This morning, the Virginia Education Coalition, an alliance of the major education oriented groups and associations in the state, is scheduled to hold a press conference to address K-12 issues in the current House and Senate budgets.

The Education Coalition will present its views on a variety of budget issues, particularly those related to potential changes in the funding formula for schools, the treatment of special programs for at-risk children and the overall per-pupil funding in the proposals.

From what I hear, the VEC is likely to prefer the overall per pupil number in the House Budget, but support the Senate’s decision not to permanently change the funding formula and  to continue the requirement of a local match for at-risk students.

I have learned that the Education Coalition may also raise the larger question of whether it believes the current tax structure in the state is adequate to support the needs of public education.

In effect, the Coalition will be laying down a marker for the 2009 statewide races for all of the candidates. Are Virginia’s overall revenue policies adequate and the problems we’re seeing in school funding simply the result of an unprecedented and temporary downturn? Or do we need to rethink the revenue strategies of the state and how core services are funded?

The fact that the Coalition has brought together a network of education groups that are not always aligned leads me to think that the future of our schools will be a key issue in the 2009 campaign.

Public opinion polls still indicate that K-12 education is a huge concern for citizens. Even in a time of widespread economic uncertainty, no candidate for Governor or Lieutenant will want to be caught without a genuine plan for maintaining and enhancing the quality of our schools. 

One final word on this matter. Much of the statewide discussion about school quality for the last fifteen years has focused on SOL scores and how to ensure that all school systems are meeting a minimal level of accomplishment. The dialogue has been an extended footnote, one might say, to George Allen’s signature reform.

In the past three or four years, we are beginning to see the kernel of an expanded discussion that focuses on matters such as graduation rates, how we can move from competence to excellence and how we can ensure that kids who are not going on to four year institutions can have worthwhile economic and career opportunities.

At the moment, no candidate in the 2009 race truly “owns” the education issue.  It’s an opportunity waiting to be grasped.

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