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Making Our Case: Schools as

Economic Development Engines 

BY JAMES G. MERRILL   

James Merrill

“Data driven.” That’s what we educators like to call ourselves. We wouldn’t dream of setting instructional priorities, examining instructional practices and crafting school improvement plans without meaningful data points in hand.

Yet ironically, on another level — a level that really matters — we often find ourselves moving to the “storyteller” role, relying heavily on our anecdotal arsenal to make our case. I find this tendency often surfaces when educators are talking to the funders of public education —- state legislators, county boards of supervisors and city councils. The problem is our funders have heard it all before, and our anecdotes of “children are our future” are getting stale.

I am a firm believer in the old one-two punch: (1) Make a heartfelt statement; and (2) back it up with evidence. That’s where the data come into play.

A No-Win Situation
As background, it’s important to recognize that in Virginia, school systems are fiscally dependent. We have no taxing authority. We rely on our state and local governments for funding.

With the sagging economy and the resulting decrease in financial support, we face a no-win situation. These bodies typically are not known for their largesse. Beyond that, however, we are seeing an overall reduced commitment to public education in general. The priority has become economic development activities rather than education.

In Virginia Beach, public school educators long have sounded the trumpet that our schools are the greatest economic development engine our city has. At the risk of that being a one-note tune, we set out to find the evidence to support our claim.

We secured the services of a renowned economist, Michael Walden of North Carolina State University, to help us quantitatively measure the impact of our 69,400 students and 10,500 staff members on the city’s economy. (See Measuring the Impact of Inputs.)

Central Findings
Here are a few of Walden’s findings, which were included in his report to us in June 2011:

  • Owing to improved student performance in the school district between 2007 and 2010, city of Virginia Beach property values are between $2.8 and $9.5 billion higher than they would be without the improvement. In addition, the annual property tax revenues are between $28 and $86 million higher than they would be otherwise.
  • The additional spending of each Virginia Beach graduating class adds $60 million to the region’s property values.
    Each recent graduating class collectively will realize an increase in its lifetime earnings of $800 to $900 million due to receiving a high school diploma.
  • Each recent graduating class is associated with a lifetime reduction in public crime costs and public health costs of between $260 and $280 million (in 2011) when compared to those who do not complete high school.

Split Reaction
Given the positive tone of Walden’s report, supporting as it did our contention that the public schools were the most powerful economic engine the city of Virginia Beach has, we were eager to share these impressive findings.

We took it public at our annual school board retreat last July, where Walden formally presented his report. The story was immediately picked up by our local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, which published it under the headline, “Study: Good test scores bolster Va. Beach tax revenue.” In tandem with this story, our school board chair forwarded copies of the report to members of the city council and the city’s administrative team along with a letter explaining its significance.

We published the report on our district website, featured it in a pullout section of our parent/community newsletter in August and ran an article about the study in our employee newsletter. Across the board, the reaction from our myriad stakeholders was positive. In fact, they were pleased to have such concrete data to bolster their advocacy efforts. Clearly, the report was worth the $21,000 cost.

In addition, I included details of the report in my speeches and presentations to staff and community on a regular basis. The word about our efforts to quantify the city’s return on investment definitely got out. Education Week did a story last December on the report titled “Payoff is $1.53 for every $1 invested.”

I must admit that although the data were even more impressive than we anticipated, the response from our city leaders has been a collective “so what?” I choose to believe that is because they have quietly seen the value of our schools all along. But in a time of competing priorities, unfunded mandates and battles over shrinking budget dollars, it’s important to remind our community of the importance of our schools. So now, even when advocates for public education aren’t necessarily being heard, we must ensure the data points speak for themselves, loudly.

James Merrill is superintendent of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia Beach, Va. E-mail: James.Merrill@vbschools.com

 

 

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