“The more than 40,000 members of the Virginia Education Association believe that every child deserves a great public school.”
It’s time to discuss Virginia’s educational Standards of Quality and, you know, the VEA’s slogan has a nice ring to it.
It gets at the heart of our aspirations. The public schools ought to be great. All of them. For every student.
In the abstract, funding Virginia’s public schools is a no-brainer. That’s good for everyone. You immediately respond, “Sure.”
But then you get down to cases. You have to understand how Virginia supports K-12 public schools — a devilishly complex partnership with the cities and counties, based on algorithms of need and other statistical criteria — and then translate that into specific, decipherable, fathomable political choices.
That’s the ancient struggle in Virginia, a state that long viewed public education with ambivalence. Good for some; mostly best for those who could afford it. But definitely not for everyone.
That mentality was supremely self-defeating. “Scarcely a common country school is to be found capable of teaching the mother tongue grammatically,” Gov. John Tyler told the General Assembly in 1809.
Slowly, glacially, Virginia began to see the light, though you can find a state Education Commission reporting to the General Assembly in 1919 that, “An examination of conditions in various parts of the State itself shows that the schools are inadequately supported.”
“No problem of education is more difficult than that involving the question of the amount of money needed to provide adequate school support” the report concluded.
Virginia’s tax structure hardly helped. The schools relied upon local effort and that meant property tax levies, which could sharply fluctuate.
What did financially strapped Virginia rural counties do when school money ran short? Closed them. Sometimes as early as March. That went on well into the 20th century.
Such was the level of commitment Virginia maintained. Want a solid public school? Get access to a prosperous neighborhood. Alternatively, you paid the freight and enrolled your child in a private school.
But overall, it wasn’t working for us and Virginians knew it. Wretched disparities existed between school districts.
Finally, by a two-to-one voter affirmation, Virginia amended its Constitution in 1971, enacting an historic commitment to public education.
Here’s what it says:
Public schools of high quality to be maintained. The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.
“Seek to.” That was wiggle room. California had been successfully sued over its system of school finance and, the thinking went a half century ago, Virginia leaders did not want to see that repeated here.
But the new language — which endures to this day — still represented an important step forward and the recently enacted sales tax gave Virginia the revenue to move forward.
The state Board of Education was charged with establishing funding formulas — the “Standards of Quality” — with the General Assembly holding final say-so on appropriations.
“Fully funding” the SOQs became a campaign rallying cry in the early 1980s and it so remains, though with varying levels of intensity and understanding. We were hearing it again last week.
Good. With any luck, we’ll get a full-fledged airing of the SOQs in this year’s state elections.
What do the “SOQs” determine? Let’s just yank out one example that’s relatively easy to understand: school counselors.
As it happens, Monday begins “National School Counseling Week” and one good counselor, for the potential good they can do — on a whole host of fronts, from informed advice to sage mentoring — is worth their weight in gold.
Counselors seldom get good when overwhelmed. The average current ratio in Virginia, based on the latest figures, is one counselor for 345 students. The VEA aims to lower the ratio to 250 to one — and even that seems burdensome.
It will take money to make the difference on counselors, a resource integral to student success.
That’s “integral,” as in essential, necessary, important.
That’s “money,” as in “Cabaret” — that clinking, clanking sound that makes the world go round. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Virginia’s Standards of Quality include an array of educational priorities, many imperfectly understood, all needing public discussion. The complexity of the issue, there from the start, doesn’t help the politics.
But it’s worth the talk. It’s worth getting right.
After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is email@example.com.