school districts

One Sacred Cow That Needs A Diet: Virginia's Department of Education

Later this week, members of the House of Delegates and Senate (contact here) will gather in separate enclaves in Virginia to discuss the Commonwealth's estimated $2.5 billion "shortfall" in budget revenue (see recent post). Much of the problem stems from exaggerated revenue projections when the economy was clearly headed for a recession. As we cut our family and business budgets, there aren't many things that are off limits. Unfortunately, that isn't necessarily true for government. Can you guess which Virginia department's budget is described by these facts?

» $4-5 billion more than any other department's annual budget;

» 39 percent of the 2007 budget; and

» Structurally designed to prevent budget reductions or even slow budget increases.

If you guessed Virginia's Department of Education, congratulations! You won. But so has the DOE under our current budget structure — and has won for many years.

Consider these two statistics (it's stat day at FFblog):

» DOE was 39 percent of the state's budget in 2007, but its budget increase from 2007 to 2008 accounted for 57 percent of the total state budget increase. It's important to note that enrollment did not increase by such magnitude!

» Unless altered, the DOE's budget will increase another 6 percent in 2009.

Even with its rapid budget increases, however, Governor Tim Kaine (contact here) has already stated that, despite the revenue shortfall, public education is off the table in the current round of budget reductions.

In fact, even when legislators hint at simply reducing the rate of increase for public education, the maelstrom of anger from the Virginia Education Association (see previous comments) and other educrat entities quickly subdues elected officials. DOE's state budget is increasing 18 percent more than what would be proportionally expected. 

Not all departments have the same good fortune as DOE. For example, from 2007 to 2008, the Department of Natural Resources experienced a 36 percent decrease in its budget. Even the technology department, a department many would expect to have an expanding budget due to development and growth in the field, was relegated to a 6 percent decrease from 2007 to 2008.

The annual boost in DOE's budget is driven by a faulty and antiquated Standards of Quality formula (see previous comments), which increases funding due to growth in hiring as opposed to growth in student achievement or enrollment. Virginia is, in fact, one of only four states that funds public education based on staffing and not on number of students. Even in school districts with decreasing enrollment, funding increases!

Without a revision of the SOQ formula, DOE's budget will continue to rise year after year at an exponentially higher rate than we can hope to sustain (see previous comments). We can continue to adequately fund public education but not at the rate that the VEA demands. Simply put, we cannot continue to increase spending in this area by $1 billion every biennium without a massive tax hike. Of course, some in Richmond know that and will push for that increase in the "name of the children" eventually. To oppose such an increase will be deemed anti-child.

In this time of economic uncertainty, it is even more important that government be fiscally responsible. The Department of Education's budget should be just as vulnerable to state budget adjustments as any other department in order to return Virginia to economic stability. Education funding should be tied to education outcomes. Virginia's Standards of Learning do not in anyway influence funding, although they most certainly should factor into the equation. 

There are two ways to fix our ailing education system in Virginia — fix the SOQs and provide families with the freedom to choose the school, public or private, that suits their needs (more school choice and options). We cannot continue to fund public education without public accountability.

Interview With Omarh Rajah: Part 1

There's been a lot of talk about "firsts" this campaign season. But it seems as if Chesterfield County was ahead of the curve last year when voters inits Matoaca District elected Omarh Rajah to its school board. He is the first African-American to hold that position and the first teacher elected from Matoaka. Running for office for the first time, Mr. Rajah unseated the entrenched incumbent, who happened to be the board chairman. He's also an unabashed conservative. Today we are pleased to begin a three-part interview with Mr. Rajah where we asked for his thoughts on a number of education issues, both local and statewide, from his perspective as a school board member of one of Virginia's largest public school systems. In fact, according to its Website, one of the 100 largest in the country. The interview, which was conducted via e-mail, will be posted today through Wednesday. All questions and answers appear as they were submitted.

Mr. Rajah, thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to take some questions from familyfoundation.org. We greatly appreciate you doing this. By the way, you are the first locally elected official to do an interview with us. Congratulations! ; - )

Ready for some questions? Here we go:

familyfoundation.org: When you won election last year, you won on a conservative, traditional values platform in a year that wasn't supposed to be good for conservatives. Yet you unseated the incumbent chairman of all people in your first-ever run for office. What does that say about candidates running on those issues and/or office holders keeping their promises and voting conservative once elected?

Omarh Rajah: First of all, I'd like to thank The Family Foundation for asking me to participate in this interview. Pro-family voters and volunteers made up the backbone of my campaign last year, so it's wonderful to be able to share with you what's happened during my first six months in office.

This is a great question. I think what my election last year shows is that voters respond favorably to traditional conservative values. The key for candidates who support those values is to articulate them clearly for voters to understand what we believe in. In my campaign, that meant a relentless focus on knocking on doors to let voters know I was running to restore morals, values, and principles to our school system (my campaign called me the MVP candidate). It also meant tapping into the incredible network of conservative, pro-family volunteers to knock on doors with me, and it also meant raising the money to send out mail pieces to communicate that message to voters. In a nutshell, we as pro-family conservatives have the right message, we just can't be afraid to communicate it. One thing that proves that is that I carried the traditionally Democratic precinct of Ettrick by about 300 votes, and I did it with the exact same message I talked about everywhere else in the district. The key was that, unlike a lot of candidates in the past, I spent time in Ettrick talking to voters and spreading the message we believe in.

familyfoundation.org: To hear big-government advocates, money is the only thing that matters when it comes to creating a good educational environment. Is money the most important piece of the puzzle? If not, what is, or are, the most/some of the other most important factors?

Omarh Rajah: The most important factor in creating a quality educational system is the involvement of people, starting with parents. Beyond parents, though, it's vital that we attract and retain the highest quality teachers and administrators, both with enough money, but also with a strong, supportive work environment in which they feel their contributions are truly valued. It also takes the support of leaders in the community, be it political leaders, business leaders, civic leaders, etc. That helps create a real sense in the community, and among our children, that education is important to their future and is something they should care about. Children will follow the example adults set for them.

familyfoundation.org: How important is educational choice — such as charter schools, tax credits for private schools, public school choice and keeping home education from getting over regulated — in improving education? Are we doing enough and what will you try to do in Chesterfield to improve choice?

Omarh Rajah: I support choice in our school system. I strongly believe parents should have the right to decide what educational setting is best for their children, be it public schools, private schools, or home schooling, and our government needs to make it easier, rather than harder, for parents to make the choice that's right for their family. On a policy level, one way to accomplish that is for the money to follow the child, in other words, for parents who feel private schools or home schooling is best for their child to receive tax credits to offset their educational expenses. As a member of the School Board, my job is to make sure our public schools are as strong as possible for those children whose parents feel that is the best option. I believe strongly in public education. I'm a product of public schools, as is my wife, and our children are both in Chesterfield County Public Schools. That's why I ran for the School Board — to make sure our Public Schools here in Chesterfield are as strong as possible for my children and for all the other children whose parents have chosen that option.

familyfoundation.org: Virginia's charter school law is very limited. Other states have a wide ranging approach. What would you like to see done to improve and expand charter schools in Virginia?

Omarh Rajah:In Chesterfield, we have high school specialty centers that draw students who, in addition to taking the traditional high school curriculum, also have certain interests and wish to study those interests with other students who share them. For example, one high school has a technology focus, another has a pre-engineering focus, etc. These schools draw students from all over the county, not just those who live within that school district. I think that's a tremendous idea that other large school systems with multiple high schools should seriously consider if they are not already doing so. While these are not the same as charter schools, I believe they provide a real option to help students get the best possible educational experience. With regards to charter schools, I believe that they are an option school systems should consider for students who are struggling in their current environment. Any changes to existing law would probably need to be done at the state legislative level, but I would do all I could personally to support those efforts.