State juggles ed and prison spending

The state will need to build one new prison each year for the next six years at a cost of $100 million for each new facility, according to a November report [pdf] on adult corrections released by Virginia’s Senate Finance Committee. Add to construction costs the $25 million it takes to operate each facility each year, and you’re left with a huge pile of money—funds that Charlottesville’s JustChildren Program argues would be better spent on education.

Angela Ciolfi, staff attorney for JustChildren, says that Kaine’s budget makes "headway" but that the education funding is, at best, maintenance.

Angela Ciolfi, a staff attorney for JustChildren, points out that one in 44 Virginians are in jail, prison or some other sort of state supervision. "We’ve got to start investing earlier," she says.

In the midst of the budget crunch, Governor Tim Kaine announced his two-year budget. And while Ciolfi says that the state isn’t making enough progress on teachers’ salaries—Virginia is currently ranked 31st in the nation—she says, "In a time of limited fiscal capacity, it’s definitely a strong budget for students."

As the state moves into the 2008 legislative year, JustChildren had three priorities for the biannual budget: full re-benchmarking for state education funding, preservation of funding for at-risk students and the expansion of the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI). Ciolfi says that Kaine’s budget makes "headway" on all three priorities and calls the VPI expansion "smart and cautious," but says that the education funding is, at best, maintenance.

"Re-benchmarking is basically paying for the same goods and services that are provided by schools, and have been provided by schools, with today’s dollars," Ciolfi says. "It’s not adding any policy changes. The budget is pretty much the same as before with at-risk programs, so there’s no progress, but we’re at least not sacrificing that."

The new budget comes at a time when the number of state and local prisoners continues to grow. According to the Finance Committee’s report, in 2005 Virginia ranked 20th in the country in per capita spending on corrections. Ciolfi says spending more on education is a better investment than paying to house inmates.

"With all the research that says education is a strong preventive factor in keeping kids from falling off track, it’s kind of like [underfunding education] is going to cost Virginia more later if we don’t invest now," she says.

According to the Justice Policy Institute [pdf], a Washington, D.C. think tank, those states that have high levels of educational attainment also have lower crime rates than the national average.

"What we would like to see is for the state to figure out how much it actually costs to provide every child with a meaningful opportunity to pass the Standards of Learning test and graduate with their class, and then set the Standards of Quality at that level," Ciolfi says. "And that’s not what we do."

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