Category Archives: Education (K-12)

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?

Blaine, the Bane of School Choice

The Blaine amendment stymies school choice -- and opportunity -- in Virginia.

School choice in Virginia runs afoul of the Blaine Amendment

Last week I argued that Virginia could promote school choice by making state “Direct Aid to Public Education” dollars follow school children regardless of what school they attended, in effect contributing a $4,500 contribution toward their private school, charter school or home schooling.

Chris Braunlich, with the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, reminds me that a strict reading of the so-called Blaine Amendment to the Virginia Constitution prohibits any appropriation of state funds “to any school or institution of learning not exclusively owned by the State or some political subdivision thereof.” That’s why previous efforts to promote school choice have focused on the tax code.

For now, he writes, the Education Improvement Scholarship tax credit remains the “best and only” education choice option in Virginia. While the program funded only 2,662 scholarships worth $7.6 million in 2015, as I had observed in my post, it is growing rapidly and is pre-authorized for $10 million in the first six months of this year. He writes:

One reason our program is so small is the relatively small size of our tax credit:  65 percent.  If our tax credit were in line with other states, the number of students being helped would be significantly higher.  For example, Florida’s 100 percent tax credit raises more than $357 million to aid more than 77,000 students whose cost of education is removed from the state budget. Pennsylvania’s two programs, with up to a 90 percent tax credit, provide scholarships worth $124 million to nearly 50,000 students. Arizona’s 100 percent tax credit in three different programs raises $92.5 million to offer a more choices to nearly 46,000 students. Georgia’s 100 percent tax credit raises $54 million to aid more than 13,000 students.

Unfortunately, rather than increase the value of the tax credit, says Braunlich, Governor Terry McAuliffe proposes reducing it.

Meanwhile, Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, has filed HB 1605 for the third year running. The bill provides for Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to Virginia students, similar to programs that helped 6,000 students in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada.

Parents would apply to their school division for a renewable Parental Choice Education Savings Account for an amount tied to “a certain percentage” of the Standards of Quality. Parents could use the money for education-related expenses including tuition, deposits, fees, and required textbooks.

It sounds like a great idea…. assuming local school boards are willing to go along, which in many cases they won’t be, and assuming it doesn’t run afoul of the Blaine amendment, which it probably will. It also sounds like it’s a lot more complicated than would be necessary if Virginia repealed the Blaine amendment.

Just like the tax-credit scholarships, half a loaf may be better than none. But I’m more inclined to attack the problem directly by revising the state Constitution.

How to Give Virginians Real School Choice

Vouchers could make school choice a reality for thousands of Virginians.

Students at Immanuel Christian School in Northern Virginia. Tuition ranges from $7,500 to $10,000 a year. Four thousand-dollar vouchers would make school choice a reality for hundreds of thousands more Virginians.

Virginians enjoy a wide range of school choice… providing that they are affluent enough. If they can’t afford to pay private school tuition or buy a house in neighborhoods served by the best public schools, however, their options are limited.

The Old Dominion has among the smallest number of charter schools in the country — nine. The state does provide a tax credit to encourage donations to approved educational foundations, of which there are 34. But in fiscal 2016 those foundations provided only 2,882 scholarships — no more than a rounding error in the Commonwealth’s nearly 1.3 million school-age population. Virginia does allow parents to home-school their children, but the number of families in a position to pursue that option also is modest — the Virginia Department of Education counted only 33,400 home-schooled students in fiscal 2016.

In sum, Virginia’s educational system does a fine job of serving the state’s more affluent citizens but restricts opportunities for those who are less better-off. The poorest households are stuck in failing inner-city and rural school districts with no way of getting out. And the quality of education in Virginia’s worst schools is abysmal. Of the state’s 1,825 public schools, 22% were either denied accreditation or received only partial accreditation under the state’s minimalist standards.

The traditional solution espoused by the teacher’s lobby is mo’ money. There is nothing about Virginia’s educational system that can’t be improved by dumping extra dollars into it! But let’s face it: Given impending budget shortfalls, the big question facing the General Assembly in January is which programs get cut and by how much. Virginia’s K-12 school system won’t be getting any more state funding next year, and chronic budget pressures over the next decade suggest that there won’t be much more forthcoming in the decade ahead.

Tinkering with the system won’t accomplish anything meaningful. The inability of the political establishment to alter the educational status quo creates a tremendous opportunity for an insurgent movement such as the Libertarian Party to advance a bold proposal.

It’s time to think big.

Broadly speaking, there are three main sources of revenue for K-12 education in Virginia: local revenue, state revenue and federal revenue. The state component, referred to in the General Fund budget as “Direct Aid to Public Education,” is budgeted to receive $5.8 billion this fiscal year, although that sum might be trimmed during the upcoming General Assembly session in anticipation of a revenue shortfall.

That $5.8 billion is distributed to local governments according to a complicated formula, but it averages about $4,500 per student.

I propose transforming K-12 education by using the state aid to empower parents and promote school choice. Parents could continue sending their children to public school if they desired, and the school district would continue receiving state aid as it always had. But anyone choosing to send a child to a private school (or home school) would receive a $4,000 voucher reflecting the state’s cost in providing that education.

Admittedly, $4,000 is not enough by itself to cover a private school tuition. But it’s enough to cover a significant portion of the tuition, making private school more affordable for middle-class families than it is today. Families that couldn’t afford to pay, say, $8,000 a year in tuition perhaps could afford to pay $4,000. For poor families, the $4,000 would supplement scholarship dollars, enabling scholarship foundations to stretch their resources over more students. For home schoolers, the sum would be a boon to distance learning, teaching collaboratives and free-lance teachers, spurring innovation in how education is organized and delivered.

The beauty of the arrangement is that it benefits public schools, too. While public districts would lose some state money, they would have fewer students to educate. Fewer students would translate into more local dollars per student. Everybody wins — everybody, that is, but the ideologues who oppose private education.

This idea is a broad framework only, and there could be many wrinkles to iron out. The most obvious is the need to hold private schools accountable. Perhaps any school accepting voucher funds would be required to meet the same Standards of Learning criteria as public schools do. Not all private schools are created equal. There needs to be a mechanism for weeding out the bad schools, and the SOLs might do the trick.

Another problem is that state aid is not distributed to school districts equally. Wealthier school districts get fewer state dollars; poorer school districts get more. Handing out vouchers would create winners and losers, and losers would oppose any change to the status quo. But that’s a small price to pay to give financially strapped families genuine school choice and to foster innovation by entrepreneurs and educators.

The Forgotten Victims Speak at Last

The Obama administration and the ACLU have forced Henrico County to adopt policies that reduce the number of student suspensions in schools on the grounds that disciplinary action disproportionately affects African-American students. Henrico County has responded as ordered, reducing suspensions by 38% over the past five years. Forgotten in the controversy is the fact that the victims of disrupted classrooms are mainly African-American as well. The negative effects of law discipline comes through loud and clear in this segment from Channel 6 News, based on complaints made at a recent Town Hall meeting.

Henrico school officials say their intensive counseling approach to problem students is working. Color me skeptical. I’m glad to see parents finally speaking out.

Food Pantries, the Latest College Craze

An increasing number of college food pantries in Virginia provide emergency rations to hungry students. Photo credit: VCU's Rampa

An increasing number of college food pantries in Virginia provide emergency rations to hungry students. Photo credit: VCU’s Rampantry

There’s a new wrinkle on the college affordability crisis. Some students are so strapped for cash that colleges are setting up food pantries. As CNN reports, membership in the College and University Food Bank Alliance has quadrupled in the past two years to 398 members.

“Even if you don’t hear about hunger being a problem, there’s probably a population on campus in need,” said Megan Breitenbach, a student who volunteers at the pantry at Montclair State in New Jersey.

Food Bank Alliance members include these Virginia institutions:

Virginia Commonwealth University. The mission of Ram Pantry is to “to provide VCU students with healthy, culturally appropriate, emergency food.” Due to limited resources, the website says, the pantry can no longer service VCU faculty and staff!

Virginia Tech. Tech won reknown for its No. 1 ranking in the “best food” category of “The Princeton Review’s” 2015 best colleges review. But in December 2015, according to the Roanoke Times, the food pantry was serving 50 to 75 students per week.

Old Dominion University. ODU launched Ignite Pantry in October.

Northern Virginia Community College and Eastern Shore Community College also operate food pantries.

Bacon’s bottom line: In their never-ending quest to recruit more elite student bodies, Virginia colleges and universities are placing more emphasis on the kind of food that kids from affluent families are accustomed to. Virginia Tech is a case in point. As I blogged last month when discussing the rising cost of food services at the University of Virginia:

Upgrading from the crappy cafeteria food I ate back in the 1970s to trendy, locally sourced food is expensive, and the lower-income and middle-class students whose families live on McDonalds or Olive Garden budgets are hard-pressed to pay for it.

Little did I realize that the situation was so bad that colleges and universities were setting up food pantries!

With every passing day, it seems increasingly evident that colleges and universities in Virginia (and across the nation) are engines of exploitation, running up the cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board), encouraging indebtedness, and sending their graduates into the workforce deeply in hoc — all to acquire the resources to boost institutional prestige in a never-ending race with other institutions doing the same thing. Starving students are the latest symptom of a system that is terribly broken.

Number of High School Grads Leveling Off

Projected number of Virginia high school graduates through 2034

Yearly number of Virginia high school graduates. Source: “Knocking at the College Door.

Virginia should experience a surge in the number of high school graduates through 2025 before dropping off by 2030, bucking a national trend in which the number declines by 4%. The projections made by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education are designed to help state systems of higher education conduct their long-term planning.

Trends differ sharply by region, notes the report, “Knocking at the College Door.” The proportion of high school graduates in the South actually is expected to increase: from about 33% of all graduates nationally in the early 2000s to 47% by 2025. That increase will be more than offset by declining numbers of graduates in the Northeastern and Midwestern states.

Nationally, the decline will be driven primarily by a shrinking number (and percentage) of white high school graduates, while the percentage of Asians and Hispanics increase and the percentage of blacks remain roughly the same.

racial_breakdown

Virginia high school graduates by race/ethnicity.

Private schools: The number of private school graduates from Virginia is projected to decrease sharply: 31% by 2031-32. That translates into 2,000 fewer per year. As a percentage of all Virginia high school grads, private schoolers should decline from 7.2% of the total in 2010-11 to 5.1% by 2031-32.

The report provided no explanation for Virginia’s precipitous drop in the number of private schoolers, but atributed the slide nationally to large declines in the number of Catholic schools

Are Henrico Schools Solving the Wrong Problem?

Are new school buildings what Henrico schools need to improve academic performance?

Glen Allen High School. Are new buildings what Henrico schools need to improve academic performance?

In 2014 the Henrico County Board of Supervisors enacted a 4% meals tax, promising to dedicate the money to county schools. This year, voters approved $272 million in renovations and other capital projects for the school system, funded largely by meals tax revenues.

When the projects are completed, parents no doubt will be pleased to send off their children to bright, shiny new school facilities. But one must ask: Will better buildings do anything to improve the caliber of education? A quotation from Matthew 27:23 comes to mind:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

Despite Henrico County’s success in raising new funds for its school division, the Virginia Board of Education denied state accreditation to seven Henrico schools — the first time in the division’s history that more than one of its schools failed to meet the state benchmark for student achievement, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch over the weekend.

Now Henrico County officials have announced a town hall forum to update the public how how the school division is addressing the problems. “Our No. 1 hope is to have a very productive dialogue,” said spokesman Andy Jenks. “We hope to be up front about what we’re doing well and where there is more work to be done.”

I expect school officials to talk about the challenges of serving neighborhoods with large populations of minority and economically disadvantaged students. No doubt they also will have something to say about the state’s tougher Standards of Learning Tests, which caused SOL scores to plummet across the state, putting dozens of schools across the state under accreditation pressure.

But will school officials be “up front” about the discipline policies enacted after the Virginia ACLU and the Obama administration condemned the county for disciplining African-American students at higher rates than other racial/ethnic groups? Suspensions have declined significantly (at least they had the last time I checked) in Henrico schools. Some three years have passed. Now it’s time to take an honest look at the effectiveness of the new policies, including their impact on African-American students whose education is harmed by the disruptive behavior of a small number of kids acting up in class.

Has disruptive behavior improved or gotten worse? Are problem students more or less likely to cut into teaching time? Are teachers more or less frustrated by their inability to teach, more or less likely to transfer out of the low-achieving schools?

Will Henrico parents get honest answers, or politically correct answers?

Special Tax Districts for City Schools?

Special tax districts to build public schools?

Photo credit: WAVY TV

Chesapeake Councilwoman Debbie Ritter has a crazy idea — why not let Chesapeake create special districts that allow property owners to tax themselves to fund school improvements in their district? Virginia localities can set up special tax districts to pay for utilities, transportation improvements, and even sand dredging, why not schools?

Here is her logic, as laid out by the Virginian-Pilot:

Ritter said she is requesting the change so the city has a way to pay for schools in the currently undeveloped Dominion Boulevard area off U.S. 17. The city is set to vote this month on the Dominion Boulevard Corridor Study, which maps out future land use on about 10,000 acres around Dominion Boulevard South, from the new Veterans Bridge south to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The tentative plan notes that new elementary and middle schools may be needed.

Ritter said she would “never consider imposing an additional tax on an already developed area of the city.”

“If you live in an area now, you will not be asked to be a part of the special taxing district,” Ritter said. What the city needs is a way to fund new infrastructure around the corridor “without imposing that on current residents and businesses.”

Interesting issue. As an abstract principle, I support the idea of letting people tax themselves for public projects they want — it beats dipping into public coffers and asking other taxpayers to share the cost. As a bonus under Ritter’s plan, the people of the Dismal Swamp area of Chesapeake might get their school built far more quickly than if they had to wait for the city to scrounge up the funds or issue city-wide bonds, which city-wide voters might reject.

But there is a potential downside. I can also envision a scenario in which affluent neighborhoods vote to tax themselves for new or renovated schools, then vote down city- or county-wide funding initiatives. Poor neighborhoods would be the losers.

— JAB