Saving Money vs. Saving Children

Guest post from the Virginia Education Association

Virginia has a long tradition of providing little state support for public education – making the quality of public education highly dependent on local taxes, primarily the real estate tax.  This arrangement makes the quality of education highly dependent on the wealth of the locality.  Arlington makes a $20,543 per-pupil investment, while Tazewell’s investment is $8,945.  Weak state support engenders a disparate educational opportunity for our children.  And now…

There they go again!  The session hasn’t even started, and the House Appropriations Committee is already working to cut funding for our schools. Every two years, the Department of Education updates or “rebenchmarks” the basic data for funding the Standards of Quality.  Student enrollment is updated, the formula that divides the costs of required programs between the State and localities has newer information added, and inflationary increases are calculated. The process recognizes that the status quo costs more when you have more students, higher utility costs, etc.  On July 28, Kent C. Dickey, Deputy Superintendent for Finance and Operations at the Virginia Department of Education, estimated that the cost [not including some factors such as the VRS contribution rates, Average Daily Membership (ADM), the Composite Index, the sales tax estimate that is distributed based on school age population, and participation rates that will impact the final cost of certain programs] is $318.7 million.

The House Appropriations Committee (HAC) staff analysis states on the committee website that the cost of rebenchmarking is $232.3 million.

What gives?  Over the years, the state has begun funding essential programs with Lottery Funds rather than General Fund money.  These programs include Vocational Education, Remedial Summer School, Textbooks, English as a Second Language, At-Risk, Virginia Pre-School Initiative, Early Reading Intervention, K-3 Class Size Reduction, SOL Algebra Readiness, and others.  Many of these programs are funded based on the number of students qualifying for free-and reduced-lunch.  This population has increased in these recessionary times.  Consequently, the cost of these programs has exceeded the funds provided by the Lottery, and General Fund revenues have been used to provide the needed additional funding.  The House analysis seems to be taking the position that the amount available from the Lottery should not be exceeded.  They don’t allow for the $86.5 million in additional revenue needed to keep these programs whole as they rebenchmark.  The committee analysis states, “the Department of Education has also calculated updates to programs funded primarily through the Lottery Proceeds Fund. The initial update indicates that these programs could exceed the total available Lottery Proceeds by $86.5 million.”

Despite the fact that Virginia ranks 38th in per-pupil state support for public education, it appears that the House is already positioning itself to cut funds that help the poorest of Virginia’s children.  DOE’s approach of including the technical updates to the Lottery funded programs in the rebenchmarking cost is more consistent with what the Senate’s approach has been.   So a clash between the Senate and the House looms ahead.  More importantly, anything not included in the introduced budget is an uphill battle to try to fund since it has to come from somewhere at that point.  When the Governor proposes his budget in December, will he agree with the DOE or the HAC?  Will the Governor be more interested in saving money or saving children?  That is the $86.5 million dollar question.