K-12 Education First
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.
By Paul Goldman
regain a General Assembly majority and remain viable contenders in the
statewide vote, Virginia Democrats need -- because our children need --
an innovative K-12 education plan: one that is honest and forward.
looking. If it's
politically risky, so be it. The status quo, consisting of certain
politicians and certain interests mouthing all the right
"promises" soon followed by all the repetitive lame excuses,
needs to be publicly challenged.
plan, by necessity, must start with a founding principle that organizes
the various parts into a cohesive, understandable and compelling whole.
Naturally, it must consist of several solid, if need be bold,
initiatives. (See last
week's article on the first-ever K-12 state General Obligation
School Construction Package.)
So today, I
propose enacting a new law, with teeth, to finally make K-12 education
what the state constitution and Virginia law demands: the top priority,
numero uno above all others, and in so doing, develop a specific
timetable to correct the state's documented failure on this very
This law will
achieve this first principle and end the failure of the state to keep
its K-12 promise, a failure acknowledged a year ago by the Joint
Legislative and Audit Review Committee (JLARC), the powerful
investigative arm of the General Assembly. As I will show, without this
new law, K-12 education will continue to be badly shortchanged in
Virginia, as JLARC conceded.
therefore, at this stage, consists of providing the catalyst for getting
people to challenge current thinking by offering new, practical, bold
ideas that work -- ideas to build a unity of purpose among those who
want positive, accountability in K-12.
Back in 2001, in
a Washington Post column entitled "Behind Virginia's Budget
Woes, a Deficit of Candor," I warned about this developing
budget/educational situation. At the time, Gov.-elect Mark R. Warner,
like Gov. George Allen before him, was saying that former Gov. L.
Douglas Wilder's award-winning budget stewardship was the fiscal model
for governing in difficult times. So, as Wilder's chief budget
consultant, I was asked to discuss the fiscal situation that Warner was
inheriting from Gov. "Deficit Jim" Gilmore. In part, this
column 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 by still manageable, the second structural and spinning out of
The twin deficit
problem, a subject seldom discussed in the press, is key to
understanding the current situation. Right now, we are hearing almost
exclusively about only one of these two deficits, the one involving the
current, two-year state budget. A law initiated during the Wilder
Administration was intended to require a balanced budget.
But the second
RED INK problem -- the more important, increasingly intractable and most
related to K-12 education -- is the structural deficit. We hear
almost nothing about this deficit from the folks in Richmond. Why?
Because to talk about it honestly means admitting that the
"balanced" budget is only possible by using the public-sector
equivalent to the off-the-books fiscal gimmickry that Enron and other
2002 corporate debacles have come to symbolize.
the "structural deficit" concept, I wrote the following in
that Washington Post article:
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 pay up the money
the JLARC report confirmed the bottom line of the structural deficit:
Virginia's school children were being shortchanged, and local property
tax payers were being asked to pay extra because the state was reneging
on its lawful and constitutional duties.
Like Enron, the
state soon will announce that the budget has been
"miraculously" balanced sometime during the 2003 General
Assembly session. But the books will "balance" occur only
because legislators will refuse to acknowledge their failure to live up
to the state's K-12 constitutional requirements. If they did, the budget
would be at least $1 billion out of whack.
To repeat: The
proof of this shameful situation is not based on anything that Paul
Goldman, or the Virginia Education Association, or any number of
concerned parents, concocted out of whole cloth. It is based in the
official findings of JLARC, the General Assembly's own entity, chaired
by none other than Vincent F. Callahan, Jr., R-Fairfax, chairman of the
House Appropriations Committee. Moreover, the membership of JLARC
includes John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, chairman of the Senate
Finance Committee, plus the acting Speaker of the House of Delegates,
the state Auditor of Public Accounts, not to mention a host of other
powerful Democratic and Republican legislators from each branch of the
The JLARC report
specifies 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 traditionally
have been at the core of Democratic concerns, are the most hurt.
So, I say again,
the time has come for Virginia Democrats to fight -- right now, in 2003
- for passage of a law, with teeth, that can go into effect this year,
and 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, numero uno
Why is this my
Because I live
in the real world, and know what inevitability will happen if we wait
for a couple of years to achieve this goal.
Let me give you
an example. If one takes 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 first priority.
For example, one
such trap -- there are others but this is the best known -- is 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 percent repeal -- that
is, the next move from the current 70 percent to 100 percent -- a far
higher priority than K-12 education.
According to the
car tax statutes, 100 percent repeal "shall" happen if certain
conditions are met, irrespective of whether the state has met it's
constitutional and legal obligations on K-12 education.
These car tax
conditions may be met as early as 2004. Indeed, the Governor's press
secretary and newly elected Speaker of the General Assembly are on
record saying the 100 percent phase-in step will happen in the next
budget cycle irrespective of what happens with education.
Virginia needs to make a choice. What shall we commit ourselves, as a
people, to do first: Meet the constitutional and statutory K-12
obligations of the state as voted by the people in approving the new
Constitution more than 30 years ago? Or do we continue to violate our
promise while putting other priorities first, such as the 100 percent
provisions of the Gilmore car tax loophole?
statutes need to clearly state that correcting the K-12 constitutional
failure takes precedence over such worthy goals 100 percent repeal
of the car tax, eliminating the sales tax on food (something I have
championed for 20 years), or other such goals that I support.
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 must be taken, bring
But, Paul, you
say, there are legitimate disagreements about the state education
funding formula and the adequacy of the Standards of Quality, which are
the basis of this constitutional underfunding. Some say that a fair and
nonpartisan analysis of the Constitutional mandate, as interpreted by
several Attorney General opinions, indicate the state's failure is far
greater than JLARC admitted.
I agree: Such
differences do exist and, yes, respected, objective analysts believe the
size of the structural, K-12 deficit is considerably larger, thus
driving up property taxes even further. They make a good case, in my
But as the old
Chinese proverb wisely points out, even the longest journey begins with
a first step.
All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2002.