Debating the math on education funding

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By Amber Galaviz

Capital News Service

RICHMOND – During the General Assembly’s 2013 session, state legislators debated how much to spend on public education. But has education funding been going up or down? It depends on whom you ask.

Democratic politicians and the Virginia Education Association say funding for the commonwealth’s public schools is at its lowest level since 2008.

Gov. Bob McDonnell disputes that.

“You can cherry-pick statistics to say that we’re grossly underfunding K-12,” McDonnell said. “If you look back over the last decade, we’ve had significant increases in K-12 education per capita.”

The governor’s office says that McDonnell’s numbers come from the Virginia Department of Education. They also say that to get the full picture, you must also look at enrollment as well as dollars spent.

Public education money comes from the state, localities and the federal government. In a report issued in November, the Senate Finance Committee noted how much the state spends per pupil.

In 2009, the report said, the state spent $4,691 per student. This year, the figure is $4,286 – a drop of $405, or almost 9 percent.

The VEA, which represents more than 60,000 teachers, supported the governor’s education agenda during the legislative session in January and February. But VEA President Meg Gruber says more work must be done.

“The state needs to go back to funding their full share of the state cost of education,” Gruber said.

Virginia is the ninth wealthiest state yet ranks 38th in state funding per pupil, according to the VEA. The association says the state is spending $4,812 per student this year – compared with $5,274 in 2009.

The commonwealth budgeted about $5.8 billion for public education this year. Over the past three years, state support has been cut by about $1.7 billion, the VEA says. The state is responsible for 44 percent of public education costs.

Gruber said the VEA wants the Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission, the General Assembly’s investigative staff, to study the situation.

Democrats also are concerned.

“We cannot have a 21st-century economy without a 21st-century education system, from K-12 to colleges and universities. And recently, we have been neglecting both,” House Minority Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville said in the Democratic response to McDonnell’s State of the Commonwealth address on Jan. 9.

“Every investment in education is a down payment on our growing economy.”

Jeff Caldwell, the governor’s press secretary, said the state will spend $4,826 per student in 2014 – an increase from the current year. He said Virginia is spending far more on public education than it did a decade ago.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve increased state spending on public education by 39%, or $1,682,704,444, while enrollment has only increased by 5% from fiscal year 2004 to fiscal year 2014,” Caldwell said in an email.

On the Web

You can watch video of Delegate David Toscano’s Democratic response to the State of the Commonwealth address at youtube.com/watch?v=ZoYhPaFWKX8

The Senate Finance Committee’s report on education funding is here.

The Virginia Education Association has posted a press release and research analysis on the subject here.

“The governor has been very clear that he does not believe you can spend your way out of the challenges facing our schools and students. You must look at outcomes and figure out how to improve student achievement (especially in core STEM-related subjects), and give educators the tools they need to excel in the classroom. That is why his education legislation has focused on several different ways to improve schools and support the best teachers.”

William C. Bosher, a professor of public policy and education at Virginia Commonwealth University, says there are different ways to interpret numbers.

“Usually the numbers only have meaning if you are able to look at the definitions used to generate them. The context is also important as is the political or policy agenda that is driving the numbers,” Bosher said.

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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