a think tank that studies economic policies, President Michael Cassidy agrees.  During the recession, he says, the state’s formula for cost-sharing with schools actually provided more money to wealthy communities while cutting support to others.

“Since this recession was centered around the implosion of the housing bubble, you saw significant declines in local property values  in the more affluent areas of the state such as Northern Virginia, and so when it comes to the way the state funding formula works, you have this wacky outcome, where the state actually increased their support for those high income communities, and they slashed it in the low income ones.”

Teachers, PTAs and superintendents will all be asking the legislature to increase state spending for schools, but Delegate Steve Landes, who heads the House Education Committee isn’t making any promises.  When you compare this state with its neighbors, he says, Virginia pays teachers pretty well.

“I use the Southern Region Education Board as kind of our competitor states from the standpoint of where we are – Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, probably Georgia.”

And he argues local boards could cut back on spending outside the classroom.

“Some localities have increased the number of their administrators, and I think all school systems need to try to keep that to a minimum and put more emphasis on teachers.”

But the Commonwealth Institute’s Michael Cassidy says districts have already made deep cuts to their budgets for those who don’t teach, and those cuts are taking a toll on kids.

“These aren’t secretaries and paper pushers.  These are things like school psychologists and speech therapists – folks who help kids to succeed in their education.”

What’s more, he says, the state has far fewer teachers than it had six years ago.

“If we had just maintained the student-teacher ratios that we had before the recession, there would be over 4,000 more teachers in Virginia.”

To raise more money for schools, he suggests state lawmakers consider cutting tax breaks that aren’t doing what they were designed to do – like subsidies to the coal industry.

The General Assembly’s own legislative audit committee concluded that those credits are not effective in their stated purpose, which was to grow jobs in the coal industry.  We have a special break that we give people who buy yachts in Virginia, where we tax them at a much lower rate than for buying everyday groceries.  That’s a misguided priority if I ever heard one.”

The governor will release his proposed budget at the end of the year, and state legislators will debate it in January, but school advocates are already working behind the scenes, hoping to persuade lawmakers that Virginia must spend more on the education of its kids.