Democrat Terry McAuliffe, expected to say this week whether he’ll run for president in 2020, loves to boast about his governorship from 2014 to 2018.
"When I left office, I want to say that I left the state in very good shape," he said during a Jan. 24 speech at a symposium hosted by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Among his feats, he said his administration oversaw "the largest investment ever in K-12 education."
Let’s look at whether he really was a record breaker when it came to funding Virginia public schools.
McAuliffe began making the claim midway through his governorship. As proof, his gubernatorial office once sent us a chart detailing total state aid for schools and per-pupil funding from 2001 through 2018.
McAuliffe’s claim is based on raw dollars – money that has not been adjusted for inflation.
When he took office, the record for state aid to education was $6.4 billion, set nearly six years earlier during the 2008-09 school year in the last budget before the Great Recession.
Virginia finally broke that record in 2016, when McAuliffe signed a budget with $6.5 billion for the school year that began late that summer. In 2017, McAuliffe inked his final budget, authorizing $6.8 billion for K-12 – a high mark, again.
In raw dollars, the McAuliffe also signed budgets that broke the state record of funding $5,248 per student – also set during the 2008-09 school year. His final budget, in 2017-18, allocated $5,444 per pupil.
What about inflation?
There’s a problem with comparing historic spending levels in terms of the raw money that was appropriated each year: A dollar spent today or in the future doesn’t buy as much as a buck spent in the past. So we took a more meaningful look at whether McAuliffe's plan, when adjusted for inflation, would remain the richest school budget in Virginia history.
McAuliffe, as we’ve noted before, fails this test.
We adjusted each of the education budgets this century to 2018 dollars, using inflation data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Under these measurements, the high-water mark came in the 2008-09 school year, when the state spent an adjusted $7.5 billion on public education.
That figure exceeds the peak $6.8 billion expenditure - in raw dollars - in McAuliffe’s 2017-18 budget. In adjusted dollars, McAuliffe’s peak education budget in 2017-18 falls below the three state budgets that were in effect from July 2006 through June 2009.
We applied the same inflation adjustments to per-pupil spending, which is the gold standard in evaluating education budgets because it takes into account Virginia’s rising enrollments.
The glory days for state spending per student once again occurred during the budgets from July 2006 to June 2009. Virginia, in adjusted 2018 dollars, spent $5,675 to $5,966 per pupil during those school years. McAuliffe’s peak proposal of $5,444 per student during the 2017-18 school year didn’t rise to that level.
A side note: Virginia still hasn’t recovered all the ground lost to the Great Recession and won’t anytime very soon. The General Assembly recently approved education budgets for each of the next two school years that don’t match inflation-adjusted spending during the last school year before the recession.
McAuliffe says that during his governorship from 2014 t0 2018, Virginia made "the largest investment ever in K-12 education."
In raw dollars, the McAuliffe did sign budgets during his last two years that set state records for overall education spending and per-student outlays. But this is misleading, A meaningful comparison of historic spending levels requires that the figures be adjusted for inflation. When that’s done, McAuliffe’s education budgets never rose to the levels of the three years before the Great Recession.
So we rate the McAuliffe’s claim Mostly False.