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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kory’s Report from Richmond: Limited progress on the education front

By Del Kaye Kory

The 2011 Virginia General Assembly ended just over two weeks ago, time enough to get a little perspective perhaps, but some of the bruises are still there.

I’ll get to the bruises in a minute. First, the (relatively) good budget news: The state will make a one-time supplemental payment of (the state’s share of) $129.62 per pupil K-12 to all school systems. In general, the best that can be said is that, after two disastrous years, we finally managed to stop the slide in state K-12 funding. There is also a net increase of $100.7 million for public colleges and universities, reversing a similar trend for higher education.

Much of this year’s revenue increase was eaten up by two paybacks from recent years:
(1) replacing part of the $700 million that the Republican-controlled General Assembly “borrowed” last year from the Virginia Retirement System (VRS); and
(2) replenishing the state’s “rainy day” fund, which was heavily drawn down in 2010.

Also, the budget reinstates the 5 percent state employee (including teachers) contribution to the VRS with a 5 percent salary offset. The net effect on take-home pay in 2012 is that it will remain about where it was in 2011.

Now for the bruises. First, and not entirely unexpected, was the House Appropriations Committee’s rejection of my proposed budget amendment to underwrite the cost of implementing online SOL testing in elementary and middle schools. This turns out to be a big number - some $40 million statewide - and it reflects the need to hire engineers and information specialists in each school system, as well as equipping every elementary and middle school with the necessary hardware and software needed for testing. Much has been made of state-imposed “unfunded mandates” burdening local schools, and this is an excellent example.

Incidentally, the unfunded mandate label was applied to another bill, HB1644/SB966, which requires schools to provide 150 minutes a week of physical education in grades K-8. This bill was introduced by Del. John O’Bannon (Richmond) and Sen. Ralph Northam (Norfolk), both physicians, in response to alarming levels of childhood obesity and deteriorating physical fitness among kids generally. This bill does intrude upon how some schools now configure the school day.

After considerable soul-searching, however, I voted in favor of this measure, which will become law if the governor signs it. Having spent 10 years on the Fairfax County School Board, I know that meeting state-imposed requirements, however well-intentioned, can sometimes be burdensome for local schools, so this was not an easy decision.

I believe, however, that in this case, the benefit to our children’s health outweighs the cost. In any event, there is considerable opportunity to minimize that cost. To begin with, the bill does not go into effect until 2014. The intent of the three-year implementation period is to give schools time to adjust schedules and staffing to make meeting the new requirement as easy as possible.

Also, I have spoken at length with the State Department of Education, which is charged with developing the regulations to implement the measure. I’ve been assured that the department will actively seek ways to mitigate the effects of this new requirement on local schools. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the existing law already has 150 minutes per week of physical fitness training as a stated goal. For those public schools that are successfully achieving this goal now (and one hopes that would be the great majority), it is hard to see why shifting from goal to requirement would be of any real consequence.

The other bruise is the Senate’s rejection of my bill, HB1548, requiring that school officials notify a student’s parents or guardian if the student is involved in a school disciplinary proceeding likely to result in expulsion or suspension. The bill passed the House unanimously, so I must confess that I did not anticipate the sudden outcry and intensive lobbying against it in the Senate by the state school administrators and state school boards associations.

I thought then, and I think now, that telling a kid’s parents that he or she is in trouble at an early stage in any formal disciplinary proceeding is just plain good sense. I am sorry, not to say alarmed, that a significant portion of the public education establishment in Virginia apparently does not agree. I hope to see this issue revisited in the next legislative session.

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