Does Rural Virginia Need Mo’ Money for Schools?

ED = Economically Disadvantaged. NED = Not Economically Disadvantaged

by James A. Bacon

Instead of getting all torqued up about becoming Second Amendment sanctuary cities, suggests a Roanoke Times editorial, citizens of rural Virginia counties should be mobilizing to demand more funding for local school systems.

Arlington County spends $20,460 per student, notes the editorial. The City of Norton spends only $9,219. While the editorial writer concedes in passing that “throwing money at the problem” may not be the best answer, he or she insists that money can fix leaking roofs or buy new technology.

“While you’re all fired up with civic activism,” the editorial admonishes, “start passing some resolutions in favor of more school funding. Unless, of course, guns really are all you care about.”

Ah, so much conventional thinking packed into so little space. Where do I begin?

The editorial assumes that there is a strong correlation between the spending per student and the quality of the education received. Since the editorial compared Arlington County and the City of Norton, let’s take a look at the numbers for those two school systems.

In the graph above, I show Standards of Learning (SOL) “proficient” and “advanced” pass rates for English and Math for both school systems in the 2018-19 school year. Further, I break down the pass rates for Economically Disadvantaged students and Non Economically Disadvantaged students.

When it came to passing the SOLs at a “proficient” level, which might better be described as the “adequate” level, Norton out-performed Arlington across the board — in English and math, for economically disadvantaged students and non disadvantaged. Norton’s school system endeavors to ensure that all kids achieve  a basic mastery of subject matter and, despite spending half the money per student, it did a better job of it than Arlington.

How about the “advanced” pass rate? Arlington and Norton performed comparably for economically disadvantaged students, while Arlington shined in educating non-disadvantaged students. It is possible that Arlington does, in fact,  do a better job of educating its affluent students. However, I would not accept that conclusion without closer examination.

The category of “non economically disadvantaged” encompasses a wide socioeconomic range, including better-off blue collar workers, the middle class, and the professional class.In 2017, the median household income in Arlington was $112,138. In Norton, it was $16,024. The percentage of Arlington adults with a four-year college degree or higher level of education was 74.1%. In Norton, it was 17%. It is safe to say that Arlington’s student population is skewed to the professional end of the spectrum, while Norton is skewed toward the working/middle class end of the spectrum. 

It is widely accepted that, all other factors being equal, students from affluent, well-educated families academically out-perform students from less affluent, less-educated families on average.

While it is true that the better-off Arlington students passed their SOLs at an “advanced” level at roughly double the rate of their better-off counterparts in Norton, one must consider that we are comparing the children of lawyers, PhDs, and MBAs from elite institutions to the children of high school, junior college, and regional college graduates. In other words, what we’re likely seeing in Arlington’s superior “advanced” pass rate could be the vast demographic disparity, not the quality of education provided.

To be sure, if Arlington County can afford to fund a sport as arcane as high school crew, it undoubtedly provides advanced and specialized courses that are unavailable to high school students in Norton. If I had the ambition to go to an Ivy League college, I’d rather attend public high school in Arlington than Norton. But, getting back to the Roanoke Times editorial, I reject the premise that insufficient funding is a first-order problem for Norton and other rural/small town communities in Virginia where very few students burn with a desire to attend Harvard or Yale.

To the contrary, schools in Southwest Virginia out-perform schools in other regions in Virginia by banding together in the Comprehensive Instructional Program to share best practices. Necessity, to borrow a phrase, can be the mother of innovation that brings about more meaningful change than mo’ money could.

Bacon’s bottom line: As I’ve opined before, I don’t have any more sympathy for Second Amendment sanctuaries than I do for illegal-immigrant sanctuaries. The idea that localities can pick and choose the laws they enforce is a pernicious one. So, I suppose I agree with the Roanoke Times that the residents of Virginia’s rural counties could find better things to get agitated about. But pouring mo’ money into local schools won’t address a pressing need. Rather, rural/small town citizens should get charged up about the opioid epidemic, physician shortages, the lack of broadband access, the paucity of employment opportunities — areas where deficiencies directly impact their quality of life.

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7 responses to “Does Rural Virginia Need Mo’ Money for Schools?

  1. The residential real estate tax rate in Arlington is $1.026 per $100 assessed. In the City of Norton it is $.90. While Arlington is wealthier than Norton it also has vastly higher real estate costs and thus – vastly higher assessed values. In Norton the average home price is $93,200 so the average residential real estate tax is about $838 per year. In Arlington the average home price is $695,900 so the average real estate tax is about $7,139 per year.

    Arlington residents pay 8.5X more in residential real estate taxes and have incomes that are 7X higher (without compensating for the higher costs of living).

    If the City of Norton wants more money for its public schools perhaps its first move should be to raise its own real estate tax rates.

    • Virginia school funds are divided up by an “ability to pay” formula, and under that Arlington is expected to put up 80 percent of the cost of meeting the base Standards of Learning, while Norton puts up 28 percent. That means the state covers 20 percent of the cost of meeting the minimum for Arlington but 72 percent of Norton’s basic educational expenses. If that changes, I don’t think it will change in the favor of the rural localities. Perhaps the Roanoke Times (Dwayne Yancey) just wants to make a run at it to try to keep things as they are, because the push is going to be in the other direction.

      • The whole editorial is muddled. It starts by claiming that there are no immigration enforcement sanctuary cities in Virginia. While that may be technically true there are immigration enforcement sanctuary counties like Fairfax and, to a lesser extent, Arlington. It ends with this, “So here’s a challenge to all these rural localities passing Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions: While you’re all fired up with civic activism, start passing some resolutions in favor of more school funding. Unless, of course, guns really are all you care about.”

        Mo’ money. Got it. Where should the mo’ money come from? Rural Virginia should pay more in taxes to help raise the tide of money available? Rural Virginia should petition to raise local taxes and keep all of the money for local education? Rural Virginia should add a surcharge to sales taxes for education – like the sales tax surcharge for transportation in Northern Virginia?

        Passing a resolution in favor of more school funding? Meaningless tripe.

        You may be right about the Roanoke Times just increasing the noise in their signal to noise ratio to draw attention to the school funding formula. My guess is that the funding ratios will change and not in favor of rural Virginia. Maybe this is just a smokescreen aimed at obscuring the real inequities in those formulae.

        • As the statehouse reporter for that fine publication a third of a century ago, it was clear their priority was pork barrel items for local projects. If I called in with news the Governor had been shot, they’d want me to ignore that and see what was going on with the annual appropriation for Center in the Square or the planned Explore Park (a.k.a. Dickie World). Very parochial focus….I exaggerate only slightly.

  2. Good post and analysis, Jim. It’s hard to argue with the data. I thought that perhaps the editorial writer had picked the wrong locality to compare with Arlington. So, I looked at the results for the counties of Buchanan, Craig, and Highland (all within the paper’s circulation area). They all had proficiency rates as good as, if not higher, than Arlington.

    That being said, the reading proficiency rates for all jurisdictions are too low. The state superintendent seems to be concentrating on improvement in this area. Maybe more money is needed in this area. However, first DOE needs to look at those areas in which the reading proficiency rates are much better and identify what those schools are doing that others are not and whether those practices can be duplicated elsewhere. Then they can ask for more money if needed.

  3. There is something not quite right about the data – the data is probably correct but the impression it is leaving is probably not.

    Once again, looking at an entire school division data instead of looking at the individual schools as a group can lead to wrong impressions.

    Norton (the city) has two schools – a combined elementary/middle and a high school.

    Arlington has dozens of elementary schools, middle and high and they are spread across neighborhoods stratified by income.

    I do not put much stock in the so-called Comprehensive Instructional Program, there’s not much info about it on the Norton School website. Until I see the actual schools saying they are using this approach and giving links to it – I’m thinking it’s not real.

    Wise County is where Norton is located. Let’s see the same results for adjacent Wise County.

    I’m not arguing here for MO Money but I AM suspicious of selective slicing and dicing of data and need more clarity to be convinced of the implied premise.

    And like Dick – how about looking at these schools in terms of NAEP proficiency standards – where on a Virginia basis at the 10,000 foot level – more than a third of the kids – who pass the SOLs are rated as not achieving basic proficiency on their scale.

    I’m ALL FOR measuring and comparing the school systems but to this point – in BR – it lacks in real clarity because it feels like very selective cuts on the data. Norton City schools is tiny – Arlington is huge – and are we really and truly doing an apple-to-apple comparison here?

  4. The editorial erred in that it was trying to draw a direct comparison between a federally constitutionally guaranteed right and something that was not. While I agree that education is extremely important, it is not a fundamental right of humankind.

    When one looks at the issue, educational spending in Virginia is a huge redistribution of wealth at many levels. In 2013 (the latest year I can locate the data) Virginia received the 2nd highest amount of the overall federal budget per capita. This includes all sorts of federal payments- education, salaries, defense spending, social programs, and etc. I can’t find any information affirming this, but I assume that much of this money goes to the Hampton Roads area as well as northern Virginia. Therefore, I imagine that quite a bit of the local funding that goes into the schools in Arlington comes indirectly from those federal funds that trickle through the economy in that county. This is not the case in Norton.

    Steve Haner hit the nail on the head with the LCI info. Norton, as well as all of Southwest Virginia, receives the lion’s share of educational funding from the state, whereas Arlington gets this from the locality. In fact, the LCI’s top limit is .80 for the most affluent localities. Southwest Virginia, being so sparsely populated compared to other parts of the state, does not have the representation in Richmond necessary to leverage a greater redistribution of state funds.

    So, what is the solution? Should Robin Hood rob more from wealthy Northern Virginia and give it to the much less fortunate Southwest Virginia? Should economically depressed Southwest Virginia raise taxes to better fund education locally?

    In conclusion, the Roanoke Times should do a better job drawing comparisons between more like issues. Is this disparity in educational funding fair? I argue that it is not. Is this inequity unconstitutional? No. Educational funding equity issues certainly merit more discussion, but this is not a threat to rule of law as is the 2nd Amendment issue we are currently facing. We can all survive sub-par educational funding more than the erosion of our Constitution.

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