IN 1973, Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton opened the state's legislative session stressing the need to pump more state funds into poorer local school districts to end "unequal educational opportunities." That was the impetus behind the state funding formula which has been in existence for the last 15 years. Under that program, Virginia's poorest local school districts have received a higher proportion of state funds than more affluent school systems to help them reach the state's "Standards of Quality" educational requirements.

Now, a review commission says that the funding gap between poor and well-off school districts in Virginia is again too large. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission also suggested complex new formulas the better to assess a poorer school system's funding capabilities. While the commission described a broad range of options, some of which would decrease and some of which would actually increase state funding in wealthier regions such as Northern Virginia, it clearly favored giving more to poorer school systems in Southside and southwestern Virginia. Under one of the more extreme variants in that direction, the Fairfax County schools could lose as much as $22 million over two years.

But there is reason to believe that extreme changes aren't really necessary this time around. In the 1960s and 1970s, the poorest Virginia school districts weren't just less affluent. They were financially incapable of funding an adequate educational program on their own. Now, more than half of the state's educational funds go to school districts on the basis of an ability-to-pay formula. Each district then receives a fixed amount of the remaining funds. Some variation in that formula, in the form of an increase of that 54 percent, could be sufficient.

Even a Northern Virginia legislator conceded that "it's hard to quarrel with that. Some areas of the state do need more money." The state legislature should address the subject in its next session.