David Reynolds: Standing for opportunity

Column by David Reynolds
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“Where you stand depends upon where you sit,” has eight simple words which explain politics. But it need not.

Stands have and will be taken during the discussions over where to cut our local school budgets in these tough fiscal times. Mostly they spring from where one sits. And that causes problems. Such stands overlook where the kids are sitting. And their need to have a say.

Thus, the school debate is not focused on what is best for the educational development of children ages five through eighteen. We debate local budgets in much the same manner as the nation debates health care. Students and patients tend to be afterthoughts.

In an attempt to change focus for this week we will not sit in paradise. Rather we will move out of the Valley of Virginia to all of Virginia. We will consider what is best for the kids no matter where they live.

Before we start we need to keep in mind that there are no local schools. School divisions are in name only. Virginia’s public schools are half breeds, roughly half local and half state – except that the local part gets to make up the difference whenever shortchanged by the state. And, of course, who can forget big brother? Washington loves to stick its nose into our tent. It’s filled with unfunded federal mandates.

Nonetheless, one major problem has been solved. If the Commonwealth gave out revenues uniformly to each child in each of its 146 divisions there would not be a level playing field for Virginia’s kids. The rich divisions would just get richer and the poor ones would be left behind. So fueled by powerful interests in Southside and other poor areas, the General Assembly determined that if the Department of Education is to have a voice to go along with its money, state aid can not be uniformly distributed. As a result, the Local Composite Index (LCI) was born.

The LCI is the formula for disbursing state school funds. Half (50 percent) is based on property values, 40 percent on income and 10 percent on retail sales. Typical of the educational establishment when they get their hands on numbers, the opposite is often true. For example, the low numbers for Augusta County (.3416), Staunton (.4024) and Waynesboro (.3609) mean that these three school districts receive more than the average in state aid! (Lee, Scott and Wise counties in the far Southwest receive the most per student aid.) We will call kids in these jurisdictions Paul.

And where does the money come from to pay Paul? From Peter, where else, otherwise known as Virginia’s cash cow. Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church have high index numbers of 80 percent, with the state’s largest school division, Fairfax, at 71 percent and fast growing Loundon at 59 percent.

(Political sidebar: Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, while performing another gig, did not wish to use the most recent property data for the LCI because property values had fallen so much up north that the money flow to the rest of Virginia would be slowed. One local Republican delegate, taking his usual stand based on where he sits, agrees. Both go for a “freeze.” But not our new Republican governor. He prefers not to change the rules in the middle of the game.)

Again, what this all means is that in order to have a “fair” distribution of state school aid some local divisions will get more (up to four times), others less. Is this fair? As we said, “fairness” is defined by where one sits.

Like our minds, recessions and budget cuts are terrible things to waste. If we recognize that while neighborhood schools are a feel good concept, they do little to give our kids a decent shot to succeed in today’s highly sophisticated and technical world. And they are costly. Very.

So think beyond school boundaries. Think of what combo schools would do both for the students and their taxpaying parents. The long road will come into view. It will show that there is no going back, unless we wish to reopen every rural school closed over the past century.

If we stand for tomorrow and our kids – no matter where we sit – we will not have missed the opportunity presented by today’s budget. The General Assembly may be doing us a great service – by forcing us into the 21st century.


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