Survey Ranks Arlington Schools in Bottom Half for Value

by SCOTT McCAFFREY, Staff Writer

(Friday, July 20, 2007 7:21 AM EDT)

Critics who have contended that the Arlington public school system spends too much and delivers too little now have some additional ammunition.

Arlington Public Schools ranks 64th among 97 major school systems nationwide in a new “best and worst school districts for the buck” ranking, published by Forbes magazine. Nearly two-thirds of school districts in the survey performed better than Arlington's did.

Researchers looked at the per-student spending in each school district, then adjusted it for the cost-of-living relative to other jurisdictions across the U.S.

That figure was compared against graduation rates, student scores on college entrance exam scores and the rate of participation on those exams. In compiling the ranking, academic success was given twice as much weight as per-student cost.

“Winners in this rating system are counties whose schools deliver high performance at low cost. The losers spend a lot of money and have little to show for it,” wrote Forbes' Christina Settimi.

Tim Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, said the results are not surprising.

“It tells me what I've been trying to get people to understand: Arlington produces a good-quality school system at an extraordinary price,” said Wise, who long has been critical of Arlington school spending.

“It's not a surprise,” Wise said of the school system's two-thirds-down-the-bottom ranking. Arlington routinely ranks among at or near the top in per-student spending across the Washington region, and statewide.

County school officials seemed nonplussed by the ranking.

“We believe we work carefully to provide a high-quality education to our students, while being fiscally responsible to the taxpayers of Arlington,” said Frank Bellavia, a spokesman for Arlington Public Schools.

Marin County, Calif., topped the rankings, followed by Collin, Texas, and Hamilton, Ind. The lowest rankings belonged to the District of Columbia; Glynn County, Ga.; and, at the bottom of the scale, Arlington's neighbor, Alexandria.

Among other Virginia school systems in the survey, Loudoun County ranked 11th, Albemarle County was 24th, Fairfax County was 28th, Hanover County was 48th, Chesterfield County was 49th and Henrico County was 75th.

Settimi wrote that school systems were becoming increasingly creative in their efforts to report the best possible results.

“For instance, high school guidance counselors can encourage poor-performing students to take the ACT [college] exam over the SAT exam, so that their SAT score remains high,” she wrote.

“If only as much effort went into improving performance as it did into fixing performance measures,” she wrote.

Forbes annually issues a host of rankings on a variety of topics. Just recently, the state government trumpeted the fact that Virginia, for a second year in a row, was named the top “state for business” by the magazine.

Kristen Armstrong contributed to this story.

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