- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

Richer school districts can afford to put better teachers in the classrooms. They can outfit their schools with the best equipment. But that doesn't mean students in poorer, rural counties don't get a decent education.
The proof is in the test scores. Students in Bedford County, which spent the least among all Virginia counties, scored above the national average in last year's standardized Stanford 9 tests in more categories than Alexandria one of the state's top spenders.
The difference in the budgets of the two divisions is striking: In 1997, the latest year for which statistics were available from the state, Alexandria spent upward of $9,000 on each public school student while Bedford County spent just over $4,000 per student.
In Maryland, the differences in spending were less marked: In 1997, Montgomery County topped the state's list of spenders with over $8,000 per student, while Washington County spent the least at nearly $6,047.
But Washington County's state test scores were not far behind Montgomery's scores in a few key areas. In eighth-grade reading skills, Montgomery students were rated 34.2 percent satisfactory and 2.9 excellent. Washington County students scored 29.8 satisfactory and 3.3 excellent.
The District of Columbia is the fifth-biggest per-pupil spender in the country, according to recently released Census Bureau data, spending $8,048 per student. Maryland ranked 11th. Virginia ranked only 26th for its average spending, but several counties in the state spent much more than the District.
Experts said the differences had nothing to do with how fancy the schools in each division were. It all comes down to how wisely the school budget money is spent, said Dan Timberlake, assistant superintendent for financing in the Virginia Department of Education.
"The state's constitution and laws require a minimum program of education," said Mr. Timberlake.
Differences in spending "cannot be used to draw any conclusions about the quality of education given to students in each division," he said.
A Maryland education analyst agreed that communities that cared more for education were likely to raise more money for schools.
Experts said it's true that bigger school budgets with their higher salaries for teachers attract the cream of the teaching crop.
In 1999, Alexandria paid its teachers an annual average salary of $47,703 while Bedford County paid an average of $30,674.
In Montgomery, in 1997-98, a teacher with a master's degree could earn around $34,860 while in Washington a teacher would be paid $29,557 on an average.
Montgomery County, which spends the most per student among all Maryland school districts, usually attracts the best talent, said Marshall Spatz, director of budget and planning for Montgomery County public schools, which pays 80 percent of its school budget with local taxes.
Salaries for teachers and administrators can account for as much as 75 percent of per-pupil spending in richer school districts. But Mr. Timberlake said big salaries are offset by higher costs of living in the rich school districts. A dollar goes farther in Bedford County than it does in parts of Fairfax County and Falls Church.
In Maryland, public schools are paid for with local, state and federal money. Of this, local school sources provide 42 percent of the funding, states provide 54 percent, and the federal government provides four percent.
While these figures are based on spending in 1998, the breakdown is around the same every year, said Sandy Shepherd, a school and community outreach specialist for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Each county directs funds based on need to special programs like those for students of limited English proficiency, school reconstitution, and for at-risk students, among others, Mrs. Shepherd said.
Virginia provides funding to school divisions based on how wealthy or needy they are, Mr. Timberlake said. For instance, a poor county may be funded 80 percent by the state and 20 percent by local sources, and a rich county may get just 20 percent from the state and raise 80 percent from local sources, he said.
Mrs. Shepherd said Maryland had been debating for a long time whether it was important to spend an equal amount of money on all school districts, or to direct more funds to the poorer ones in order to bring them on a par with other divisions.
A special commission had been set up to look into the issue, she said, adding that its report was due in fall this year.
Interestingly, counties said the spending figures they had were different from those calculated by the state. Montgomery county supplied a figure of $7,537 for 1999. The state's figure for 1997 was higher, and asked if spending had since dropped, Mr. Spatz said the difference was simply because the state and the county used different methods of calculation.
Of other individual counties that made available the latest figures for 1999, Falls Church City spent $10,298 per student, while Fairfax spent $7,731.

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