Virginia ranks 7th in household income but 24th among states in per pupil spending and 29th in average teacher salary (as of 2011). State funding provided to localities to meet the “Standards of Quality” (SOQs) is inadequate, and school divisions like those in Albemarle and Charlottesville expend considerable local tax dollars to make up the shortfall. The percent of the state budget spend on education has been falling from 35.2% in FY09 ($5.6 billion) to 29.9% in FY13 ($5.1 billion).
Layers of accountability required of school divisions by the “Standards of Learning” (SOLs) and by the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) further complicate the path to academic achievement. While we need to continue approaches that improve accountability, including testing where appropriate, we cannot become so wedded to testing that our schools are not permitted to innovate to improve student achievement.
In elementary schools, we should focus on what works, stressing accountability, demanding excellence and instituting remediation so that all children will have the opportunity to gain a strong foundation for their future lives. I support proven solutions like:
- Smaller class sizes, especially in K-3
- Raising teacher salaries to at least the national average
- Encouraging greater parental involvement through grants to schools with innovative approaches and through encouraging employers to provide work release time for parents to participate in school activities
- Increasing state funding for renovating existing schools in mature communities and building new schools where needed
- Providing more state monies for remediation to improve student achievement, both during and after the school day
- Involving community groups who target parental involvement to start to bridge the achievement gap
- More time in the classroom. Students in the Commonwealth spend 180 days a year in school; in Europe and Asia, students are in school from 190-240 days a year. Some studies have shown that more time in the classroom, whether it is more days or more hours a day, has a positive effect on student achievement. To further explore this, in 2011, I sponsored a bill (HB 1871) that was incorporated into a legislative study of year-round schools and other educational reform ideas.
Our schools, especially our high schools, need more resources to teach our children what they need to know to compete and succeed in the 21st Century. Part of this failure, though certainly not all of it, is linked to underfunding. While Charlottesville and Albemarle and some other localities in the state supplement the state funding provided for the SOQs, other areas of the Commonwealth are not able to assist to the same degree. The extra tax dollars that wealthier localities provide to their school districts also put considerable strain on the real estate property tax rate and limit local governments’ ability to lower it, even in the face of rising assessments.
Beyond the funding problem, however, we need to look at education in a fundamentally different way. Our high schools were designed to meet the needs of another era, when a high school diploma was often the end of formal education. In an increasingly complex society, our children’s success often rests on their ability to obtain more specialized and technical training, either in high school, at trade school, at a community college or at a college or university. We need to do a better job of incorporating high school into a system of education that includes different options.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 36% of our students graduate from high school ready for higher education. Of the 2011 graduating class, 7.2% of Virginia’s high school students dropped out. Youngsters who grow up in economically disadvantaged households or have limited English proficiency have an even lower chance of finishing high school. These numbers are unacceptable and threaten to confine many to lives of severe economic challenge. If the trend continues, it will greatly diminish this nation’s economic wealth and power.