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Is Virginia Providing "High Quality" Education?

by: Elaine in Roanoke

Thu Mar 18, 2010 at 11:20:47 AM EDT

Last week, a majority of the Roanoke City School Board voted to look into pursuing legal action against the Commonwealth of Virginia for an alleged breach of state constitutional rights. The board voted 5-2 on a motion that said the state - by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid to localities again in this budget - is not fulfilling its constitutional requirement to establish and maintain a high-quality program of education.

Specifically, the state constitution says that "the General Assembly shall provide for 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."

Roanoke schools are facing another deficit of between $4 million and $16 million, depending on the details of the budget just passed by the state. Last year, the city privatized its transportation, closed two schools, eliminated all teacher aides except those required by federal mandates, and enlarged class size. This year, the worst case scenario would be the elimination more than 150 additional jobs, including 140 teachers.

While I seriously doubt that a lawsuit can accomplish anything other than to shine another spotlight on the drastic cuts in educational funding in the last few years and those in the upcoming biennium, localities are in a double bind because they have regularly supplemented state aid with additional dollars because the state funding has never met what most educators - or parents - believe constitutes a "quality education."

Elaine in Roanoke :: Is Virginia Providing "High Quality" Education?
The constitutional mandate for a "quality" education is defined in detail by the state Standards of Quality (SOQ). Long ago, local school boards realized that the SOQ were - and still are - insufficient to provide children with the education they need. For example, the basic SOQ for instructional staff yield classes far too large for the education most parents want for their children.

The SOQ state that kindergartens can have no more than 29 students in any one class. (Just imagine being the teacher of a kindergarten class that large.) Grades one through three are allowed to have as many as 30 students, and in grades four through six the limit is 35.

The state fudges the only other class size requirement in the SOQ, the one stating there can be no more than 24 students per class in high school English. That number is an average determined by taking the total number of students and dividing that by the number of teachers. Thus, one English class might have 15 or so students, while another might have 35 or 36. Either way, the school still would be meeting the SOQ.

For administrative and support personnel. the SOQ hedge the requirements by saying that those positions, for the most part, are contingent upon budgets and/or local school board decisions.

It's very easy to understand why localities have always added substantial funding to the SOQ in order to provide quality education in Virginia. The state has always been rather stingy in the way it funds public education. It probably would be more honest if the state constitution said, "an educational program of basic quality is established and continually maintained, unless a budget crunch necessitates something else."

The last time the Commonwealth faced such severe budget cuts was when Democrat Doug Wilder was governor. Wilder did everything he possibly could to retain sufficient funding for public education, believing that education was the key to future growth when the recession ended.

This time around, unfortunately we have in power in Richmond people who really don't value public education. Instead, they worship low - or nonexistent - taxes and the provision of basic services dependent on an ability to pay. The result is the budget that just passed and funding for state schools that is inadequate.  

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