Local Commentary

Kaye Kory’s Richmond Report

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My firm belief that public education is the bedrock of American civil society and economic prosperity drove me, first, to run for elected office – the Fairfax County School Board – and that belief remains an important driver in defining my responsibilities as a Virginia Delegate.

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My firm belief that public education is the bedrock of American civil society and economic prosperity drove me, first, to run for elected office – the Fairfax County School Board – and that belief remains an important driver in defining my responsibilities as a Virginia Delegate.

We all know and publicly profess to agree that investing in education is synonymous with investing in our future and, in fact, key to economic development. The Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia reports that for each dollar spent on public higher education in Virginia, the Commonwealth receives $1.39 in increased tax revenue. Yet Virginia has slashed per pupil funding on higher education by an astonishing 50% in constant dollars since 2000. A 50% cut over 10 years. I don’t have my business calculator handy, but I don’t really need it to know that this is a significant negative return on investment (ROI).

Yes, education reform is not only about dollars, but the truth is that more dollars are needed to maintain the quality of education Virginia offers today, as well as to accommodate the ever-growing number of students seeking the undisputed benefits that higher education delivers. Of course, we should search for innovative ways to stretch our education dollars. We should be investigating and investing in distance learning and virtual classrooms, for example, and we are.  We should be open to opportunities to leverage private investment within the context of public/private partnerships, provided that we can define and enforce standards and maintain accountability.

But, regardless of how innovative we become and how judiciously we spend our tax dollars, I am afraid we have already reached the point at which we are losing ground on our twin goals of delivering quality education and offering reasonable access to an economically diverse student population.

The Governor’s Higher Education Reform Committee has adopted the admirable goal of increasing the number of college degrees awarded by 100,000 in the next 15 years. Unfortunately, if, looking forward, future Legislatures maintain the pace of disinvestment over the next 10 years that our past five Legislatures have achieved over the previous 10 years, I feel certain that this goal is DOA. The math just doesn’t add up. Either tuition will have to rise so dramatically that only the most exceptional students and students from well-to-do families (many from out-of-state) will be able to afford higher education, or that quality of education delivered will be so diminished as to be unrecognizable to Virginia citizens.

I am, generally, an avid proponent of public innovation to achieve service improvements and economies. However, I fear that you may soon be hearing about the core problems and inefficiencies in our current system of public education. The “for profit” post-secondary educational sector has recently come under pressure at the Federal level to be accountable for the quality of the educational product that they deliver and value claims they make to justify the prices they charge. If you read the Washington Post (which is in the for-profit education business through Kaplan University) or the New York Times, you can’t have missed the full page ads fighting back proposed regulatory legislation. Whatever the merits, or lack thereof, of the arguments for regulation, I do not accept the assertions that you may well read about from the Higher Education Reform Committee that this for profit model is a reasonable substitute for much of our current public system.

The conundrum we citizens of Virginia face as we wrestle with future budget challenges is how to reverse the trends of the prior ten years in the face of economic and political interests that are satisfied with the current direction. This conundrum, among others, surely prevents me from supporting any proposal that cuts the Commonwealth revenue base by $47 million as, just for an example, the current proposal to privatize the ABC stores. The “saved” $47 million, I’m sure, can be stretched into a smart investment in public education.


Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected].