[NOTE: This is the final post in a five-part series by Rachel Levy commenting on Virginia Governor McDonnell's 2012 education agenda, as announced last week. Other parts can be found here: Part I, Part II, Part III. Part IV]
Each day this week I have presented a response to different parts of Governor McDonnell’s “Opportunity to Learn” education agenda. On Monday, I gave an introduction and talked about the goal of advancing literacy in the early grades. On Tuesday, I wrote about implications for repealing the unpopular Kings Dominion Law. On Wednesday, I talked about proceeding thoughtfully and carefully with expanding choice in the Commonwealth. On Thursday, I discussed evaluating principals and teachers. This concluding post brings me to the end and back to the place where I started in the first post of this series: Money.
It looks like McDonnell has some great funding initiatives in his agenda, but it’s hard to reconcile them with the major budget cuts and bleak fiscal outlook across the Commonwealth. Every day I read a new tale of budget woes, possible layoffs of essential staff from school districts across Virginia including Culpepper, Norfolk, Richmond, York, Hanover, Pittsylvania, and Northern Virginia, and of cuts to essential education programs such as preschool for low-income kids.
I understand that a big part of budget woes stem from the mandated VRS contributions that localities now have to make. The Virginia Association of School Superintendents has said that the proposal to put $2.2 billion in Virginia’s retirement system is a big cause of the draconian cuts. At my most cynical, I think that McDonnell is doing this here and now to make the benefits we give our public servants look unsustainable and to starve the public schools of funds so that they’re set up to fail. At my most charitable, I think the Governor is understandably nervous about having debt and wants to remedy the situation ASAP and that he doesn’t understand that while there is always room to be more efficient, quality education is not something that can be done well on the cheap.
The public has to realize that retirement benefits are not extras; rather, they are deferred compensation. They have been promised as part of an agreement the state made with employees. The problem with striving to replenish the VRS funds all at once versus gradually is that it will cause another bigger and longer-term problem: compromising the quality of education districts in Virginia can provide. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.
We will never improve our public education system by starving it of funds and pushing it to a breaking point. Redlining our schools is the wrong thing to do. Unfortunately, in this context, money matters. The government is not a business; schools are not businesses and they shouldn’t be run as such–that’s for car dealerships and supermarkets. While there are always ways to reduce wasteful spending, providing a quality public education to ALL of Virginia’s children is inherently inefficient. But, in Virginia (as in every state), it’s required by law and it’s what good governments in healthy, democratic societies do. Fiscal conservatism is one thing, fiscal lunacy is quite another. As former Harvard President Derek Bok put it, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
So, Virginians, where should we go from here?
The VASS (Virginia Association of School Superintendents) set a fine example by presenting their vision in an education reform blueprint. Why not convene task forces and associations of other stakeholders from across Virginia to present their ideas? Teachers and principals from across could tell us what they specifically need to better support and evaluate all teachers, to attract and retain high-performing teachers, and to remove those who shouldn’t be in the classroom. Parents could discuss what improvements and changes they’d like to see for their children’s education and what they value in schools. Educators from colleges and universities in Virginia need to be consulted: What deficits are K-12 students arriving with and what are K-12 schools doing well? Virginia-based industries should also be called on to let us know what kind of education and skills they need potential employees to have. Virginia’s scholars could examine the curriculum and practices in schools and let us know where the gaps in the curricula we’re presenting exist and how we can improve our pedagogy. School finance experts could let us know what’s smart spending, what’s wasteful, as well as what’s possible. Finally, we need to hear from a diverse group of students about the kind of learning communities they’d like to be a part of.
I urge Virginia’s governor and legislature to resist the pressure to bow to the interests of big money and lobbyists, to hear their constituents, the taxpayers, and the people of Virginia. The Governor and the legislature must do what’s best for quality education for Virginia’s public school students, in line with what their parents envision for them, with what our professional educators say is sound practice, with what Virginia’s communities and industries need to grow and thrive, and with what’s best for the future of the Commonwealth.
The next and most crucial step will be for Virginia’s politicians to listen.