By Chris Braunlich

Virginia’s K-12 education community is in for challenging times.

The annual Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report examining Standards of Quality (SOQ) education funding demonstrated that state spending on K-12 education rose only 0.2 percent over the past year — and that spending per student dropped by 0.4 percent.

But that’s only the start. According to JLARC’s 2005 report, state spending that year was $3,629 per pupil. With inflation since then rising by 20.9 percent, had spending simply kept pace with inflation, state spending would have been $4,388 per pupil in FY2014. Instead, it was $4,290.

That’s not a one-year anomaly: It’s a 10-year trend. While the difference may seem relatively small, it totals $124 million and is exacerbated by increases in student populations that are the hardest, and most expensive, to teach. According to the state Board of Education’s latest Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of the Public Schools in Virginia, in the past five years:

  • The number of economically disadvantaged students has risen by 100,000. Today, 41 percent (more than a half-million) of Virginia’s public school students meet that definition;
  • The number of English Language Learners (ELL) has grown to 95,000 — an increase of 15 percent;
  • And the number of students with disabilities most expensive to serve (autism and other health impairments) has skyrocketed by 23 percent to nearly 47,000 students.

The result is that, even as the number of high-cost students has increased, state K-12 education funding has not kept pace with inflation.

The challenges don’t stop there, either. Although student enrollment is growing, Virginia is undergoing a massive student shift away from rural Virginia toward the Urban Crescent, and especially Northern Virginia. The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center notes that, in the past five years, public school enrollment increased in less than a third of Virginia school divisions, and a majority saw declining enrollments. By 2018, 40 percent of Virginia public school enrollment will be in Northern Virginia. Everywhere else, school enrollment will decline.

The result will likely be a growing division in Virginia educational quality, as rural school divisions reduce academic opportunities and extracurricular programs. But Northern Virginia won’t have it easy, either: Massive growth means new construction costs and new teachers, even as the baby boomers head for retirement.

Those new teachers won’t come cheap, because the rising cost of living is quickly overwhelming years of relatively flat salaries. Over the past 10 years, on an inflation-adjusted basis, Virginia teachers saw a 5 percent drop in their salaries’ purchasing power. The National Council on Teacher Quality ranks Fairfax and Prince William County teacher salaries 19th and 26th, respectively, of the 125 largest school systems in America. But when adjusted for the cost of living, those rankings drop to 98th and 111th. The greater cost of living more than negates larger regional salaries.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has proposed a small amount of increased K-12 spending, much of it smartly focused on effective new resources for struggling schools.

Given Virginia’s continuing struggle out of the recession, however, no one should expect massive new spending from either the governor or the General Assembly. Instead, the legislature might look in other directions.

First among these would be to cease new state mandates on K-12 education, and provide more flexibility. Since 2011, 54 new mandates have been imposed on local systems while the number of education staffing positions has dropped by 5,000 slots. Even when there are no new dollar costs to a mandate, there are opportunity costs in people and time — time spent doing something new is time not spent on reading or math. Teachers at the local level are simply stretched to capacity.

But more importantly, it is time to begin looking at the way Virginia funds education. The current system was first devised in 1972, when Fairfax County’s poverty rate was only 3.5 percent and the largest immigrant population was from … Germany. Poverty has climbed 65 percent since then, and more than 170 languages are spoken at home.

Demographics have unquestionably changed throughout the state, as has its economy, the use of technology and the academic curriculum. A system created in an age of mimeograph machines is ill-suited for the age of tablets, and the magnitude of change in four decades deserves a coherent and systemic examination.

To be sure, political conflict, policy inertia and fear of the unknown could all inhibit such an examination. However, a broad-based and bipartisan commission that includes not only the best in Virginia but independent and external resources to help “think outside the box” will at minimum begin focusing on the challenges coming at us.

The Virginia Constitution makes it clear that educating children is not a choice. Whether we effectively meet the demographic changes facing the commonwealth is.

Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and president of the Virginia State Board of Education. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessary reflect the opinions of the Institute or its board of directors, or of the State Board of Education. Contact him at c.Braunlich@att.net.

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