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Fact-Checker: How Much Does Virginia Spend on Classrooms?

Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell says Virginia needs to pony up and increase the amount it spends in public school classrooms, arguing that administrative offices get far too much funding. Many Virginia schools say they spend enough -- 65 percent or more -- on teaching. Who's right?

The quick answer: It depends on whom you ask. The federal government says Virginia spends 61 percent on classroom instruction; Virginia school officials say they spend closer to 65 percent. The difference comes down to a narrow interpretation of whether things like libraries and guidance counselors constitute classroom instruction.

Earlier this month, McDonnell, a former state delegate and Virginia attorney general, and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who is running for re-election, unveiled the fourth part of their state education policy proposal -- a plan to boost classroom coffers by $480 million by upping the required funding amount for school instruction to 65 percent of all operating budgets.

The extra money for classrooms would largely be taken from administrative budgets over four years. The result: $12 million in extra instruction money for Alexandria, $89 million for schools in Fairfax County and, as McDonnell put it, a boost to Virginia teachers' salaries, which ranks near the middle in average salaries and near the bottom in student-teacher ratios, according to statistics released last year by the Washington-based National Education Association.

"Children learn in the classroom, not the central office," McDonnell said. "That's where we must invest our education dollars. This is a bold proposal that will benefit Virginia's teachers, students and parents."

McDonnell did note that 16 Virginia school districts already spent 65 percent or more on clasroom teaching. (Much of the education plan went unnoticed as McDonnell and Bolling outlined the proposal at a press conference at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School amid the frenzy over McDonnell's 20-year-old thesis.)

The McDonnell campaign said it relied on the "latest spending numbers" to examine classroom spending in Virginia, federal instruction expenses from fiscal year 2007. (According to those same figures, public elementary and secondary schools nationwide spent nearly 61 percent of their budgets on instruction in fiscal year 2007; Virginia came in at 61.2 percent.)

Those numbers, McDonnell spokeswoman Crystal Cameron says, "more accurately reflect what we should be spending in the classroom."

"While we agree that schools should be funded appropriately, we're talking about what absolutely needs to be funded, learning inside the classroom," Cameron said.

But the latest spending numbers from the state, in the form of the superintendent's annual report for fiscal year 2008, shows the state spent 64.8 percent of its budget on instruction. The difference is a somewhat technical disagreement over what constitutes classroom expenses.

For example, federal guidelines say teacher training, library and media services and guidance and social work counselors are "outside the classroom." Virginia includes those services in its classroom funding totals.

The difference illustrates the major sticking point over the so-called "65 Percent Solution," an often-debated argument between politicians and public education funding advocates. The Richmond-based Virginia Education Association has attacked the 65 percent plan, calling it a "one-size-fits-all" proposition that has failed in other states, including Texas and Georgia.

"The classroom does not exist in isolation," said Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association. "Students need a full-bodied educational climate. They need the culture and benefits of the entire school building." The Virginia Education Association has endorsed McDonnell's Democratic opponent, Creigh Deeds.

For his part, Deeds's campaign says it is focused on its own education proposals, including a statewide scholarship program for B-average students who pledge two years to public service.

"Creigh supports putting more dollars into the classroom and knows that, in order to succeed, schools need more resources and support," said Mike Gehrke, a Deeds campaign spokesman.

By Derek Kravitz  |  September 27, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race Fact Checker , Derek Kravitz  
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Next: McDonnell Appears on FOX News Sunday

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