HomeWhat the Mayor Gets Wrong About Our School System.

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1.18.18. At the End of the Day -- An Antonym OP-ED
What the Mayor Gets Wrong About Our School System.

Last month, Veer Magazine published a year in review discussion with Mayor Kenny Alexander detailing his thinking on a wide range of topics -- but it was an ill-conceived branding exercise centered around a purported new city logo that drew the most thunder and noise. Later, as the idea was withdrawn, he expressed that he wasn't really a branding expert and that the issue had gotten away from him.

It's refreshing and laudable when a public official is willing to admit that they aren't the best at everything. That said? The shiny, low hanging fruit of a bad design has obscured some points of concern over what he laid out in the conversation. Here's where I think his honor gets it wrong:

The School Board isn't why our students are struggling. We are not adequately funding education.

The hows and whys behind failing school systems are certainly debatable. It's a complex system with many moving parts. But when you look at neighboring cities with better outcomes and how they're spending money in classrooms? It's hard not to notice the disparity. Depending on which reports you look at, the ratio of spending per student widely varied in 2016 to 2017 throughout Hampton Roads.

Education Budget Enrolled Students Per Student Spending Graduation Rate Median Income
Va Beach 822m 69,085 $11898.38 91.9% $67,001
Norfolk 327m 31,425 $10405.72 81.3% $44,150
Chesapeake 422m 40,192 $10499.60 92.7% $70,176
Portsmouth 192m 14,611 $13140.78 86.6% $46,239
Income date:

Some of these exact numbers may be off -- in my research I found differing statements as to the figures, but I believe they're accurate enough to serve the discussion here. When you look at this table what's immediately apparent is that higher median incomes result in better outcomes when it comes to school performance. Of course, it's more complicated than just that -- but higher family incomes ameliorate many of the contributing factors that cause students to struggle. Consider Mayor Alexander's statement in the above mentioned interview: "You can have a school board to propose a budget of $500 million. They can pass a budget. They have no taxation authority to generate it. Then they could say, “Norfolk City Council did not fund public education,” and some people would believe it. We need to start talking about expectations and goals. $329 million is a lot of money for failing schools. We really need to have an honest conversation."

Okay. Let's have that conversation. No, $329 million is not a lot of money for failing schools. It seems like it's exactly what you spend in a city with our demographics if you want failing schools.

If we were to bring Norfolk's total school budget in line with Virginia Beach's by adjusting per capita student spending? We'd be spending about 47 million dollars more a year. Now, if I recall correctly, the Board asked for about 382 million in the last fight with the Council over spending. Looking at this table? That's not an outrageous request. In fact, it can be argued that wasn't even close to the mark we need to hit to turn things around. Merely comparing per-capita spending city to city ignores how the economy of scale affects purchasing power. Virginia Beach is able to do quite a bit more with their money.

And the story this table doesn't tell is how living in households that fall far below the median income affects a student's ability to achieve. In Norfolk, almost thirty-four percent of those households make less than $30K. Twenty-two percent make less than $20K. Compare that to Virginia Beach, where only 10% of its median incomes are below that line. The truth is, our kids' homes look more like those in Portsmouth than Virginia Beach. And if we were to compare our per-capita spending on students with Portsmouth? We're underfunded more to the tune of around 85 million dollars. And it's not even like Portsmouth is spending enough on their schools, either -- given the ratios we're looking at insofar as incomes vs performance.

Suddenly, that $500 million dollar budget doesn't sound so insane. But instead of offering paths as to how we're going to make up that shortfall? All I see him talking about here is how the Board isn't accountable. And further on? Something that seems to indicate that we need new buildings for City Hall.

It seems to me that if we want to improve the tax base? If we want to get those kids generating higher levels of a tax base when they leave school? Spending enough on our children to ensure that they're getting a top notch education is the right way to play ball.

Whatever the answer? Look.. I like Mayor Alexander. I think he's a smart, decent man doing a tough job. But if he tries to build a new city center instead of drastically increasing our school budget to bring us to a more competitive level with our surrounding cities? It's not going to go well for him. Norfolk is in an education crisis. We need to stop acting like anything is more important than solving that issue, because solving that issue will long term solve the rest of our problems. It's not sexy. I get it. It's not a towering city hall with fancy new elevators.

But it's what we need. And since improving education was a major platform of his campaign?

I'm pretty damn sure it's what we voted for.

Editorial and Photo by Jeff Hewitt.