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School Board Prepares Legislative Goals

Members seek full funding for testing and more money for pre-school from General Assembly.

The Arlington School Board discussed its wide-ranging legislative package for the upcoming General Assembly session last week, urging lawmakers to fully fund state and federally mandated tests and devote more resources to providing universal pre-school.

The package, which was presented to the board by legislative liaison Lilla Wise and will be voted on at the next meeting, also calls for a bill that would guarantee in-state tuition at Virginia colleges and universities for illegal immigrants if they meet certain criteria.

Though the Arlington school system is obligated to comply with Virginia and federal testing criterion, many of these programs are not completely funded by the state. School divisions must therefore divert resources from other critical areas to cover these requirements, school board members said.

“Virginia has some of the highest standards for kids but some of the lowest state funding support for achieving those standards,” said School Board Vice-Chairman Mary Hynes. “If we have considerable aspirations it’s only reasonable for the state to pay for them.”

Next year the state will update the budget for its Standards of Quality measurements (SOQ), which are the minimum requirements school districts must meet. Some Arlington school officials fear that state funding to support the coordination and analysis of federal tests under the No Child Left Behind act could be redirected to pay for transportation improvements or other state expenditures.

Changes last year in the SOQ meant that Arlington was forced to pay for the addition of new assistant principals, reading specialists and speech pathologists.

While the state has paid for the testing of Limited English Proficient students in the past, there has not been a commitment to continue that funding this year.

“This is a special concern for Arlington because we have so many students who speak English as a second language,” said School Board Chairman David M. Foster.

To cover the costs of these tests, the school system may be forced to draw on funds that are earmarked for at-risk and remedial students, Wise said.

School board members are pushing for the state to help establish universal pre-school programs. Though board members said they do not want to make pre-school mandatory, it should be an available option for all Arlington families.

High quality pre-school programs are an important factor in preparing children for elementary school and can significantly reduce the minority achievement gap, Foster said.

“Studies have shown that children who have some pre-school experience tend to do better in later grades, particularly for minority or at-risk children,” he added.

Arlington currently has 23 Virginia Pre-school Initiative programs, up from two in 1999, which the state provides only 21 percent of the funding for. The spots in VPI are reserved for children who qualify for free or reduced lunch. There are also 17 county-funded Montessori pre-schools, which reserve one-third of their slots for children from low-income families.

Hynes said she would like the General Assembly to grant school districts control over their own pre-schools.

“The communities should have a conversation about the shape of these programs,” Hynes said. “They can’t be the same for everybody.”

Last week Republican leaders in the House of Delegates said they would re-introduce a bill that would prohibit illegal immigrants from attending state universities and colleges, or at least require them to pay out-of-state tuition. A similar bill passed the House earlier this year but failed in the Senate.

The proposal from Arlington County schools would guarantee in-state tuition for undocumented students if they have resided in the state for five years, graduated from a public or private school in Virginia, have filed an application to become a permanent resident of the United States and can prove that a parent or guardian has paid state income taxes for the previous three years.

It is unfair to punish students who were brought to the county illegally by their parents but are now trying to become citizens, Wise said.

“We have a lot of students who came over illegally with their families as children and have been in Arlington schools all the way through high school,” Wise said. “And they’re trying to get legal status.”

Since Arlington is required by law to educate undocumented students, “it makes little sense to deny them college admission if they are paying taxes and applying to be residents,” Foster said.

Furthermore, it is in the best interest of the state to encourage these students to pursue higher education and acquire well-paying, skilled jobs, he added.

The school board is also expected to approve a statement opposing legislation that would require the county to provide bus transportation to private and parochial school students. This would place additional burdens on Arlington’s fleet of buses, increase the workload of the drivers and escalate fuel consumption costs, officials said.