Guest Commentary: Time for reality check during our budget deliberation
By Dale Taylor
Since education funding seems to be on everybody’s mind at the moment, several news items got my attention recently. Even the uber-wealthy exurbs in Northern Virginia are re-assessing budgets based on financial reality. Ironically, these examples deal only with the very top tier and very bottom groupings of students and therein may lie the root problem of education, generally, and funding in particular.
A recent story reported by Danielle Nadler of Leesburg Today ran under the headline: “Loudoun School Leaders Consider Pulling Out of TJ.” For years, Loudoun has been sending hundreds of its brightest students across the county line to Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax. With them goes Loudoun’s top test scores and more than $2.6 million a year. Next to Fairfax County, Loudoun sends the most students to TJ, so Loudoun may have to pony up between $8 – $11 million for a proposed $60 million renovation project at the prestigious school. This has caused County officials to consider creating their own program.
So, after 27 years, why would Loudoun even entertain the possibility of withdrawing its participation and financial support from TJ, a school touted for success in science and technology? At the end of the day, localities have to decide if they can afford the luxury of regional cooperation, especially when the final bill comes due. This applies not just to schools, but transportation, environmental, tourism – you name it. These consortiums create another layer of bureaucracy that sucks funding from the locality to be “redistributed” by consultants and officials that are not accountable to voters.
And then there is the problem of what to do with Virginia’s failing schools. Using the example of the Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria, we get a snapshot of why more money and another feel-good program fail to improve stubbornly dismal academic performance.
According to the Washington Post, Jefferson-Houston brought in a new principal and a group of new teachers, hired turnaround consultants and math coaches, instituted extra tutoring, designed a state-of-the-art building makeover, and scheduled a longer school day. It is estimated that Virginia has spent more than $1 million to pay for consultants during the past decade to monitor progress and offer ideas, with little effect.
This failing school might be the poster child for the Governor’s proposed bill in this year’s General Assembly aimed at taking over failing schools and those on a danger list. While we might agree in principle that this seems like an admirable effort to bring all students up the education ladder, there are many unknowns about exactly how this takeover will be paid for.
Where is Virginia going to get the $600,000 start-up operational costs? What are the long-term projected costs as more “at risk” school districts are added?
There are enough Ph.D.s in the education establishment from state level down to local boards that someone should be able to come up with real solutions – not another new program to expand the education domain and control. If the Virginia Department of Education can’t get the job done with current staff and funding, perhaps it is time to shutter the building and start over. Now that’s a makeover/takeover I could get behind.
For starters, someone should hire the Hanover High School senior who spoke to the Hanover Board of Supervisors recently. He presented a creative plan for teachers to compete for funding based on the merit of the programming and delivering measurable results. Made perfect sense to me – kind of like capitalism.
Whether you live in a large school district from Northern Virginia cited above, one of the smallest in far western Virginia, or average-size like Hanover County, the budget battle heats up this time of year, mostly on emotional exaggeration. Now it’s time for a reality check.
Here’s the reality in Hanover and why I believe our current Board of Supervisors is doing an outstanding job of applying facts to the budget process. Hanover County has had declining student enrollment for the past several years and is projected to do so for the next four or five years as well. We don’t need more teachers with less students. We don’t need another costly feel-good program. With decreasing enrollment, perhaps we really don’t need what we currently have, especially a top-heavy central office.
More money is not the answer. Raising my taxes certainly isn’t.
Dale Taylor is a resident of Beaverdam and citizen advocate for fair taxation practices at all levels of government.