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The K-12 Connection and Governor McDonnell’s Budget

By Neal Modi | December 20, 2011 | No Comments

This past month, Governor Bob McDonnell unveiled his two-year, $84.9 billion spending plan, which would increase the budgets for transportation, higher education and the state’s pension system.[i] To say the least, this new budget plan — the largest spending plan in Virginia’s history — has garnered much media and public attention, largely through McDonnell’s pledged reinvestment in higher education. At a December 14th press conference surrounded by state university presidents and administration, McDonnell said that its time to “reverse a pattern of disinvestment or erratic investment” in higher education, which has led to tuition hikes of 10% for over the past decade.[ii]

As laudable as this commitment is, the budget also shortchanges K-12 education — and therefore misses the boat on the true story of education, reform, and innovation in Virginia.

But let’s begin by giving Governor McDonnell credit.  He is right to emphasize our colleges and universities. Our state’s higher education system, while one of the best in the nation, has faced major budgetary constraints and has seen state funding decrease annually. Not only have tuition prices skyrocketed as a result, but our research funding has faced hurdles as well. Most unfortunate, the financial aid packages that assist families to pay for college have taken a hit too.

Yet, McDonnell’s renewed focus on higher education by expanding enrollment would make it easier to pay for college, would invest in groundbreaking research projects, and most of all, would incentivize students to enter STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, math and healthcare fields).  Altogether, these initiatives hope to create a large, diverse pool of talented and employable graduates ready to ensure a healthy and robust economic future.[iii]

Yet, while these initiatives are laudable, upon closer review, McDonnell’s higher education plan contains shortcomings that should give all Virginians pause. In particular, the governor would take money away from K-12 education. This cannot bode well for the Commonwealth.

McDonnell’s budget plan would defund and de-emphasize the K-12 system. While he proposes a total increase of $438 million for K-12 education, only 22% of that money will go to the classroom. The remaining will be deposited into the teacher retirement system.[v] The budget also would cut former Governor Tim Kaine’s pre-K initiative by $81 million (see this recent NDP post on this subject) as well as striking out adjustments for non-teaching expenses such as administration salaries and utility bills.[iv]

Put simply, overlooking K-12 education is harmful to Virginia’s higher education system. Our state public colleges and universities excel not only because of the resources they receive from the state but from the students of Virginia who attend those institutions.  Their schooling is the work engine of our colleges.

At the same time, while the governor wishes to expand STEM-H fields at our universities, simultaneously burdening local school districts by cutting their funds will do little to foster excitement and initiative among students to enter these fields once in college.

There are many great ideas and programs that the governor’s budget puts at risk.  If students don’t have access to advanced placement science courses or new technologies or extra-curricular activities that stimulate activity in STEM fields, what good is it to establish large STEM centers at our universities? Will students, who still have the choice to pursue whichever degrees they desire, choose these majors?

Similarly, university-high school partnerships can spread information and interest in STEM-H fields.  Granting funds to establish math and science magnet schools across the state, like Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County or Virginia Beach’s Ocean Lakes High School for Math and Science are wonderful ways to jump-start not only our K-12 programs but also the new direction of our state universities.

But these efforts are not prioritized in this budget.  The governor’s plan thus fails to acknowledge that our state’s universities depend and flourish in conjunction with our K-12 system.

It’s good that Governor McDonnell realizes our colleges are universities are innovation engines and that funding them is mandatory for future economic growth.  But he needs to also recognize that investing in K-12 education is just as important. Stimulating innovation should not begin in college. It should begin in our state’s kindergartens, middle schools, and high schools.







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