Va. Candidates Confront Schools' Sinking Financial Future

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hundreds of teachers, social workers, librarians and superintendents made clear in a series of hearings across the state last week the challenges that face the next Virginia governor: Overworked teachers. Shorter library hours. Longer bus routes. Bigger class sizes.

"Virginia is 37th in the nation in per pupil state spending. That is a sad fact," said Jim Livingston, a math teacher from Prince William County, speaking Wednesday night before members of the state Board of Education at West Potomac High School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. "Further cuts in funding will make it all but impossible to provide the children of the commonwealth" with a high-quality education.

Both gubernatorial candidates have vowed to improve the public schools by raising teacher salaries and strengthening math and science instruction. Robert F. McDonnell (R) wants to increase the number of charter schools and institute a performance pay system to reward successful teachers. State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) hopes to continue expanding access to pre-kindergarten and create a college scholarship program for students who pledge two years to public service.

But educators and politicians in Virginia say the fundamental challenge for a governor taking charge of the state's more than 1,800 public schools and 1.2 million students in the midst of a recession will be far more simple: "How to keep education from coming to a screeching halt," said Virginia Board of Education President Mark E. Emblidge.

School systems throughout the state will be struggling to do more with less as demands intensify because of ever-higher performance expectations on standardized tests and a new urgency to reverse the dropout rate and prepare more students for college.

Fairfax, Virginia's largest school system, last week projected a $176 million shortfall for next fiscal year. Without extra funding, Superintendent Jack D. Dale said, the school board will consider eliminating summer school or full-day kindergarten, closing some schools and increasing class sizes.

Deeds touts a long record of supporting school funding. In 2008, he sponsored a bill to raise teachers' salaries to the national average. In 2007-08, the average salary in Virginia was $46,690, compared with $52,308 nationally, according to the National Education Association. And he backed then-Gov. Mark Warner's 2004 tax package that closed a budget gap and boosted education funding, while McDonnell opposed it. His record helped him win the endorsement of the Virginia Education Association, which represents 60,000 school employees.

"Cutting your educational funding is like eating your seed corn," Deeds said in an interview. His campaign and the teachers association have criticized McDonnell's plans for funding transportation fixes through the general fund, nearly half of which goes to public schools.

McDonnell said in an interview that he did not expect his plan to divert funding from education because he expects the general fund to grow through economic development. He said he would protect education funding and work to push salaries for Virginia teachers to the national average. Deeds "thinks money is the answer to everything," the former attorney general said.

He wants to improve struggling schools by appointing a state turnaround specialist and making Virginia more welcoming to charter schools. The state has four charter schools now. To increase the number, McDonnell would create an advisory board to help charter school applicants shape successful proposals and would establish an appeals panel for applicants whose requests are rejected by local school boards.

McDonnell's agenda for charter schools is shared by President Obama, and he is hoping that his message will appeal to both conservatives and liberals. Deeds also supports Obama's charter school plan but maintains that the authority to approve charters should rest with the local school boards that fund them, a position shared by the teachers association.

Both candidates propose that education initiatives or teacher pay raises be funded by wringing savings from the system, not through tax increases. Deeds is promoting the widespread use of "efficiency audits" in school systems. So far, the 33 school systems that have undergone audits have saved $25 million annually, he said.

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