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October 9, 2014

Losing Ticket

Virginia lawmakers did not protect K-12 education in the budget agreement passed back in September, despite the budget writers’ assertions.

In fact, they cut general funds for K-12 education by more than $43 million this school year, while bandaging that wound with $15 million from the state’s Literary Fund and $28 million from the Virginia Lottery.

While this may look like a dollar-for-dollar trade, it isn’t. Only rarely can lottery profits and the money in the Literary Fund be spent on anything but education. They’re dedicated funds, and that’s spelled out in Virginia’s constitution. Lawmakers have little choice on where that money gets spent. In other words, that money would have gone to education anyway, so schools are still $43 million poorer.

But lawmakers did have a choice about how they use the general fund, and they chose to reduce how much goes to education. That’s a cut.

It’s like scratching a winning ticket and then being told that the amount of your winnings will be deducted from your other income. But, hey, congratulations. You won!

The situation is particularly bad when combined with the $30 million in annual cuts it inflicted on localities, which spend more than half of their budgets on schools.

Sadly, this switcheroo is nothing new. Budget writers regularly raid the Literary Fund to help offset reductions in general fund support for teachers’ retirement. It’s perfectly legal, but still just disguises a cut in state general funds devoted to our schools.

Voters were told that the state lottery would boost funding for K-12 education when they approved its creation in 1987, but year after year those profits have been used to mask reductions in other state education funding. And that does nothing to help our schools.

By June 2015, state aid per K-12 student will have dropped 17 percent from 2009 levels, partially as a result of budget gimmicks like this.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A more balanced approach to budgeting that includes new forms of revenue could go a long way toward helping our schools and avoiding some of the state’s perennial budget woes.

But as long as lawmakers rely on this cut-and-switch approach to make ends meet, they are gambling with our schools, our children’s futures, and our economy. Instead, lawmakers should focus on real ways to stop the cuts for our students. That would be a winning ticket.

 –Mitchell Cole, Research Assistant

The Commonwealth Institute

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