Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Uh, Oh, New Richmond School Has Unusable Gymnasium

Huguenot High School, circa 2014. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The most politically contentious issue in the City of Richmond these days is what to do about the public school system’s shamefully decrepit school buildings, some of which, if they were privately owned tenement houses, would provide grounds for throwing the book at the landlord. Mayor Levar Stoney has proposed hiking the meal’s tax by 1.5% to support debt payments on $150 million in bonds. The proceeds would help pay for a $225 million spending plan that includes constructing five new school buildings and renovating two.

Now, thanks to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, we find out that the $63 million Huguenot High School, touted as the “Taj Mahal of high schools” when it opened in 2015, cannot use its gymnasium because water damage has rendered the gym floor unusable. After extensive drilling and testing of the structure beneath the floor, city officials have not yet determined the source of the water. With an unusable gym, sports teams are playing at other schools and physical education classes are being held in basement hallways. Fixing this problem will prove far more difficult than the patching of earlier failures such as an elevator that got stuck and an air conditioner that failed.

It is too early to say if the difficulties at Huguenot High School are just happenstance — hey, stuff like happens all the time, and you rely upon warranties and insurance to fix it — or if it is indicative of an underlying management failure. Construction of the high school was outsourced to AECOM, a large and reputable engineering firm — so it’s not as if the flaws can be blamed on some incompetent buddy of the former mayor. On the other hand, is it possible that that there was a fundamental flaw in the design and engineering of the gymnasium foundation. And whose fault would that be?

While it may be tempting to dismiss the water-logged gym floor as a one-off, Richmond Public Schools need to address more systemic issues. The school division has been under-funding maintenance for years, with the result that buildings have a shorter life span than they should. The previous mayor, Dwight Jones, had a penchant for building showcase schools that provided great ribbon-cutting ceremonies at the expense of routine, unglamorous expenditures that would extend the life of existing buildings. Then there’s the issue of the School Board’s unwillingness to consolidate schools to reflect the smaller pupil population. Operating more buildings than necessary runs up  maintenance costs.

Raising taxes is a short-term solution to a long-festering problem. If I were a Richmond taxpayer — and I was for many years before I moved to Henrico County — I would demand a wholesale restructuring of the school system’s building and operations plan before agreeing to a tax increase. Otherwise, the city offers no assurance that it won’t be back in another ten years pleading poverty and begging for yet more money.

Er, Remember those Improving Graduation Numbers?

2016 graduates of Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School. Photo credit: Washington Post

In 2016 the Washington Post wrote an article touting improving graduation rates in Washington, D.C.’s public high schools, right across the Potomac River from Virginia:

The number of students finishing high school on time in D.C. Public Schools reached an all-time high with the Class of 2016, inching the school system closer to meeting an ambitious graduation goal it set nearly five years ago. The District’s most recent graduating class saw 69 percent of seniors earn diplomas within four years, a five-point increase from the previous class.

Today, WTOP television reports this:

More than 1 in 3 students who graduated from D.C. public high schools last year had help from violations of system policy, a study commissioned by the school system found. The study, released Monday, found that 937 out of 2,758 graduates had excessive absences from school or from credit-recovery course, or they took those courses, which are supposed to be for students who have failed a class, “concurrently or in place of regular instruction. … At Ballou [High School], there was a culture of doing ‘whatever it takes’ to pass students so they could receive their diploma,” the report said.

In 2016 the Washington Post also reported this:

More than 90 percent of Virginia’s high school Class of 2016 graduated on time, the highest rate recorded since the state changed how it tracks high school graduations nearly a decade ago. The on-time graduation rate rose from 90.5 percent last year to 91.3 percent this year, continuing an upward trend since the state started keeping more accurate data in 2008, keeping closer tabs on transfer students and dropouts who were sometimes miscategorized in state data.

Does anyone think that Virginia might need to conduct its own study?

A Plug for Virginia’s Scholarship Tax Credit

More than 3,200 Virginia students are receiving more than $10.6 million in private scholarship funds thanks to the Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit, says Chris Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. Preliminary data from the Virginia Department of Education shows that students receiving EISTC scholarships are less wealthy, more likely to live in urban environments, and more likely to be children of color than the average public school student in Virginia.

Unlike many tax breaks, this tax credit provides a net benefit to Virginia taxpayers. Says Braunlich: “The loss of revenue to the state resulting from donors using the state tax credit is more than offset by the loss of expense to the state from not having to continue educating students who depart the public school system.”

Record Enrollment, Record Bachelor’s Degrees Granted

Virginia’s colleges and universities produced a record number of graduates with bachelor’s degrees in Virginia in 2016-17, reports the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). Of the 54,508 bachelor’s degrees awarded, 24,405 degrees were in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Virginia continues to make progress on the Virginia Plan for Higher Education, which aims to make the Old Dominion the best educated state in the country by 2030. To attain that goal, the percentage of Virginians with a college degree or workforce credential must increase from 51% to 70%.

“Of all the jobs created since the Great Recession, 99% of them went to individuals with more than a high school diploma,” said SCHEV Director Peter Blake. “This can be in the form of worker training, credentials or degrees. The Commonwealth needs a well-educated workforce to succeed in the world economy. Virginians need to keep their skills sharp to succeed in work and life.”

Defying the ever-escalating cost of attendance, undergraduate enrollment at Virginia’s public four-year institutions increased 2% over the previous year, reaching 174,032.

“Baccalaureate enrollment has set record levels for 25 years,” wrote Todd Massa, director of policy research, in a report to the council. “Even with dramatic changes at individual institutions, Virginia public higher education remains a highly desired destination.”

With 36,297 students enrolling for the 2017-18 school year, George Mason University was the largest four-year institution in Virginia. Virginia Tech was second largest, with 34,440, followed by Virginia Commonwealth University with 31,036.

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s public colleges keep on raising tuition, but they keep on growing. I’ve been warning that the cost of attendance can’t continue climbing as it has in recent decades without pricing students out of the market. So far, Virginia’s higher-ed system has proven me wrong. While institutions have increased the list price of tuition, they have discounted it for students from lower-income families, thus keeping tuition affordable for poorer students.

Still, I maintain there are limits, and we may be seeing them at some institutions. Despite system-wide gains, enrollment declined 5.7% at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, 2.1% at Norfolk State University, and 0.6% at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Last May the VCU board approved a 3.8% tuition & fee increase for in-state undergraduate students. During the run-up to that decision, I opined that a big tuition hike created a big risk for a non-elite institution like VCU. “The board will need to pay close attention to the market consequences. Will fewer students apply to VCU? Will VCU become less selective in whom it accepts?”

Well, we now know one consequence: VCU ended up with 182 fewer students. I haven’t had a chance to analyze the data but here’s what I would expect: Demand held up for programs where VCU is strong — the School of the Arts, the Brand Center — but eroded badly in disciplines where it is weak. If I have a chance, I’ll dig into the data and report back if I’m right or wrong.

Virginia’s Top 10 Stories (Told and Untold) of the Year

Phew! I finally made it through the all-consuming Christmas season, and I’m still alive to tell the tale. Christmas is a wonderful but grueling time of year for the Bacon family, marked by numerous feasts, expanding waistlines, excessive gift giving, shrinking bank accounts, and considerable out-of-town travel to distant relatives. But I’m back in the saddle at the Bacon’s Rebellion global command headquarters and eager to get the blog cranked back up.

Many publications publish a retrospective look at the “Top 10 Stories of the Year.” I have never done this at Bacon’s Rebellion, but perhaps it is time. A few obvious candidates for the Top 10 stories in Virginia’s political-public policy realm come to mind. Please feel free to add, subtract, modify or opine upon this list in the comments.

  1. Republican wipe-out in the November 2017 election. In a wave election driven largely by anti-Trumpism, voters obliterated the seemingly insurmountable Republican majority in the House of Delegates and elected Democrats to all three statewide offices. The Northam administration will look and act a lot like the McAuliffe administration, but it will have more friends in the legislature.
  2. Civil War statues and the Charlottesville riot. Virginia became the cockpit of U.S. culture wars and the debate on race as national and local media alike fixated on statues that memorialize Civil War generals. The controversy exploded as outsiders flocked to participate in, and oppose, the United the Right rally in Charlottesville.
  3. Virginia’s lagging economy. The U.S. economy gained momentum during the first year of the Trump administration, but Virginia’s economy, once a national growth leader, continues to under-perform. Caps on military spending have hobbled growth in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while Virginia’s rural, mill-town economy continues to struggle. Governor Terry McAuliffe has shined as the superlative state salesman, but his policies have not budged economic fundamentals.
  4. Dominion on the defensive. Dominion Energy, a dominating political presence in Virginia, was a big loser from the election, as an unprecedented wave of anti-Dominion politicians was elected to the General Assembly. Despite making great progress toward solar energy, the electric utility found itself under attack for its rate freeze, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and coal ash disposal. In a dramatic, end-of-year gambit, Dominion proposed upgrading its transmission and distribution systems to a more resilient, renewable-friendly smart grid.
  5. Higher-ed mobilizes to defend status quo. The year began with sharp criticism of Virginia’s public colleges and universities for runaway costs, tuition and fees. The year closed with an industry P.R. blitz highlighting the link between higher ed and economic development. Virginia is nowhere near a consensus on how to balance the competing imperatives of affordability, access, workforce development, and R&D-driven innovation.
  6. Death spiral for Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges in Virginia entered the year in a slow-motion death spiral due to internal flaws and contradictions. Policies enacted by Congress and the Trump administration accelerated their swirl into oblivion, while offering nothing obvious to replace them. The election of Democrat Ralph Northam will renew the debate over expansion of Medicaid, all but guaranteeing that the focus in Virginia will be on the zero-sum question of who pays for health care rather than how can we improve productivity and outcomes in order to lower costs for the benefit of all.
  7. Interstate 66 and HOT lanes. The McAuliffe administration advanced its signature contribution to Virginia’s transportation infrastructure by developing major upgrades to Northern Virginia’s I-66 transportation corridor. The opening of HOT lanes inside the Beltway erupted in controversy over the fairness and effectiveness of using dynamically priced tolls to ration scarce highway capacity.
  8. Accountability in K-12 education. By some measures, Virginia’s system of public schools made progress in 2017 but by other measures it continued to struggle. One of the most important trends, neglected by the media, is the continued effort by state bureaucrats to use Standards of Learning tests to hold local schools accountable and the continued gaming of the rules by local officials to avoid accountability. Meanwhile, revisions to disciplinary policies to advance social justice concerns has undermined school discipline and made a difficult job — teaching disadvantaged kids — even more difficult. The breakdown in discipline makes it ever harder to recruit teachers to the most challenging schools.
  9. Salvaging the Metro. The Washington Metro heavy rail system needs billions of dollars to compensate for past failures to invest in maintenance, even as it struggles with union featherbedding, declining ridership, and an unwieldy governance structure. Representatives from Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the federal government can’t seem to agree on much. Metro is critical for the functioning of the Northern Virginia economy, but Virginia wants to see labor and governance reforms before coughing up billions of dollars to prop up a failing system that, lacking those reforms, inevitably will come back and ask for more in the future.
  10. Turn-around at Virginia’s ports. This end-of-the-year list is gloomy, with an emphasis on crumbling and failing institutions. But there is at least one good news story (which I have neglected to cover on this blog): the revival of the Ports of Virginia. Traffic is booming and profitability has revived.

McAuliffe Acts to Stem Teacher Shortages

Governor Terry McAuliffe is worried about unfilled teacher positions in Virginia, which numbered more than 1,000 two months into the 2016 school year and has increased 40% over the past 10 years.

Accordingly, the governor has proposed a number of palliatives to address the problem, including an executive order allowing Virginia universities to confer four-year education degrees. Currently, prospective teachers require a year of graduate school.

Other measures include putting $1.1 million in the biennial budget to automate the paper-based teacher licensure process; $1 million to recruit and retain principals in Virginia’s most challenged school districts; $225,000 in FY 2020 for tuition assistance for students pursuing a teaching degree; $100,000 over the biennium to cover the cost of tests and test preparation for minority students; and making students eligible for up to $20,000 in loans if they agree to teach two years in school districts with 50% poor kids.

“The teacher shortage is a growing crisis that we have to stop and reverse if we are serious about the Commonwealth’s economic future,” McAuliffe said in a press release. “High quality teachers are the key to unlocking the potential in our children, our Commonwealth, and the new Virginia economy and these steps will help us recruit and retain them across the state.”

“Given the cost of higher education and the severe need for additional teachers,” he said, “I believe changing [the M.A.] requirement will encourage more Virginians to pursue careers in education and will help supply more future teachers to meet the growing needs of our public school system.” 

Bacon’s bottom line: Good for McAuliffe. Once upon a time in Virginia, teaching required no more than an B.A. degree. At some point, based on the logic that more education would turn out better teachers, Virginia began requiring M.A. degrees. I have seen no evidence to suggest that a fifth year improves teacher quality. However, the five-year requirement demonstrably has imposed a major additional burden upon would-be teachers. It should surprise no one that the $25,000-or-so cost to attend college for a fifth year, plus an extra year of lost wages, depressed the number of students interested in entering the profession.

All foes of gratuitous and counter-productive regulation should cheer the governor’s executive action. As for his budget recommendations, the $1.1 million expenditure to automate the teacher licensure process sounds like an investment in more efficient administration. The other budget proposals may or may not prove to be useful, but they will cost in the aggregate less than $1 million more.

Here’s what I would like to know: Are the teacher shortages spread uniformly across the state, or are they worse in areas of concentrated poverty? Actually, I know the answer, but it would be helpful to know the details. Teacher shortages are worst at schools where poverty is endemic, and poverty is strongly associated with student behavioral issues. Young teachers get burned out teaching in classes with disciplinary problems they can’t solve, and they leave the profession in high numbers. Addressing the teacher shortage likely requires addressing the discipline problem as well, but that’s not something McAuliffe can accomplish with a stroke of the executive pen.

Update: Charles Pyle, communications director for the Virginia Department of Education, notes that state guidelines enacted in the late 1980s led to more teachers with M.A. degrees but did not eliminate four-year eligibility. Many education schools still provide undergraduate degrees as seen here (U = undergraduate).

One of Three Virginia Children Unready for Kindergarten

Source: Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission

Roughly one third of Virginia children lack the social, self-regulation, literacy or math skills needed for kindergarten, finds a study on early childhood development released by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC).

(That estimate was derived from a representative sampling from 63 of Virginia’s 132 school systems, so a comprehensive statewide survey might yield a different percentage.)

Factors such as poverty, low birth weight, and maternal substance abuse place childrens’ early development at risk and strongly influence whether they will be ready for school. The scientific research is clear, says the JLARC report:

Very young children who grow up in — or are regularly exposed to — safe, language-rich, and healthy environments, with caregivers who support their curiosity and learning, are likely to enter school ready to learn. Conversely, children not exposed to such environments are less likely to be ready for school and are more likely to be held back, enrolled in special education classes, and perform poorly in later grades. Those same students are more likely than their peers to commit crimes, become teen parents, and rely on public assistance as they grow older. … Each of these outcomes can carry significant financial costs to government, including the state.

Virginia has 13 “core” early childhood development programs, including seven voluntary home visiting programs for expectant mothers, the Virginia Pre-School Initiative, the Child Care Subsidy Program, and two Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs. The state spent $144 million on early childhood development programs in FY 2016; total federal, state and local spending amounted to $359 million.

An opportunity exists to improve the effectiveness of the state’s spending commitment without spending more money, JLARC concluded. “Careful attention is needed to whether programs are well designed, implemented as designed , and perform effectively.” But there is insufficient data to evaluate which programs are delivering the most bang for the buck. 

Bacon’s bottom line: By all means, we should evaluate the efficacy of Virginia’s early childhood development programs and reallocate resources to programs that deliver the most value. But such fine-tuning of the existing system amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when one out of three Virginia children is unready for kindergarten. Virginia appears to be experiencing what can only be interpreted as a slow-motion societal collapse.

Lagging childhood development is strongly correlated with poverty and other phenomena such as low birth weight and maternal substance abuse that are also strongly correlated with poverty. The percentage of Virginia’s population in poverty at present runs about 11%. Yet one-third (subject to revision if we could obtain statewide data) of children are unready for kindergarten. Why the three-to-one disparity? A big portion of the problem, I submit, is demographic: Mothers in poverty have more children than middle-class mothers do, and they have children at much younger ages.

At 64 years of age, I’m about to become a grandfather for the first time. My eldest daughter, whose baby is due in literally one or two days, is 32 years old. Like her 30-year-old sister, who wants to have children but is waiting until her family’s career and finances are in order, and like the vast majority of middle-class Americans, she waited until she completed her education, found a job, got married, saved money, and achieved financial stability. Poor people don’t hew to the same family planning logic. Although the number of teen pregnancies is declining, poor women tend to give birth at a much younger age than their middle-class peers do, and they tend not to be married. (This proclivity, by the way, applies to all races and ethnicities.)

Given the strong correlation between poverty and low literacy levels, substance abuse, single-parent households, child neglect and a host of other pathologies, it should come as a surprise to no one that the percentage of Virginia’s young children ill equipped for kindergarten is increasing. And it should surprise no one that the percentage of teenagers ill equipped to graduate from high school is increasing, and that the percentage of young adults ill equipped for college is increasing. The same problem is manifesting itself on every step of the educational ladder.

Yes, we need to treat the symptoms of this systemic problem by, among other things, helping prepare young children for kindergarten. But the same pathologies that hinder readiness for kindergarten also hinder progression to 1st grade and beyond. In the long run, the most important thing we can do is to persuade teenagers and young women that they can improve their lives by adopting bourgeois values — deferring gratification, staying sober and delaying child bearing until they have completed their education, formed a stable marriage, and found a stable job.

Is the Big Problem at Richmond Schools Decrepit Buildings or Teacher Turnover?

Linwood Holton Elementary School in Richmond. Richmond has several beautiful new schools. What difference have they made?

The City of Richmond is debating proposals to spend $740 million to $800 million to modernize the city’s school buildings after years of neglect. The latest new wrinkle reported by the Richmond Times Dispatch is that the Richmond School Board has delayed a vote on the grounds that it needed more time to ponder the plan. The main concern expressed so far — where on earth would the money come from? — is valid. But there is an even more fundamental question: Will modernizing school buildings do anything to reverse the school system’s atrocious under-performance?

No question, many school buildings are aging and sub-standard, with crumbling tiles, broken toilets, wheezing HVAC systems, and leaking roofs. They are an embarrassment and a disgrace, and they need to be fixed. But that should cost a fraction of the sums being discussed.

Based on the conviction that creating a better physical environment can improve academic performance, Richmond has built several expensive new school buildings in recent years. As part of their deliberations, School Board members should examine whether those buildings have made any difference in educational achievement of the children who passed through their doors.

Here’s what I hear. While new buildings provide a better physical environment, poor children from broken homes in inner city neighborhoods bring the same emotional and disciplinary issues to school. Young, inexperienced teachers are shocked and dismayed by the environment, they get burned out and they leave. The Richmond school system has such a horrendous reputation among teachers in the metropolitan area that it couldn’t hire enough to fill its classrooms this fall, meaning it has had to rely more heavily than ever upon substitute teachers, some of whom probably shouldn’t be teaching at all. Prediction: Richmond’s teacher shortage will get even worse in January when burned-out teachers decide after Christmas Break they don’t want to return.

Once basic health and safety standards are resolved, Richmond schools have more urgent priorities than building fancy new school buildings. Above all, the system needs to address the problem of school discipline and teacher churn.

The New Look of Virginia High School Grads, Circa 2030

Lots of good data coming out of the retreats of the House and Senate appropriations committees yesterday and today… The chart above appeared in a presentation by April Kees, legislative fiscal analyst, to the Senate Finance Committee.

By 2030, whites will constitute a bare majority of high school graduates in Virginia. The percentage of blacks will shrink slightly, while percentages of Asians and Hispanics will soar.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is what college administrators are talking about when they allude to a challenging demographic future. The percentage of Hispanic students graduating from high school and populating the potentially college-bound population will grow by six percentage points, offsetting the seven-point decline in the percentage of whites. Insofar as whites tend to come from more affluent families, to attend better schools and to be better academically prepared than Hispanics, colleges are bracing for student bodies that need more remedial work and financial assistance.

On the other hand, Asian students tend to come from more affluent households and to be better prepared academically than all other ethnic groups, including whites. They could prove to be a mother lode for institutions looking for students with high SAT scores and no need of financial assistance.

Teenagers and the New Taboos of Race

When a handful of white Short Pump Middle School football players in Henrico County engaged in a racial bullying — simulating anal rape upon black peers in the locker room and posting video on social media — the community understandably erupted in outrage. The behavior was reprehensible. It had to be chastised.

It’s not clear from media reports what punishment, if any, the perpetrators of the acts themselves have suffered. As minors, the boys are entitled to privacy protections. But let’s make one thing clear: The bullies were responsible for the actions, and they are the ones who should be punished for their behavior, not their teammates.

But the Henrico County Public School system was not content to merely punish the offenders. School authorities canceled the rest of the team’s season, thus affecting kids who did not participate in the bullying. Instead of attending practice the team assembled for mandatory discussions on racial tolerance and ethics. Also, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, one football coach is said to no longer work for the county. The reason for his departure is unclear, although we are probably safe in assuming that it was related to the bullying incident.

It’s one thing to punish individuals who deserve it. It’s another thing to punish the collective (the football team), sweeping innocents into the net. Now Henrico schools are using the episode as an excuse to bureaucratize the enforcement of the dogma of the day on matters of race.

The T-D reports today that Henrico schools are creating a new office of equity and diversity, and in January will hire a director to oversee it. The goal of the office will be to implement short- and long-term cultural diversity plans. Also, the schools are planning an equity and diversity task force made up of students, parents, community members, and district staff members.

Super. Now the higher-ed practice of creating diversity bureaucracies is spreading to K-12 school systems. That’s worked out so well for colleges — they’re such beacons of ethnic tranquility these days — that I’m sure it will turn out just dandy for Henrico, too. Not.

This is just a suspicion, and I hope I’m proven wrong as Henrico rolls out its new programs. But talk of racial tolerance (a good thing) is all too often accompanied by talk of “white privilege” and guilt-tripping of white students (a bad thing). In the current environment, no one can veer from the party line without being judged a racist, so people shut up. And keep their opinions to themselves. And vote for Donald Trump.

One last thought: The United States is undergoing a redefinition of taboos. For many generations, the use of profanity was banned from the public domain. Beginning in the 1960s, it became hip to transgress against bourgeois norms of propriety. A half century later, the norms against profanity have been obliterated. Vulgar language is ubiquitous in our society today. But the old taboos have been replaced by new taboos, largely based on ethnic, gender and sexual identity. Most famously, the “N word” has replaced the “F word” as something that simply cannot be uttered publicly. (To prevent any misunderstanding, I’m OK with the taboo against the “N word.”)

When I was a teenager, it was cool and edgy to use profanity. Kids used the transgressive language of the day as a form of self-assertion, a way to cultivate an air of rebelliousness. Now, it seems, nobody outside of Sunday school cares much about profanity. So how does a teenage kid, especially a white teenage kid, stay edgy and rebellious? By transgressing the new taboos…. which these days involve racial and sexual identity.

I don’t know what drove those white middle-school football players to bully their black teammates the way they did. But I would caution against jumping to the conclusion that their parents didn’t raise them right. The kids may be acutely aware what mainstream American society considers right and wrong in matters of race — and they may be transgressing the new taboos precisely because they are taboo.

I am not making an academic distinction here. If you want to prevent a behavior (in this case racial bullying), then you need to understand the origins of that behavior. And, until I see evidence that settles the matter, I will continue to ask if Henrico school administrators are enacting initiatives based on a profound misunderstanding.