Newly appointed state Secretary of Education Anne Holton met with Fairfax County school leaders Wednesday to discuss the direction of education in Virginia.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) appointed Holton to the position after taking office in January.
Yet while the conversation touched on school reform initiatives on McAuliffe’s agenda, county schools Superintendent Karen Garza and Fairfax County School Board members took the opportunity to hammer home for Holton the challenges and constraints facing the Fairfax school system.
School Board Chairman Ilryong Moon urged the county’s Board of Supervisors to provide more funding to the school system to kick off a budget hearing Tuesday night. The cloud of the budget deliberations still hung over local school officials the next morning as they spoke with Holton.
The county government’s proposed budget includes a 2 percent increase in local tax dollars for schools, but that still would be $64 million short of what Garza requested in the school budget.
While the school system expects to receive about a $30 million increase in state aid that could help close that gap, several School Board members said they felt slighted by the state when it comes to meting out money for education.
School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully) said though Fairfax County is considered “the land of golden opportunity,” that is no longer the reality of the state’s largest school district.
“We have schools that are reaching tipping points in poverty,” Smith said. “The state has really been underfunding public education for years, and we’re just not going to continue to be able to survive on past successes.”
Serving one of the wealthiest counties in the state, and indeed the country, the Fairfax County school system struggles with a public perception that does not match the population it serves, according to School Board vice chairwoman Tammy Derenak Kaufax (Lee).
The number of students in Fairfax County public schools eligible for free and reduced-price meals, an accepted metric of poverty, jumped by 33 percent in the last five years. Yet Fairfax County receives $1,855 per student in state aid compared to the state average of $3,420 per student.
Holton has firsthand experience in Fairfax County schools as a graduate of Langley High School. She also has experience serving what she called “children on the margins” as a judge on the city of Richmond’s juvenile and domestic relations court. She served in that position from 1998 until her husband, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D), was elected Virginia governor in 2005.
Yet Holton still expressed surprise at the level of poverty present in some areas of Fairfax County.
Kaufax noted that in Lee District, which she represents, 20 of 32 schools have poverty rates of 40 percent or higher. Two schools, Hybla Valley Elementary and Lynbrook Elementary, had at least 85 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
“You have schools in your district with 85 percent free and reduced lunch?” Holton asked. “Wow.”
Still, Holton kept her focus on local districts like Fairfax County working with McAuliffe’s administration to increase the share of state funding going toward education overall rather than delving into local spitting matches over state dollars.
“I do think there are a lot of challenges in considering the budget, but the biggest challenge is the size of the pie,” Holton said. “Governor McAuliffe is a very strong proponent of reinvesting in public education in Virginia.”