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A statistical survey of Virginia's 136 school districts put together by the Virginia Education Association showed substantial differences in the amount spent to educate students in the state. It also showed wide disparities in teachers' salaries and student dropout rates.

Northern Virginia's public school systems were among the state's wealthiest during the 1979-80 school year, according to the study. And while the greatest differences in education funding were between rural and suburban districts, the survey also showed major differences among the wealthy school systems.

"Many children in Virginia, simply by the accident of the place they were born, receive an education that is demonstrably unequal to that of students in other parts of the state," said Ralph Shotwell, who helped compile the survey.

The public school systems in Arlington and Fairfax counties and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church ranked among the top districts in the state in the amount of money they spent educating each child and the salaries they offered teachers.

The average cost of education per pupil in Arlington County last year was $3,572; in Alexandria, $3,026; and in Fairfax, $2,222. Falls Church, a small but well-financed independent system, spent an average of $3,510 educating each child.

In contrast, rural Fauquier County's cost of education per child was $1,654; Loudoun County, $1,724; Prince William, $1,813; Manassas City, $1,563; and Manassas Park, $1,509.

The VEA survey did not attempt to compare the quality of education provided by each school district; it showed primarily the financial ability of the districts to educate students and the financial efforts those districts made.

The primary source of funding for education in most of Virginia's school districts is based on real estate taxes. Although the state provides aid to the poorer districts, the amounts do not put the districts on an equal funding level.

The tax bases of the school districts tell the story: The per pupil tax base in Prince William is less than a fourth of the per pupil tax base in Arlington County. Although Prince William property owners pay a higher percentage in land taxes for the schools -- $1.09 per $100 of taxable property in Prince William compared to 81 cents in Arlington -- it still doesn't compensate for the resources of its metropolitan neighbors.

The tax bases for school financing in Alexandria and Arlington were almost twice as high as those in Fairfax County, the survey showed. The high percentage of commercial real estate in Alexandria and Arlington ranked them fifth and third in the state, respectively, in ability to support their school systems. In Alexandria, the total tax base for the operation of school buildings and instructional programs equaled about $312,184 per pupil last year; in Arlington, $341,210 per child; Falls Church, $327,201 per pupil; and Fairfax, $142,177 per pupil. In Prince William it was $89,059 per pupil.

Like property owners in Prince William, those in Fairfax County pay substantially more in taxes than neighboring counties because there is much less commercial and industrial development. Fairfax County residents paid an average of $1.06 per $100 of property taxable for school purposes, compared to the 81 cents in Arlington and 70 cents paid by Alexandria landowners.

Despite the close economic rankings of Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax, the student dropout rate in Alexandria was about double the percentage of dropouts in the two neighboring counties.

About 7 percent of Alexandria's student population quit school during the 1979-80 year, according to the survey, which was compiled from State Department of Education statistics. The dropout rate was 3.6 percent in Arlington County and 2.2 percent in Fairfax County. The average dropout rate in the state is 5.4 percent.

Dropout rates in some of the more rural counties were slightly higher than in most of the metropolitan school districts, the survey showed: Manassas Park, 9.3 percent; Fauquier, 6.5 percent; Prince William, 4.5 percent; Loudoun, 3.5 percent.

Teacher salaries also varied substantially statewide. Arlington once again came out on top with an average teacher salary of $22,498. Falls Church was second with an average teacher salary of $21,185. Alexandria's average teacher salary of $20,232 ranked third, Fairfax County was fourth in the statewide survey with an average salary of $19,686 and Prince William was fifth with a salary of $15,183. The lowest salaries were recorded in the southeastern Tidewater area's Surry County, with an average salary of $9,945.

While Surry County offered the lowest teacher salaries in the state, the survey showed it to be the county best able to support education. Its annual tax base equaled $448,766 per child -- substantially more than even the high $341,210 per student land values in Arlington. However, in effort -- the amount of taxes actually charged on that real estate -- Surry ranked 128th in the state, assessing property owners 27 cents per $100 of property taxable for school purposes. Surry gets a large portion of its tax base from the Virginia Electric and Power Co. nuclear plant located in the county.

"Our statistics show that in many localities, the commitment toward education, as reflected in the various measure of effort to support public schools, doesn't measure up to the actual ability to pay," Shotwell said. "These localities could do better by their schools and by their young people."

Loudoun County, which the survey ranked 20th statewide in its land value ability to support education, rated 56th in teacher salaries. In contrast, Prince William ranked 87th in local resources, but was fifth from the top in average teacher salaries.