Vivian’s Views: Education
Fairfax County’s schools and her taxpayers are not treated fairly in the distribution of state public school support. Fairfax schools have larger average class sizes at every grade level than three-quarters of the rest of Virginia’s school districts. Smaller maximum class sizes are critical to meeting the needs of mainstream students as well as students with special needs and to retaining teachers in the face of growing teacher shortage.
STATE FUNDINGOver 23% of Fairfax County’s school budget comes from the State. In the 2019 Session, we were able to fund a 5% teacher salary increase using a budget surplus to add $72.8 million to the 3% increase already in the budget. This finally reverses the drop in state funding per pupil (adjusted for inflation) that began with the 2008 recession. Fairfax County will receive a total increase of $23.5 million. The amount each locality gets is based on a seriously flawed, 50-year-old formula, which came out of a court ruling that children in poor localities should have equal educational opportunities. As a result, the General Assembly adopted a funding formula that measures local ability to pay based on 50% personal income (AGI), 40% real estate values, and 10% sales tax collections. Every year since 2002, I’ve introduced a bill or budget language to change the State School Funding Formula. Typically, because it would mean other localities funding would be cut, my formula change is politely heard in an early morning House subcommittee and tabled. The most serious flaw in this formula is that Fairfax has no way to tax income. Even though real estate values are 40% of the formula, for many long time residents, the current value of the house they’ve lived in for 30+ years is much higher than their ability to pay on a fixed income. Nevertheless, as a county, Fairfax has nowhere to turn but the real estate tax, while cities can get substantial revenue from hotel, restaurant, and local cigarette taxes (which is $1.15 per pack in Falls Church.) The state formula ignores those taxes, giving areas – like the City of Virginia Beach – substantially more state school funding. The unfairness of ability to pay being driven by untaxable AGI often is illustrated right within Northern Virginia (NV). In 2005, Fairfax County had 3 times as many students as Prince William County. We both gained about 5,000 new students between 2003 and 2005. And, yet, Prince William got $45 million MORE in state funds while Fairfax got $29 million LESS due to the formula. This was my effort at the time to lay out Fairfax County’s school funding needs as simply as possible for other legislators. Not only were statewide per pupil funding cuts driven by the recession not increased until this year, but NV localities had to fight repeated attempts in the last decade to severely cut or eliminate the NV cost of living adjustment. While the adjustment is only about 2% — far short of the 26% paid state police when they’re stationed in NV — that still adds about $30 million more for Fairfax. It is doubly unfair for the State to not recognize how NV’s high cost of living inflates what it costs to meet our needs, when the State tax revenue raised in NV is equally inflated. Solutions:
- Target any funding increases to areas funded on a fixed amount per student, such a text books and vocational expansion; (For example, in 2004, I negotiated a permanent increase in state school funds — equal to about a penny on the real estate tax rate or $14 million in FY2005 — based purely on the number of school children we have, not on how wealthy we are.)
- Continue to try to build a coalition to change the school funding formula;
- Recognize that densely-populated Fairfax County should have the same taxing powers as a city;
- Increase public school funding statewide.
TEACHERSEach teacher deserves an opportunity to teach, not just manage. I will continue to work hard to ensure a top-quality, sound academic and vocational education by attracting and keeping quality teachers and raising teacher salaries. Virginia’s average salary currently ranks 33rd among the 50 states, while Maryland is 7th.
REDUCE CLASS SIZESEspecially after seeing the difference that smaller classes made when I visited Project Excel schools within the 39th District, I’ve been convinced smaller class sizes are critical. Academic performance definitely improves. Perhaps equally important, smaller classes make it possible to actively involve all the kids. By the time they reach adolescence these kids will have a well-established sense of belonging and acceptance, under-cutting much of the initial appeal of gangs and reducing dropouts.
TESTINGWhile students, teachers, and schools must be held accountable, being able to use rapidly-changing technology throughout his/her life will depend upon a student’s ability to engage in structured thinking and analysis. Higher standards must not stop with rote memory. We need to continue to reduce over emphasis on test-taking that started when we eliminated 5 of 22 state-required tests in 2014. In 2015, we approved 3rd though 8th graders retaking a test, as high school students can, if the student passed the class and only narrowly failed the state test. Regarding the proper role of testing,
- Virginia SOL tests should target remedial help and not be the sole measure used to deny school accreditation or to fail a student;
- Any federal program should honor state tests that are more demanding;
- Special education students should be tested based on their Individual Education Program;
- Non-English speaking students should be enrolled for two years before their scores are included in measuring a school’s performance;
- Modifications are needed to reduce excessive paperwork and move testing to as late in the school year as possible to maximize classroom learning.