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Editorial: Why Fairfax County Del. Mark Sickles' comment about Lee County is so offensive

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This particular problem has since been fixed but the image remains symbolic of what many older Virginia schools still face. In December 2017, fourth-graders in a science class at Flatwoods Elementary in Lee County set out buckets and trash cans to collect water from a leak in the roof. As Republicans realign, will we see rural Republicans who abandon their anti-tax philosophy to demand that affluent Northern Virginians pay more for schools?

During a recent General Assembly debate over school funding that pitted the “haves” against the “have-nots,”, Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax and one of the “haves,” singled out a county in Southwest Virginia for special criticism.

He said that Lee County gets more money, per student, than any other school system in the state. “I don’t know why they can’t make better use of it. I don’t see why people can’t take initiative, even in rural and small town Virginia, to solve their own problems.”

This is an outrageous and insulting statement on many levels.

Factually speaking, Sickles is off by one county, but let’s not quibble too much over that. The Virginia Department of Education’s latest report shows that Lee gets $7,213 in state aid for each student, while Scott County gets $7,313 — in contrast to the $2,612 per student in Fairfax. Still, Sickles’ point is well understood: He’s saying the state sends a lot of money to rural Virginia, so why do rural schools keep harping on disparities?

Let’s look at the rest of the story. State funding is based on a complicated formula that is driven, in part, by poverty figures. Broadly speaking, the state gives more to poor localities, less to more affluent ones that can afford to spend their own money. In most rural localities, the state pays for most school expenses, topping out at 65% in Scott County. In more affluent suburban communities, the state pays only a minority of the expenses, with Arlington being the lowest at 8%.

Here’s how that works out. In Lee County, state funding accounts for 60% of the school budget. By the time you add in local and federal funding, Lee County spends $11,965 per student. By contrast, Fairfax spends $16,099 — 34.5% more — because Fairfax taxpayers foot most of the bill. That’s not even the widest spending gap. Tazewell County students get the least spent on them — $9,616 per student — while Arlington students get $20,699 spent on them, more than twice as much. (Highland County actually comes in a bit higher, but it’s so small that the statistics get wonky.)

Now, we all know that spending alone doesn’t necessarily buy better classroom instruction but it can buy some things — better facilities and more up-to-date technology, for instance. And that’s why Sickles’ comment is so offensive. He represents some of the most affluent voters in the state. Northern Virginia students have state-of-the-art educational palaces. In many parts of rural Virginia, schools are literally duct-taped together.

When Sickles says that Lee — and by implication, other rural schools — should “solve their own problems,” what he’s really saying is that they should tax themselves to pay for their schools the way Northern Virginia localities do. He’s not the first Northern Virginia legislator to suggest that. They look at the tax rates. In Fairfax County, the property tax rate is $1.15 per $100 of assessed value. In Lee County, it’s just under 62 cents per $100 of assessed value, a little more than half the Fairfax rate. Here’s what Sickles isn’t taking into account: The median household income in Fairfax is $124,831, nearly four times the $32,888 in Lee County. If Fairfax is nearly four times richer than Lee, but has a tax rate that’s not quite double, we can conclude either of two things — either Fairfax is undertaxed or Lee is overtaxed. Furthermore, 27% of Lee’s population is below the federal poverty line, just 6% of Fairfax is. For a Northern Virginia legislator to suggest that Lee raise its taxes is the arrogance of the rich. When did Democrats suddenly become in favor of taxing the poor?

Yes, Sickles is right, the state spends a lot of money on Lee County students — and it’s still not enough. Three years ago, we documented how students and teachers in two Lee County schools had to set out trash cans whenever it rained — because rainwater was leaking into the classroom. Those leaks have since been repaired, but that’s $700,000 that could have been spent on instruction. At another Lee County school, the walls had literally separated from the foundation. Lee County, and other rural localities, have challenges that suburban legislators either cannot comprehend — or don’t want to comprehend.

We’ve cited all these examples before but we’ll cite them again: In Loudoun County, even kindergartners in WiFi-equipped classrooms are learning computer coding. Lee County is trying to teach cybersecurity in high school, but in buildings that sometimes can’t handle the electrical load. Northern Virginia has the power; Lee County has power strips — that sometimes short out. How does Sickles expect one of the poorest counties in the state — in the country even — to fix that on its own? That’s not a reasonable expectation. We won’t even begin to list all the classes that schools in his district can offer that rural schools can only dream of because the list is far too long. Yes, there are ways for students to access some — but not all — of those subjects virtually. On the other hand, there are many students in rural Virginia who have no internet access at all — sometimes close to half. Or more. Prince Edward County estimates that 63% of its students don’t have internet access. Sickles probably doesn’t have many parents in his district who have to drive their kids to sit outside local libraries at night just so they can access the Wi-Fi to complete their homework.

This example doesn’t involve academics, but does involve other school activities. Each high school in Arlington has a multi-pool aquatic center. In Radford, sports teams don’t even have access to showers in the main gym locker rooms; the showers have been closed for years due to age. Neither the gym nor the cafeteria have air conditioning. Radford’s not alone; it’s not unusual for some rural schools to let out early on some days because the temperatures are simply too hot. We suspect every student in Sickles’ district gets to go to school in a fully air-conditioned building. Yet his solution is to tell some of the poorest communities in the state to tax themselves more?

Historically, Democrats have claimed to represent the interest of lower-income voters. In Virginia, they now represent the most affluent voters in the state and seem unable to recognize how privileged they are. We invite Sickles — and other Northern Virginia legislators — to come take a look at schools in rural Virginia to find out.


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