Statement - Board of Supervisors on the 1997 Legislative Program
My name is Arthur Purves. Tonight I address you as president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance.
On October 24, 1996, the Fairfax County School Board approved by an 7-4 vote their 1997 Legislative Program. This Legislative Program asks the Virginia General Assembly to authorize a county "piggy-back" income tax and an increase in the sales tax to raise more money for schools. It also asks that local school boards be given independent taxing authority.
The Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance opposes, and asks you to vote against, independent taxing authority for school boards and against new taxes for schools. Instead, we ask you to improve the school curriculum and accountability.
The school board's request for taxing authority and new taxes is not, as some would suggest, an attempt to merely make taxes more equitable and school boards more accountable; it is an attempt to raise taxes. The last two decades demonstrate that in Fairfax County, higher taxes do not produce better schools.
Some school board members have denied that they are attempting to raise taxes. However, last July, the school board's Financing Education for 2001 Task Force recommended in its interim report that a new county income tax be used to raise more revenue for the schools. The report suggested, for example, a $55 million tax increase accomplished by repealing the sales tax and replacing it with a 1% "piggy-back" income tax.
The school administration needs this tax increase to continue its current spending trends. In fact, recent school projections indicate that the system needs a $45 million hike each year for the next four years. This is in addition to the $50 million property tax hike incurred last year and which raised the average homeowner's tax bill by $128. If school spending continues unchecked, the average homeowner's tax bill could increase by $500 in four years.
However, the schools have already received substantial tax increases over last two decades. Since 1975, while inflation increased 200%, Fairfax County per-capita taxes increased 390% and Fairfax County per-student spending increased 450%.
The school administration claims that school funding has not kept up with enrollment and inflation. The fact is that since 1975, the operating budget has increased almost twice as fast as enrollment and inflation. In fact, if the school budget had increased no faster than enrollment and inflation, this year's budget would have been almost $500 million less.
To avoid reporting budget and tax increases, most of which occurred before 1991, school administrators only cite budget figures after 1991.
When forced to account for these increases, the school administration suggests that the $500 million went to Special Education and English As a Second Language programs. This is also false. ESL and Special Education account for about a quarter of the increase.
Since 1978 school administration has increased five times faster than enrollment. If administration had increased at the same rate as enrollment, the bureaucracy would have had 860 fewer persons and would have cost $50 million less per year.
The 860 extra administrative employees includes 88 assistant principals, 307 school-based clerical workers, 58 health awareness monitors, 211 technicians and technical analysts, 26 directors, and 89 coordinators.
Also the number of guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists has increased ten times faster than enrollment. If this group had grown at the same rate as enrollment, their numbers would have been 395 fewer, which would have saved another $25 million annually.
Two decades of tax increases have not made Fairfax County schools any better. Despite a 100% increase in counselors, psychologists, and social workers, student behavior is worse. Buildings are overcrowded and deteriorating. Standardized test scores are flat and SAT scores increased only 7%. The county's average SAT score of 1096 is only at the 65th percentile. The county's average score on college board achievement tests is only at the 50th percentile. On the county's own standardized math tests, sixth graders get only 70% of questions right, which by Fairfax County grading standards is a D+. There has been no improvement in the minority student achievement gap. One wonders if the small increase in SAT scores is due to SAT prep classes rather than higher standards in the classroom.
There are three reasons why higher taxes have not improved our schools: lack of vision, no standards, and no accountability.
When I served on the Fairfax Framework Advisory Committee, I suggested that the committee state that its vision should include raising standardized test scores. Instead, the Fairfax Framework report states:
The higher standards that the Framework supports will not, by themselves, raise student achievement, nor can the schools alone guarantee student success. The Framework recognizes and welcomes the critical roles of families and the community at large in the education process. (Fairfax Framework, p 5.)
The schools believe that they cannot raise academic achievement. In fact raising academic achievement is no longer the school administration's focus. This was best stated by principal of Oakton High School in Oakton's May, 1994, PTA newsletter. She wrote:
The institution known as "school" is no longer the place where American youth become educated but rather the place where American youth become socialized. Education is just one facet of socialization.
What is meant by socialization can be found in Fairfax County's federally subsidized Professional Technical Studies program. The May 2, 1996, Fairfax County Career and Technical Implementation Committee report identifies five "competencies" to be emphasized in grades K-12. They are: understanding self and others, exploring occupations, making decisions, acquiring work skills, and planning for life. Professional Technical Studies reports make no mention of academic competencies - reading, vocabulary, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, geography, history, or writing.
That Fairfax County Public Schools lacks standards was best stated by Fairfax County School Superintendent, Dr. Robert Spillane, in a June 2, 1993, article he wrote for Education Week:
It is education's dirty little secret. Whatever school administrators, teachers, and educational-policy experts have said over the past 30 years about the "high standards" we have for student achievement, the fact is that the standards we have had have been either too vague or too malleable to be meaningful. In most cases, we have been able to adjust the "standard" to suit whatever we have perceived as the "special" circumstances of each student. In an effort to "meet the needs" of every student, we have made the very concept of achievement standards meaningless for most students. -Dr. Robert R. Spillane, Student-Achievement Standards, Education Week, 6/2/93
Where there are no standards there is no accountability. Two years ago, the Fairfax County School Board asked the school administration evaluate the cost-effectiveness of all instructional programs. The result was last year's "Program Budget", a 600-page document that enumerated 87 programs but evaluated only one. The same is true of this year's program budget. There is no accountability at the state level either, since school accreditation does not consider test results. The reason is that school administrators believe that schools with minority students cannot be held to the same standards as affluent schools. Therefore, rather than have two standards, we have no standards.
Suppose, for example, that to be accredited a high school had to achieve at least the 50th percentile on both its verbal and math SAT scores. Under this criteria, Mount Vernon and Stuart High Schools would lose their accreditation. Because school administrators believe that they cannot raise achievement levels, they believe that they could never get these schools accredited.
The fact is that with a better curriculum and real accountability, we could raise student achievement at all schools, including Mount Vernon and Stuart to at least the 80th percentile on SATs.
What is needed is to use proven curricula do a better job of teaching basic skills, especially in elementary school. We need phonics-based reading instruction and in arithmetic we need to replace excessive reliance on hand calculators with more drill. Two such curricula are the Direct Instruction courses designed by Siegfried Engelmann at the University of Oregon and which have been tested extensively in the federally funded Project Follow Through. The courses are "Reading Mastery" and "Connecting Math Concepts", both of which are marketed by SRA/McGraw Hill. Other promising courses are Open Court reading and Saxon math.
In addition, schools should pilot E. D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum, which he has popularized in his series, What Your Kindergartner, 1st Grader, . . ., 6th Grader Needs to Know. There is increasing evidence that Dr. Hirsch's plan to teach geography, American history, and world history every year in elementary school, starting in kindergarten, dramatically increases student interest and achievement for all students. Currently, Fairfax County public schools does not use these curricula in the regular classroom.
In conclusion, the Taxpayers Alliance believes that schools have had enough tax increases. We now ask our legislators to stop raising taxes and start raising academic achievement.