- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2011

The president of the Virginia Education Association is pressing Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to make K-12 education a funding priority and to increase teacher salaries as part of the states next biennial budget.

Mr. McDonnell, in a recent address to the state’s Board of Education, said improving public education will indeed be a priority during the upcoming General Assembly session.

The governor also urged schools to emphasize Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs and asked the board to hold students to high standards so they can compete with students outside of the country. But he also said funding will be tight — a message that did not sit well with the state’s education lobby.

“We’re disappointed that this governor has chosen so far not to put any funding priority on K-12 education,” said association President Kitty Boitnott.

“We believe that something needs to be done regarding the deplorable rankings that Virginia teachers have reached in regards to salary,” she said, noting some teachers across the state have gone three years without a raise.

Teachers in Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system, recently got raises, but others across the commonwealth have not been as fortunate, Ms. Boitnott said.

In 2011, the estimated average salary for Virginia public school teachers was $51,559, the 23rd-highest in the country, according to CQ Press, a division of SAGE Publications. The national average was $56,069.

McDonnell spokeswoman Taylor Thornley said the governor has high regard for Virginia schools and teachers and that he is committed to helping them.

“Virginia is home to a world-class education system, and much of that is due to our great teachers,” she said. “Governor McDonnell is committed to improving our education system, and that includes continuing to attract the best educators. That is why he is asking the Board of Education and other education leaders to look at proposals to put more money in the classroom, where instruction is taking place, and began a pilot merit-pay program this school year that rewards teachers for excellence.”

In April, Mr. McDonnell announced that the state would provide $3 million in bonuses for teachers in “hard to staff” schools, but the majority of Virginia schools chose not to apply for the funds.

Virginia lawmakers, in amending the current two-year, $80 billion budget this past Assembly session, restored $75 million in state aid to public education. But even with the additional money, the state is still providing about $656 million less in general funds than in fiscal 2009, according to the Virginia Association of Counties.

Still, others argue that the issue is not how much money is being spent, but how its being spent.

Delegate G.M. “Manoli” Loupassi, Richmond Republican, introduced a bill during the 2011 session that would require local school boards to report how much of their operating budgets go toward instructional spending. If the percentage was below 65 percent, they would have to craft a plan to increase the expenditures by 0.5 percent in the next fiscal year or face a state audit.

“I wouldn’t agree to give them an extra 15 cents until they’re at least required to report where the money’s being spent. Just have a standardization as to how the money is being spent,” Mr. Loupassi said. “We want to adequately pay our teachers and have a good, well-funded school system. No one’s saying, ‘don’t do that.’ We just want to make sure that we’re getting the most bang for our buck.”

The battle over K-12 funding and teacher pay is annual exercise, but this year the governor will also have to grapple with an additional challenge. The state must recalculate — or “re-benchmark” — the direct aid to public education budget every odd-numbered year, based on such factors as inflation and updated student enrollment. The Department of Education has put an initial cost estimate for this year’s re-benchmarking process at $318.7 million, not including some factors such as Virginia Retirement System contribution rates.

“Governor McDonnell is in the process of writing the next biennial budget, which will reflect his priorities, including K-12 education,” Ms. Thornley said. “Were still looking at how we are going to balance re-benchmarking with needs in K-12 education and how both of these priorities fit into the budget. More announcements will be made in the months ahead.”

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