As we pass the midpoint of this General Assembly session, many bills are moving.
After a 30-minute debate, the Senate approved my bill prohibiting the use of electronic textbooks in public schools without a plan to provide school broadband and digital devices to every student required to use an electronic textbook.
Virginia’s constitution requires that every child receive a free textbook. On the floor, I argued that without home computers, electronic textbooks create a two-tiered education system for the haves and the have-nots. Senators Adam Ebbin and George Barker joined me in stressing that even Northern Virginia’s schools have significant low-income student populations who face disadvantages in the classroom without their own devices. The bill now moves to the House of Delegates.
Also, the Senate passed, 39 to 1 my legislation to reverse recent anti-sunshine Virginia Supreme Court rulings. Last year, the Court held that if one sentence of a government document is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the government can withhold an entire document instead of simply redacting the sentence. My legislation requires disclosure to the public of the text of the document that is not redacted.
Additionally, the Court held that government officials’ decisions to withhold documents are entitled to “great weight.” My legislation requires judges reviewing FOIA responses to look at government officials’ decisions in an unbiased manner. The House of Delegates passed identical legislation 99-0 and it will be on the Governor’s desk by the end of the week.
Around 100 people attended our town hall meetings this weekend in the Mount Vernon and Lee areas of Fairfax County. The number one concern raised was public school funding. Governor Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget has $58 million in new funding for Fairfax County and since 2010, Virginia has increased funding to Fairfax County Public Schools by 48 percent or $208 million. During that same period, Fairfax County has only increased local funds by 15 percent.
There is no question that part of the current state public school funding formula hurts areas like Fairfax County because it does not consider English-language learners, poverty, or disabilities. Legislative fixes have been explored, but the vast majority of legislators do not support the changes because it would take hundreds of millions of dollars from high poverty schools and transfer them to wealthy school systems. They cannot vote to cut funds from their school systems, jurisdictions that typically pay teachers $35-45,000 per year, while ours pay teachers $55-77,000 per year. Bringing fairness to this funding formula will likely only happen pursuant to litigation, and the short and medium-term solutions to school funding are at the local level, through approaches like a local meals tax.
We also heard concerns about Potomac River oil spills and coal ash pollution, skyrocketing college tuition, protecting women’s reproductive rights and strengthening mental health services. People voiced support for driver’s licenses for undocumented Virginians and anger about voting restrictions.
This week, we will debate the state budget. To share your view, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is an honor to serve as your state senator.