Education Expert: Painful Decisions Lie Ahead If State Wants High-Quality K-12 Public Schools

June 28, 2010 — Virginia's public education system, a vast and complex arrangement, is the most significant cost to local governments and one of the largest costs to state government. Meeting K-12 education needs has become even more difficult as the state and nation continue to struggle with the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Virginia's school funding is modestly stronger today than in its neglectful and often-troubled past, a study in the current issue of the Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, concludes.

But Virginia ranks among the lowest in the country in "fiscal effort" for education based on personal income of its citizens, writes the author, Richard G. Salmon, professor of education at Virginia Tech and a longtime expert on school finance. Virginia is a relatively high-income state, he points out, yet there are severe funding disparities among school divisions, with the least affluent localities suffering the most.

In today's harsh economic climate, school divisions have looked carefully for the most efficient ways to operate, he writes in the article, "The Evolution of Virginia Public School Finance."

School divisions will feel an even tighter pinch when the current infusion of federal stimulus funding ends in the 2011-12 fiscal year, Salmon warns. "The easy budget reductions have already been made by both state and local governments," he writes.

The only long-term solution may be to consider a tax increase if public education is to be maintained even at its current most basic level, he suggests.

"A substantial part of the current crisis is due to the fiscal decisions made by previous administrations, General Assemblies and many local governing bodies," Salmon writes. "It is unfortunate that long-term tax policy often has been based on highly energized national, state and local economies that inevitably force re-examination of policy during the most difficult times."

One possible source of funds for K-12 education would be a portion of the $1.9 billion that the state gives localities every two years to help reduce car taxes, he says.

"The transfer of these replacement revenues from the state to the localities should be phased out, perhaps over two or more biennia," he writes. "Under the current fiscal conditions, this would be a painful political process, both for the state and the localities."

"The state budget reductions for public schools have affected negatively the quality of public schools throughout the commonwealth," Salmon concludes.

The General Assembly has tried to convince the public that "their constitutional obligation to provide a high-quality system of public schools has been fulfilled by engaging in a series of charades," Salmon charges.

The article examines the historical background of school funding in Virginia, from its earliest days and the long era of segregated schools, and the complicated and controversial formulas involved.

Virginia, like other Southern states, was not an early supporter of public schools, even well into the 20th century, despite the urging of such leaders as Thomas Jefferson.

Prior to the creation of the Virginia Literary Fund in 1810, the General Assembly made virtually no state appropriations for schools. The fund has been used for several purposes, including its initial objective of providing a minimal education for the poorest white children only. Ultimately, the Literary Fund evolved into providing low-interest loans to school divisions for construction and technology and today is periodically raided to help balance the state General Fund during economic recessions like today's.

Almost since its inception, Literary Fund resources have been diverted to other state purposes than K-12 education, including an early switch of funds to help establish the University of Virginia. Much more recently in 1990, a constitutional amendment was ratified that diverted another original portion of Literary Fund revenues. Revenues from property seized in criminal drug violations are now designated for law enforcement rather than public education.