By Del. Kaye Kory
Three weeks into the “short session” of the legislature, there are some indications of potential progress on challenges facing the Commonwealth—like transportation, higher education, and mental health funding. It helps that Virginia is relatively well positioned fiscally as a result of the painful cuts and “creative” budgetary accounting we indulged in last year. The current outlook reduces the credibility of “sky is falling” fiscal rhetoric as an excuse for inaction.
The transportation plan the governor put on the table—though criticized by many—seems to me to be a reasonable place to start. The plan leverages Virginia’s triple A bond rating to borrow several billions for projects already on the drawing board. No, it’s not really enough, but it’s a start. Sadly, the legislature should have launched this plan last year, instead of wasting time on various ABC privatization plans. Worse, the rise in interest rates in the past year will cost over well $100 million more in interest for each $1 billion sold.
I also see indications that the House of Delegates is more sympathetic to increasing our financial commitment to higher education and mental health services. That said, the biggest part of the Richmond agenda is political gamesmanship, symbolic positioning, and hundreds and hundreds of bills best described as legislative “finetuning” around the edges of state and local government operations. But, one delegate’s fine-tuning is another delegate’s important matter of principle. Let me explain:
The Virginia Constitution requires the Commonwealth to provide a system of free, compulsory public education for all children of school age. Virginia law and/or the state board of education may establish fees for certain optional programs and expenses, but the intent is for the course of instruction to be provided without cost to students or their families
Last year, as a part of its belt-tightening budget, Fairfax County Public Schools charged students fees for mandatory tests administered at the conclusion of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses of study. These tests are produced by the College Board (AP tests) and the IB-certifying organization. The cost for these tests is about $75 each; therefore, the total cost of an IB diploma for an individual student is well over $500.
Clearly, it costs a lot to produce and administer AP and IB tests, but students, parents, and school systems receive excellent value in a number of ways. Parents are thrilled because the tests enable students who score high enough to obtain college credit. The school system benefits, because the tests provide a national—and in the case of the IB program—an international standard with which to measure performance. Additionally, the prevalence of AP and IB courses in overall student programs has become a key measure of the quality of individual high schools and overall school systems.
In 2000, then-Superintendent Dan Domenich proposed that FCPS pay the cost of these tests as components of the standard curriculum. He argued that it was in the interest of FCPS to encourage maximum participation in these challenging courses by students of all backgrounds. For lower-income and many middle-income families, testing costs were a significant barrier. The school board agreed to the change, and school principals and guidance counselors worked to raise participation in these programs.
Last year, the FCPS school board reinstated the fees. At least four members of the school board opposed that measure, but it was approved with the argument that in cases of hardship, the fees would be waived. As a former school board member representing the Mason District, I know that, in practice, many low and middle-income students will simply not ask their parents to accept such assistance, and participation will go down.
Across the state, there are six school divisions, including Fairfax County, that charge for these tests. To address what is clearly a constitutional issue—and to me, a matter of principle—I sponsored legislation requiring districts either to pay for such tests or eliminate them as a requirement. Frankly, I prefer the former to the latter, but felt local boards should have a choice. Fairfax County opposed this legislation.
Last Friday, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued a formal opinion in response to a request by Sen. Dave Marsden stating that Fairfax County may not impose fees for mandatory end-of-course examinations. Stay tuned.
Kaye Kory represents the 38th district in the Virginia House of Delegates.