Opinion: Commentary: Public Schools Not ‘Fully Funded’

Opinion: Commentary: Public Schools Not ‘Fully Funded’

As election year heats up, some candidates use terms like “fully funded” schools. Here’s my perspective on the subject.

First, Virginia’s median family income is ninth in the United States. It is largely driven by Northern Virginia counties: Fairfax County (3rd - $106,690), Stafford County (5th - $95,927), and Prince William County (6th – $93,011). Fairfax, Stafford and Prince William Counties rank in the top 1 percent of all American jurisdictions - 3rd, 19th and 20th in the entire USA.

However, per pupil investment in elementary-secondary education ranks orders of magnitude lower. Virginia is 22nd in the country in per pupil spending, averaging around $11,432. Arlington County leads Virginia at $19,348 per student even with a lower median income than Fairfax County. Fairfax County “fully funds” FCPS by spending 21 percent less than Arlington or $15,293 per student, Prince William spends $12,427 and Stafford spends $11,319.

In Virginia, public education is a shared state and local government obligation. After the General Assembly was captured by the “no new taxes” craze of the 1990s, state elementary-secondary education funding has lagged. The “Great Recession” of 2009 inflicted significant cuts and while the state appropriations have recovered to pre-2009 levels, they still lag on an inflation-adjusted, per pupil basis and increasing education appropriations continues to be a priority for the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses, but we need more votes to make needed changes.

Notwithstanding, the counties in my Senate district have done very well. Since 2010, Direct Aid to Education from Virginia to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has risen by around $270 million or 63.49 percent. However, local funding from Fairfax County has only increased 26 percent. Given that that Fairfax County provides 80 percent of FCPS’ budget, this shortfall has severely limited the School Board’s ability to address many needs.

Likewise, Virginia’s Direct Aid to Prince William County Public Schools (PWCPS) has risen by $194 million per year or 51 percent, but local funds from the Prince William County Board of Supervisors has increased only 37 percent. In Prince William, the County provides approximately 45 percent of PWCPS’ budget.

The most glaring result of this under-funding is teacher salaries. In 2018, Virginia’s $51,994 average teacher salaries were $8,483 behind the national average and 32nd in the country – 20 spots below our relative income ranking.

When I was an FCPS student, Fairfax County had the highest paid teachers in Virginia and all wanted to teach for FCPS. Today, Arlington County leads with average teacher salaries of $81,044.

Teacher salaries remain far too low. Fairfax County averages $73,228, Prince William County averages $60,227 and Stafford County averages $53,152. Across the Potomac, the average salary in Montgomery County is $82,316 and Prince George’s County, $71,110. These salaries lure the best teachers away from the 36th District.

This also plays out in services. Today’s economy requires digital literacy and learning skills. Henrico and Albemarle Counties deployed one-to-one computer programs over a decade ago. Arlington County did the same five years ago. Fairfax County is finally rolling out one-to-one computer programs 12 years behind Henrico County. Prince William and Stafford counties are barely discussing it.

School construction is a local responsibility. Fairfax County has over 700 temporary classrooms; Prince William, over 200.

Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties all require free and reduced lunch children to pay for AP tests and online classes.

Most disturbingly, these three counties leave $9 million of state matching dollars on the table every year for free preschool. Prince William County is the worst, leaving over $6 million.

The next time you hear someone claim that our schools are “fully funded,” ask questions. Class sizes remain too large. Teacher vacancy and retention rates are growing and English proficiency continues to lag. Northern Virginians have more resources than nearly everyone in the rest of the United States, but we are often told to settle for less.

As your state senator, I will continue to work to make Virginia’s public schools the best in the country and I will never tolerate low expectations given our area’s relative ability to invest in our future.

Please email me at scott@scottsurovell.org if you have any questions.