Poised to begin my seventh year in the House of Delegates, I am optimistic for working Virginians. The Obama-McConnell-Ryan budget deal signed last year ends sequestration and will definitely boost the economy. One fact that we politicians in Richmond often ignore is that Virginia’s prosperity has been more attributable to spending decisions of the Federal Government – on wars and their aftermath, on defense acquisitions, on counter-terrorism, even on bureaucratic consolidation of sites within the Commonwealth– than on judicious governance by state politicians. Both parties cite their respective playbooks for Virginia’s 20-year track record of prosperity, but, as I’ve noted before, we prosper due to many factors outside the General Assembly’s control.
At the risk of antagonizing political allies and opponents alike, I think it is vital for Virginia’s political leadership to “get real” about the actual performance of the state government and the actual added value the Commonwealth delivers to its residents.
We in Virginia government have been laboring under the belief in Virginia exceptionalism. For example, we tout exceptional fiscal management: We have a triple-A bond rating! Yes, and so do 14 other states. The conservative-oriented, but, non-partisan, Mercatus Center at George Mason University ranks the fiscal condition of the 50 states. This year Virginia ranks 21st. Reviewing the components of this ranking is instructive. Virginia ranks 30th for cash solvency; 29th for budget solvency; 27th for long run solvency; and 15th for trust fund solvency. However, Virginia is fifth on a measure the Center calls “service level solvency.” This measure compares state revenues and spending to the total personal income of state residents. In effect, this measure defines what percentage of private income we spend on government services. Again, Virginia is fifth on this measure, after Nevada, South Dakota, Florida and New Hampshire, none of which even levies a personal income tax!
In effect, Virginia’s core fiscal policy is to balance budgets at the expense of Virginians who need government services. This is the prism through which Virginia makes decisions on K-12 education spending, on funding healthcare for low income residents, and on funding services for residents with mental and physical disabilities.
The publication Education Week rates Virginia 12th in the nation for the performance of K-12 public education, based on three indexes: 1) Chance for Success; 2) Student Achievement; and 3) State Financing. Again, understanding the components is key. Virginia is rated eighth on Chance for Success, because, compared to other states, Virginians are wealthier, more highly educated, have lower unemployment and a higher percentage of fluent English speakers. Virginia is rated seventh on Student Achievement, based on high test scores, but Virginia is 40th in the gap between overall achievement and achievement of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. Finally, Virginia is rated 18th in Financing, including 35th in per pupil spending and 30th in overall equity in spending on students from wealthy districts compared to students from poorer districts.
These education measures portray a clear picture of negligence in state-level funding of K-12 education. True, our students perform relatively well, on average, compared to the rest of the nation, however this outcome is clearly more attributable to demographic factors than state investment. More troubling is our failure to devote the resources to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity across socio-economic groups in the Commonwealth
Governor McAuliffe is preparing budget proposals to attack these shameful disparities. Clearly the Commonwealth can afford to spend far more on K-12 education. My General Assembly colleagues should simply do the right thing rather than what may be politically advantageous. Similarly, the state must join with Virginia’s healthcare providers to access an incremental $1 billion in Federal funding under the ACA through Medicaid expansion. Failure to enact these initiatives would be irresponsible and a betrayal of the Commonwealth’s best interests with serious future repercussions.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]