Why Henrico Likes the Facebook Project

Gary McLaren, executive director of the Henrico County Economic Development Authority.

This afternoon I caught up with Gary McLaren, executive director of the Henrico County Economic Development Authority, who addressed the main questions I raised in the previous post. The Facebook data-center project, he says, is a great deal for Henrico County citizens and taxpayers.

Facebook will locate its $750 million data center in the White Oak Technology Park, in which the county had invested $40 million in the 1990s to induce semiconductor manufacturer Infineon Technologies AG to locate there. The plant, later part of Infineon spin-off Qimondo, was an excellent corporate citizen while it resided in Henrico, but it closed under competitive pressure of subsidized offshore chip plants.

The Infineon legacy bequeathed three important assets to the White Oak Park, says McLaren. First, thinking that the county might attract other semiconductor plants, the county had oversized its water and sewer lines. Thus, White Oak had 10 million gallons a day of excess water capacity and 13 million gallons of sewer capacity — more than enough to handle the estimated 3.5 million gallons-per-day needed to cool Facebook’s servers.

Second, the park was well supplied with fiber optic trunk lines. “We’re up to eight or nine fiber companies that have run fiber into the park,” McLaren says. Making the location even more attractive, he adds, is the laying of three separate transatlantic cable lines terminating in Virginia Beach. While he doesn’t know it for a fact, he is almost certain that Virginia Beach will link to the North American fiber grid through the Richmond region, making Henrico an ideal location for serving both North America and trans-Atlantic markets.

Third, the park is served by dual feed power. Dominion delivers electricity to the park via two transmission lines. If one line shuts down for whatever reason, the other will keep the park supplied with electricity. While designed to meet the specs of the semiconductor plant, the redundancy fits the needs of the data center industry as well. Says McLaren: “We  have a unique and robust technology park ready to go.”

Henrico County has a good number of data centers. McLaren won’t say exactly how many — some corporate entities would prefer to keep a low profile — but reports have reported the number as twenty. Well known data centers include QTS Data Centers, Peak 10, and Capital One. As the data-center industry explodes, Henrico wants a bigger piece of the pie.

Northern Virginia localities Loudoun County and Prince William County are widely recognized for their large clusters of data centers. Thanks to their proximity to MAE-East internet exchange points in Northern Virginia, the two jurisdictions got off to a strong head start in attracting server farms. To get a bigger share of the business, Henrico had to do something dramatic to increase its competitive posture, McLaren says, so it the tax rate on computers and computer-related equipment.

“We decided we could have a strong value proposition if we made ourselves more competitive” by cutting the tax rate, says McLaren. The thinking was: “Would we rather have 100% of nothing or X percent of something?”

Cutting the tax rate from created a windfall for the dozen or more existing data centers in Henrico County, McLaren concedes. But after the Facebook announcement, the net effect is positive. “I can tell you, with this announcement we are more than made whole.”

When asked for specific numbers, McLaren says he cannot provide them. A breakout of the net gains resulting from the tax break would list data centers and detail proprietary information such as how much they’re investing in real estate versus how much in computers and other capital equipment. In effect, Henrico citizens have to trust that their local government knows what it is doing.

A second inducement offered Facebook — an $863,000 credit on a water-sewer connection fee that normally would cost around $2 million — won’t cost county citizens anything, McLaren says. When the county built the water-sewer infrastructure for White Oak years ago, it gave the Economic Development Authority some credits it could dole out to major prospects to reduce their connection costs. “From time to time, we can use [the credits] as an incentive for companies. … We’ve used them for other companies that have come into the White Oak Tech Park.” Issuing the credits creates no new liability for the county or its taxpayers.

McLaren hopes the visibility of the Facebook deal puts Henrico in the running for more data centers. He is told by industry consultants that the good sites for data centers in Northern Virginia have been taken. While NoVa has many advantages, it’s getting more difficult to supply electricity to the region. Public opposition to Dominion Energy Virginia proposed Haymarket transmission line suggests that the easy-to-serve locations might be tapped out.

Henrico has one less visible advantage in its competition for data centers, McLaren says. The county is highly responsive to economic development prospects and can move quickly. Speed to market is critical to technology companies. Facebook, he says, told him yesterday, “that our willingness to fast track their project … made a big difference in their impression of Henrico County.”

Crunching Numbers on the Facebook Deal

Visualization of Facebook’s Henrico data center. Says CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook: “We’re building out 11th data center in Henrico, Virginia. Like all our new data centers, it will be powered by 100% clean and renewable energy and will create thousands of jobs over the next few years. Our community is growing quickly and we’ll need this infrastructure to serve people all around the world.”

Facebook’s $1 billion announcement is a big deal for Henrico County and for Virginia. The social media giant will invest $750 million to build a data center complex in Henrico’s White Oak Technology Park, and Dominion Virginia Energy Virginia will spend roughly $250 million to supply the facility with “100 percent renewable energy.” It is not yet known precisely where the solar facilities will be located, but they will be in Virginia.

This is one of the biggest economic development deals in the state this year — a massive one by RoVa (Rest of Virginia) standards. As with all mega-projects, the big question is this: Did we give away the store? At first blush, it appears that state tax payer and rate payers will do fine. The impact on Henrico County citizens is murkier.

Drawing upon a U.S. Chamber of Commerce data center study, the McAuliffe administration estimates that construction of the 970,000-square-foot data center will employ up to 1,688 local workers, provide up to $77.7 million in wages for those workers, and produce $234.5 million output along the local economy’s supply chain during construction. Once in operation, the data center will inject $32.5 million annually into the economy.

You can read the congratulatory comments from various politicians and poobahs in the press release from the Governor’s Office. Remarkably, state and local officials managed to close the deal without any direct subsidies or tax breaks from the commonwealth, which is almost unprecedented in a project of this magnitude. Moreover, Facebook and Dominion Virginia Energy have crafted a special tariff to cover the cost of solar power which appears to protect rate payers. However, Henrico County made two major concessions, the justification for which are impossible to evaluate based on information made public so far.

The Facebook plant will consume an estimated 130 megawatts of electric power at full build-out, the equivalent of about 32,500 homes, and will require close to 3.5 million gallons per day for its cooling systems.

Henrico, which competed with Loudoun County and Prince William County, for the deal, had invested $40 million in infrastructure improvements at the White Oak Technology Park. The park offers high-seed fiber-optic cable from multiple providers, it can accommodate a high-capacity electric customer, and it can deliver up to 10 million gallons a day of water.

To sweeten the pot, Henrico County enacted a major tax break and gave Facebook an $850,000 sewer-connection credit on a fee that otherwise would have cost the company more than $2 million.

In April, the Board of Supervisors approved a cut in the business property tax rate on computer and related equipment for data centers from $3.50 per $100 of assessed value to $0.40 — an 88.6% reduction. It’s not clear how much that tax break is worth. The county has released no detailed numbers. But if one assumes that half of Facebook’s capital investment consists of computers and related equipment, about $500 million, then tax revenues would drop from $17.5 million to $2 million per year, making the tax break worth about $15 million a year. And that doesn’t include the loss in revenue from the roughly 20 other data centers located in the county that would benefit from the tax cut.

Whether the reduced tax rate is reasonable or not also depends on how the county financed those $40 million in improvements. Will the revenue stream from Facebook taxes cover the cost of paying down bonds or other financing mechanisms used to pay for the improvements? That data was not available from press reports or press releases.

Another big question mark involves how the special electricity tariff will be structured. To meet Facebook’s commitment to consume clean, renewable energy, Dominion plans to build solar facilities with a total capacity of 300 megawatts.

The proposed RF (Renewable Facility) tariff, which must be approved by the State Corporation Commission, will be structured so that only Facebook will pay the cost of solar generation, said Robert M. Blue, president and CEO of Dominion’s power delivery group. At present, solar is more expensive than other power sources. The rate structure, said Blue, “is designed to be neutral to our other customers.”

In summary, a quickie analysis suggests that the Facebook project is probably a good deal for Virginians — neither state taxpayers nor Dominion rate payers will be subsidizing the project. It’s less clear whether the project is a good deal for Henrico residents. It may be, but it may not be. The data needed to draw a conclusion has not been made public.

Update: The $40 million investment in the White Oak Technology Park dates back years to when the country geared up to serve the Infineon semiconductor plant (now closed). That investment was paid off within six or seven years, and the financing of the infrastructure was not an issue in the Facebook deal. I’ll have more to say in the next post.

The Left Consumes Its Own

Conservative scholars and agitators aren’t the only people getting shouted down at college campuses anymore.

Claire Gastanaga is an old-school liberal who, from my observation, reliably supports the old-school liberal position on everything from women’s rights to illegal immigration. But, as an old-school liberal, she also respects the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, such as, oh, to pick a wild and crazy example, the right to freedom of speech. Indeed, as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, she visited her alma mater, the College of William & Mary last week, to speak about freedom of speech.

But she didn’t get to say very much. A multiracial group of students affiliated with Black Lives Matter, enraged that the ACLU had defended the right of white nationalists to hold the August rally in Charlottesville, shouted her down.

According to W&M’s student paper, The Flat Hat:

Protesters took over the stage within five minutes of Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia Claire Guthrie Gastañaga’s entrance. Signs in hand, the protesters shouted chants such as “liberalism is white supremacy” and “the revolution will not uphold the constitution.”

In the statement, BLM criticized the ACLU’s approach to white supremacy in regard to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, suggesting that the organization provides an unnecessary platform for white supremacists.

“When is the free speech of the oppressed protected?” a BLM group representative asked. “We know from personal experience that rights granted to wealthy, white, cis, male, straight bodies do not trickle down to marginalized groups. We face greater barriers and consequences for speaking.”

After reading the statement aloud, the group’s representative took her place back in line, and the protesters continued to chant.

At one point, Gastanaga asked the students: “Is conversation not possible?”

The chanting continued. Thirty minutes into the event, the sponsors canceled the event. Students interested in talking to Gastanaga clustered around her to talk. But the protesters surrounded them and drowned out their conversation by chanting with increased volume. The students then dispersed.

The College’s BLM chapter took credit on its Facebook page through a livestream of the event, as well as a written post: “Tonight, we shut down an event at William & Mary where Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, was speaking. In contrast to the ACLU, we want to reaffirm our position of zero tolerance for white supremacy no matter what form it decides to masquerade in.”

After the incident, W&M President Taylor Reveley issued the following statement:

William & Mary has a powerful commitment to the free play of ideas. We have a campus where respectful dialogue, especially in disagreement, is encouraged so that we can listen and learn from views that differ from our own, so that we can freely express our own views, and so that debate can occur. Unfortunately, that type of exchange was unable to take place Wednesday night when an event to discuss a very important matter – the meaning of the First Amendment — could not be held as planned. …

Silencing certain voices in order to advance the cause of others is not acceptable in our community. This stifles debate and prevents those who’ve come to hear a speaker, our students in particular, from asking questions, often  hard questions, and from engaging in debate where the strength of ideas, not the power of shouting, is the currency. William & Mary must be a campus that welcomes difficult conversations, honest debate and civil dialogue

Nice to know that Revely supports free speech. The question is this: What is he willing to do to uphold it? Not much, apparently. The Flat Hat makes no mention of any discipline or sanction against the protesters.

There is a back story to this event, which I will allude to briefly but hope others take the time to research more deeply. Reveley met with student representatives of Black Lives Matter on March 29 for “ongoing conversations about race at William & Mary.” In an April 4 statement following that meeting, he said:

Many items on their list [of demands] are consistent with the recommendations that came last spring from our Task Force on Race and Race Relations. And many have already produced results or are in the planning state.

While we have made progress, there remains much to be done. Racial discrimination at William & Mary is flatly unacceptable. We all have a role to play to ensure that our university is a place where everyone is welcome and respected and where we can and do learn from one another.

On April 19, William & Mary announced plans to commit $1 million to a more diverse faculty, rename two residence halls after African-Americans, and hire a consultant to strengthen diversity in hiring, training and assessment of campus culture. Future priorities include creating a vice president of diversity and inclusion, and investing $35 million to increase diversity among faculty and senior administrators.

Bacon’s bottom line: This will not end well for Revely. None of these developments made much news at the time, and no one outside the university would have known about them had not Black Lives Matter partisans, after demanding respect for their own views, undertaken to deprive others of the right to express theirs. This is a new phenomena for Virginia campuses, and Revely had better get hold of the situation or he will risk a severe backlash. For Virginia’s higher-ed community, which is lobbying for major concessions from the General Assembly, the timing couldn’t be worse. I cannot imagine Republican legislators responding positively to haughty BLM demands and W&M promises to divert $35 million in funds to increase diversity.

A couple of predictions: The demands of Black Live Matters and their ideological cohorts are limitless. No matter what the W&M administration does to placate them, it will never be enough. BLM will always make more demands. The reason is simple: Their demands are largely impossible to fulfill. There is a limited pipeline of African-Americans getting Ph.D.s, and every college in the country is vying for these candidates. Likewise, there is a limited supply of minority high school graduates qualified to attend an elite institution like W&M, and every other elite institution — mostly private schools with lots more money to throw around — are competing to recruit them. Finally, the actions of Black Lives Matter are so militant and offensive, they create the very atmosphere of super-charged racial sensitivity that makes every racial interaction a potentially stressful event and feeds their own feelings of alienation. This cannot possibly contribute to an atmosphere of racial amity.

Emboldened by the administration’s weak response, campus radicals — and the BLM movement at W&M includes many whites — are out of control. I predict that we’ll see more of this kind of behavior. The situation will get worse before it gets better.

Electric Coops Vet Community Solar Plan

Subscribers to a community solar program in the works by five Virginia electrical cooperatives would pay a rate premium of 42% to 45% to use clean, renewable energy, according to data released by the electric coops.

The five rural cooperatives, who may be joined by others in a State Corporation Commission (SCC) filing late October or November, have developed the plan for customers unable to install their own solar capacity to purchase solar through the coops. The rates primarily reflect the cost of building the solar capacity. They do not include any cost for administering the program, but they do cover transmission and line losses to the cooperatives.

The five electric coops include A&N Electric Cooperative, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, Northern Neck Electric Cooperative, and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.

Unlike like investor-owned utilities, such as Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, Virginia’s electrical cooperatives are owned by their customers. Because they pay no dividends to shareholders and don’t answer to Wall Street analysts, they have more flexibility in the programs they offer, said Sam Brumberg, association counsel for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, in a conference call Thursday to solicit feedback from solar developers and other stakeholders.

Legislation enacted in the 2017 General Assembly session allows electric companies to create “community solar” programs in which power companies market and re-sell solar power built by independent solar developers. The programs must be approved by the SCC.

Numerous electric coop customers have expressed an interest in purchasing solar energy through the cooperatives, said Brumberg, and the community solar program will provide them with a choice they don’t have now. The voluntary program will provide customers “easy on, easy off,” one-year subscriptions, which will allow them to avoid the long-term financial commitment of installing their own solar.  However, the voluntary program is designed to recover its costs from its subscribers.

The program will guaranteed flat rates for at least three years. While the solar portion of the rate will remain fixed for longer periods, the distribution charge may rise. 

A major sticking point addressed in the conference call was affordability of the program for low- and middle-income (LMI) customers. Brumberg discussed the potential for subsidizing the rates for certain customers, perhaps through government grants, foundation grants, or involvement of a large commercial “anchor tenant” who could absorb a disproportionate share of the cost.

Bacon’s bottom line: These are the first figures I’ve found that indicate the  cost of community solar in the current economic environment. The 40% to 45% premium represents a significant hurdle to widespread market penetration. In effect, community solar represents a luxury good in the energy marketplace, a fact that the electric cooperatives indirectly acknowledge by their concern that LMI customers may be difficult to recruit.

Admittedly, the economics of solar are changing. The per-kW cost of solar is steadily declining. So is the cost of battery storage, which makes it feasible to store surplus solar-generated electricity and release it when needed. Moreover, the “fuel” cost of solar — essentially zero — will not increase, while the cost of fossil fuel alternatives, especially natural gas, most likely will rise over time. But as long as programs are voluntary, and as long as most customers value money in their hand today more than savings years from now, it will be a challenge to persuade them to pay the premium.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo: No Special Deals for Amazon

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo

San Jose, Calif., Mayor Sam Liccardo, a Democrat, wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal today explaining he will not offer subsidies or incentives to induce Amazon to locate its second headquarters in his city:

Why do public officials throw away taxpayer dollars in subsidies while trying to promote economic development? Perhaps because they can. The subsidy represents something tangible that officials can point to as the factor that “sealed the deal” to create more jobs.

The harder work of investing public dollars in schools, infrastructure and amenities takes years of concerted effort but has far greater payoff. A healthy  economic ecosystem that supports innovation and growth is what makes a community attractive to a company like Amazon. …

The key is to craft policies that apply to all fairly competing employers. Cutting special deals with individuals companies isn’t the right strategy.

Wise advice. Virginia localities vying for the Amazon project need to take a honest appraisal of themselves. If they can’t compete for the Amazon deal without giving away the store, (a) Amazon probably won’t be interested anyway (even if it encouraged them to submit a bid), and (b) they will regret it if by some miracle they actually win. For many, it doesn’t even make sense to compete. Packaging proposals costs resources (staff time, consultants) that could be better spent on second-tier projects — such as the $1 billion Facebook data center in Henrico County to be announced later today.

New Cause for Alarm: Too Many White Teachers, Not Enough Black

Source: “Report on the Recommendations of the Taskforce to Diversify Virginia’s Educator Pipeline.”

Seeking to close the educational achievement gap between whites on the one hand and African-Americans and Hispanics on the other, the Virginia Department of Education has found a new focus: an insufficient number of “teachers of color.”

Even as the number of minorities in Virginia schools now equal the number of whites, Virginia’s teachers are becoming “less diverse over time,” states a report of the Taskforce to Diversify Virginia’s Educator Pipeline made to the Virginia Board of Education. “Demographically, minority students make up 48.7 percent of Virginia’s student population, but only 21.4 percent of the state’s teachers are minorities. Research indicates that a racially representative mix of teachers and administrators can be directly correlated to positive educational outcomes for minority students.”

In Virginia’s school system, diversity has become an end unto itself. “All Virginia students benefit personally and intellectually when they learn from education professionals with a variety of racial, ethnic, socio-economic and religious backgrounds,” states the report. “We believe there is value in all students learning from teachers with diverse backgrounds; and we simultaneously recognize that research indicates there is a unique role teachers of color play in improving the lives of students of color.”

The task force says Virginia should endeavor reduce the gap between the percentage of minority students and the percentage of minority teachers, now 27%, to 15% by  by 2040.

There are two problems, states the report. First, according to national statistics, teachers of color leave the profession at a higher rate than whites: 18.9% per year turnover in 2012-13 compared to 15% for white teachers. Second, the percentage of minority students enrolled in education schools is declining. “Minority enrollment in Virginia’s teacher preparation programs has fallen from more than 50 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to only 33 percent in 2016-2017.”

The task force’s proposed solution is to remove barriers to minority students seeking to become teachers. The conventional pathway to the teaching profession entails a five-year program for a B.A. and M.A., during the course of which the average Virginia teacher will have accrued $50,879 in debt. States the report: “When combined with low teacher pay, the high cost of training is a powerful deterrent for young people considering a future in the teaching profession.”

The state should revise its criteria so that students can become teachers through development of a four-year undergraduate major. Also, Virginia should provide financial assistance for minority teaching candidates, give student teaching stipends to low-income students, and devise innovative ways to provide compensation to student teachers during their student-teaching experience. Other solutions include encouraging minority high school students to become teachers and making more of provisional licensure.

Bacon’s bottom line: Wow. It’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the bedrock assumption that “diversity” among teachers is a meaningful determinant in the educational outcomes of students. I’d like to evaluate the “research” that stands behind this proposition as well as any that might contradict it. If the ethnic identity of teachers and students is so crucial, I’d especially like to see how the research explains that Asian-American students consistently out-perform whites academically even though the number of Asian-American teachers is a tiny percentage of the whole.

But let’s accept the report on its own terms, including the proposition that the ethnic identity of the teacher matters. One might ask why minority teachers leave the teaching profession at a higher rate than white teachers. Do we know why they are leaving? Has anyone asked the minority teachers why they are leaving? The Task Force does not consider option of reducing teacher turnover, choosing to focus exclusively on the supply of new students.

Interestingly, the Task Force might have a point about the educational pathway for new teachers. Perhaps the requirements are too high — not just for minority teachers but all teachers. After all, as the task force notes, the problem schools have recruiting minority teachers is just a sub-set of the difficulty they have recruiting teachers in general. Who put these barriers into place? Did the Virginia Teachers Association play a role? Assuredly, the justification proffered for instituting more demanding standards was to improve the quality of teachers, but according to public choice theory, the hidden purpose was to restrict the supply of new teachers. Labor shortages give teachers more power to mau-mau state and local government for higher salaries and  benefits. If the Task Force prompts legislators to take a look at the entire system of teacher credentialing, it might have done us all a favor.

The high cost of getting a teaching degree also circles back to a perennial issue of interest to Bacon’s Rebellion — the excessive cost of education. Why is it so expensive to teach students how to teach? What is going on inside Virginia’s schools of education? Should not part of the solution be to bring tuition back to  reasonable levels?

The Task Force addresses none of the broader issues, and that’s a missed opportunity. Among all the factors that influence academic achievement among African-Americans and Hispanics, I would be willing to bet that the ethnic mix of teachers is secondary at best. I would be amazed if closing the ethnicity gap between teachers and students has any measurable effect whatsoever. Indeed, the obsession with racial bean counting strikes me as part of what is wrong with public education today.

Petersburg Now Has a Plan. Does It Have the Will?

Robert Bobb, of the Robert Bobb Group, outlines a five-year financial plan for Petersburg.

The Robert Bobb Group, a consulting firm hired to straighten out the city of Petersburg’s finances, has outlined a five-year plan to keep the city on the fiscal straight and narrow. Among the 15 recommendations is creation of a Financial Advisory Board tasked to make monthly reports on the budget and ensure that financial policies and procedures are being followed, reports the Progress-Index.

The board, comprised of individuals credentialed in finance and accounting, along with a newly created position of Internal Auditor, would give City Council independent insight into what’s happening in city government.

The Bobb Group report also recommended selling the city water system’s excess water capacity or privatizing the utility entirely, and disposing of parcels of city-owned real estate properties, including the Petersburg Hotel and the old Ramada Inn. Converting those properties to cash would help rebuild the city’s fund balance, which currently stands at negative $7.7 million.

The city, which experienced a $12 million budget gap last year and faced $19 million in unpaid bills, narrowly averted a default on its debt. The Bobb Group,  which assumed extraordinary budget powers in a $520,000 contract, rescued the city from insolvency. Among other contributions, the firm claims to have identified more than $10 million in savings and avoided costs. But its contract has expired, the consultants are leaving, and City Council and the apparatus of city government are on their own again.

In their parting report, the Bobb Group listed steps that Council “must take” to keep finances on track. The consultants’ report urged the city to “continue to develop solid financial and business policies, practices and procedures.”

Changing the culture of city government will be easier said than done. A recently released forensic audit of city finances found extensive evidence of abuse of city money and resources in the run-up to fiscal disaster. Reports the Progress-Index in a separate article: “Included in these allegations of misconduct are: misappropriations of fuel for city vehicles, falsification of overtime hours, vacation/sick leave abuse, use of city property for personal gain including lawn mowers and vehicles for travel, excessive or lavish gifts from vendors, and questionable hiring practices.”

“The perception that employees had was that the ethical tone had not been good for quite some time,” said chief auditor John Hanson. “The culture led employees to do things they might not otherwise do.”

How Long Must Parents Wait?

Vernon Johns Middle School in Petersburg — new building, same sad results

by Chris Braunlich

In a recent news release, Governor Terry McAuliffe heralded the fact that 86 percent of Virginia schools were fully accredited – “a record high” for his administration and a five point improvement over last year.

He neglected to mention that 88 schools failed accreditation – a 203 percent increase in unaccredited schools over last year, and more unaccredited schools this year than in the previous ten years combined.

In a new poll by Christopher Newport’s Wason Center, the most important issue most voters want the next Governor to work on is “improving K-12 education.” Improving educational quality for the children in those 88 schools ought to be a top consideration.

Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary School. New building, same old education.

Thirteen schools have failed accreditation for three years or more. Despite throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra “Executive Leadership” funding at Petersburg, the students of Vernon Johns Middle School are attending an unaccredited school for the twelfth consecutive year. Despite a new $44.2 million school building, the child who entered first grade six years ago at Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary has now spent her entire school career in an unaccredited school.

If anything, this year’s accreditation list points up two things –

First, the divide in education is growing. Good schools on the right track with the right leadership are getting better. Poorly performing schools without the right kind of leadership continue to decline. And continued geographic concentrations of poverty and wealth have all too often meant different tracks for the schools those children attend.

The second is that the state seems powerless to do anything to help the children in these schools. And while that may seem like an excuse, the reality is that the Virginia Constitution requires that “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.” Worse, past court decisions have given local school boards nearly unfettered control over buildings, budgets, curriculum, and personnel – even if they run it into the ground.

To its credit, the State Board of Education’s proposed new regulations ratchet up the consequences for non-performing schools and school divisions, including the threat of withholding a limited amount of state funding. But the process is long, case by case and thin gruel compared with the dramatic and decisive action so badly needed. Besides which, “state takeovers” have a spotty track record — partly because states rarely take the time to rebuild school culture.

One alternative is to authorize new quality public schools run by successful educators, but outside the traditional system. And there are such schools defying the “demography is destiny” mantra. The problem: They aren’t in Virginia.

Today, 7,000 public charter schools serve 3 million students. While not a panacea, their track record with low-income children is striking: According to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), after four years in a charter school, urban students learn 50 percent more per year than demographically similar students in traditional public schools.

In New York, 95 percent of Success Academy’s students are children of color whose families have an average income of $32,000 per year. In math, 95 percent of them passed the state exams and 84 percent passed reading, outperforming every school district in the state, including those with median family incomes of $290,000.

KIPP Academies educates 88,000 students in 209 schools – 95 percent of them black or Latino and 88 percent of them on Free and Reduced Meals subsidies. Eighty-one percent enter college and they graduate college at a pace four times the rate of their peers.

But these and other successful charter schools won’t come to Virginia, citing the Commonwealth’s “restrictive charter school law that limits autonomy and makes it impossible for high quality charter schools to fulfill their mission.” And without alternatives, parents will never be able to send their children to a public charter school opening the doors of opportunity for Virginia’s neediest students.

A measure earlier this year might have cracked that door a bit, had it been signed into law. It would have allowed the State Board of Education to authorize a new school board – an overlay of sorts – that could only target areas with one or more schools that repeatedly failed accreditation.

And while it would not have touched existing schools or local funding, it would have empowered the State Board to meet its own constitutional responsibility for the “supervision of the public school system,” taken steps toward the constitutional aspiration of “an educational program of high quality,” and helped several thousand low-income children who now have no quality choices.

Sadly, the bill was vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, shooting down educational justice for the children of places like Petersburg, Norfolk and Newport News.

As the voters who place a premium on K-12 education think about the issues, they should consider this: The parents of children in high-performing schools are rarely concerned about choices: They’ve already made theirs.

But how long must the parents of children in persistently low-performing schools wait to have better opportunities for their child? Four years? Six? A dozen years? How long?

Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute and past president of the Virginia State Board of Education. This column was published originally in The Jefferson Journal, and a version of it in the Virginian-Pilot.

Appreciating L.B.J.

The mausoleum-like LBJ library.

No trip to Austin would be complete without a trip to the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library. The edifice, designed in a late 60s-era brutalist style of architecture, is massive, impersonal and expresses nothing of the man it honors. But the museum inside brings to life a president who, for all his failings, was one of the most consequential in the history of the United States.

LBJ advanced the Civil Rights revolution, stripping away the trappings of Jim Crow and setting up laws to ensure equal civil rights for all Americans regardless of race, and he embarked upon one of the greatest social experiments ever — the war on poverty. He also presided over the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. The first accomplishment was brilliant, and it will enshrine Johnson forever in the pantheon of great American presidents. The second was noble in spirit and aspiration, but it suffered from massive unintended consequences and, far from vanquishing poverty, has cemented it in place. The Vietnam war was tragic, although I do believe future historians who write the second draft of history may be more forgiving of Johnson than those who lived through that tumultuous time and articulated the conventional wisdom that dominates the way Americans view the conflict today.

I grew up in a Republican household, and my parents were never fans of LBJ. As a fifth grader, I sported an AuH20 button. I still hew to Goldwater’s libertarian philosophy and I lament the massive expansion of federal government power that Johnson presided over. But with the passage of time, I have become more appreciative of his accomplishments. The visit to his library, which put some of his most uplifting oratory on display, gave me a deeper insight into his thinking. Born into a modestly well-to-do family in the hard-scrabble hill country of Texas, he lived close to the poverty of those around him. While rising to wealth and prominence (the LBJ library does not dwell upon the more unsavory details of where that wealth came from), he never forgot the less fortunate members of society.

The LBJ archives

The LBJ era also ushered in the era of ultra-rancorous politics we know today. The media skewered the president over his Vietnam War policies. As he complained in a Trump-like lament, if he had walked on water across the Potomac River, the headline the next day would be, “Johnson can’t swim!”

Precursors of today’s Daily Show and other politically charged late-night “comedy” acts were “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Tom and Dick Smothers were particularly tough on the president, although the tone of relentless negativity never approached what we see on “comedy” shows today. As a youth who watched both shows, I don’t recall anyone suggesting that President Johnson’s mouth would best serve as Khrushchev’s cock holster. The item on display in the museum that left the most enduring image in my mind was a letter signed by Tom and Dick Smothers:

Mr. President,

During the past couple of years we have taken satirical jabs at you and more than occasionally overstepped our bounds. We disregarded the respect due the office and  the tremendous burden of running the country because of our emotional feelings towards the war. …

Often, an emotional issue such as war makes people tend to over-react. Please accept our apology on behalf of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for our over-reaction in some instances. Please know that we do admire what you have done for the country and particularly  your dignity in accepting the abuse of so many people.

In the 1960s, emotions ran high because of war, the civil rights struggle, riots in the streets, and a counter-cultural revolution that rejected long-established norms. There were weighty reasons for anger. Yet both Johnson — a man so uncouth he installed a telephone in his bathroom so he could conduct affairs of state while sitting on the toilet — and his antagonists conducted themselves with far greater dignity than their counterparts today when the stakes are…. what? Really, what issue is doing more to tear tearing the nation apart than the mutual loathing of our president and his enemies?

The LBJ ranch

Speaking of the toilet installed in LBJ’s bathroom… we saw it. After visiting the LBJ museum, we decided to tour the LBJ ranch, known as the Texas White House, where Johnson spent 450 days during his five years in office. The ranch house, located about 45 minutes west of Austin, faces the Pedernales River, very near where Johnson was born and spent his early youth. A utilitarian building, by no means opulent, the house befits a man who had few social pretensions. The furnishings, preserved as if in amber, are a testimony to 1960s taste and culture. (Ewww.)

Johnson made the most of every minute of every day. He didn’t work out. He didn’t didn’t play golf. He didn’t hobnob with the beautiful people. Politics consumed his every thought, and he outfitted his house with televisions in every room — three of them, one for each network, in his bedroom — and always had a telephone within reach. Including one near his toilet. Johnson was always reaching out: negotiating, flattering, threatening, and cajoling to move his agenda forward. One day he reputedly spent a full 18 hours on the telephone. It’s how he got so much accomplished. It certainly worked better than tweeting.

The amphibcar

Johnson loved being around people, and he had a zest for life. One of his favorite tricks was loading newcomers to the ranch into the blue car at right, crying out that the brakes had failed, and plunging into a lake. Unbeknownst to the passenger, the car was one of 3,900 amphibious Amphicars manufactured by a German company. In an audiotape one can hear at the ranch, then-presidential aide (and future cabinet secretary) Joseph Califano described his terror until he realized that the car was not sinking.

LBJ, bigger than life, truly was a president that only Texas could have produced.

Club Ed Update: Best Colleges for Food

Virginia Tech dining hall

A website, Niche.com, ranks colleges by the quality of their food. The winner in the “2018 Best College Food in America” survey declared the University of California-Los Angeles the winner and Virginia Tech the runner-up — both ahead of the Culinary Institute of America!

The calculation was based on two data points: student opinions of the quality of campus food, as self-reported by Niche users (85% of the weight), and the average cost of a meal plan, as reported by the college (15% of the weight).

James Madison University ranked 10th nationally in the survey. Liberty University logged 29th.