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Ken Plum: Education as the priority

ken plumAll the important bills the General Assembly considered in the first half of its annual session pale in comparison to the most significant action it will take this week in adopting a $100 billion budget for the biennium. Passing laws is very important, but decisions on how to spend the taxpayers’ dollars may have the greatest impact on the largest number of people.

My constituents have made clear to me that their top priority for the budget is education funding; the Governor had the same priority in preparing his budget. The House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees will be making their decisions on spending very soon. Last week I spoke on the floor of the House of Delegates encouraging the Appropriations Committee to give priority to education funding (https://youtu.be/Kcsab0wwkl4).

State K-12 funding in FY 2016 remains below the FY 2009 level. The Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission (JLARC) found that Virginia’s local governments shoulder the highest share of K-12 spending in the Southeast region. Virginia received an “F” for the fairness of the state’s funding distribution in a recent review by Rutgers University. The report cites Virginia, alongside Alabama and Missouri, as the only states that did poorly on all four measures of the fairness of the state’s education funding.

As I told the House last week in my speech, we need to do more than just increase spending. We need to reverse the policy decisions that have been made over the past decade that have created a systemic problem for our educational funding. When the people of Virginia added to the State Constitution a provision for public education in 1971, the General Assembly went about a process of identifying Standards of Quality (SOQ) to carry out that provision. Education was viewed as a partnership between state and local government–a 50-50 proposition with the state picking up half the costs. In recent years there has been a steady shift of costs from the state to the local governments. Our 50-50 partnership has shifted to local governments having to pick up 56 percent of education costs–about $3.6 billion beyond their required match.

My plea to the Appropriations Committee was that they reverse the policy retreats that have been taken and move the state back into an equal partnership with localities. There are a dozen policy changes involved, including capping funding for support positions at an unreasonable level costing localities three quarters of a billion dollars; eliminating equipment and other items from SOQ costing a quarter billion dollars, including a $0 value in linear weighted average calculation costing $80 million, and eliminating school construction grants of $55 million. The cost to compete factor for Northern Virginia has been excluded in recent years.

The shift in policy by the General Assembly did not mean that the costs disappeared. School divisions still incurred the expenses but had to have their local property taxpayers pay the bill. With the up-tick we have seen in the economy it is time that the state does its part to help localities build public school systems capable of supporting the New Economy. My thanks to all the citizen advocates who are working so hard for full funding of our schools.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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