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A 2009 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development survey ranked America’s public high school students near the middle of 65 countries studied, well below China, Korea, Japan, Finland and Canada. Let’s explore whether that precarious situation also exists nearby.

Let’s position Virginia within the national spectrum.

In 2011, 1,260,000 children were enrolled in Virginia public schools. Teachers earned an average of $49,900 per year with the national average at $56,400.

Virginia employs one K-12 teacher per 12 students; national average: 16. Virginia’s 2010 per capita income was $44,100; national average: $39,800. Virginians pay (via taxes) 3.7 percent of personal income for K-12 education: national average: 4.2 percent.

Conclusion: Virginia has enough teachers, and could afford to pay them more. However, Virginia schools receive below average support from federal and state sources, and so must raise more from local taxes.

How do northern Virginia’s academics rank? U.S. News evaluated 21,000 U.S. high schools and gave high ranking to somewhat over 10 percent of them. Virginia had 52 out of 334 (15 percent). Nearby counties’ highly ranked schools:



Fairfax: 16 of 30 schools

Loudoun: 4 of 11

Prince William: 0 of 14

Culpeper, Clarke and Fauquier: 0 of 5

Total: 20 of 60 (33 percent)



Low rank was usually related to economic disadvantage and high rank to proximity to Washington’s well paid professional work force.

High school graduation rates are another measure. Both the nation (72 percent) and Virginia (73 percent) fall short, and analysts believe reported rates are higher than actual. Dropouts and failing schools occur most frequently within economically disadvantaged communities, often rural, Black or Hispanic.

Meanwhile, the growing employment sectors are demanding higher skills. One local elected official observed: “The market for highly trained workers is expanding, but the education bureaucracy isn’t nimble enough to keep up.”

Local schools are embracing the national STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program, but emphasize the short-change in other areas. I chatted with a Loudoun music teacher surrounded by happy middle school students carrying musical instruments. He had just conducted band practice.

“We think the Arts are important, so we prefer “STEAM” to “STEM.” He added: “I love my job, but my wife teaches in Fairfax to earn $10,000 more. There is a battle for resources between training for employment, and teaching to develop the whole person.”

Local mothers offered differing views on public vs. private education.

One sends two daughters to Loudoun public schools, believing the education is just as good, and the socialization across economic and cultural lines is better preparation for life.

Another strains her budget to accommodate private school tuition. Relatives attended a Fauquier public school that was “just teaching to the test. Many parents dropped off the kid and let the school handle it.” In her private school children are “taught how to love learning, and how to explore, and parents are fully involved.”

Wherever your children are educated, they will share tomorrow’s world with the products of American public education. Clearly there are educational challenges, here and across the nation.

Bruce Smart is a resident of Loudoun County. He served as U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce from 1985 to 1988 and served on the Virginia Commission on Climate Change.