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By Jacob Geiger February 22, 2011

Virginia Senate Democrats say House of Delegates budget cuts $50 million from education spending

Numbers are flying around state Capitol this week as legislators try to hammer out a budget agreement and adjourn their 2011 session on Saturday.

The Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-run House of Delegates have sharply different ideas on how dollars should should be spent. Each chamber is trying to win public sentiment for its proposals.

In a Feb. 10 press release, the Senate Democratic Caucus said the Senate had "introduced a balanced budget restoring funding cuts to education, public safety and health care," while saying the House "introduced a budget that cuts $50 million from education, and reduces funding from other core areas."

We checked the $50 million claim.

Keiana Page, communications director for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the number comes from a Feb. 17 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The story indeed said the House budget would cut K-12 spending by $50 million. That’s the roughly the amount the House wants to reduce an education budget recommended by Gov. Bob McDonnell in December.

We reviewed the numbers and found the House pared overall public education spending by $50.8 million. But that didn’t make the caucus' claim a slam dunk.

Almost all of the reduction -- $43.2 million -- stems from lowered estimates of the number of students who will be enrolled in Virginia schools during the coming fiscal year. The remainder of the savings is coming from higher than expected sales tax revenue. When localities reap more money from their portion of the sales tax, the state pays less to support schools.

Del. M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said there are 8,000 to 9,000 fewer students attending Virginia schools than originally projected, with a total enrollment this school year of just over 1.2 million. Cox, a high school teacher, maintains the cuts are "technical," not changes to policies.

The House plan would hold per-pupil spending roughly flat. The current budget provides state spending of $5,166 per pupil, according to Robert Vaughn, staff director of the Appropriations Committee. The proposed House changes would lead to per-pupil spending of $5,161 next school year. The Senate wants to spend $5,242 per pupil next year.

Despite the lower-than-expected student numbers, the Senate bill would increase current spending levels, using the new money mainly for textbooks, English proficiency programs and remedial summer school classes.

The House has one other key proposal that would alter education spending. It wants to shift $89.8 million largely invested in instruction to the Virginia Retirement System for teachers’ pensions. The money would help make up for past shortfalls in retirement funding and lay the groundwork for the higher contributions that will be needed in future budget cycles.

The cash would come from $55.4 million in promised payments to 97 localities that lost money last year when the state rejiggered its allocation formula to school systems. The rest of the pension payment comes from $34.4 million currently funding resource teachers in middle schools. Vaughn said the state currently pays for resource teachers in grades K-7, while state law only requires funding those teachers up through fifth grade.

Under current rules, state contributions into the pension system are matched by school districts. Vaughn said the House decided not to require matching payments on the $89.8 million because localities had not planned for these payments when building their budgets.

House budget writers say that since the money is going towards teacher pensions, it’s an education expense. But critics argue the pension payment would consume money that could otherwise have gone into classrooms.

Jim Regimbal, a former Senate Finance Committee staffer who now runs consulting company Fiscal Analytics, said the extra pension payments mean "less on-the-ground spending for teaching kids."

To review, the Senate Democratic Caucus says the House of Delegates is pushing a budget "that cuts $50 million from education." They are basing this on the overall dollar figures proposed by the governor and largely adopted by the House of Delegates.

Much of the reduction in funding is due to student population being lower than expected. Spending on a per-pupil basis would remain relatively constant. But the House budget also removes $55.4 million in education funds that localities could use at their discretion and invests it in teacher pensions. That would likely result in less money going into classrooms, which sounds like a cut to us.

We rate the claim True.

Correction: This statement was originally attributed to the Democratic Party of Virginia. It was in fact published by the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus.

Our Sources

House Appropriations Committee, Comparison of House and Senate Budget Amendments: House Bill 1500 and Senate Bill 800, accessed Feb. 17, 2011.

House Appropriations Committee, Adopted HAC Amendments to the 2010‐2012 Budget, accessed Feb. 15, 2011.

Senate Finance Committee, Report of the Subcommittee on Education, accessed Feb. 17, 2011.

Interview with Robert Vaughn, Staff Director, House Appropriations Committee, accessed Feb. 17, 2011.

Office of the Governor, Proposed budget amendments on public education, accessed Feb. 17, 2011.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Proposals spare state employees from retirement contributions, accessed Feb. 15, 2011.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, House, Senate far apart on K-12 spending, accessed Feb. 18, 2011.

Interview with Jim Regimbal, Fiscal Analytics, Feb. 21, 2011.

Interview with Mary Jo Fields, Director of Research, Virginia Municipal League, Feb. 21, 2011.

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Virginia Senate Democrats say House of Delegates budget cuts $50 million from education spending

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