The "third rail" of Virginia politics is very clear - don't dare reform public education spending, even if the reforms are desperately needed not only to improve education, but to streamline government spending. Anyone who dares take on the education establishment in Virginia is quickly labeled by the 56,000 member Virginia Education Association and its 40-plus paid lobbyists as "anti-child" and targeted by every educrat in Virginia. Legislators quake at the thought. Such fear translates into a biannual increase of at least $1 billion for public education - regardless of test scores, enrollment, etc. It's an automatic spending increase no matter the circumstances. By continuing with this system, public education is assured of securing funds at the expense of other core budget items (public safety, transportation, etc.). (By the way, aren't we looking for money for transportation right now?) Any legislator who is honest will tell you that there is absolutely no way to fund this annual education increase and the rest of state government without some type of massive, statewide tax increase.
Much of the problem rests with Virginia's antiquated funding formula - the standards of quality - or SOQs. The structure of this formula is so confusing that a flow chart attempting to explain it looks much like the flow charts used to explain "Hillary Care" several years ago. Ask anyone to explain the SOQs and you'll get blank stares. (Lil Tuttle at the Claire Boothe Luce Policy Institute has a great analysis of the SOQs available here.)
Of course, complication on its own isn't the problem. The SOQs are also the means the education establishment and their friends in the General Assembly use to dump billions of dollars into public education regardless of outcomes. It insulates them from critique, and eliminates any chance of competency based teacher pay or fiscal adjustments based on declining enrollment.
Last year, The Family Foundation began approaching elected officials about the SOQ problem, suggesting that it be updated to a more modern system of student- and outcome-based funding in line with the Standards of Learning. After all, Virginia is one of only four states that still funds public education based on staff ratios and not by number of students!But fear of the VEA's retaliatory power during elections has stymied any real attempt at fixing this broken system.
That is until this year.
In a bold move, House Republicans made a minor adjustment to how the SOQs work, and by doing so reduced the amount of money necessary to fund public schools by nearly $200 million a year!
Simply by adjusting how teacher salary increases are calculated within the formula, the state will save money. Mind you, teachers will still get a salary increase, and spending on public education still will increase - just not at the rate the VEA demands.
While the change is relatively minor, you can be that the VEA is apoplectic. They are mobilizing their forces as never before, warning that this change places the future of Virginia's children in absolute peril. We congratulate the House leadership and members who offered and supported this bold proposal.
The problem is, it's not just the VEA and the educrats who have gone ballistic. It's the Senate budget conferees. It was no coincidence that Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35, Springfield) placed himself on the conference committee. In addition to safeguarding Governor Tim Kaine's Pre-K initiative, he's also there to guard the SOQs. The House negotiators earlier today, after realizing the Senate would not budge, unfortunately agreed to back off and concede the SOQ reform.
It's a shame. But at least the issue has been broached. With more citizen pressure and awareness in the future, perhaps true reform will eventually take place in Virginia.