Schools' low performance does not justify higher taxes
Schools' low performance does not justify higher taxes
April 3, 2006
By Arthur G. Purves
President, Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Board:
For the sixth year in a row, you are poised to raise homeowner real estate taxes by ten percent or more.
You will have doubled the typical homeowner’s real estate tax in seven years, from about $2500 to $5000.
Yes, real estate has appreciated. But to realize that increase, we would have to sell or mortgage our homes.
The real estate tax rate that would offset this year’s average increase in assessments is 83.5 cents.
You have proposed a rate of 93 cents, for an 11 percent tax increase above the 83 cent rate. This increases your revenues by about $200 million.
We respectfully request that you set the rate at 83 cents instead 93 cents, which would keep the budget at $3.1 billion.
Let us consider now consider Fairfax County Public Schools, which will spend half of that $3 billion.
The Fairfax County Public Schools budget over the past three decades has been increasing nine times faster than enrollment. That is after adjusting for inflation. School staff has been increasing four times faster than enrollment, again over three decades.
The school superintendent states that this is the price of excellence, and as evidence cites last year’s record-high SAT score.
However the school system is not publicizing that the percent of seniors taking the SAT has decreased from 89 percent in 1997 to 79 percent two years ago. Last year Fairfax County Public Schools was the only suburban Washington DC school system to not publish the percent of seniors taking the SAT. Is the school system trying to cover up a further decrease in SAT participation?
Fairfax County Public Schools boasts that nearly 90 percent of its graduates go on to either two-year or four-year colleges. However, the school system provides no estimate of what percentage will eventually earn four-year college degrees. This is an issue because of the high rate of attrition among college freshmen.
Based on numbers available from the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, the Taxpayers Alliance estimates that while 90 percent of graduates may go on to college, only about 60 percent will earn four-year degrees.
Coincidentally, nearly sixty percent of Fairfax County adults have four-year college degrees. Are the school system’s successes due to soaring funding or due to favorable demographics?
Fairfax County Public Schools says it is the Education Empire, the best school district in the nation. But is it the best in Virginia?
Schoolmatters.com, a website sponsored by Standard & Poors and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done a statistical analysis to identify the top school districts in each state. The analysis considers test scores and demographics. For Virginia, Standard and Poors identified 16 top or "outperforming" school districts. Fairfax County was not one of them.
According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, about 65 percent of Virginia students achieve below grade level. (Nationally, 70 percent of students achieve below grade level.)
It turns out that last year the average SAT score Fairfax County seniors was at the 65th percentile. This suggests that half of our seniors are below the 65th percentile and therefore achieve below grade level.
For three decades school staff has been growing four times faster than enrollment and the school budget has been increasing ten times faster than enrollment. If money could fix public schools, they would have been fixed by now.
They’re not fixed.
The SAT achievement gap between Whites and Asians on the one hand and Hispanics and Blacks on the other hand has increased.
The school system reports that nearly 100 percent of second graders read at grade level. The Taxpayers Alliance has asked what percentage of seniors read at grade level. We have received no answer.
We question the effectiveness of the Learning Disabilities (LD) program, which layers an expensive bureaucratic IEP (Individualized Education Plan) process over an ineffective curriculum. We are concerned that many children get the LD label not because they are disabled but because they have not had phonics-based reading instruction.
Our question is what percentage of LD children are successfully remediated. Stated differently, what percentage of LD children test out of the LD program before graduation? Again, we have received no answer. The LD program keeps children in the same curriculum that did not teach them in the first place.
A few years ago, the School Board hired a consultant to evaluate Special Education Centers. The consultant found that even though Special Education Centers had one adult instructor for every three students, in 59 of 62 cases Special Education students scored below the school system average on state tests. The report stated, "many students with emotional disorders are very bright and have great academic potential." This was experience of the well-known Chicago teacher, Marva Collins, whose phonics-based curriculum with intensive drill did succeed with emotionally disturbed children.
Between last year and this, Fairfax County Public Schools enrollment increased by 300 students.
Amazingly, to teach 300 more students, the school system hired 250 more full-time staff.
We are usually told that more staff is needed even during flat enrollment due to increasing numbers of low-income children, Special Education children, and immigrant children needing English instruction.
However, between last year and this, according to the School Superintendent’s own budget, Special Education enrollment increased by only 250 students, and the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals decreased by 1000. The number of immigrant children requiring English-for-Speakers-of-Other-Languages (ESOL) instruction, did increase by six percent, or 1200 students.
According to last year’s proposed Program Budget, the schools were going to hire 20 more ESOL teachers.
According to this year’s Program Budget, the system actually hired two more ESOL teachers.
Of the 250 new hires, 100 were technical specialists and 40 were Instructional Support Teachers. The number of classroom teachers was unchanged. The number of instructional assistants increased by 48. The number of office personnel increased by 24.
Regarding salaries and benefits, it is difficult for County and school employees to afford to live in Fairfax County. It is also difficult for many non-County and non-School employees to afford to live in Fairfax County.
The data we’ve seen suggests that County and school salary increases have been well above the private-sector average, which is generally inflation plus one percent. For a random example, a new teacher hired under a 203-day contract in 2003 would have had by next year average annual raises of over seven percent. The average private sector raise over the same period would have been four percent. Retirees on pensions would have seen less.
In addition, government employees are getting generous pensions, while the private sector is losing theirs.
Is it right to increase homeowner taxes by ten percent or more a year to fund government-employee salary increases that are forty percent higher than private sector salary increases, especially when homeowners may be at risk of losing their pension — if they have one?
It is claimed that teachers are fleeing to neighboring counties that offer higher salaries. However school surveys of teachers leaving the system turned up not one teacher who was going to a neighboring district for higher salaries.
While County salaries are apparently not increasing as fast as school salaries, they too seem to be increasing faster than private-sector salaries and benefits.
One way to determine if salaries are adequate is to compare the number of job openings with the applicants. We have asked the school system for those numbers but have not received an answer. However, a few years ago the school superintendent stated that the school system had had 13,000 applications for 1500 openings.
The County, which did answer our question, reports that each year the County averages about 60,000 applicants for 1000 job openings.
We find that the school system’s claims of academic excellence are not well-founded, and that the Supervisors need to keep public-sector salaries and benefits in line with private-sector salaries and benefits.
We therefore ask you to keep the real estate tax rate at $.83, which is the level that would offset this year’s average increase in assessments. We believe that doubling the real estate tax in seven years denotes a failure to adequately control County spending..
Updated April 5, 2006
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