The school year has just started and education issues have been a hot topic with state and local legislative bodies.
We have school board meetings filled with impassioned commentary — and in some counties, action for banning books and targeting the minority LGBTQ+ community. We have the state government pushing an agenda of “parents’ rights” that is more political than educational, apparently to empower a minority of parents who are politically conservative, to narrow the scope of education and curriculum for all students.
What we don’t have is a discussion of the real dollar needs for education in terms of state financial support for facilities and resources: teachers, bus drivers, educational and mental health resources are all in short supply.
School systems in rural counties such as Culpeper, Orange, Madison and Greene are in particular need. Many school facilities in Virginia are more than 50 years old and require repair and replacement. In our area, local boards of supervisors are a major financial pipeline to support the schools. How well they perform that function rests on the decisions of each board.
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Over the years one thing has been constant: Virginia’s rural counties have a hard time paying for school construction and maintenance because each has a small tax base. In the General Assembly, it all boils down to politics.
Since the late 1990s, Democrats have championed additional spending for schools and Republicans remained resistant. Not until last year did the General Assembly agree to a major spending package for school construction — $1.25 billion.
Budget negotiations, which had been stalled between the governor’s wish to use surplus dollars to permanently cut taxes for big business and the Democratic counter proposal to send one-time rebates to taxpayers, were resolved in favor of taxpayer rebates and improved school funding. It is not clear whether Youngkin’s post-election sales tax cut, which removed $210 million for public education, was folded into the school funding.
Misdirection of public education resources remains a problem. Several Republican legislators are pushing for a new school voucher program. Allowing tax dollars to “follow the student” reduces the funding for public education. Public school funding is inadequate now; diverting tax dollars would just further exacerbate current problems.
Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Albemarle) recently highlighted that Virginia is $400 million below required funding for its Standards of Quality for K-12 education. He is not alone in seeing the need. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, Virginia’s legislative watchdog agency, also found that the commonwealth commits less funding to public education than the regional average and three of its five bordering states.
In 2023, Virginia teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Low salaries, staff shortages, poor infrastructure, stress from the growing politicization of education and good job opportunities elsewhere all lead to 3,300 teaching vacancies at the start of the school year. The Spotsylvania school system alone reported that more than 600 students at Chancellor High School are taking math and English courses using the school’s online platform because there are not enough licensed teachers to instruct them in-person, perpetuating the learning problems of the lost COVID years.
Jason Ford, State Senate candidate in the 28th district, which includes Culpeper, Orange, Greene, Madison, Rappahannock and parts of Fauquier and Spotsylvania, has emphasized that improving the quality of our public schools is at the top of his agenda.
Ford states, “I believe that education is the bedrock upon which communities build the success of our next generation. Improving the quality of opportunities that are presented is an investment in the future of our commonwealth and our country. If we believe prosperity, growth, and an informed citizenry are worth having, then it requires the proper resources to get us there.”
This fall your vote is your voice. Show up for candidates who prioritize tackling real problems and who support high-quality public education.
David Reuther is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who served in Asia and the Middle East.