Category Archives: Education (K-12)

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?

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.