Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Is a Washington-Baltimore-Richmond Mega-Region in Our Future?

The Boston-Washington corridor

In 2008 economic geographer Richard Florida argued in his book, “Who’s Your City?”, that the economic units that matter in understanding economic growth and development aren’t nation states, or states, or even metropolitan statistical areas. They are mega-regions — agglomerations of metropolitan areas that are increasingly bound to one another through business interactions. By Florida’s reckoning, the mega-region biggest in the United States and the second largest in the world is the Boston-Washington corridor, which extends as far south as Richmond and Hampton Roads.

I long thought of the idea of a mega-region as a meaningless abstraction — an academic concoction rather than a reflection of economic reality. Metropolitan areas, which describe definable labor markets, are the primary units of economic development. But two news stories today have forced me to consider the possibility that MSAs are not immutable if the will exists to transcend them.

First, the Greater Washington Partnership, created last year, has issued a vision statement for “the Capital Region” encompassing the Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond metropolitan statistical regions. Admittedly, that’s a far cry from a megalopolis stretching all the way to New York and Boston, but it’s a bigger than anything that exists now in Virginia or Maryland. The economy of the Capital Region, proclaims the organization’s website, is the third-largest in the United States and seventh largest in the world.

States the website: “By acting together, and focusing on super-regional solutions, we can overcome jurisdictional impediments, achieve solutions at a scale that is equal to the problems we face, and deliver new sources and engines of growth to achieve economic well-being and prosperity.”

In the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, Michael Martz quotes Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell, one of 21 corporate CEOs on the partnership’s board, as saying,  “The Greater Washington Partnership can make an impact on such pressing issues as transportation and talent, if those issues are addressed regionally.”

The overarching goal of the CEOs is to attract talent and promote innovation. A law of knowledge-economy economics, known as the agglomeration effect, is that larger regions exert greater gravitational pull on talent and corporate investment than smaller regions. The implication: Washington, Baltimore and Richmond are all stronger if they function as a single big region rather than three smaller regions. The incredible power of the agglomeration effect drives the growth of mega-regions, and it is the primary justification for building ties between neighboring regions.

Now, it’s one thing to proclaim a common identity, and another to achieve it. One can easily envision Washington and Baltimore as a single MSA because the entire swath of land between the two core cities has been filled in and developed. As a result, the labor markets of the two regions overlap to a significant degree. The same cannot be said of Washington and Richmond. But ties between Richmond and Washington, though tenuous, are emerging.

That brings me to the second news item. The Stephen Fuller Institute has just published a study, “Migration in the Washington Region: Trends between 2000 and 2015 and Characteristics of Recent Migrants.” The Washington region has a problem. While its population continues to grow as a result of foreign immigration and a surplus of births over deaths, the region has been leaking native-born citizens.

Between 2000 and 2015, Washington has experienced a net domestic migration to the Baltimore area of 77,000, and to the Hagerstown-Martinsburg area of 35,000. The number three and four recipients of Washington out-migration were Winchester (16,000) and Richmond (14,000). Charlottesville (4,000) was 15th largest recipient of domestic out-migrants. While downstate Virginia’s ties to the Washington region aren’t as strong as Maryland’s, they are still substantial. (Interestingly, Hampton Roads shipped a net 14,000 population to Washington over the same period, a pattern no doubt influenced by military ties between the two regions.)

When Washingtonians leave the metro area, by and large, they aren’t moving to New York, Boston or Philadelphia. Some are moving to retirement areas in Florida or the Eastern Shore, and a few to Charlotte and Raleigh. But the overwhelming majority are settling nearby — in the Baltimore, Hagerstown, Winchester and Richmond regions.

In other words, while the business CEOs speak grandiosely about pulling the three regions together, they aren’t trying to make something out of nothing. Below the radar screen, thousands of households making decisions of where to live and work implicitly recognize a commonality not reflected in government statistics.

If the political class buys in to the idea of a Baltimore-Washington-Richmond mega-region, the single-most important thing it can do is to knit the regions together with better transportation infrastructure. Saying this goes against my grain because I am suspicious of infrastructure mega-projects of all kinds, which invariably turn out to be boondoggles. But adopting the view of economic strategist rather than fiscal scold, I would say that top priorities would be: fixing the Washington heavy rail system, creating a higher-speed rail system from Richmond to Washington, and completing the extension of the Interstate 95 tolled express lanes to south of Fredericksburg. If we want to make a mega-region a reality, then we must invest in transportation infrastructure that enables people to move easily between the component regions.

One more thing. If Virginians want to become part of an economically competitive mega-region, they need to cast aside traditional resentments between Northern Virginia and the Rest of Virginia, NoVa and RoVa. Legislators must transcend their parochialism and prioritize projects of regional value, even if it means deferring local needs, in the expectation of everyone gaining something greater in return.

Consumer Group Calls for Scrapping North Anna 3

 

 

 

Dominion Energy may have declared a “pause” in the development of a third nuclear unit at its North Anna Power Station, but a consumer advocacy group says that’s not good enough. It’s time to shut down the project permanently.

“Dominion needs to kill North Anna to protect rate payers,” said Irene Leech, president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (VCCC). Critics have estimated that the project will cost roughly $19 billion, which would make it the most expensive power plant ever built in Virginia by a factor of ten or more. “If Dominion doesn’t do it, the SCC (State Corporation Commission) should intervene.”

Leech made her comments while introducing Dr. Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis, Institute for Energy and the Environment, at Vermont Law School, in a media conference call. Cooper, who had predicted the recent cancellation of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant in South Carolina after massive construction cost overruns, filed testimony with the SCC today on behalf of the VCCC in regards to Dominion’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan.

“Dominion’s recently announced decision to suspend development of North Anna 3 is welcome, but long overdue and not as decisive as it should be,” Cooper said. “The Commission should order North Anna 3 removed from the IRP and refuse to allow any cost recovery associated with the development of North Anna 3 other than through the normal rate-making process, in which the utility demonstrates that it is the least cost option and useful to ratepayers.”

While acknowledging that the nuclear plant is extremely expensive, Dominion has argued that the utility should preserve the nuclear option to cope with a worst-case regulatory scenario restricting carbon-dioxide emissions. In its integrated resource plan, the company explores six scenarios. In one of them, Plan H, Dominion would be have to cut carbon emissions 7% compared to a 2012 baseline by 2030, compelling the closure of up to four coal-fired units at its Mecklenburg and Clover power stations, and making it impossible to make up the lost base capacity with natural gas. The plan contemplates 5,760 megawatts of new solar capacity, but solar output is intrinsically variable. That would leaves nuclear as the only option when the sun didn’t shine, the company has said. The company would not need to build the nuclear plant under any other regulatory scenario.

While some observers assume that Dominion hit the pause button on North Anna 3 because of horrendous construction cost overruns at plants in South Carolina and Georgia, spokesman David Botkins says the company made the decision more than a  year ago. Regulatory uncertainty made it prudent to put the project on hold but not to spike it. The Clean Power Plan, which orders states to impose CO2 emissions on their electric utilities, is not dead. Its legality is tied up in the federal court system, and the McAuliffe administration is moving ahead with his own low-carbon plan for Virginia. The company has not made the decision to build the nuclear unit but thinks it worthwhile, after spending roughly $600 million to obtain a Combined Operating License (COL), to keep the option open.

Given the momentum of technology, Cooper argued, there is no chance of nuclear becoming economically viable. “Nuclear construction costs escalate relentlessly, driven by complexity,” he said. “Nuclear is the most expensive way imaginable to reduce carbon emissions. It’s a bad investment. I have wind, solar, and energy efficiency in hand today at a third of the cost of North Anna 3. I want to get [nuclear] off the table.”

The United States electric system is transitioning “to flexible, small-scale, renewable, distributed” energy sources like rooftop solar. Meanwhile investments in energy efficiency and demand-management strategies are holding down growth in electricity consumption, Cooper said. The ability to store large volumes of electricity in batteries will make it possible to overcome the problem of volatile energy output.

“Think about your laptop, tablet, or cell phone. Ten years ago … the battery life was an hour. Now it’s ten hours. They’re making huge progress in energy storage,” Cooper said. Meanwhile, solar + batteries can increase generating capacity in increments rather than in one a big chunk when the nuclear plant comes online. Utilities talk about solar plants sitting idle at night or under cloudy skies. Large swaths of the electrical infrastructure, such as combustion turbine plants that run only during periods of peak demand, spend much of their time idle as well. Nuclear isn’t cost competitive now, and it never will be, he said.

Putting the North Anna 3 project on hold is not an adequate response, Cooper said. The General Assembly allowed Dominion to capture $570 million from rate payers to defray the cost of obtaining the North Anna 3 operating license. That sum has economic value. Assuming rate payers could earn 3% annually on that money, the opportunity cost amounts to almost $300 million over ten years. Even with the project on hold, said Cooper, “rate payers are bearing a burden.”

Dominion thinks of the North Anna 3 option as a form of insurance policy. “As has been shown throughout history, forecasts change over time,” says a prepared Dominion statement. “Fuel diversity is a key component of any energy plan. Our customers enjoy some of the lowest rates in the United States, due in large part, to the safe, reliable, clean and dependable nuclear units at Surry and North Anna.”

“The [Combined Operating License] is good indefinitely, and, while no decision has been made to build it, we could make a decision to move forward with it if business conditions change,” said Richard Zuercher, spokesman for Dominion Energy’s nuclear power operations. “We would not do so, however, without authorization from the State Corporation Commission.”

Uh, Oh, Metro Needs Another $9.5 Billion

Washington Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has been pushing for $15.5 billion in additional contributions from participating states and localities over the next 10 years, including $500 million in dedicated funding, to make the ailing commuter rail system safe and reliable.

That request has set off serious jockeying between Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia over who should pay how much, and which reforms the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority (MWATA) must make before anyone trusts it with more money.

But at a recent MWATA board meeting, reports the Washington Post, Chairman Jack Evans enumerated $9.5 billion in anticipated needs not covered in Wiedefeld’s $15.5 billion figure.

Wiedefeld’s proposal “will only keep us where we are right now, which is not a good place to be,” Evans said. “What the region does, what the elected leadership, the business [community does] — they will seize on the easiest approach. So when he put out the number ‘500,’ everybody seized on ‘500,’ which gets you to $15 billion — which gets you to where you are today. Nobody wants to be where we are today.”

“We’re asking for the wrong number,” he said. “I think it was a mistake on behalf of the GM . . . to ask for the lower number.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Well, you have to appreciate Evans’ honesty. No one wants to hear that revitalizing the Metro will cost an astonishing $25 billion, not a mere $15 billion. As Virginians discuss how they will find their multibillion-dollar share of the Wiedefeld proposal, they should be acutely aware that they would be meeting only the Metro’s most urgent needs — “nonnegotiable” safety and system upgrades. They to ask themselves, will $15.5 billion be enough, or will it just paper over the problems?

Metro is “too big to fail.” Its collapse would throw the Washington region’s transportation system into turmoil, with endless repercussions for the economy and economic development. For instance, the Washington region would be an attractive location for the Amazon second headquarters in many ways, but the company is sure to ask itself, does it want to locate 50,000 employees in a region whose commuter rail system is falling apart and a proposed $15 billion fix merely preserves a deficient status quo?

Metro must be salvaged. But Virginia needs to hang tough and demand comprehensive management, labor, and governance reforms before coughing up hundreds of millions of dollars a year for a bail-out that may not accomplish much.

McAuliffe Hires Consultants to Pursue Amazon Deal

Governor Terry McAuliffe has hired McKinsey & Co. to help Virginia localities build the best possible packages to recruit Amazon’s second headquarters, reports the Virginian-Pilot. The state plans to pay the consultant more than $1 million, while state regions will chip in hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

That information, which I haven’t seen reported anywhere else, comes from Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, who has committed Virginia Beach to the long-shot endeavor. The project, which could entail the investment of $5 billion and creation of 50,000 jobs, is attracting interest from metropolitan regions across North America. The deadline for submitting proposals is Oct. 19.

Sessoms said he expects economic developers in the Richmond and Northern Virginia regions also to avail themselves of the consulting services. Virginia regions will chip in $300,000 to $400,000 for the work product. Virginia Beach will pay $200,000 of the Hampton Roads region’s share. The City of Norfolk is participating as well.

Aside from available land, great parks and recreation, a strong arts scene, the ocean, solid schools, and a high quality of life, Sessoms said the city has something that most others don’t: access to transoceanic cables that will deliver faster Internet speeds. A new trans-Atlantic cable linking Virginia Beach to Spain will go live next year. Said Sessoms: “We have a cable that is going to allow people to communicate faster than anywhere else in the world.”

Are Virginia Colleges Deferring Maintenance?

Source: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

According to calculations of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), the replacement value of the buildings and grounds of Virginia’s public colleges and universities totals $12.2 billion. And according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), institutions should plan for an annual reinvestment rate of between 1.5% and 3.5% of that replacement value to offset wear, tear and depreciation.

The Commonwealth established a maintenance reserve program in 1982 to provide funding for facility repairs that are not addressed in the institutions’ operating budgets and are too small to quality for bond financing. Examples might be roof repairs, boiler and chiller replacements, or major electric system upgrades.

Over the past 10 years, the Commonwealth has chipped in about $75 million per year to the maintenance reserve program, according to a report (page 212) submitted Monday to the SCHEV Resources and Planning Committee. That contribution has fallen consistently short of the 1% guideline ($120 million this year) that SCHEV recommends. As of 2011, the cumulative shortfall had grown to $501 million, and this year the state kicked in only l$63.2 million for higher-ed maintenance. 

Instead of funding the maintenance reserve out of operating revenue, the state addressed the condition of colleges’ buildings and grounds by making two state bond issues for new construction. Those outlays did improve the condition of college and university buildings and grounds. But the effect since FY 2009, states the SCEHV report, has been to change the funding source for the maintenance reserve program from the general fund to bond proceeds.  “As a result, the state bond funding for new construction, renovation and deferred maintenance is constrained by the annual debt capacity.”

As Finance Policy Director Dan Hix reminded SCHEV at its monthly board meeting today, the state has little capacity this year to issue new debt without jeopardizing its AAA bond rating. While some money may be available for higher-ed capital projects, he said, it won’t be much.

The practical consequence of state funding policy, Hix said, has been to compel colleges and universities either to generate their own maintenance funds by raising tuition or to simply put off maintenance projects. He offered no estimate of the size of the deferred maintenance liability.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Commonwealth of Virginia is constitutionally mandated to submit balanced budgets. But as I have blogged in the past, there are many forms of hidden deficit spending. One is unfunded pensions. Another is deferred maintenance. I was unaware before today that there was an issue with the condition of colleges’ buildings & grounds. But I’m not surprised. Deferring maintenance is one of the oldest fiscal tricks in the books — I lay odds that the practice dates back to Nebuchadnezzer and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Given the stress of higher-ed finances, no one would be surprised that it occurs here in Virginia as well.

While we have a sense of how much the state has short-changed its colleges and universities, we don’t know how many institutions sucked it up and found the money to conduct needed maintenance projects, and how many put off the spending for the next guy to worry about. Perhaps that’s an issue that boards of visitors could dig into. If not, maybe the bond rating agencies will find the practice of interest. One way or another, Virginia’s higher-ed system could be building up a big hidden liability.

College Presidents Seek Winning Political Message

Heywood Fralin, chairman of the State Council of Higher Education, proposed creating a committee of college presidents and SCHEV board members, to address critical issues facing higher-ed in Virginia.

Virginia’s college presidents feel under siege, and they seek a political message that will resonate with citizens and the General Assembly

Fearful of eroding political sympathy for higher education, the presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities informally agreed this afternoon to cooperate in creating a council of presidents and crafting a message that will win support for preserving state and federal funding.

A recurring theme during the discussion at an annual meeting of the presidents with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) was that higher ed should emphasize pocketbook issues such as growing the economy and preparing Virginians for the jobs of the future.

“Everyone is concerned about economic development. A lot of those efforts are sputtering,” said Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia. “Every one of us has a business dean. We should lock them up in a room and not let them out until they come up with a plan.”

Virginia’s higher-ed sector needs to define its “value proposition,” suggested Gil Minor, a former SCHEV chairman, Virginia Military Institute rector and former chairman of Owens  Minor, a Fortune 500 company. “We don’t talk about the value of an education in Virginia.” Colleges need to tell the General Assembly, “Invest in us, and we’ll give you a payback.”

While the gathering acknowledged the need to do a better job of communicating, there were few illusions that higher ed will get a friendly reception by members of the General Assembly and the public.

“The public believes we’re creating Taj Mahals,” noted Heywood Fralin, SCHEV chairman.

“Significant parts of the General Assembly seems to have very little regard for higher education,” said Taylor Revely III, president of the College of William & Mary.

“We’re always seen in Richmond as having our hand out — we’re takers,” said Sullivan. “No matter how much we call it ‘investment,’ it comes out sounding like ‘spending.'”

An area of universal agreement was that cutbacks in state support to higher education over the years has forced public colleges and universities to raise their tuition, and that tuition levels have nearly reached the breaking point. While Virginia’s elite universities still may have leeway to increase tuition, several institutions face the prospect of losing students if their costs go higher. A decision by the Norfolk State University board to raise tuition aggressively on out-of-state students resulted in a decline in out-of-state enrollment from 30% of the student body to 11%, said President Eddie Moore. “I can’t let the tuition run away.”

George Mason University President Angel Cabrera framed the issue as bigger than just the Virginia General Assembly. Fiscal pressures are putting the squeeze on federal financial assistance like Pell Grants, and states across the country are cutting state support for higher ed. “We as a society have decided to invest less in higher ed and to shift the cost to families,” he said. “Of course, when the tuition bill hits the citizens, it’s not a lot of fun.”

The presidents identified numerous culprits responsible for rising costs and tuition levels at colleges at universities. State and federal government impose too many regulations. “Take the regulations that exist and slay 25% of them, and the world would continue to rotate on its axis,” said Revely with William & Mary. He compared the excessive government oversight to parents who try to regulate every aspect of their child’s behavior. “It doesn’t lead to good results.”

Potential cutbacks to Pell grants also are worrisome. About 30% of GMU’s students depend upon Pell, said Cabrera.

The higher-ed leaders also expressed concern about DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) legislation in Congress. “We have Dreamers in every university in the state,” said Cabrera. “Two-thirds are in Northern Virginia.” Over and above the humanitarian principles at stake, the presidents worried about the potential reduction in enrollment and loss of revenue.

But the biggest threat to Virginia higher ed,  in the estimation of SCHEV members and presidents alike, is the steady erosion of state support to the public institutions.

“I think we’ll find that a lot of our priorities are the same,” said SCHEV chairman Fralin. “We have to talk more about tuition and what causes increases in tuition. … I believe that, when all the facts are disclosed, the colleges have done a pretty good job of controlling costs. But that’s not the message to the public.”

In the 2011 Top Jobs Act, the General Assembly set a goal for Virginia’s higher ed system to produce an additional 100,ooo degrees and certificates by 2030. It costs money to expand enrollment but “the additional monies have not been forthcoming from the Commonwealth,” said Fralin. Another example of the institutions are getting squeezed: The state encouraged colleges to build more buildings but has not provided money to cover their maintenance. “Tuition dollars go to maintaining these buildings,, which was not the plan at the time they were built.”

Fralin said it was time for another restructuring of higher ed in Virginia, on a par with the 2005 Restructuring Act, which theoretically gave colleges and universities more freedom from state oversight, including the ability to raise tuition, in exchange for more accountability for achieving state goals for higher-ed such as affordability and accessibility. The state needs to consider once-unthinkable options such as bolstering out-of-state enrollments in order to reap their big tuition payments, or creating a higher-ed reserve fund to smooth out volatile state contributions that make it difficult for colleges to plan. A third idea is to bolster ties with Virginia high schools to better inform grads — especially the 43% who never go on to college or community college — of the potential career opportunities that await them.

These things won’t happen, Fralin said, if SCHEV and the presidents meet only once a year. He proposed creating a committee of university presidents to address critical issues of common concern.

While NSU’s Moore and Old Dominion University President John Broderick pushed back on the idea of raising tuition aggressively — they’ve largely hit their limit — there was general buy-in for the idea of creating a president’s committee. No formal vote was taken, however, nor did anyone outline a structure for the committee.

Paul Trible, president of Christopher Newport University, thanked SCHEV for its emerging role in recent years as a “champion” of Virginia’s colleges and universities. “My colleagues appreciate the fact that you’ve been willing to become the advocate of higher education.”

But he issued a warning: “There isn’t going to be any more money in the next session” for higher ed. Medicaid will take the first claim on increased state funds, and K-12 education, whose standards of quality are mandated by the state constitution, will stand in line ahead of colleges and universities. If higher ed is going to do something, he urged, “Let’s stop being incremental. Let’s be dramatic. Let’s be bold.”

“I Love Mankind. It’s Just People I Can’t Stand.”

Counter protesters professing their love of humanity. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

On Sept. 9, 12-year-old Bethany Harper and her nine-year-old friend Solai Coleman were sitting on the front porch of their house on Fifth Avenue in Richmond. Bethany heard the crackling pop of gunfire, and a random bullet struck Solai in the hip.

“We had nothing to do with the transaction [that led to the shooting] Saturday, but they shot at our children” Bethany’s father Thomas told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We have a new rule in this house: ‘You’re not allowed to go beyond this line,’ he said, planting his foot on the front of the family’s wooden porch.

The number of killings in Richmond has surged this year, reaching 59 so far compared with 45 at the same point last year, which itself was the worst in a decade. Many victims are innocent bystanders. So far, the 2016-17 school year has seen 25 students in Richmond city schools shot, along with a one-year-old child of two students. Fourteen others were victims of aggravated assault or malicious wounding.

No one will hold a vigil for Solai Coleman. No one will protest the injustice of criminal actions that confine Bethany Harper to the inside of her home. There will be no marches, no placards, and no made-for-TV media spectacles. Apparently, black lives don’t matter when the killers are black. Black lives matter only when the shooter is white or a police officer. Or when when the sight of Civil War statues offend the sensibilities of those who view the world through the filter of white oppression.

The Times-Dispatch ran the article about Coleman’s shooting atop the front page of its Sunday edition. With no sense of irony, it published underneath an article about a Saturday rally around the Robert E. Lee statue that drew about seven pro-Confederate, heritage-not-hate types and a crowd of counter protesters estimated to be a couple hundred in number.

The counter protesters were incensed by the handful of neo-Confederates (most of whom came from out of state), just as they are incensed by the KKK, Nazis, white supremacists, President Trump, and “haters” generally. But neo-Confederates didn’t shoot Solai Coleman. Nazis didn’t shoot her. The KKK didn’t shoot her. Nor did white hate groups shoot any of the other 59 homicide victims in Richmond this year. Aside from occasional vigils held by victims’ family members and immediate neighbors, however, the social justice warriors have not ginned up much outrage or marched in protest of the black-on-black slaughter in Richmond’s inner city.

If the social justice warriors cared about real people instead of abstractions like “institutional racism,” which serve mainly to validate their sense of moral superiority, they would volunteer to tutor inner-city school children. Or befriend an adolescent through the Big Brother/Big Sister program. Or pound nails with Habit for Humanity to build affordable housing. Or ladle out soup in a community kitchen to serve the hungry. Or help felons build a productive life outside jail. But that takes real effort, sustained effort. And it’s not nearly as rewarding as virtue signalling to your peers how politically correct you are or venting about the evils of KKK/Fascists/Trump.

As an aside, I have to commend Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief Alfred Durham for making sure that the Richmond rally didn’t turn into another Charlottesville. They made it clear from the very beginning that violence would not be tolerated, and they worked to separate the protesters from the counter-protesters. By broadcasting their intent, they snuffed out interest in the rally by right- and left-wing radicals looking to bang heads and make headlines long before the event took place. Job well done.

Sometimes Schools Need the Carl Smith Treatment


Reader Larry Gross wants to know why John Butcher (aka Cranky) is always picking on the city of Richmond. In the previous blog post republished from Cranky’s Blog, John shows the yawning gap in educational performance between Richmond schools and schools statewide. The problem isn’t just that Richmond schools are educating so many kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. He breaks out the SOL scores of disadvantaged kids and non-disadvantaged kids and compares them to their peers statewide. There’s a chasm in performance for each, which suggests to John that something is amiss in the Richmond city school system, not the kids themselves.

Larry is displeased with the negative tone of John’s posts. He thinks people should use data to help schools improve, not to “castigate the current system.” He adds, “I continue to point to places like Henrico which is an affluent county with some of the better public schools in Va but also with an astounding number of schools denied accreditation or in danger of being denied accreditation. I’d like to see Cranky and Jim do some similar data-looks at Henrico to see if we learn anything… how about it?”

Wish granted. In the chart above, the two blue lines compare the performance of “non-disadvantaged” kids in Henrico school and schools statewide. The performance is almost identical: Henrico matches the state average.

The yellow/orange lines compare the performance of disadvantaged kids. Henrico exceeds the statewide margins by a narrow margin. There is no yawning chasm in performance, as there is with Richmond. That suggests one of two things to me: (1) the disadvantaged kids in Henrico and Richmond are different somehow, or (2) Henrico schools do a better job of teaching disadvantaged children.

I don’t believe that disadvantaged kids are much different in Henrico and Richmond. Henrico has schools with concentrated poverty just like Richmond does. Perhaps Henrico just does a better job of running its schools, even though it spends significantly less money per student than Richmond does.

Yes, I suppose someone could describe this as negative, scolding, harping analysis, but I don’t look at it that way. I can’t speak for John, but I’ll explain why I highlight his columns on this blog: You can’t begin to solve a problem until you properly define it. And you can’t begin to solve the problem of Richmond schools’ atrocious under-achievement as long as you define the problem as “too many poor kids” or “not enough money” or “decrepit, run-down school buildings you wouldn’t use as a dog house.” The more someone wiggles and squirms and tries to evade responsibility, the harder you have to try to pin them down.

I used to work for coal-industry entrepreneur named Carl Smith. Now deceased, he was president of the AMVEST Corporation in Charlottesville. (The University of Virginia’s Carl Smith Stadium was named after him). He could sniff out B.S. a mile away, and when someone tried to bluff an answer to one of Carl’s questions, Carl had a way of relentlessly pinning him down. Carl didn’t yell. He didn’t even raise his voice. He just followed up remorselessly with question after question until he reduced the dissembler to a quivering mass of jelly. Sometimes you’ve got to give schools the ol’ Carl Smith treatment before you can get to the root of the problem.

Update: Cranky has created an amazing spreadsheet that allows you, with a click of a single button, to reproduce the statewide/local comparisons between advantaged and disadvantaged students for 2016-17 SOL pass rates. Click here to download the spreadsheet, and select the jurisdiction you want to view as seen below. Cranky’s spreadsheet does the rest.

It’s Performance, Not Poverty

by John Butcher

The popular sport in the Richmond “education” establishment has been to blame the kids for the awful performance of our schools. We particularly hear about our less affluent (the official euphemism is “economically disadvantaged”) students.

We have some data on that. Again.

Here are the average reading pass rates by grade of the economically disadvantaged (”ED”) and non-ED students in Richmond and the state.  “EOC” indicates the End of Course tests that generally must be passed to receive “verified credits” that count toward a diploma.

Both in Richmond and on average, the ED group underperforms the non-ED group.

To the point here, the Richmond ED students underperform their peers in the state averages, as do the non-ED Richmond students.

We can calculate the differences between the Richmond groups and state average to measure that underperformance.

Here we see Richmond’s ED students underperforming their peers by about 7% in elementary school while our non-ED students average some 9% below that group statewide.  In middle school the difference increases to roughly 19% for the non-ED students and 25% for the ED group.

The math test results show a similar pattern.

These data tell us two things:

  • Richmond students, both ED and not, underperform their statewide peer groups on average; and
  • The average SOL performance of Richmond students, ED and not, deteriorates dramatically in middle school.

As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the large percentage of ED students in Richmond (64% in 2017) does not explain our low pass rates.  So we are left with (at least) two possible explanations: Either Richmond students are less capable on average than students statewide or our schools are less effective than average.

If Richmond’s students were just less capable, it would explain the low elementary school scores but not the drop in pass rates after the fifth grade.

The plummeting performance of our students when they reach middle school tells us there’s a (big!) problem with our middle schools.  And there’s every reason to think that the school system that has terrible middle schools might also have problems with its elementary schools. Continue reading

Ryan Selected to Lead UVa

The University of Virginia has selected a new president, James E. Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A former law school professor at the UVa law school, he has a strong ties to the institution, and he has an impressive background and resume.

Read more about his background here.

“The University of Virginia has occupied a special place in my heart since the day I first stepped on Grounds,” said Ryan in a prepared statement. “Returning here to continue playing a role in the extraordinary work of this University community is deeply humbling, and an opportunity that I will strive every day to honor.”

In explaining the section, Rector Frank M. Conner III and former Rector William H. Goodwin stated:

We believe that the next 15 years will be critical in determining the future of higher education in the United States and the role of the University of Virginia in that future. As a leading public institution, we fully embrace the public service mission that we have to the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world to develop citizen leaders in all fields of endeavor and to contribute to the common good in solving the most challenging issues of our time. We know that Jim shares a passion for this purpose. We are confident that he is the perfect leader for this institution at this precise time in history. And we intend to support him in every manner we can in achieving our shared vision.

Neither Conner, Goodwin nor Ryan elaborated upon what that shared vision might be. In a five-minute video accompanying the announcement, Ryan stuck to personal ruminations and gave no hint of what the board expects him to accomplish. Stay tuned. Bacon’s Rebellion will do its best to divine whether the university sticks to its present course or sets out in a new direction.