FOR THE PAST several years, there has been considerable discussion in Virginia over the issue of "educational disparity." That refers to the substantial gap between affluent and poor school districts in terms of what they are able to raise in local education funds. Officials in those poor localities, and some state officials, have argued that the least affluent deserve much more state education funding to close the gap, and others have even argued that state aid to the wealthy districts should be cut and parceled out to those that need the most assistance.
It's true that this rich-poor gap exists. But it would be unfair to suggest that the state has ignored the problem. Virginia already gives great weight to the problems of less affluent jurisdictions. The wealthiest localities, such as those in Northern Virginia, must raise 80 percent of the funding needed to meet the state's minimum educational requirements, a benchmark known as the Standards of Quality. Poorer and mostly rural school districts pay as little as 18 percent, and the state assumes the rest.
Among localities, the average per-pupil expenditure in Virginia in 1989 was $4,048. For the poorest school districts in 1990-1991 the state assumed a hefty share of per-pupil costs. Lee County, for example, which has 4,500 students, received more than $15.1 million in state education aid, or $3,368.17 per student from the state. More affluent Alexandria, which has more than twice as many students, received $12.4 million from the commonwealth, or $1,305.35 in state aid per student. To meet the state's current budget shortfall, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has also recommended substantially larger cuts in state education aid to the richest localities than to the poorest.
The problem is that localities like Alexandria, which have so much more property to tax per pupil, are able to raise so much more in local education funding, with a total per-pupil expenditure of $8,000.
Gov. Wilder's Commission on Educational Opportunity for All Virginians is now expected to recommend raising the state's standards of quality, and higher expenditures, in terms of teacher-student ratios and curriculum improvements, among other things. The commission will also suggest that wealthier districts raise 85 to 90 percent of their total education funding in the future. The choice may come down to raising taxes in order to give poorer districts a larger share of a bigger pie or trimming even more from the richest jurisdictions. Raising taxes, though perhaps not until the recession is over, would be a preferable and much more equitable solution to the problem of educational disparity.