Putting K-12 Education First: A Democratic Plan

Paul GoldmanBy Paul Goldman

Goldman, 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 change.

                   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 Everett.

                    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

This 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
                     Post Company)

                  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 duties.

                       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 obligations.

                 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 hurt by
this situation.

                  So I say: It is time for a change, a moment to get this state back to first principles.

                  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 solve it.

             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 shortchanged.

              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.

            These 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.

            I 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 substance. 

           Some may think allowing the Republicans to play this political game is far too much of a risk.

            But I trust the people of Virginia to make the right choice here and to see through the haze of political rhetoric.

            To 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.

            Since 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 obligations.

           If 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.

            But 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.

            Such 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.

(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2002