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By Sean Gorman August 12, 2011

Plum says Virginia is shirking school funding requirements

Del. Kenneth R. Plum says Virginia is not paying its required share for public education.

Plum, D-Fairfax, takes issue with Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s announcement that the state ended its budget year on June 30 with a $311 million surplus. "To call it a surplus is misleading," Plum wrote in an Aug. 3 newspaper column in the Reston Connection.

Plum, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, argued that Virginia is still in the hole because of actions it took to balance the budget during the recession, such as skipping more than $600 million in scheduled pension contributions and withdrawing $783 million from the Rainy Day Fund. He also said the state has been short-changing schools.

"How could a state that has a responsibility to fund 55 percent public education costs get by with saying it has a surplus when it is funding just 41 percent?" Plum wrote.

Is Virginia really shirking its obligations to fund public schools? We thought we’d check.

Public education money comes from the state, localities and the federal government. Plum, a longtime lawmaker who once served on the House Appropriations Committee, told us the state law callls for Virginia to pay for 55 percent of all education costs. That statement is inaccurate and conflates complicated components of education funding.

Virginia is required by law to pay 55 percent of the costs needed to fund minimum state education guidelines called the Standards of Quality. The benchmarks, set every two years by the state Board of Education and the General Assembly, lay out pupil-teacher ratios, cover various benefit costs for educators, and mandate basic curricula.

Based on their wealth, localities are required to contribute between 17 percent and 80 percent of the cost of the standards. Each municipality’s wealthy is determined by a formula takes into account the value of its real estate, the taxable income of its residents, and its taxable retail sales. lA rich city, such as Falls Church, pays 80 percent. A poor municipality, such as Lee County in Southwest Virginia, pays 17 percent.

The amount each community contributes is adjusted so that the state pays a 55 percent overall share of the SOQ costs and localities shell out 45 percent. Because the overall contribution levels for the standards are written into the state budget, they are law. For this fiscal year, which began July 1, the state will pay a total of $6.35 billion towards meeting the SOQ requirements and localities will pay about $5.2 billion.

So the state is footing its legally required share of public education.

But most localities in Virginia are not satisfied with just attaining minimum standards and fund their schools at far greater levels than the state demands.

This is where Plum’s statistics become shaky.

When you take the total spent on public education -- not just the amount to meet minimum standards -- localities do foot most of the bill.

Plum points to a 2010 annual report from the state superintendent of education showing a total of $13.3 billion was spent on public education in fiscal 2010. Local governments paid $6.5 billion, or 49 percent; the state paid $5.3 billion, or 40 percent; and Washington kicked in $1.5 billion, or 11 percent.

A 2006 report by Senate Finance Committee said that between 1996 and 2005, localities paid 50 percent of total education costs and the state contributed 43 percent. But when it came to meeting the Standards of Quality costs, the report said the state did pay its 55 percent share.

Plum said Virginia needs to go beyond funding minimum requirements and his broad point is that the state is not living up to its commitment to fund high-caliber education. "The Standards of Quality are totally unrealistic," he told us.

To sum up:

Plum says  the state is responsible for paying 55 percent of education costs but is only covering 41 percent of the cost.

His statement is based on a faulty premise that Virginia has a responsibility to pay for 55 percent of all education costs. State law merely requires Virginia to provide 55 percent of the money needed to fulfill minimum education standards. The state is meeting that demand.

Most localities are not satisfied with achieving minimum standards and fund their school systems at far greater levels than the state requires. As a result, Virginia only pays 41 percent of total education costs.

Plum mixes apples with oranges to prove the state is not meeting its education obligations. We rate his statement False.

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Our Sources

Reston Connection op-ed, "A budget surplus?" Aug. 3, 2011.

Senate Finance Committee report, 2006.

Virginia Department of Education Report, "Overview of Standards of Quality Funding Process," April 29, 2009.

Virginia Department of Education, "Composite index of local ability to pay," accessed August 9, 2011.

Interview with Del. Kenneth Plum, August 9, 2011.

Interview with Robley S. Jones,  director of government relations at the Virginia Education Association, August 9, 2011.

Interview with Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, Aug. 9, 2011.

E-mails from Charles Pyle, Aug. 9, 2011.

Interview with James Regimbal, principal of Fiscal Analytics, Aug. 10, 2011.

Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute, "Funding and the standards of quality," 2000.

Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, "State spending on standards of quality (SOQ) costs, FY 2009" December 14, 2009.

Joint Legislative Audit Committee and Review Commission draft report, "State spending on standards of quality costs, FY 2010,"December 2010.

Superintendent’s annual report for Virginia, table 15, March 25, 2011.

Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, "Review of elementary and secondary school funding,"Feb. 6, 2002.

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