K-12 Education First: A Democratic Plan
the Rebel With A Cause, was chief political strategist for
the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was
credited with leading a "revolution in American
politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking
America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics. He
alone will be responsible for his column, ideas, and opinions.
The title of political reporter Jeff Schapiro's column in yesterday's Richmond
Times Dispatch read: DEMOCRATS PLAY SCRIPT GOP WROTE. Whatever
maybe the accuracy of his particular observations, surely Virginia
Democrats can no longer play the GOP's game on K-12 education. So today,
let's start laying out a specific plan to challenge the status quo.
Virginia Democrats need their own K-12 plan, one that is honest,
forward-looking and if politically risky, so be it.
Any plan, by necessity, must start with a corner stone, a first point if
you will. Naturally, any useful education initiative must have a number
of points. But there can be only one first priority in terms of a
building block. Indeed, if there is no consensus on the first priority,
then by definition it is all but impossible to develop the necessary
unity of purpose and strategy needed to change the status quo.
Leadership, therefore, at this stage, is providing the catalyst for
getting people to challenge current thinking, to get a discussion going
that can forge a consensus, a unity of purpose among those who want real
Sometimes this catalyst is collective action, as say the battle of
Bunker Hill, or more accurately in terms of geography, Breeds Hill.
Technically, we rebels, we future yanks lost; but it was the beginning
of a great victory. Other times it is the actions of one person, say
Boris Yeltsin standing on that tank and staring down the Red Army, or,
Joan of Arc, la Pucelle (the Maid), leading her Army to expel the
British from French soil, her mission achieved upon the crowning of
Charles VII, but then things got out of hand, she was eventually sold to
the British and finally burned at the stake for having beaten them on
the battle field.
Sometimes it is a speech, as say the words of the late Reverend Martin
Luther King on the steps of the Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, who himself
gave perhaps the greatest speech by any American, the Gettysburg
Address, word for word beyond description with it's powerful, haunting
simplicity. The speaker before Lincoln talked on and on for several
hours, the American President thus not even the featured orator as the
official dedicator of the Memorial to the fallen heroes was Edward
Sometimes leadership is as basic as Rosa Parks refusing to leave her
seat or St. Thomas More refusing to go along with both parts of the Act
of Succession [that's right, he actually agreed to one part but Thomas
Cromwell couldn't work out a deal with Henry VIII], thus putting his
head on London Bridge, all on account of Anne Boleyn; or was it really
just Henry VIII?
And sometimes leadership is simply any of us, in our own way, saying
what is one our mind in hopes of getting people to think about the way
things are and the way they the Constitution says they should be. Such
leadership can be on a momentous issue such as racial discrimination, or
something not as historic nor as momentous but with it's own unique
importance: the education of our children, the insistence that the responsibilities
of the state of Virginia, as declared in the Constitution of Virginia,
be meet by those in charge in Richmond.
Yes, sometimes leadership is merely doing the obvious: saying to the
government that it must obey the law.
In the world of politics, nothing gives those in charge of a floundering
status quo so much concern as the written word, written honestly, and
shared with others, as any successful K-12 plan will require many
contributors, most far more knowledgeable in the details of education
policy than yours truly.
So here goes.
Given the centrality of defining a first priority, this column therefore
focuses solely on it, leaving the other points to subsequent articles. I
will try and write at least the second column focusing on the second
point in a Democratic K-12 plan later this week.
To underscore the depth of my belief in the growing importance of the
first priority discussed below, permit me to cite as an example a
previous column written about a year ago for the Sunday Washington Post
entitled Behind Virginia's Budget Woes, a Deficit of Candor.
At the time, Democrats and Republicans were saying that former Governor
Wilder's award-winning stewardship in difficult times was the fiscal
model for governing and they intended to emulate it. So as Wilder's
chief budget consultant, I was asked to discuss the fiscal situation
created by "Deficit Jim" Gilmore prior to the Governor's
December presentation to the fiscal committees of the General Assembly.
In pertinent part, I said the following:
"Virginians need straight talk [to] explain
the true causes of Virginia's not one, but two,
ballooning deficit problems: the first, immediate
but still manageable, the second, structural and
spinning out of control."
twin deficit problem, a subject seldom discussed in the press,
is key to understanding Virginia's fiscal mess. Right now, we are
hearing almost exclusively about only the deficit in the current two
year state budget, the one that most be balanced due to a law passed
during the Wilder Administration. Even Gilmore didn't try to skirt that
law, and the same will be true again
at the next 2003 General Assembly Session. The law is clear, and so the
remaining months on the state's biennium budget will be balanced when
the legislators leave town next Spring.
But the more intractable deficit problem -- and, in terms of the state's
fiscal condition, the more relevant for K-12 education purposes -- is
the structural deficit, the one we hear almost nothing about today. It
is in some measure the public sector equivalent to the kind of
off-the-books fiscal gimmickry that Enron and other 2002 debacles have
come to symbolize.
So in explaining the "structural deficit" concept, I wrote the
following in that Washington Post article:
"Another budgetary practice adds to the structural
deficit..: For several years, the state has failed to
provide local governments with the amount of
education funds it is required to give them by state
law. A recent legislative report says the overdue
amount now tops $1 billion. Eventually, this will have
to be corrected: At some point, localities may sue
and the courts may order the state to payup
the money owed..." (© 2001 The Washington
The official version of the report referenced above was actually not
released by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (known
around Capitol Square in Richmond as J-LARC, the General Assembly's
investigative arm) until 6 February 2002. But nothing had changed in
those ensuing few months, as
they confirmed the structural deficit bottom line: Virginia's school
children were being
shortchanged, and local property tax payers were being asked to pay
extra because the state was reneging on it's lawful and constitutional
In effect, the state was reneging on it's lawful and constitutional
duties, as defined by the new Constitution of Virginia enacted by the
voters at the beginning of the 1970's. In terms of the basic, source
document of state government, the state's obligation to provide for a
21st century education is the top constitutional responsibility, save
for the police powers of the state to protect us from our enemies,
domestic and foreign, in terms of the criminal law and a common defense
against terrorism or acts of war.
Yet we were not living-up to this solemn obligation, to the tune of 1
billion dollars. Thus, like Enron, the state will announce that the
budget is balanced sometime during the 2003 General Assembly Session.
But this "balance" will only occur because the politicians in
Richmond do not have to include their failure to live-up to the state's
K-12 constitutional requirements in the budget.
Moreover, the proof of this situation is not based on anything Paul
Goldman, or the Virginia Education Association, or any number of
concerned parents concocted out of whole cloth. Rather, it is based on
the official findings of J-LARC, the General Assembly's own entity,
chaired by none other than Republican Delegate Vince Callahan, Jr.,
Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Moreover, the membership
of J-LARC includes Republican John Chichester, chairman of the Senate
Finance Committee, Acting Speaker of the House of Delegates Lacey
Putney, the state Auditor of Public Accounts, not to mention a host of
other powerful Democratic and Republican legislators from each branch of
the State Legislature.
Yet to date, these gentlemen have chosen to give this constitutional
failure no more a priority than a bunch of other political actions they
are considering. Ideally, one would have hoped that the Secretary of
Education might have taken the lead in developing a plan of action to
get the state of Virginia in compliance with it's own constitutional
Perhaps she has been making her case in private. But not publicly.
This is surprising since J-LARC concedes which children and families are
most hurt by this constitutional failure:
"...since most State funding for education is provided based
on local ability to pay, a lesser role by the State in meeting
costs tends to most negatively impact education funding levels
in poorer localities" (Emphasis added).
In other words, the areas of Virginia, rural and urban and suburban that
have traditionally been at the core of Democratic concerns, are the most
I say: It is time for a change, a moment to get this state back to first
I listen to editorialists and others wax poetic about how they want to
raise and spend this and that new money for any number of new education
initiatives and ideas. It all sounds so good, so easy.
But I ask you: If the state of Virginia isn't currently meeting her
current constitutional obligation for K-12 education, and furthermore,
isn't even working on a public plan to correct this shortchanging by a
specific date, then how likely is it that there is going to be any
realistic hope of doing all these new and wonderful things that are
opined about on almost a daily basis?
The answer: As the British say, "not bloody likely."
So I say again: It is time for a change.
However, let's be clear as concerns the education plan Democrats need to
adopt. Clearly, even the Republicans concede the validity of what will
be the cornerstone of the plan I will discuss on these pages. But that
being said, let's be clear that parents, teachers, indeed all
educational school personnel, localities and of course the students
themselves have their own set of responsibilities which are, in the
final analysis, not tethered to the state's fiscal failure. In the final
analysis, the academic side of a student is the same as the athlete
side: regardless of the personal drive or talent, no athlete ever
reaches his or her full potential without a good coach. Thus, a student
cannot reach his or her full cranial potential without parents accepting
their responsibilities in terms of education, for on the field of
academics, they are the one's who most coach their children to be all
they can be.
Good schools, therefore, are not possible without good teachers,
involved parents, and hardworking students. Money is important but not
determinative. Merely throwing money at a problem is not the way to
So the time has come for Virginia Democrats to fight for passage of a
law, with teeth, that will make meeting the state's constitutional
obligation to fund K-12 education the top priority for state government.
Again, not one of many "top" priorities. But the top priority.
Why is this my first priority?
Because I live in the real world. The depth of our fiscal problems and
grandstanding budget politics has reached such a point that unless we
have a clear statement of priority, K-12 education will continue to be
Let me give you an example.
If one takes the time to read state law, there are several traps in our
statutes which, if not fixed, make it all but impossible to make K-12
education the highest priority in terms of quickly achieving - with
public accountability for every new dollar - what I believe is
imperative in terms of smaller class sizes, special education, school
construction, true salary incentives and promotions for excellence for
our teachers, indeed, the overall investment we make in our teaching
personnel so that we can focus our resources as much as possible in the
classroom, not the political showroom.
For example, one such trap is in the law controlling the repeal of the
car tax. I believe the car tax should be repealed. Unfortunately, the
law controlling this repeal contains what I will call a
"loophole" which makes 100% repeal [that is, the next move
from the current 70% level] a far higher priority than K-12 education in
the near future.
According to the car tax statutes, 100% repeal "shall" happen
if certain conditions are met irrespective of whether the
state has recovered from it's current budget crisis and irrespective of
whether the state has adequately addressed the "structural
deficit" relative to K-12 education.
conditions may be met as early as 2004 even though Mr.
Callahan and Mr. Chichester have no intention of fixing the K-12
underfunding situation by that time.
Accordingly, Virginia needs to make a choice. What shall we commit
ourselves, as a people, to do first:
Meet the legal and constitutional K-12 obligations of the state as voted
by the people in approving the new Constitution more than thirty years
ago, or do we put K-12 education on the back burner and meet the 100%
repeal provisions of the Gilmore loophole?
Both goals need to be met, as does the goal of eliminating the sales tax
on food: but only one can be achieved first.
choose K-12 as the first priority, others may differ. Politically, I
recognize many Republicans are likely to twist what I say, and do their
usual "spinning," trying to confuse the public and avoid the
may think allowing the Republicans to play this political game is far
too much of a risk.
trust the people of Virginia to make the right choice here and to see
through the haze of political rhetoric.
repeat: There can be, in the end, only one-first priority. I choose K-12
education, I believe Democrats must do the same in clear and
unmistakable legal language. Accordingly, the statutes of Virginia need
to be changed to make it clear correcting the K-12 constitutional
failure as conceded by J-LARC takes precedent to going from 70% to 100%
repeal of the car tax or the next step on the sales
tax on food.
this constitutional under funding was only officially recognized by J-LARC
earlier this year, I don't expect Mr. Callahan and Mr. Chichester, or
the Governor, to solve it overnight especially in these budget times.
But Democrats must be willing to take the lead in getting the General
Assembly to adopt a specific plan, with specific dates, to meet our K-12
Republicans want to make this the car tax Vs education, so be it: That
is not what I propose but if this is the political risk that has to be
taken, then bring it on.
Paul you say: There are legitimate differences on the different factors
in state education formula creation and the adequacy of the Standards of
Quality which are the basis of this constitutional under funding. Some
say a fair and non-partisan analysis of the Constitutional mandate, as
interpreted by several Attorney General opinions, indicate the state's
failure is far greater in terms of what is generally accepted as
required of a solid, 21st century K-12 education.
differences do exist. The discussion of these matters, along with a
specific proposal to address how to approach the varying opinions on
what the state is required to do in both substance and monetary terms,
will be the subject of my next column on K-12 education.
Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2002