Roanoke Municipal Building. Photo by Dwayne Yancey
The Roanoke Municipal Building. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

No Republican has been elected to the Roanoke City Council since 2000, but this year’s Republican slate is running the most spirited campaign the party has mounted in years. Of course, the bar is low: In 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2018 – four of the past seven elections – there were no Republican candidates for the council in that Democratic-dominated city.

Republicans are right in one respect: If you don’t like the direction of the region’s largest city, you really can blame Democrats. Whether you should or should not like that direction, well, that’s a matter of political taste. (See the story that Ralph Berrier Jr. wrote about Roanoke’s council elections.)

One of the issues that this year’s Republican ticket is running on is schools. Specifically, a recent mailing from a Republican-affiliated political action committee declared that Republicans will “demand better results from the Absurd amount of Money spent on Schools.”

This seems an odd political claim. I certainly get the “better results” part. Who can argue with wanting “better results”? It’s the “Absurd amount of Money spent on Schools” that catches my eye and not just for the capitalization. Last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin ran for governor declaring he would pass the best education budget in state history – and did. With inflation and whatnot, maybe that was an easy figure to achieve but the point is, Youngkin didn’t run on a platform of saying Virginia spends an “absurd” amount of money on schools; he vowed to spend even more. His winning rhetoric doesn’t seem to have filtered down to Roanoke Republicans.

So does Roanoke spend an “absurd” amount on schools? That, too, might be a matter of political taste but rather than throw around adjectives, let’s look at the actual numbers and see how they stack up. Conveniently, these numbers are easy to find – and what we find may be informative for other localities, too. So let’s go!

These numbers come from the Virginia Department of Education’s annual Superintendent’s Report (Table 15); the most recent one is for the 2020-21 school year so, yes, there is some lag time there.

For that year, Roanoke spent $194,636,506 or $14,210 per student. Of that, $71,229,118 came from city funds – or $5,244 per student. That means city taxpayers footed the bill for 36% of the school system; state and federal funding covered the rest.

That percentage varies from place to place, thanks to complicated funding formulas. Generally speaking, more affluent communities are expected to pick up more of the tab and more economically distressed ones less. In Buena Vista, local funding accounts for 10.5% of the school budget; in Arlington, local funding accounts for 78.5% of the school budget.

Those percentages are useful when it comes to talking about the state education budget, or the importance of federal funding – more of either disproportionately helps rural school systems. For our purposes today, let’s focus instead on the per-pupil spending line. Whether that money is locally generated, or comes from Richmond or Washington, I feel certain that the Republican council candidates would still say the city should be good stewards of those funds and make sure they produce results.

So let’s look at Roanoke’s $14,210 per-student spending. Is that an “absurd” amount? Ultimately that may be a matter of opinion – people’s definition of “absurd” varies – but we can, at least, see where it ranks.

On a statewide basis, it’s almost perfectly average. The state average is $14,206, so Roanoke is spending just $4 per student more than the state average. If Roanoke’s level of spending is “absurd,” then so is the state average. Those state figures range from a low of $11,139 per student in Tazewell County to a high of $21,530 in Arlington County, so Roanoke’s per-pupil spending is closer to the state’s poorest localities than it is the more affluent ones.

Everything costs more in Northern Virginia, though, so that may not be the best comparison. So what is?

Here’s the per-pupil spending in Roanoke’s nearest neighbors:

Roanoke: $14,210

Franklin County: $13,254

Botetourt County: $13,194

Roanoke County: $12,475

Salem: $12,390

Bedford County: $11,972

So, yes, Roanoke does spend more than its neighbors. Whether that is “absurd” remains a point of view, but this also may not be the best comparison. That list above includes both rural and suburban school systems. Roanoke is typically measured against other urban school systems, with whom it has more in common demographically and socioeconomically, so let’s do that. I do marvel, though, at how Bedford’s figure is so low. It seems the one most out of line with its neighbors. Anyway, onto the urban systems:

Danville: $15,462

Petersburg: $14,642

Martinsville: $14,534

Lynchburg: $14,267

Richmond: $14,403

Roanoke: $14,210

Portsmouth: $13,587

Norfolk: $13,416

Newport News: $13,280

Hampton: $12,664

You can take your pick of which localities are the most analogous to Roanoke, but, as a whole, Roanoke is right in the middle of the pack. Again, if Roanoke’s school spending is “absurd,” so are some of these others.

Just to be on the safe side, let’s look at these numbers a different way. Let’s look purely at the local spending – even though, as we’ve seen, that accounts for a minority of the school budget in Roanoke and most other places not called Northern Virginia. Still, that’s the figure a city council could change if it wanted to – higher or lower. Of note: Roanoke has avoided a lot of the messy school budgeting other localities go through by historically devoting 40% of net revenues to schools. I haven’t heard anyone suggest tinkering with that but if Roanoke’s school funding really is “absurd” (presumably absurdly high) that would be one way to do it – lower the percentage that goes to schools. (The other, of course, would be to keep the percentage the same but reduce the overall city budget).

Roanoke’s per-pupil local contribution in the latest superintendent’s report is $4,108. That’s well below the state average of $6,669, although that state average does get pulled up by localities in Northern Virginia. Arlington’s local contribution alone ($16,919) exceeds the total per-pupil spending in most places. The lowest figure in the state is in Lee County, which spends $1,023 per student in local funds.

So let’s walk through all those comparisons using just the local contribution.

Botetourt County: $5,768

Roanoke County: $5,244

Salem: $4,797

Franklin County: $4,793

Roanoke: $4,108

Bedford County: $3,953

Whoa. By that measure, Roanoke’s local contribution is less than all but one of its neighbors. I feel compelled to point out that the two localities that are highest on this list – Botetourt and Roanoke counties – have all-Republican boards of supervisors. If Roanoke truly spends an “absurd amount of money” on schools, it doesn’t seem to be a partisan thing because here are Republican boards spending even more.

Looking at these numbers, I’m surprised that Democrats haven’t called for Roanoke to devote a bigger percentage of its budget for schools.

Now, once again, a comparison with other urban systems:

Richmond: $6,322

Lynchburg: $5,323

Danville: $4,664

Roanoke: $4,108

Hampton: $3,947

Portsmouth: $3,756

Norfolk: $3,747

Newport News: $3,421

Martinsville: $2,730

Petersburg: $2,141

Again, Roanoke’s not out of line with others. Ultimately, Roanoke voters will have to determine what is “absurd” and what’s not, but these numbers show that Roanoke is not some outlier, spending-wise.

Now, to some extent, all this emphasis on whether Roanoke’s school spending is “absurd” overlooks the other thing Roanoke Republicans are saying, which is they want “better results.” This takes us into tricky territory because there are lots of ways to measure results. As hard as it is to compare spending from one locality to another, it may be even harder to measure results because students in different localities often start in different places. The Virginia Department of Education says that students in Roanoke schools speak 46 languages other than English. By contrast, in Highland County, there are no students who speak a language other than English. How fair is it to compare the test scores of those two localities?

So what numbers should we compare? Probably whole dissertations have been written on that. Here are numbers we know we can safely compare: We can compare Roanoke with itself.

The state website has the Standards of Learning test scores, of which I’ve looked up the past four reports. I’ll spare you all the numbers – if you’re interested, you can look those up yourself here: https://p1pe.doe.virginia.gov/apex_captcha/home.do?apexTypeId=306

Instead, I’ll summarize things directionally, channeling Ronald Reagan’s famous question: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

Here are the figures:

Roanoke’s SOL scores

Roanoke’s SOL scores. Data for 2019-2020 not available. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Education.

If nothing else is clear, this is: The pandemic truly was “catastrophic” for learning, to borrow the word Youngkin used earlier this week to describe falling test scores. Generally speaking, all of Roanoke’s scores were pretty consistent until the pandemic, then things collapsed, and they haven’t yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. Furthermore, in three of the five categories, test scores fell again after the main pandemic year. If someone wants to argue for “better results,” here’s a place to start.

So, context: How does Roanoke’s experience compare? That raises the question of what is a good comparison point? You can go online and pick your own comparison point, if you wish. I’ll err on the side of caution and go with the statewide average, because that should even out any discrepancies among rural, urban and suburban school systems.

So here’s what we see:

English: Reading

SOL scores on English: reading. 2019-2020 data not available. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Education.

English: Writing

SOL scores on English: writing. 2019-2020 data not available. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Education.

History and social science

SOL scores on History and social science. 2019-2020 data not available. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Education.

Math

SOL scores on math. 2019-2020 data not available. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Education.

Science

SOL scores on science. 2019-2020 data not available. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Education.

On the one hand, Roanoke seems pretty typical. We see the same patterns in the statewide averages, with this exception: In four of the five categories, the state average rebounded last year, while Roanoke’s numbers rose in only two of the five categories. Even where Roanoke is rebounding, we see the gap between Roanoke and the state widening. 

Once again, I don’t know whether a comparison with the state average is the best comparison but at the very least we should be able to look at things directionally. If you want to make the argument that an urban school system such as Roanoke will always be a little below the state average – which will get pulled up by systems with fewer English as a Second Language students, for instance – go ahead. But directionally speaking, we see Roanoke falling further below the state average, which doesn’t seem good.

So where does that leave us? On spending, Roanoke’s school spending doesn’t seem “absurd,” if by “absurd” you mean out of line with what others are doing. But in terms of “better results,” well, you just saw the test scores, and there certainly seems room for improvement there. Now, how to achieve those improvements leaves plenty of room for argument. I feel certain that banging one’s fist on a table probably accomplishes nothing. So what would? Do schools need more funding or different methods? Or both? Or maybe nothing special needs to be done? Maybe these falling test scores are an inevitable result of the pandemic disruptions that will eventually get corrected with time and hard work? Ultimately, that’s not my place to say. That’s what elections are for, but at least now you know the numbers. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.