Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) announced today that his new budget will protect $4.6 billion in annual state aid to public schools, but warned that he may cut education programs that "cannot show clear results and success in raising student achievement."
In remarks prepared for a closed-door session with state business leaders, Warner said that despite tough economic times, the budget he will deliver to the General Assembly on Dec. 20 "will not cut direct aid to Virginia's public school classrooms, and that is good news for every child."
However, Warner also warned that he will be "looking closely" at possible cuts in a range of other programs, including those that are designed to help youngsters who are on the verge of dropping out or who need special assistance.
"My direction is simple: If an education program cannot show clear results and success in raising student achievement, then we must reinvest its precious dollars elsewhere, in other education programs that work," Warner said.
"We will start by focusing on proven programs to ensure that every student has the skills necessary to succeed by the third grade," he added.
A partial text of Warner's speech in Charlottesville was released today by his administration. Officials said they were uncertain what corresponding cuts Warner would recommend to the General Assembly if he leaves direct aid to schools untouched.
Warner must cover a budget shortfall of at least $1.1 billion in submitting a balanced spending plan to the legislature. State government already faces significant pressure to fund a number of programs to meet the requirements of Virginia's Standards of Learning testing program, as well as the mandates of the federal Leave No Child Behind Act.
State Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House Education Committee, said he never expected Warner to propose cuts in an area as vital as school aid He added that he feared calamitous cuts in a number of "incentive" funds that constitute the state's education safety net for disadvantaged children.
"They will be cut. I just don't see any way around that, unfortunately," Dillard said.
Although such relatively affluent jurisdictions as Fairfax County do not rely as heavily on incentive funds, the money is crucial to urban school systems and other districts that count on matching grants from the state, Dillard said.
During his planning on the budget, Warner has set aside a $5 million reserve fund that he will be able to use to restore some incentive funds targeted for cuts, an administration official said.
"But then, we will take a good, hard look at each of the various targeted programs," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Warner's decision to protect direct aid to schools was in part a gesture aimed at such longtime Democratic constituent groups as teacher unions, while his warning on other potential cuts was a signal that he is determined to make even painful cuts to balance the budget, according to elected officials from both parties.
Dillard said he was barely heartened by the governor's promise on direct school aid, because it suggests draconian cuts in other educational services. The longtime Republican lawmaker said he will propose an increase of 1 cent per dollar in the state sales tax rate of 4.5 percent, with half dedicated to education, when the legislature convenes next month.
"We don't have enough revenue in the commonwealth to do what needs to be done," Dillard said.