Eating the seed corn

Over the past few months, on behalf of this newspaper, I’ve had a chance to sit in on a couple of work sessions of the School Board, as well as interviewing two newly-elected members of that body.  In the months to come, I hope to do a good deal more in this line.

What school boards do - and especially, budgetary matters - have never been part of my life before.  Of course, having taught in three very different public high schools - and served as Assistant Principal of another - I know my way around the front lines of public education.  And, while I never wrote my dissertation, I took all the classes for a Ph. D. in Educational Leadership at UVA, so I know the theory.

But until I started following the budget process at School Board meetings, I never knew just how badly our  schools are being underfunded - in the places that count.
Now, please note the final qualifier in the previous sentence.  As with all levels of government, our schools certainly waste a good deal of money.  But unlike other levels of government, they don’t have a lot of choice in the matter.  And most of the waste is imposed from above, while many necessary parts of the schools’ task are starved for funds.  

The simple fact is that local school divisions - and the School Boards which supervise them - have for decades been caught between the Scylla of declining revenues and the Charybdis of Federal and state mandates.  They are constantly commanded to do more - much of it having little to do with their central mission - but these mandates from on high are seldom accompanied by additional funds.

Meanwhile, after decades of government by politicians who would rather cut taxes than solve problems, the schools have less money - on a per pupil basis - every year.  
Given these realities, it’s little wonder that our schools seem to be in decline.   They are in decline - and the trend seems irreversible.  After several decades in which Americans’ real wealth has not increased - in real dollars - we are entering an era in which our real wealth is actually decreasing.  Because of that, Americans are less willing than ever to send more taxes to the various levels of government.

At least, in the case of our schools - declining public investment makes them ever less competitive with schools in Germany, France, China, Singapore, India, Brazil, Germany and Canada, among other nations.  As our schools grow less competitive, America will continue to grow poorer, as a nation, compared with other nations which invest more generously - and more thoughtfully - in the education of their young.

Part  of the problem - the simpler part - is to recognize that better schools will mean spending more money.  In Chesterfield County, the percentage of local tax dollars devoted to education has declined sharply in the past four years.  It’s starting to show.

Chesterfield’s growth and economic development have been, for decades, driven by our perceived superiority in public schools.  Lately, however, those who follow the trends will tell you that Chesterfield is no longer Number One in the region.  Hanover’s schools are better.  Goochland’s are coming on strong.  If the current Board of Supervisors continues to hold the line on taxes, while continuing recent cuts in educational spending, the effects will soon be felt on housing values and new economic development.

Once that spiral begins, it becomes almost impossible for a large county to pull out.  When the schools are perceived as mediocre, housing values decline - and thus, the tax base suffers.  Thus begins a vicious cycle.

For Chesterfield, this will mean that residential development will shift north and west - as retail and entertainment have already shifted.  Chesterfield will become a declining bedroom community for families who can’t afford to live where the  good schools are.

There is nowhere to go but down.

Of course, revenues are only half the battle.  The other half has to do with wasteful spending - and the  difficulty there is that most of the waste is mandated.  Various levels of government require local schools to provide various programs - usually for political reasons, having little to do with local conditions and nothing whatsoever to do with the education of young Americans.

As voters entering a new election cycle - with a President and Congress to choose this fall, and a Governor and House of Delegates to choose next year - Chesterfield residents should remember to ask tough questions about what mandates they are willing to eliminate - and which they are willing to fund.

A good place to start would be the elimination of the SOLs.

Later, we will have to address the matter of electing County leaders willing to pay for quality schools - even at the price of higher taxes.

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