Holton, Trent, Siddiqi and Dyke column: Embrace opportunity to invest in our children's future

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By Anne Holton, Dietra Trent, Javaid Siddiqi and James Dyke

We write as former Virginia secretaries of education who have witnessed the transformational power of education to all communities — particularly minority and poor communities. We share with many readers of this paper a passion for our capital city and especially for its public school students. One of us — Secretary Holton — was one of them when she attended Richmond Public Schools during desegregation in the early 1970s, and later proudly sent her children there.

We have focused much of our work as education leaders on improving the schools that serve our most vulnerable children, and have had the opportunity to meet with numerous RPS students and teachers along the way.

Like all school systems in the commonwealth, RPS is charged with providing our kids with a strong education as the foundation for a successful adulthood. Yet for far too long, Richmond’s schools have failed to meet this bar. We know Richmond’s students have the potential for greatness. And yet, sadly, too much of that potential is being squandered.

RPS recently developed a strategic plan to change that. Its budget request to implement this strategic plan is a reasonable one, and Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal to fund it through revenue enhancement deserves Richmonders’ support.

The moral measure of any community is its commitment to investing in opportunities for its neediest citizens. About 40 percent of children in the city of Richmond live below the poverty line, and nearly three-quarters are economically disadvantaged.

All of Richmond’s children deserve the opportunity to reach their potential to be contributing members of society. When that happens, our entire community will benefit.

Research consistently shows that schools with high proportions of students in poverty, like those in Richmond, require more resources to educate students, and that robust investments help students achieve academic success. It takes money to attract and retain strong teachers; to build and maintain top-notch facilities; to offer high-quality, modern curricula that meet the needs of diverse students; and to support students and parents — many of whom face the myriad challenges associated with lives of poverty.

Superintendent Jason Kamras and the School Board have done their part to justify this investment by making tough decisions to impose substantial cuts on RPS’s own central office and to reallocate resources to RPS’s top priorities. They have also agreed to accountability measures, including a detailed annual scorecard, and a date certain when they will propose a school rezoning plan. They have earned high marks from the Virginia Department of Education on their steps toward needed improvements.

Polls consistently show taxpayers are ready to pay more to invest in public education, so long as the money will be well spent. With strong leadership at RPS and the city, and with support from the Virginia Department of Education, the City Council can confidently make that commitment.

Council acted boldly last year in adopting the meals tax for school construction. The General Assembly made important strides this year by increasing state support particularly for students most at risk, an initiative Secretary Dyke helped begin during the Wilder administration.

Now the council needs to go further and adopt Stoney’s budget proposals to fully fund the schools’ strategic plan, making revenue enhancements as needed to meet that goal. The mayor has proposed a 50-cent cigarette tax and a 9-cent increase to the real estate tax. This would return Richmond’s real estate tax to pre-Recession levels while also joining other Virginia cities that tax cigarettes.

Richmond is a much different place than a decade ago, when there were legitimate worries that higher property taxes could drive newcomers and investment away. Failing schools, not a slightly higher tax bill, will drive middle-class families away. Today, Richmond is booming, and so many things are going in the right direction. If the city can bring its schools along, the sky is the limit.

Rarely do local policymakers have the opportunity to take a meaningful step toward tangible progress on long-standing challenges.

It’s time for bold and decisive action that permanently puts students on a path to a stronger future by investing in our schools, setting high standards and accountability, and providing opportunities for all children to maximize their potential.

We encourage city leaders to embrace this opportunity to become a better and more equal city and to invest in their greatest and most important resource: Richmond’s children.