School funding and teacher salaries have been a hot topic of discussion over the past couple of years in Fairfax County. As you may know, the Commonwealth distributes K-12 funding through a formula called the Local Composite Index (LCI), a formula based on land value and income that discriminates against “wealthy” areas. The formula is “rebenchmarked” biennially to reflect updated costs and the relative property values and incomes around the Commonwealth. Fairfax County is considerably disadvantaged by an LCI which is currently 0.68, meaning that 32 percent of the Standards of Quality (SOQs) are paid by the State. In a poor county with a 0.15 LCI, 85 percent of its schools are state-funded, for example. Fairfax County provides school services and resources far beyond what is required by the SOQs, so the real state share for schools is much lower than 32 percent. Furthermore, the LCI does not reflect the composition of the student body, i.e., that 52,000 Fairfax students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch and often come to school not as well prepared as many of their neighbors.
Over the years, and for the last three years on the Appropriations Committee, I have worked to secure more education dollars for the school divisions on a per pupil basis, money not run through the LCI. In fiscal year 2017, the Committee reversed a long-term trend and allocated more K-12 funding on a per pupil basis: 28 percent of the lottery profits was sent to the schools with no strings attached. This additional allotment netted Fairfax County approximately $16.8 million more over the biennium than in the Governor’s proposed budget.
Due to the slower revenue growth in fiscal year 2017 (that we have discussed before), the Governor and General Assembly are faced with difficult choices on how to trim the budget by $1.2 billion. The Governor offered his proposal to address the $1.2 billion budget shortfall in mid-December. Last Sunday, the House Appropriations Committee released its own version to be voted on later this week. The House found some money by scraping together some account balances and found a way to give a three percent raise to employees, a two percent raise to partially state-funded positions, and increased the lottery dispersal to schools from 28 to 40 percent of their profits, or $219 million. According to Committee staff, Fairfax County’s school allotment is almost the same as Governor McAuliffe’s, coming in at a modest plus $198,000. Therefore, despite the shortfall, education remains unharmed in the House version.
This does not mean that FCPS does not have a serious challenge ahead. Last year, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors attempted to diversify the tax revenue base for our public schools by placing a proposed “meals tax,” or restaurant meals tax on the ballot. Although similar to taxes instituted by Alexandria City and Arlington, 56 percent of Fairfax County voters voted NO. The County must now look at other alternatives to address the multitude of issues that address our public school system (i.e. teacher shortages, low teacher pay, lack of resources for extracurriculars, and etc.)
In Richmond, proposals floated by the Majority to address our underfunded school system are largely centered around policies like school vouchers (tax credits) and charter schools. School vouchers have been a part of the conversation on school reform for decades. Recently this issue has once again been brought to the public’s attention, spurred by the nomination and confirmation of Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education. Honestly, I have very few parents asking me to take this approach. If anything, diverting public money away from our schools is extremely unpopular. Our public schools are one of the things that made our country great. The availability of public schooling is something that makes this country great, and the imposition of a voucher system would undercut your investment. The last thing we need to do is to siphon off middle and upper-middle-class kids into private schools and risk de-facto re-segregation, especially in areas where historically desegregation faced considerable opposition.
While no one has introduced bills to implement a pure voucher system this session, there are bills to help private schools with your tax dollars. In fact, the House considered three of these measures yesterday.
HB 1400 is a bill that attempts to expand virtual school enrollment by transferring state and federal funds to a administer a centralized full-time virtual school program that is governed by its own state board and would benefit for-profit providers. While some of these programs may help certain students, our school board can use them now.
HB 1605 is a bill that creates a de-facto voucher system under the guise of a “Parental Choice Education Savings Account.” The account is funded by a certain percentage of all applicable annual SOQs per-pupil state funds appropriated for public school, including the per pupil share of state sales tax, funding in basic aid, and any state per pupil share of special education funding to which the student is eligible, making a claim on the already limited pool of public funds.
HB 2342 is a bill that creates a pathway to bypass our existing local school boards and overlays a secondary school board governing charter schools in the region. It would eliminate local control over our communities’ education choices because each regional board would be dominated by State Board appointees. Local school boards already have the authority to establish charter schools, but as I said, there is not a noticeable demand for these types schools in Fairfax.
Unfortunately, all three bills passed the House by relatively slim margins. We should be focusing on education solutions that bolster our public schools and not use our limited resources to subsidize private education.
I encourage you to follow the session as we continue to work on the budget and education policy. If there is any bill you have concerns about please contact me at DelMSickles@house.virginia.gov, follow me on Twitter or check out my Facebook.