Ken Plum: Virginia is shirking school funding responsibility

In a recent column I questioned how Virginia could have hundreds of millions of dollars in budget surplus when the Commonwealth has “a responsibility to fund 55 percent of public education and is paying just 41 percent.”  The Truth-O-Meter column of the Richmond Times Dispatch decided to check out my statement.  It checked the report from the State Superintendent of Education that found in 2010 of the $13.3 billion spent on public education, the federal government provided $1.5 billion, or 11 percent; local governments $6.5 billion, or 49 percent; and the state government $5.3 billion, or 40 percent – a percentage less than I had alleged.  A report by the Senate Finance Committee found that between 1996 and 2005 the state contributed 43 percent to total education costs.

My contention that state government is shirking its responsibility in funding just 40 to 43 percent of the cost of public education is based on my reading of the State Constitution, Article VIII, that requires that “public schools of high quality to be maintained.”  It states that “the General Assembly shall provide a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.”  Since the General Assembly is given the Constitutional requirement to provide public education, it should foot more than half the bill.

I spoke at length to the Truth-O-Meter reporter about the inadequacies of the Standards of Quality (SOQ) as a measure of education costs since the Standards are so out-of-date and are greatly exceeded by even the poorest school districts.  The Standards are not sufficient to operate a school system, and the Standards have been known to be reduced when state funding is scarce.  The defenders of the current system of funding public education hide behind the Standards of Quality as a defense.  The result is that more costs get shifted to local property taxpayers.  Unfortunately, the reporter fell for the SOQ argument, rewrote my “responsibility” statement to be “requirement,” and labeled my contention “false.”  The state does fund about 55 percent of SOQ costs.  I wrote to his editor suggesting that the Truth-O-Meter needed to be recalibrated.

Even if there is disagreement over my contention that the state has a responsibility and not a technical requirement to fund 55 percent of the actual cost of public education, is there not a moral obligation to get to funding half the costs rather than saddling local governments with the difference between half and 40-43 percent of the cost?  The truth I see in all this is that the state is shirking its responsibility in funding public education.

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

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