Well, for starters, Arlington spends more money per student on instruction than any locality in Virginia. In 2003-04, the most recent year for which the Virginia Department of Education has figures, Arlington spent $11,096 per student on instruction, which includes classroom teaching and support services such as guidance and media. Do you think students in Arlington had more to work with than, for instance, students in Appomattox, which could only afford to spend $4,798 per student on instruction?
Arlington also led the state in teacher salaries, paying teachers an average wage of $59,845, $4,000-plus more than the next highest-paying locality. Do you think Arlington has a little easier time recruiting top teachers than, for example, Amelia, where teachers made an average of $29,941 in 2003-04?
Also, Arlington ranks sixth in the state in the number of instructional personnel positions per 1,000 students, with 111. Do you think some students in Arlington might get a little more individual attention than, for instance, some students in York County, which had 73 per 1,000?
For purposes of comparison, the city of Richmond spent $7,423 per student on instruction, had an average teacher salary of $43,461, and had 95 instructional personnel positions per 1,000 students.
Two things: One, I know that Arlington is no educational nirvana, and two, I realize that when one community spends more money on its schools than does another community, it doesn't necessarily guarantee that the first community will have better schools. Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield counties each spent less than $5,300 per student on instruction in 2003-04.
But is this kind of inequity our dream for Virginia's students? Are we content with a situation in which there are such large disparities between school divisions in our state? Two researchers at Virginia Tech have recently concluded, "Unfortunately for Virginia, despite significant progress toward providing greater fiscal equity, in comparison with other states, Virginia continues to offer a disparate system of public education." They go on to point out that the commonwealth ranks in the bottom quartile of the 50 states in traditional equity measures.
In lay terms, that means that the educational opportunities of too many young people in Virginia are being determined by their ZIP codes. Because most localities rely on real-estate taxes to pay for schools, if you happen to be growing up in a community that can't raise big money through its property tax, chances are your schools are not going to have some of the advantages of schools in wealthier communities.
Shouldn't students in some of Virginia's economically struggling rural areas have the same opportunities as students in some of Virginia's wealthiest suburbs? Is it fair that some of our young people attend class in old, crumbling buildings and use outdated textbooks while others attend shiny new schools and have access to updated resources?
It's probably not possible to give everyone the same starting point, but there has to be a better way. There are some steps that can be taken, but almost inevitably when money and fairness are involved, it can get politically explosive.
Part of the problem is that some localities have the financial ability to spend more on their schools but aren't doing so, while others have less ability but are actually trying harder. The result is that some communities are making a stronger, more conscientious effort to fund their schools than others, in some cases even doing so at the expense of other government services. Is it right to force those localities to cap their spending so others have a chance to catch up? And what about those communities that just don't have the money to compete with richer areas when it comes to school funding? Is it right to somehow divert funds from the richer areas of the state and steer them toward struggling localities? Is there a way to equalize the situation from the state level? It would likely mean a tough fight in the General Assembly: Many of the votes live where the money is.
But we have to find a way to make some progress, to chip away at our disparity problem. It is unconscionable that some of Virginia's children have such advantages when it comes to their schooling, and others have such obstacles to overcome. Public schools are supposed to be the place where economic differences are wiped away. STom Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education and a freelance writer.
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