Category Archives: Education (K-12)

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.

How NOT to Fight the Truancy Problem

The Code of Virginia requires schools to prepare an attendance plan after a student has five unexcused absences, to hold a conference with the parents after six, and to conduct either a prosecution or a CHINS (Children in Need of Services) petition after seven. So, how well are Richmond City Public Schools enforcing the law?

It’s hard to say. John Butcher has received incomplete data from Richmond schools in response to his FOIA request. But the partial data don’t look good.

On the positive side, school officials have ramped up their writing of six-absence attendance plans — more than doubling the number between 2012 and 2015. On the downside, the number of 10-absence truancies has surged — from less than 2,600 in 2012 to a bit more than 4,000 in 2016. Despite the run-up in truancies, the number of prosecutions and CHIN petitions actually decreased between 2014 and 2016.

Read the full post on Cranky’s Blog here.

Bacon’s bottom line: If school boards aren’t asking these questions, citizens should be.

Virginia Schools… Not So Safe

I will confess that I found some of the results from VCU’s Commonwealth Education Poll to be dismaying. Substantial majorities of Virginians believe that public schools have inadequate funding and would be willing to pay higher taxes to help low-performing schools. These misguided souls need to read Bacon’s Rebellion!

On a more positive note, there is strong support for changing the Virginia constitution to give charter schools more independence from local school boards regarding decisions about hiring and firing teachers — 40%. Alas, 45% of those polled opposed a charter-friendly amendment to the constitution.

But the poll I want to focus on, displayed above, shows a remarkable statistic: 16% of Virginians believe that public schools in their communities are “not very safe” or “not safe at all.” Unsafe schools are not an issue for most Virginians. but more than one in four lower-income Virginians and one in four minorities feel differently. Astonishingly, nearly one in three respondents in Hampton Roads felt their schools are unsafe. That is one heck  of an indictment. Unsafe schools demoralize teachers and make it harder for well-behaved students to learn. They are a root problem — not the only problem, but a significant one — behind poor academic performance.

I would love to see a poll that drilled down deeper on this issue. Why do people think their schools are unsafe? To what degree do they believe disruptive behavior in school interferes with teaching and learning? Whose interests should be paramount as schools revamp disciplinary policies — those of the bad actors or the students trying to learn?

How to Bring More Charter Schools to Virginia

KIPP academy in Atlanta. Why not in Richmond or Petersburg? A proposed law could bring more charter schools to Virginia.

KIPP academy in Atlanta. Why not in Richmond or Petersburg? A proposed law could bring more charter schools to Virginia.

KIPP Academies teaches 80,000 students in 200 charter schools nationwide. Ninety-six percent of its students are minorities, 88% are on Free and Reduced Meals subsidies, and 17% are English language learners, according to Chris Braunlich, past president of the Virginia State board of Education and vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute, a fiscal conservative/free market think tank.

Despite their disadvantages, 94% of KIPP students graduate high school compared to 74% for low-income students nationally. Eighty-one percent start college compared to 45% nationally. And 44% complete college compared to nine percent nationally.

Here in Virginia, 94 schools have had their accreditation denied and more than half those schools came from just five school divisions. Yet KIPP Academies does not operate a single charter school in the state.

Virginia’s state constitution gives local school boards absolute authority to oversee their schools. As Braunluch pointed out in a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed, “Successful charter operators will not come to Virginia because the inability in this state for them to manage their own schools under the conditions set down by local school boards has made Virginia an inhospitable state for quality charter operators, and few strong applicants seek to open here.”

But there may be a way around the problem, short of revising the state constitution. Writes Braunlich:

Delegate Steve Landes, chairman of the House Education Committee, has now come forward with a proposal, sponsored in the Senate by Senator Mark Obenshain, offering a pathway towards providing alternatives for the children suffering in [failing]  schools. The same state constitution granting absolute authority to local school divisions also grants the State Board of Education the right to create new school divisions “subject to the criteria and conditions set by the General Assembly.”

Landes’ legislation sets the criteria under which the State Board can exercise its right to create regional charter school divisions, offering independent quality public schools. These new regional charter school divisions would focus only in areas where schools have been denied accreditation for two out of the last three years; would overlay geographically upon existing traditional school divisions, but leave existing local schools under the control of existing school boards; could not access local dollars; and would be subject to the same civil rights, health and safety requirements applicable to other public schools.

Virginia’s applicants are frustrated Moms and Dads who really don’t know how to make it work but are desperate to help their children. As a result, they put together a poor application, and local school board properly rejects it … but then brags, “Well, we don’t get any good applications,” creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Under the Landes-Obenshain proposal, local school districts would continue to operate unimpeded, retaining local control and keeping local funds. Because they are no longer responsible for educating children who attend charter schools, local school districts actually would wind up with more money per student. At the same time, parents desperate to escape under-performing schools will have an option they didn’t have before. This is a win-win for everyone.

It eludes me how any well-meaning person could oppose this arrangement. The bill addresses all the usual objections — that charter schools will favor the affluent (as if it were a bad thing for middle-class kids to get a better education), that they will abet white flight, that they will drain other public schools of resources, that they will cherry pick the “best” of the low-income students (as if it were a bad thing to give them a shot at a decent education), or that they won’t be held accountable. What truly terrifies charter opponents, I suspect, is that they will be successful. And what would that say about the pieties and orthodoxies that prevail in public schools today?

Here’s an Idea — Let’s Impose Unfunded Mandates on Shrinking School Districts

Does it make sense to impose unfunded mandates on jurisdictions with shrinking school populations?

Dozens of Virginia localities have lost population since 2010. Does it make sense to impose unfunded mandates on jurisdictions with shrinking tax base and school enrollment?

There seems to be no end to the ideas that Do Gooders have to improve conditions in Virginia’s schools. And there’s always someone in the General Assembly willing to submit a bill to force Virginia school districts to adopt those feel-good ideas without providing any money to pay for them.

This year, the Do Gooders have backed unfunded mandates that would require every school in Virginia to hire a nurse and every school district in the state to hire a dyslexia adviser. I have no quarrel with the aspiration of employing more nurses and dyslexia advisers in our schools. But I do take issue with enacting bills that would impose those priorities over those of local school boards, many of which are grappling with shrinking budgets and all of which have a keener insight into local needs than anyone in Richmond.

Fortunately, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education killed HB 1757, the nurse bill, recognizing that unfunded mandates create fiscal hardship for  local school divisions, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Virginia Association of School Nurses said the state has one school nurse per 830 students. The bill would have mandated a ratio of one nurse per 550 students. Children need the service of trained professionals to deal with a host of medical conditions, the nurses argued. Ailments range from Type 1 diabetes to seizures, asthma and severe allergies. Some school districts put a nurse in every school. But some have other priorities. Small districts would be especially hard-pressed to meet the standard.

Another bill, HB 2395, would require every school district to staff a dyslexia specialist. The Dyslexia Research Institute contends that 10% to 15% of the U.S. population has the learning disability, but only one in twenty dyslexics are recognized and receive assistance. The syndrome interferes with children’s ability to learn how to read.

In this instance, reports the Times-Dispatch, the House Appropriations subcommittee approved the bill, which follows a law enacted last year that required new teachers to receive training in identifying and dealing with dyslexia.

Larger school districts already maintain dyslexia specialists. Here’s my question: What’s different between an unfunded mandate for hiring dyslexia specialists and an unfunded mandate for hiring school nurses? Perhaps the price tag is smaller — a single dyslexia specialist costs less than multiple school nurses. But the underlying principle is the same — the General Assembly is imposing its priorities upon local school boards.

While all this is going on, lawmakers are grappling with the financial problems experienced by shrinking school divisions. As coincidence would have it, the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, has just published  its latest population data. As can be seen in the map above, dozens of localities have lost population since 2010. Presumably that population decline is matched by a decline in school population.

According to a third article in today’s Times-Dispatch, 39 localities have lost either 1,000 students or 20% of their enrollment between 2006 and 2016. Lower enrollments mean less state support for schools. The House Appropriations Committee is considering a bill that would scrape up $8.6 million to provide relief for those jurisdictions on the grounds that they are too small to offset the loss of state revenue by consolidating services and facilities.

In what world does it make sense to impose a new unfunded mandate — in this case, the dyslexia expert — upon these localities?

Making School Vouchers Palatable to Democrats

School vouchers have brought about demonstrable improvements to students' educational achievement -- in some cases, but not all. How can we combined free choice with accountability?

School vouchers have brought about demonstrable improvements to students’ educational achievement — at some schools, but not all. How can we combined free choice with accountability?

The Richmond-based Commonwealth Institute (CI) has staked out a reasonable position on two school choice bills before the General Assembly this session. Rather than opposing school vouchers and health savings accounts out of hand, CI acknowledges that children, especially poor children, can benefit from alternatives to public school. But the center-left think tank insists upon holding private schools accepting taxpayer dollars as accountable as public schools.

Not all private schools are created equal. Some excel, far surpassing public schools in performance, while others can be described only as failures. “If the goal of school choice is to provide options for a high-quality education,” writes Chris Duncombe in CI’s Half Sheet blog, “then it makes sense to hold private schools receiving taxpayer dollars to the same standards as public schools.”

Two bills before the General Assembly — HB 1605 and SB 1243 — would create voucher-like educational savings accounts that would provide taxpayer dollars for families pursuing private education or home schooling. One way to hold hold private schools accountable to taxpayers is to adopt a policy practiced in some other states: If a private school falls short of accreditation standards, bar them from accepting vouchers the following year.

As a practical matter, if I understand the system correctly, that means private schools with voucher students will have to administer the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. For a school to receive accreditation, a specified percentage of its students must rate proficient in the exams. That might well mean “teaching to the test,” which some private schools find objectionable. But unless someone suggests another means to hold schools accountable and weed out the inevitable fly-by-nights, meeting state accreditation standards may be the least bad option.

For Duncombe, a second issue is equity. The school vouchers would vary widely from locality to locality, dependent upon state Standards of Quality funds appropriated. “That means a family in Lee County would receive over three times as much as a family in Falls Church,” he says. “This variation is not based on the financial need of the family or the cost of pursuing private education in the area.”

(I’m not sure I see the objection here. A family in Lee County is already receiving three times as much state aid as a family in Falls Church. So, how would funding school vouchers on the same basis be any more inequitable?)

Duncombe’s third criterion is income eligibility: “A millionaire could get tax dollars to send their kid to private school, while a family who lacks the means to supplement the voucher with their own income would be left out.” His proposed solution would be to limit the benefit to households whose incomes are below 133% of free-and-reduced-price lunch eligibility — about $60,000 for a family of four.

These proposals are not unreasonable. Duncombe is not taking a position of “Vouchers, hell, over my dead body.” He’s trying to address the criticisms of school vouchers in a substantive way — in effect, taking away the arguments who those who are inclined to accept school choice over their dead bodies. If these compromises are what’s necessary to win legislative approval, expand the sphere of choice, and empower parents, then I can live with them. With luck, the General Assembly and Governor Terry McAuliffe will decide they can live with them, too.

Chesterfield Finds $83 Million Unfunded Liabilities

Somehow Chesterfield County schools missed $83 million in unfunded liabilities until late last year.

Somehow Chesterfield County schools missed $83 million in unfunded liabilities until late last year.

Our society is riddled with unfunded liabilities. Nowhere is the magnitude of short-term thinking more egregious than the federal government. As case in point, the U.S. military has put off maintenance and repairs to the point where we don’t have the money for the military we have, much less the military we would like to have.

“The Department of Defense “has breathtaking liabilities — as much as $88 billion a year — that ought to be addressed before procuring a single additional plane, ship, or tank,” says Tom Spehr, as quoted by Robin Beres in her Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed today.

But Virginians can’t get sanctimonious. Not only do we have the example of Petersburg to to keep us humble, we now hear of scandalous inattention to hidden liabilities afflicts one of Virginia’s most populous jurisdictions — and one with the reputation, no less, of being exceptionally well run.

In Chesterfield County, school officials are grappling with massive unfunded liabilities for a supplementary teacher retirement benefit. Under the program, teachers can retire then get re-hired under the program working part-time, temporary jobs similar to their pre-retirement work. As incentive, they get a lucrative supplement to their normal Virginia Retirement System benefits.

In 2014, reports the Times-Dispatch, unfunded liabilities were found to be $58.7 million. Now they are $83 million.

Here’s the amazing part. The T-D quotes Donald Wilms, president of the Chesterfield Education Association, as being shocked when he learned of the program’s underfunding for the past five years. “Teachers were continually told that the program isn’t going away. So I think it was natural to assume that the program was healthy,” he said. “Nobody told you it was in danger.”

Nobody, that is, except for MGT America, which provided an efficiency review of Chesterfield schools in 2010 (!!!) and noted that the  supplemental retirement plan faced a large unfunded liability in the next few years as Baby Boomer teachers began retiring. “The increased number of participants will dramatically increase the cost of this program,” warned the report.

Somebody wasn’t paying attention.

Forget the federal government. Let Donald Trump and Congress worry about that. Here in the provinces, we need to worry about how we handle our own business. Do other school systems have supplemental retirement programs like Chesterfield’s? How many other unfunded liabilities, the existence of which lurk deep within Comprehensive Annual Financial Statements, are ticking time bombs? Is anyone paying attention?