The Coming Education Challenge

test-150Virginia’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 ten 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 last 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 have 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 towards the Urban Crescent, and especially Northern Virginia. The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center notes that, in the last 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 ten years, on an inflation-adjusted basis, Virginia teachers saw a five 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.

Governor 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.

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This column first ran in the Richmond Times Dispatch on January 4, 2015

About Christian Braunlich

Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute and past president of the Virginia State Board of Education. The opinions expressed are his and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute or its Board of Directors. He can be reached at
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3 Responses to The Coming Education Challenge

  1. Michael Giere says:

    I don’t want to argue, but I’d just say that for my entire adult life – which has been a while now – I’ve heard the same refrain: we don’t spend enough on education.

    I’m not sure we don’t spend way too much, honestly. Test scores have continually declined on standard placement tests for over 40 years. On the SAT, they even had to re-adjust the curve it was dropping so fast. We have top heavy non-teaching staffs that take up to 40% of education budgets, and frivolous studies that aren’t germane to a serious education.

    We just learned that over 60% of incoming freshmen in our colleges had 7th grade English skills. Math scores continue to slide (23rd in the world, yikes!). Huge numbers of kids don’t graduate from high school in some areas. There is precious little good news in our schools. Now, the wizards of smart that command our high education outposts say that further nationalization of the curriculum is the ticket. Plus more money. All of which simply gives parents the excuses they need to abandon their children into the system and forget about them.

    There are answers, but those answers begin with looking back to what actually worked in education at one time in this country, and what still works in some countries.

  2. Chris Braunlich says:

    You’ve appropriately described some of the problems with education in the nation, but before making the same assertion about conditions in Virginia, I’d urge you to check out pages 11-15 (12-16 in the pdf) of this document:

    The situation in Virginia is notably different.


    Chris Braunlich

  3. Michael Giere says:

    First, thank you Chris for doing a job few of us could, or would want to do on the JLARC. Bless you for being a voice of reason in this important area.

    I appreciate that Virginia may be ticking above the national average, that itself is vastly deflated. But figures are damnable things as we know. Test scores, common sense, and massive study data leaves us with this; the average incoming college student today is ill-prepared because they are poorly educated. Even on a campus like Harvard, a majority of students can’t pass a 1940-era high school test. (And few college educated working adults under 50 years of age could pass it either.)

    It is obvious that something is terribly wrong with education in America. In the aggregate, public education has been continually declining in measurable performance for almost half a century, not even mentioning its detrimental effect on the culture. It is darned important for our future that we know what those problems are.

    I’m no expert and don’t pretend to be, but I look out at a nationalized school system, really, run by professional union members, and operated like an indoctrination camp, where we have a massive administrative power structure that has grown up around the ever increasing money provided to them, with proportionally less money going to the classroom. We’ve created a monster.

    I look at the level of skills that have been passed on, and I can only conclude that we are painting the sides of a sinking ship. We don’t need more horrible boondoggles like Common Core (this alone disqualifies Jeb Bush for serious presidential contention) and we don’t need more money.

    We need a national discussion that centers around some very obvious reforms; parental involvement and the return of common sense standards that are decided upon in individual schools, not Washington; dedicated teachers (of whom we have many, but their voices are rarely heard) who are ready to walk out on their radical national unions (sorry, go to their convention sites and listen to them); and free choice in education that essentially reduces “public education” to a voucher.

    (I had two children who graduated in Fairfax County high schools; my last child went to a private christian school that taught kids for about 60% of what the Fairfax County schools cost per pupil. The academic standards, and the culture, were much, much higher in the private school, and even “average” kids excelled in the environment of expectation and hard work.)

    None of this is hard, but all of it is now overrun by checked-out parents giving up power, and radical unions doing as they please. We know how to turn out kids who can read well and write well, have solid math skills, a grasp on civic literacy, Western literature and history, and science. It is not difficult – we used to do for the vast majority of American kids, at a fraction of the cost per student, using any measure. If we merely did this base line well, then we could sort out how kids get to trade school, community college, and universities. As it is now, we dump millions of ill-prepared kids into colleges who come out…ill-prepared college graduates. Then US corporations complain that they can’t find decent help. Gosh,’ ya think.

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