A crowd of more than 200 people chanted, “Senate stand firm!” as the last speaker stepped off the podium and into the swarm of Virginia Education Association members and supporters at a Capitol Square rally this week.
The rally, which took place Monday at the Bell Tower on the Capitol grounds, focused on funding for public education in kindergarten through high school. Educators bemoaned budget cuts that public schools have experienced in recent years and said the trend must be reversed.
Ten speakers at the rally urged support for the Senate’s version of the 2012 state budget – instead of the House’s version. The Senate plan would increase funding for public schools. The advocates included the presidents of the Virginia NAACP, the Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents.
“We expect education to be the top priority of our legislature and make sure that education gets a fair share,” said Marie Harris-Jones, a Petersburg resident representing two nonprofit groups – JustChildren and the Alliance for Virginia’s Students. “Our children and the long-term health of our community are depending on it.”
At the rally, speakers said budget cuts already have damaged public education in Virginia:
More than 4,400 positions have been eliminated in the state’s public schools during the past two years.
Class sizes have increased, reducing the attention each student can receive from the teacher.
School divisions have been forced to cut programs, eliminate electives and increase student fees.
Instructional supplies and equipment funding have been cut.
Per pupil funding has decreased from $5,300 in 2008-09 to $4,500 in 2011-12, a reduction of 15 percent.
Speakers said it’s time to undo the damage, not make it worse.
“You can’t have a good community if you can’t have good schools,” said Edwin Daley, vice president of the Virginia Municipal League.
The General Assembly is amending the state’s budget for the 2012 fiscal year. Gov. Bob McDonnell has requested $5.5 billion for K-12 education. The Senate’s amendments would provide additional funding of more than $100 million for public schools.
In contrast, the budget amendments approved by the House of Delegates would provide about $93 million less than the governor’s proposal. A committee of senators and delegates is negotiating on a final budget.
Besides school funding, speakers turned the crowd’s attention to House Bill 2314 sponsored by Delegate James P. “Jimmie” Massie III, R-Henrico.
The bill would establish a tax credit for corporations that donate to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to low-income students to attend nonpublic elementary and secondary schools.
The VEA and its supporters oppose the bill because they say it would benefit private schools and undermine public schools. VEA President Kitty Boitnott said the state-assisted scholarships in effect would be vouchers for students to attend private schools.
“When did we last have school vouchers in Virginia?” Boitnott asked.
She said that Rev. J. Rayfield Vines Jr., president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP could tell us: “in the era of Massive Resistance, when many public schools were closed rather than letting children of color into the classrooms of Virginia. Now the House wants a voucher rebirth in Virginia.”
Boitnott called HB 2314 “a school voucher bill in the guise of tuition tax credits, and our governor supports it.”
McDonnell has said that scholarships supported by tax credits would help provide more opportunities for low-income students.
“This tax credit will open the door to new educational opportunities for more of our young people. By incentivizing business leaders to donate to organizations that provide scholarships, we will help our children gain access to new educational opportunities with no cost to the state,” the governor said last month in laying out his education agenda. “Education is opportunity, and every student deserves the opportunity of the very best education we can give them.”
Massie agreed, saying, “Too often students aren’t able to reach their full potential because the school they attend is not the best fit and their families can’t afford to send them to a nonpublic school. By providing this tax incentive for employers, we will be able to provide school options for students and their parents, in order for them to get the education they deserve at no cost to the state.”