Friday, February 26, 2010

A Look At How Education Fairs in the Senate's Budget Proposal

The Senate passed a budget yesterday which reversed over $700 million in cuts to education that were proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell. Now the Senate wasn’t able to do away with all of the cuts to education, which is understandable in these horrible economic times, but it was able to reduce it to a total of $133 million ($37 million for the first year and $95 for the second) – which is still a lot of money. Before you get too excited about the Senate's budget, however, it's important thing to note is that the House proposing $620 million in cuts to education related spending. This means there's a difference of almost $500 million in education funding in the two budgets and the final proposal could look a lot different than what the Senate just passed. So with the potential for future changes in mind, here are a few of the important notes about the Senate's budget proposals surrounding education.

As I mentioned in a post I wrote yesterday, one of the most controversial issues this year was Tim Kaine’s proposal to freeze the Local Composite Index (LCI). After an uproar from communities that would have benefited from the tradition recalculation, the Senate has decided to reverse the freeze. To address the concerns of localities in other regions of the Commonwealth that might have lost funding due to the recalculation of the LCI, the “Senate’s budget holds all localities harmless.” In a statement released yesterday, the Senate Democratic Caucus explained how this decision will help communities all across Virginia.
The normal two-year recalculation of the Local Composite Index will occur under the Senate budget, meaning that state aid to local school districts will be distributed more fairly and accurately based on population and property values. Under the recalculation many localities were going to see an increase in state funding, but 97 localities stood to lose state support. The Senate’s budget holds all localities harmless in the recalculation, meaning that no locality will receive less than was proposed by Governor Kaine. This will keep teachers in the classroom in every local school system in Virginia. The House of Delegates has proposed to restore 80% of funding to those localities, while Governor McDonnell proposed no assistance.
Continuing along the theme of assisting localities, there were a few noteworthy proposals that helped to ensure that the state wasn't hurting individual communities by shifting too much of the financial burden of running a good school system to the localities. For example, local school systems will gain some flexibility in allocating their resources through a “temporarily eases some mandates such as testing requirements and class size ratios” and will save millions by being able to defer contributions to retirement accounts. The retirement funding could create an interesting situation down the road, however, as the deferred payments will have to be repaid to the system in the future.

As the Democratic Caucus pointed out, the Senate's budget also differed from Gov. McDonnell regarding higher education funding.
Virginia’s colleges and universities will be critical to economic recovery, so no further reductions were recommended in the state’s higher education system. The Senate also preserved nearly $10 million in tuition assistance grants to help keep college affordable, preventing Governor McDonnell’s $19.9 million proposed cut to the program. The Senate preserved funding for the Virginia Commission for the Arts, a group that had been targeted for elimination by the House of Delegates. The Senate also held Virginia’s libraries harmless, while the House made a 15% cut.
Finally, another important thing that the Senate did was reject McDonnell’s recommendation to eliminate state support for school breakfasts. As someone who has spent so much time fighting for working families and frequently fighting to maintain programs like this one, I am extremely pleased to see that the Senate has proposed the continuation of the crucial service. The students who qualify for school breakfasts do so for a reason -- their families are in an economic situation where this is one of the only ways the children can afford a meal in the morning. By providing these students with a nutritional meal in the mornings, the school breakfasts create a situation in which the students are able to concentrate in class and receive the best education possible. By making it easier for students to obtain the skills necessary to enter the 21st Century job market, these school breakfasts will earn a return on the investment both socially, through being one step towards presenting students with the chance to perform better in schools, and financially through the increased wages their earn after getting a better education.

Although in a perfect world the budget would look a lot better than this, it's clear that the Senate’s proposal is the one that education advocates would like to see passed and I'm sure they'll let their elected officials know that when they're in Richmond for a rally this weekend. When you combine the fact that education activists generally favor the Senate’s proposals and that I was told by a well-placed source that Senators are very confident in the ability of their negotiators, one would hope that many of these proposals will remain in the final budget. Unfortunately, the plain and simple fact that the House and Senate are so far apart to start with also suggests the Senate negotiators will have a lot of hard work in front of them if they want their proposals to make it through. I therefore highly encourage everyone to let their General Assembly members know that they prefer the Senate's budget proposal.

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