Putting K-12 Education First

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.

By Paul Goldman

To regain a General Assembly majority and remain viable contenders in the increasingly Republican-
leaning 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.

Any education 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 obligation.

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.
Leadership, 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 control."

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.  

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 pay up the money owed."

As indicated, 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 legislature.

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 priority.

Why is this my first priority?

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.

Accordingly, 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?

Virginia's 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.

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 must be taken, bring it on.
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 judgment.

But as the old Chinese proverb wisely points out, even the longest journey begins with a first step.

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