Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Failing to Fix the Unfixable

Cranky (aka John Butcher) is on a tear these days, most recently exposing the Virginia Board of Education’s ineffectual effort to fix the City of Richmond’s broken school systems.

The Richmond’s schools are in turmoil. According to the state board, 27 of the city’s 44 schools are not fully accredited. The school board has booted out the district’s superintendent, who only two or three years ago had been highly touted, for reasons that remain opaque. City and state bureaucracies are moving ponderously to address the deep-rooted dysfunction. But so far, the only product of the teeth gnashing and foot dragging is a “Memorandum of Understanding,” which, in Cranky’s jaundiced eyes, “does nothing but create busy work and a ‘rough draft’ plan that is not a plan.”

Cranky proceeds to dismember the MOU like Jeffrey Dahmer rended his victims. The MOU, he suggests, is vague, redundant, intrusive, and unenforceable. Worst of all, he writes, “VBOE does not know how to fix Richmond’s broken school system. They don’t know what to tell a judge that Richmond should be made to do, so they don’t even contemplate exercising their authority to sue.”

If you want to find yourself laughing and crying at the same time, check out his post.

About Those School-to-Prison Pipeline Numbers…

Gerard Lawson

Two years ago the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a study reporting that Virginia led the nation in sending students from schools — 16 out or 1,000 — to police or the courts. That finding fueled demands to overhaul k-12 disciplinary practices to reduce the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Well, it turns out that those numbers were wildly inflated.

“When we look at the official Juvenile Justice records to see who actually went to court from the schools, the number is actually 2.4 per 1,000,” says Gerard Lawson, an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s school of education.

Lawson and his colleagues conducted the research to find what factors led to student involvement in the pipeline and how those factors could be mitigated, according to a Virginia Tech news story. Here’s what they found:

The researchers launched the study in January 2016, drawing data from several state agencies, including the departments of Juvenile Justice, Education, and Criminal Justice Services.

“At the very outset we realized the numbers weren’t matching up,” said Lawson, who is also president-elect of the American Counseling Association. “We scoured the data between the Departments of Education and Juvenile Justice, matching localities, dates of birth, dates of offensives, types of offenses, and we realized that the number of students actually ending up in court was much lower than that first impression.”

There is a checkbox on a Department of Education tool gathering data about suspensions and expulsions which asked, “Was this reported to law enforcement?”

“In most cases, when the box was checked, it appears that it represented an informal report to law enforcement — an administrator running into the school resource officer in the hallway, for example, and mentioning that a student had been suspended.” Lawson said. “The ‘report’ may have gone no further than the officer responding, ‘Thanks—good to know.’ With a bit of semantic imprecision, that checkbox elevated Virginia’s numbers dramatically.”

However, Lawson’s study did confirm two trends highlighted by the CPI study: students with disabilities were more likely to be suspended, and African-Americans, representing 23% of the student population in Virginia, accounted for 49.4% of the court referrals.

“We need to rethink discipline,” says Lawson. “Should a middle-schooler get arrested for flipping the bird at a teacher? The stakes are too high. A single suspension makes it less likely for a student to graduate from high school, and involvement with the Court system makes that less likely still. The repercussions can be lifelong.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Lawson should be commended for debunking the misinformation that Virginia is an outlier in the realm of school discipline. I always wondered about that claim — I never heard a logical explanation of why Virginia school officials supposedly referred so many more kids to law enforcement than their peers in other states. But when I wrote about the CPI research, I never thought to dispute it. Now we know why the numbers were so high.

However, I have to question one of Lawson’s insinuations. Middle-schoolers have been arrested for flipping the bird to their teachers? Really? If true, such actions are absolutely outrageous, and disciplinary procedures do need reform. But my “spidey sense” makes me suspicious. It would take a judge about two nano-seconds’ reflection to throw that out of court. I find it hard to believe that such a thing has ever happened. Perhaps Lawson was just using hyperbolic rhetoric, not to be taken literally. Or perhaps I’m just naive.

Returning to the main storyline… Let’s play a little parlor game, shall we? How much media attention will Lawson’s story get compared to the the Center for Public Integrity’s flawed report? Will the Center for Public Integrity ever correct its findings?

Update: The editors of the Center for Public Integrity offer an extended rebuttal of Lawson’s findings (and Bacon’s Rebellion’s reporting of those findings). You can read their comment here.

Bacon Bits

I’m on jury duty today, so I won’t have time for blogging. But very quickly, a couple of articles worth noting….

Fraudulent graduation rates. In Prince George’s County, Md., four members of the school board have asked the governor for an investigation into what they allege is a systemic effort to fraudulently boost graduation rates in the Maryland school district, reports the Washington Post. “Widespread, systemic corruption” has inflated graduation rates since 2004, they say.

Of course, that’s Maryland, not virtuous Virginia. Such institutional chiseling could not possibly happen here! The steady increase in graduation rates in Virginia schools is due entirely to the extraordinary efforts of teachers, administrators and students!! Still, citizens and school board members should be alert to the possibility, as remote and implausible as it sounds, that similar chiseling occurs in our own school districts.

Health system profits still healthy. We’ve been hearing for years how the profits of Virginia hospitals, though hefty today, are subject to erosion by the buffeting storms of Obamacare and other forces. Yet the profits of our health systems seem to be holding up nicely. The latest evidence comes from Carilion Clinic in Roanoke.

“Carilion Clinic on Monday released financial statements showing continued improvement for both its operating margin and bond ratings that could soon prompt it to make public its plans to expand Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital,” reports the Roanoke Times.

After losing $131 million between 2008 and 2011, Carilion earned $69 million on $1.65 billion in revenue during fiscal year 2016, giving it a 4.2% operating margin. Moody’s affirmed an A1 rating and upgraded Carilion’s outlook from stable to positive. Standard & Poor’s moved Carilion’s rating upward from A+ to AA-.

Carilion provided $67 million worth of services to people who could not afford them during 2016. This was up about $15 million over 2015.

Running in Neutral: a K-12 and Higher Ed Scandal

If a student hasn’t graduated from college within six years, the odds of completing a degree are extremely low.

In this month’s issue of Atlantic, Nick Ehrmann writes a perceptive article, “Solving the Mystery of Underachievement: Why work hard enough to earn an A when a D will suffice for college admission?” He tells the story of an intelligent African-American lad who was groomed to attend college — and ended up dropping out after the first semester. The article goes to the heart of one of the most pressing issues in American higher education today: the high rate of college drop-outs.

Literally millions of young Americans, disproportionately minorities, borrow money, attend a few semesters, and then drop out, never acquiring the college credential that will allow them to pay off their debt. A primary goal of Virginia higher education policy today is to reduce the number of these college drop-outs, who are all-too-prevalent in the state, as elsewhere in the country. The “retention” rate is a key metric used to measure the performance of Virginia’s public colleges and universities. (See the chart above.)

In my commentaries on the subject, I have assumed that dropping out of college could be explained by one of two factors: (1) poverty, or (2) lack of academic preparedness. True enough, poor kids can qualify for tens of thousands of dollars in Pell grants, federal loans and institutional financial aid. But that assistance rarely covers all costs, and students from lower-income families typically have to work part-time jobs, or even drop out for a semester or two to find the extra money. Once a student drops out, he or she is at higher risk of never re-enrolling. The other problem is that lower-income kids tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods, which tend to have poorer schools. The inadequate academic preparation makes it difficult to keep up with college-level work. Discouraged and demoralized, students question what they’re doing in college at all.

Ehrmann’s article suggests a third reason why kids drop out of college — the phenomenon of “running in neutral.” The article, I believe, is so important that I will summarize its contents in detail, highlighting what I deem to be key insights. But don’t settle for the Bacon’s Digest version — read the full essay yourself.

Enrollment in higher education is reaching record-high levels, just a hair below 70% of all high school graduates. But being “eligible” for higher education does not mean that students are academically prepared, writes Ehrmann. He knows from first-hand experience teaching kids in Washington, D.C. He mentored one young man, Travis Hill, who showed flashes of brilliance, and kept tabs on him through the years.

In the fifth grade, Travis was admitted into a scholarship program through the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which guaranteed that any participating student who graduated from high school would receive a college scholarship. The idea was that removing financial obstacles to college enrollment would encourage students to achieve. “Travis, like many of his classmates,” writes Ehrmann, believed there was ‘no doubt’ he would graduate from high school and enroll in college. He did graduate, and he did enroll in Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania. But he dropped out after a semester. Why?

In Ehrmann’s view, there are two schools of thought. One is the “culture of poverty” theory in which “low-effort syndrome” or cultural adaptations like a prejudice against “acting white” prevent young people from living up to their potential. The other is the “structural barriers” theory that emphasizes how poverty, institutional racism, segregation and lack of adequate health care stack the deck against poor, minority students.

Writes Ehrmann:

The problem is that neither story is completely right. Over the course of a decade … I witnessed a significant number of students develop a sophisticated logic of underachievement that challenged the popular accounts for how inequality in higher education is created and sustained. For many students, their pursuit of long-term educational success was grounded and strategic. Educated in environments that measured academic success primarily by enrolling in college — not necessarily graduating with a degree — they developed strategies to achieve that goal with minimal effort in school.

Travis made no effort to make As and Bs. To the contrary, he skated by with the minimum passing grades. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I work hard when I want to work hard, and that’s what a lot of people can’t do. Some people might not look at it as a skill, but to me it’s a skill.”

That message was inadvertently reinforced from other directions. During his freshman and sophomore years on overnight campus trips sponsored by his high school’s college-placement office, Travis learned that “a couple hundred” colleges and universities across the United States would offer him admission. “Everyone was telling me I could get into college with my grades,” he confided. “I don’t remember exactly how or when I heard it, but that message was seeping into my brain. If I got straight Cs, admissions would be a breeze.”

Every marking period, Travis let his grades slip, When midterm grades were sent home, his grades were typically Cs, Ds and Fs. His mother and stepfather got on his case, and he promised to get his act together. In the final weeks of the term, he approached his teachers one by one and exhibited greater effort in class. His strategem: “Just go to the teacher and act like you care.” Continue reading

Education Anarchists: Virginia Education Officials Discuss Radical Reforms

Billy Cannaday, vice provost of academic outreach at the University of Virginia, is leading the university’s distance-learning endeavors. He also serves as president of the Virginia Board of Education.

How well prepared are Virginia’s high school graduates for what comes next in their lives, whether it’s college, community college or a job? Virginia’s top education officials began asking that question in 2015, and they explored the topic with 24 stakeholder groups, from parents and school counselors to college admissions staff and university deans.

“We went 0 for 24,” Steve Staples, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, told the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) earlier today. Every stakeholder group said that most high school grads are ill prepared for the world that awaits them. A common sentiment: Schools are “working on the wrong stuff.”

Virginia’s public school system is geared to teaching content, said Staples and Billy Cannaday, president of the Virginia Board of Education, in a joint presentation. Knowledge of content, as measured by multiple choice tests, is a necessary part of the K-12 education but it’s not sufficient. Content, they said, must be supplemented by the ability to communicate, collaborate, think critically, think creatively, and solve problems.

Steven R. Staples, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The presentation by Virginia’s two top K-12 officials followed by a lengthy discussion was a first for SCHEV. Senior K-12 and higher-ed administrators rarely talk in formal settings. Indeed, although both work in the same high-rise building in downtown Richmond, they take separate elevators to their respective offices. But both camps acknowledge the need to build bridges, and the outreach to SCHEV may portend greater cooperation between the two education systems in the future.

Virginia’s high school system was designed in the late 1800s for a manufacturing-dominated economy. That system is not working for the 21st-century economy, said Cannaday. New skill sets are needed.

The Standards of Learning (SOL) tests assess students’ mastery of content in narrow silos — mathematics, English, history, science, etc. Students are rarely taught how to integrate those disciplines. Calling for a “deeper learning,” Staples said schools need to “blend disciplines.” He gave as an example a school in Southwest Virginia that linked English, history and civic engagement by assigning students the book, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and coupling it with interviews of veterans in the community.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is early in its reappraisal of Virginia K-12 education. High-level goals have yet to be translated into concrete action. The first step, said Staples, is to establish what should get done. The second is to figure out how to get it done. “We’re still working on that.”

The response of SCHEV board members was uniformly positive, although the obvious question came up: Does VDOE have the resources to pull off changes of the magnitude outlined by Staples and Cannaday?

“This vision isn’t all about resources,” said Staples. “It’s about allocating those resources in a different way.” One strategy might be to scale back state directives to local school districts. For example, the state requires schools to hire a library aide. Maybe the school principal says he’d rather hire a career coach. Another approach: Schools may have to re-think the way teachers allocate their time: five classes, 30 students per class, five  hours a day. Maybe teachers need more flexibility.

“I am somewhat of an anarchist,” Staples said. “We need to re-define high school expectations that drive change throughout the system.”

In response to questions, both Staples and Cannaday said they were open to implementation of quality pre-K programs, which can have measurable impact on pupils’ academic achievement for years, and also to charter schools — although charter schools need to be held accountable for performance just like other public schools.

An essential component of K-12 reform will be defining what is expected of high school graduates, and that requires dialogue with higher education. Said Cannaday: “We have an opportunity to talk about not only K-12 but how it connects to what comes next: college and the workplace.”

SOL Hanky Panky in Patrick County

SOL reading pass rates for Patrick County elementary schools. Stuart Elementary can be seen in red. Image source: Cranky’s Blog

After butting heads with Patrick County school Superintendent William D. Sroufe, Muriel Waldron, a principal of Stuart Elementary school in the mountain hamlet of Stuart, was removed from her position in 2015. A key source of contention was her administration of programs for treating children with cognitive disabilities.

When children are found eligible for special education, they are exempt from taking the Standards of Learning (SOL) test and placed in the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program (VAAP). Sroufe’s gripe with Waldron was that she failed to ensure that Stuart Elementary teachers applied the participation criteria properly. Waldron contended that the superintendent wanted her out because her reading of the policy was depressing average SOL scores.

After getting canned, Waldron alleged that Stroufe had libeled her, and sued for damages. Last week a Patrick County jury awarded her $500,000 in damages. Here’s how the Martinsville Bulletin summed up the underlying issues:

Waldron’s lawyer contended that significantly more students at Stuart Elementary have qualified for VAAP since Waldron was reassigned, arguing that Patrick County Schools wanted more students to be placed in VAAP in an effort to get schools’ test scores up on state measures. Sroufe’s lawyer and some school system officials denied that.

However, Karen Wood, formerly Patrick County Schools’ director of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) program, testified that in late March or early April 2015 she overheard an office conversation in which she alleges Patrick County Schools Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Cyndi Williams expressed to Special Education Director Ann Fulcher that there were not enough students in VAAP in Patrick schools, especially at Stuart Elementary School. Wood alleged Fulcher then told Williams that she would see what she could do.

Williams denied ever discussing with anyone the possibility of moving students into VAAP as a way of getting schools’ test scores up, and she said no Patrick schools have improved their accreditation statuses by moving students into VAAP.

Patrick County elementary schools SOL math scores.

John Butcher, author of Cranky’s blog, got wind of this story and did a little checking. Regardless of who said what and who was telling the truth, one thing can be verified for certain. After Waldron was removed, Stuart Elementary showed a dramatic improvement in its SOL scores.

Is it possible that school administrators thought some Stuart Elementary students really, truly needed to be classified as having cognitive disabilities? Or were Patrick school administrators gaming the system for the purpose of bolstering SOL pass rates?

That’s hard to say. But between the testimony and the statistics, I share Butcher’s suspicions that Patrick officials were trying to stack the deck. I just can’t say for certain without more data. It would be helpful, for instance, to compare the percentage of children with cognitive disabilities at Stuart Elementary with that of other elementary schools, as well as elementary schools statewide. Was Stuart Elementary an outlier? Was Patrick County an outlier?

Patrick certainly would not be the only school district that has tried to game the SOLs. The bigger question is whether the public education system has any accountability. Will the school board dig deeper? Will the Virginia Department of Education take a closer look? Or will the educational establishment just look away?

Butcher thinks accountability might come from the legal system. Writes he: “The good taxpayers of Patrick County now can look forward to the possibility of … lawsuits by the parents of the kids who might claim their children were misclassified in order to cheat on the SOLs.”

Update: Children with learning disabilities are not “placed in” the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program (VAAP), as I wrote. Rather, the program is used to assess students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, Charles Pyle with the Virginia Department of Education informs me. Most special education children take the SOL tests, he says, although some may take alternate tests if determined to be appropriate by their IEP teams.

How Kumbaya Disciplinary Policies Hurt Black Students

Here we go again… The Richmond Times-Dispatch tells us this morning that a “pattern” in Chesterfield and Henrico counties of suspending black students with disabilities at a disproportionately high rates has triggered a response from the state. Chesterfield, Henrico and the City of Richmond are among seven Virginia school districts mandated to set aside federal money under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to address the problem.

In the 2014-2015 school year, Chesterfield was four times more likely to give a long-term suspension to an African-American student with disabilities than other students with disabilities. Despite several years of trying to reduce suspensions, Henrico was 6.7 times more likely.

In Chesterfield, an “equity coordinator” will aim to get at the “root causes” for the disparity. “It’s not that people are racist. That’s too easy,” said Julie McConnell, an attorney who runs the Children’s Defense Clinic at the University of Richmond. The bias, she said, is subtler. “If a child doesn’t act like your child, it’s harder for people to understand.”

The implication here is that the pattern of disciplinary action is discriminatory in effect, if not in motivation. Accordingly, offending jurisdictions like Henrico and Chesterfield are singled out for revamping their disciplinary policies. The new thrust, as described by T-D reporter Vanessa Remmers, is to discipline students “in a nonpunitive way, by focusing on repairing harm done and engaging everyone involved rather than excluding the misbehaving child.” Thus, schools become an agent of let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya social welfare policy.

The article does not tell us how many children are being suspended, much less how many handicapped black children are being suspended, as justification for overhauling district-wide disciplinary programs. The article does not tell us whether the suspensions are commensurate with the number of number and severity offenses. The article does not tell us the number of victims, either students or faculty, of misbehaving students. The article does not tell us what impact poor school discipline has on the learning environment for other students, much less how black students might be adversely affected by disrupted classrooms.

In other words, the article frames the social problem as one of bias and discrimination against black children with disabilities without regard to the impact their behavior has on anyone else, such as black children who do not create trouble at school. Indeed, by ignoring the disproportionate impact of the supposed remedies upon the educational environment of four-fifths of African-American students, one could say that the undue focus on bad actors is itself a form of bias and discrimination.

Here is a quick look at some statistics that might present the issue in a different light. This data comes from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies:

In Virginia secondary schools in the 2011-2012 school year, males were disciplined at roughly twice the rate of females. By the logic of the Children’s Defense Clinic, the ACLU, the Obama administration and other advocates of “disparate impact” theory, the school system discriminates against males. This would seem incontestable. But no one raises this issue. No one seems remotely concerned.

Here’s the data for the suspension rate broken down by ethnic/racial/linguist groups for 2011-2012:

Here we learn that the disciplinary rate for African-Americans in secondary schools is three times that of whites — but that the disciplinary rate for whites is roughly the same as it is for Latinos and American Indians, higher than the rate for English learners, and more than four times the rate for Asians. Perhaps the most accurate way of presenting the data is to say that prevailing practices have a disparate impact on non-Asians!

Here is another way to frame this data: While 21% of African-American students were suspended in 2011-2012, 79% were not! These students did not create major disciplinary issues. But they had to suffer through the disruptions inflicted by their unruly peers. Again, social justice advocates never mention this.

Here’s another set of data, this from the 2014-2015 Virginia Department of Education “Discipline, Crime and Violence Annual Report.”

The incidents  highlighted at left are only the most severe. They do not include 22,388 incidents of defiance of authority/ insubordination, 17,450 incident of classroom or campus disruption, 15,894 disruptive demonstrations, 12,523 minor physical altercations or countless other offenses adding up to 145,413 in all. These numbers also do not include acts of indiscipline too routine to even bother reporting in a system where deviancy is continually defined down.

No one tracks the race/ethnicity/linguistic background of these victims.

Here are other data sets for which there is no data because no one collects it:

  • Number of classes disrupted.
  • Number of teaching hours disrupted.
  • Number of student learning hours disrupted.
  • Academic cost to students of lost learning hours.

Yes, school systems need to take into account the fact that many students come from extremely challenging home environments, and many may suffer from disabilities that make it difficult for them to plug into the normal school environment. We should feel compassion for these kids, and perhaps we should make special arrangements for them. Perhaps it’s time we question the commitment to mainstream them with other students. In the meantime, we should stop assuming that disparate impact equals discrimination, and we should stop contort school disciplinary policies to meet the needs of the few rather than the needs of the many.

When “Social Justice” Leads to Social Injustice

Under the Obama administration, social justice advocates have pushed through a revolution in school disciplinary policies in scores (maybe hundreds) of local school districts across the United States. Whenever minority students are suspended at a higher rate than white students, there is a presumption of prejudice. As former Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it, the disparity in rates of suspension “is not caused by differences in children, it’s caused by differences in training, professional development, and discipline policies. It is adult behavior that needs to change.”

In place of suspensions and other traditional disciplinary tools, the feds imposed a new approach called restorative justice. A student who misbehaves is encouraged to reflect on his actions, take responsibility and resolve to do better. Counseling and dialogue replaces suspensions and other sanctions. This is precisely the approach imposed upon Henrico County Public Schools, as I have blogged about frequently in the past.

How has this all worked out? Enough years have passed that it should be possible to measure the results. One conclusion is beyond dispute: The restorative-justice approach has driven down the number of student suspensions. But has discipline improved? Have educational outcomes improved? There is abundant anecdotal evidence around the country to suggest that more often than not, discipline has gotten worse. Classrooms are being disrupted. Teacher morale is sagging. And the learning experience of orderly students is suffering. But those are just anecdotes. Social justice advocates can cite anecdotes of their own to suggest that the programs are working.

Now comes a study by Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute: “School Discipline Reform and Disorder.” Drawing upon extensive student and teacher surveys of school conditions, Eden examines the impact of two sets of “reforms” — one under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in which suspensions were pruned back for low-level infractions, and a far more aggressive set of reforms under Mayor Bill de Blasio, which set up rigorous administrative hurdles to limit school suspensions and to train teachers to employ the “restorative justice approach.”

Survey questions addressed perceptions of school discipline. Students were asked: Do students get into physical fights? Do students treat each other with respect? Do students drink or use drugs at school? Is there gang activity? Teachers were asked: Are order and discipline maintained?

Eden’s conclusion: “Overall the pattern is consistent and unmistakable: school climate remained relatively steady under Bloomberg’s discipline reforms but has deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s.” The decline in discipline has led to an increase in disruptive behavior with significant spill-over effects. Those who suffer ill effects from the disorder in schools are most likely to be poor and minority students. In other words, writes Eden, “Discipline reforms may be doing great harm to students, especially the most vulnerable.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This comes as no surprise. I feared precisely this result when writing about the imposition of restorative justice disciplinary techniques in Henrico a couple of years ago. Given the evidence proffered by New York schools, we need to take a look at the impact in Henrico County, the case with which I am most familiar, and any other Virginia locality where similar measures have been enacted.

Virginians need to know: Is this social experiment having the same negative consequences here? Has school disorder gotten better or worse? Has academic achievement gotten better or worse? Are we, in the name of social justice, imposing untested theories that create even greater social injustices?

The data exists to answer these questions. There is no excuse for not knowing the answers.

Have Richmond Schools Lost Control of their Kids?

The dark blue line indicates the dividing line between less than 7 and more than 7 unexcused absences in City of Richmond schools.

Adapted from graphic in Cranky’s blog. The dark blue line indicates the dividing line between less than 7 and more than 7 unexcused absences in City of Richmond schools.

John Butcher, writing on Cranky’s Blog, has been digging into Richmond Public School (RPS) data on unexcused absences and asking questions about the school district’s seeming negligence in enforcing state law. Of the city’s 26,000 students in 2016, he has found, some 28% had seven or more unexcused absences. As he summarized the findings in an email to me:

State law required that RPS either prosecute their parents or file CHIN (Child In Need of supervisor) petitions; RPS did so in only 226 of the 7,287 cases (3.1%). At the extreme, one student had 143 unexcused absences; another had 136. There’s no indication that RPS did anything about either.

Butcher is rightly concerned about what he terms “rampant, lawless truancy.” When a quarter of the school-age population has skipped school on more than seven occasions, we’re talking about a serious problem. It appears that the Richmond school system has lost control of its student population.

Bacon’s bottom line: What do we make of this finding? Is the pervasive truancy problem the fault of lax enforcement by Richmond school officials. Has the school-age population become unmanageable? Has parental authority over their children broken down to such an extent that it makes no sense to prosecute parents? These data alone don’t tell us.

However, the data do call into question the value of RPS high school diplomas. We can reasonably assume that a significantly higher percentage of high school students are skipping school than 2nd and 3rd graders. Thus we can reasonably assume that the percentage of high school truants (seven unexcused absences or more) in high schools is significantly higher than the 28% school-wide average. Yet the City of Richmond schools reported an 80.5% on-time graduation rate for its Class of 2016 cohort, according to Virginia Department of Education data. There is only one possible conclusion: Some chronic school-skippers are getting diplomas.

Here’s another question: What is the relationship between truancy and “acting up” in school? How many truants also are discipline problems, disrupting classrooms and making it difficult for other students to learn? I would conjecture that there is a high degree of overlap. The idea sounds perverse, but perhaps it’s a good thing that disruptive students are skipping school — when they’re on the streets, they’re making it easier for teachers to teach. Is it possible that school administrators are deliberately not trying to get them back into school? Or are they just overwhelmed with the magnitude of the job?

Butcher has done an excellent job of highlighting a critical issue facing Richmond schools (and many other school systems). But there’s a limit to what the data can tell us. We need enterprising reporters, citizens, or, heaven forbid, school board members to ask the tough questions and find out what’s really happening.

Update: Cranky keeps on digging into the truancy issue. “Last year, Richmond had eighteen attendance officers to deal with statutory requirements for 10,381 attendance plans, 8,502 conferences with parents, and 7,288 court filings. This year, they reduced the budget for truancy services. Can you spell “scofflaw”?”

Virginia’s Infrastructure Deficit

Virginia's infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

Virginia’s infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

I have often opined on Virginia’s hidden deficits — fiscal time bombs in the form of budgetary gimmicks, pension under-funding, and deferred infrastructure maintenance. These problems are national in scope, and Virginia has been somewhat less derelict in its duty than other states, but sooner or later the Old Dominion will have an ugly confrontation.

The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) rams home the message. The U.S. overall infrastructure rates a D+ rating. Virginia-specific infrastructure rates a C-. (For whatever reason the 2017 national report card links to the 2015 Virginia report card.)

Here’s a summary of the ASCE’s run-down of major infrastructure categories.

Bridges. Virginia has 20,977 bridges and culverts, and their overall health is in decline due to age and lack of funding. Fifty-six percent are approaching the end of their 40-year anticipated design life. Some 30% are more than 50 years old. In 2013, 23% were found to be either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.  “Available funds are often used to address immediate repair or replacement needs, leaving few remaining funds for preventative maintenance. … The statistics indicate an impending peak of replacements which may be required within the next 10 years.”

Dams. Virginia’s dam inventory continues to grow older and more susceptible to damage. The majority were built in the 1950-75 era, and their average age is 50 years old. Of the state’s high-hazard dams, 45% have conditional certificates, indicating that they do not meet current safety standards. The rehabilitation cost for high- and significant-hazard dams is estimated to be $392 million.

Drinking water. Virginia has 2,830 public water systems supplying drinking water to more than 7 million Virginians. A large number of these systems have passed 70 years in age. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest assessment showed that Virginia waterworks need nearly $6.1 billion over the next 20 years. “Deferral of the necessary improvements has worked so far, but can result in degraded water service, water quality violations, health issues, and higher costs in the future.”

Parks & recreation. Park attendance in Virginia is on the rise, and state parks are consistently ranked as some of the best in the nation. The ASCE commentary vaguely states that “a lack of commitment to adequately fund and maintain our facilities will change things for future generations.”

Rail and transit. The report focuses mainly on the inadequacies of funding for passenger rail, which must share rail lines owned by railroad companies that give their own commercial traffic priority. Virginia did recently set up a Rail Enhancement Fund, and it created an Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund, although it did not actually put any money into the latter. “The current funding is not sufficient to meet the increasing demand for rail and passenger service or to complete the much-needed rail infrastructure improvements and upgrades.”

Roads. The condition of Virginia roads is tolerable from a maintenance and safety standpoint, but traffic congestion in the Washington and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas has a huge negative economic impact. The average Washington-area commuter experiences 74 hours a year of delay. Despite an increase in transportation funding in 2013, “a network that has grown by 14% over the last 35 years and with every dollar buying less construction work, more funding is needed to maintain safe roadways while adding needed capacity, making this a  high priority for Virginia.”

Schools. More than 1,800 public school buildings serve Virginia’s K-12 students. A comprehensive 2013 analysis found that 60% of schools are at least 40 years old. Estimated renovation costs exceed $18 billion for schools more than 30 years old.

Solid waste. Virginia’s solid waste infrastructure is in “good” condition. Increased recycling, a reduction in out-of-state waste, and the addition of 11 additional waste facilities have increased the state’s capacity from 20 years to 22 years.

Stormwater. About one-third of Virginia’s stormwater infrastructure is more than 30 years old, and much of the remainder was built 25 to 30 years ago. Most stormwater infrastructure has a 50- to 100-year lifespan. But the ASCE report is not impressed. “There are shortcomings to address for state-level, standardized reporting, public education, and ensuring a dedicated source of funding commensurate with the economic benefits of a healthy Chesapeake Bay and Virginia ecosystems.”

Wastewater. Virginia has $6.8 billion in wastewater needs over the next 20 years, a 45% increase from ASCE’s previous report card in 2009. That includes $1 billion for combined-sewer overflow, and much  more to achieve Chesapeake Bay clean water standards. “Virginia has made progress with considerable investments and has a comprehensive plan, but has tremendous challenges ahead.”

I don’t share the ASCE’s sense of urgency for every category. If we want to reduce traffic congestion, there are alternatives to building more road and transit projects: (1) reforming land use to provide a better balance of jobs, housing and amenities, and (2) accelerating the Uber-ization of ride sharing in order to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road. I also question whether 40 years is an appropriate standard for rehabilitating or replacing school buildings. Clearly, many schools need rehabbing, but the study may overstate the number.

Even with these caveats, Virginia’s infrastructure deficit runs into the billions of dollars. And this analysis does not address recurrent flooding, an increasing problem in Hampton Roads. On top of all the other issues mentioned above, hardening the region’s infrastructure will cost billions of dollars of dollars more.

Update: Charles Marohn over at the Strong Towns blog eviscerates the ASCE report, which he describes as a “propaganda document.”

The reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Sixty years of unproductive infrastructure spending later, we are awash in maintenance liabilities with no money to pay for them. This is what happens when you have a government-subsidized, Ponzi-scheme growth system that, at all times, lives for the next transaction. America is all about new growth, which is why we don’t even bother to question the findings in a study like this.