Folks in Southwest Virginia often feel forgotten by the power brokers elsewhere in the state. The region has many of the poorest public school districts in the state and residents often feel wealthier areas of the state get a disproportionate share of government help.
So heads turn when a Southwest Virginia politician is accused of taking money from local classrooms and giving it to prosperous Northern Virginia. That’s the charge U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat, has launched against Republican challenger Morgan Griffith in Virginia’s 9th Congressional District race.
"Morgan Griffith fought for a plan that would have taken money away from our schools and given it to Northern Virginia schools instead," says a Boucher TV ad that began running this week.
Did Griffith really push for a reverse Robin Hood policy that hurt his constituents? We checked the facts.
The Boucher ad cites a February 18, 2010, story in the Roanoke Times. The article provided an update on the ongoing debate over changing the formula for providing state aid to public schools.
The formula is based on the wealth of localities. The poorest school systems receive up to 85 percent of their education dollars from the state; the richest systems get as little as 20 percent. State law requires to formula to be calibrated every two years.
For decades, the formula worked against Northern Virginia because soaring real estate prices and development boosted the region’s wealth. In contrast, the formula helped Southwest Virginia, where the tax base is small and home prices are modest. So Northern Virginia tax revenues went to Richmond and, under the education formula, much of the money went to Southwest Virginia schools.
But the recession changed the balance in the 2010 calibration. Real estate prices plummeted in Northern Virginia, which sharply lowered the region’s wealth and made it qualify for an additional $134 million for schools. The additional money came at the expense of other regions of the state.
Last winter, outgoing Gov. Tim Kaine made an unprecedented recommendation to skip the 2010 reset. Northern Virginia legislators were enraged and Griffith -- as well as incoming Gov. Bob McDonnell -- sided with them. Griffith pointed out that that formula has almost always helped Southwest Virginia.
"If we start saying when it benefits another region of the state that we don’t like it, then in a couple of years they may do away with it and we’ll be getting the short end of the stick," he told The Roanoke Times. "It’s helped us for 30 years. It hurts us this year. But I suspect it will help us for 30 years into the future, and messing with it and playing games with it in a single year is foolish."
When Griffith made the comment, the 27 school systems in the 9th Congressional District stood to lose a total of $261,000 in state funding over two years. That’s a tiny portion of the $1.25 billion sent to the district -- about 1/50th of 1 percent. Some of the lost money would have gone to Northern Virginia, but its impossible to say how much because there were a few localities outside Northern Virginia that also would gain from the recalculation.
Did Griffith actually fight to reset the formula, as the Boucher ad says? When we asked Boucher’s spokesperson for proof, she referred us to the Feb. 18 story in The Roanoke Times. Although the article quotes Griffith, it makes no suggestion Griffith was leading a reset effort. We searched the archives of four other Virginia daily newspapers and couldn’t find a single story that implied Griffith was going to war on the issue.
In March, the General Assembly approved a state budget that reset the school formula. It also allocated funds to cover most of the losses localities would suffer in the redistribution of money over the next two years. Schools in the 9th Congressional District will wind up losing about $65,000, some of which will go to Northern Virginia. Griffith, along with many other Southwest Virginia lawmakers, voted for the budget.
Let’s go back to Boucher’s ad. The 9th District congressman says Griffith "fought for a plan to take money away from our schools and give it to Northern Virginia schools."
Griffith was on record supporting the reset of the school formula, but Boucher fails to prove that Griffith "fought for" it. And contrary to the implication of the ad that the district would suffer a significant loss of education money, the amount lost from the 9th District is actually a small fraction of 1 percent. We find Boucher’s claim to be Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.