Category Archives: Education (K-12)

NAEP Results Are In. No Answers to Important Questions.

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress

There is some mildly good news for Virginia from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card. Virginia 4th graders improved their performance in mathematics, while 8th graders made incremental gains in both math and reading. Virginia students also maintained a significant edge over their peers nationally in math and reading in both grades.

“For the first time, 50 percent of Virginia fourth graders achieved at or above the proficient level in mathematics, with 12 percent earning advanced scores,” states the Virginia Department of Education press release. “Students in no other state performed at a statistically higher level.”

NAEP results are based on representative samples of students in each state. The 2017 NAEP sampling of Virginia students included approximately 2,300 fourth-grade students and 2,200 eighth graders.

As is their wont, state officials took note of “achievement gaps between white students and their black and Hispanic peers.” The press release elaborates: “The percentage of black eighth graders achieving proficient or advanced math scores increased by eight points, to 20 percent in 2017, compared with 12 percent in 2015. While this represented a significant gain for black students, the improvement did not translate into a statistically significant narrowing of the achievement gap with white students.”

No mention of Asian students who comprise 8% of Virginia’s population. Why would that be? Perhaps the answer can be seen in the charts atop this page. There we can see that Asian/Pacific Islanders (which in Virginia means Asians because there aren’t many Pacific Islanders here) achieved the top scores. Thus, the “achievement” gap can also be seen as an Asian-white achievement gap, an Asian-black achievement gap, and an Asian-Hispanic achievement gap.

Why do state officials make whites the standard against which blacks and Hispanics measured? In order to advance the dominant narrative about race, of course. Setting Asians as the standard for comparison would confound the conventional wisdom. Perhaps Virginians would be compelled to ask why Asians out-perform other ethnic groups, including “privileged” whites. We would have to ask ourselves, do Asians attend better schools… or do they tend to out-perform in all schools? Don’t they face discrimination? If not, why not? Why are they disciplined at lower rates than other groups, including whites? Are they less likely to be disruptive in class? Do they study harder?

Setting Asians as the standard against which others are measured would force us to consider the role of intact families, personal behavior, and cultural norms and expectations rather than view racial/ethnic disparities through the lens of white privilege and minority oppression.

The focus on the white-black/Hispanic gap also conveniently ignores the English-fluent/English-as-a-second-language gap. For example, according to NAEP data, the score gap between 4th grade whites and Hispanics is 23 points. But the gap between English-fluent and English-as-a-second-language students is 36 points. Given the fact that Hispanics are more likely to not be English fluent, facility with the English language likely explains much of the white-Hispanic gap.

How much of the gap disappears when you compare whites with English-fluent Hispanics? How much of the broader white-Hispanic gap should be attributed to white privilege and how much should be attributed to the influx of poor, ill-educated immigrants from Mexico and Central America who have an immense amount of catching up to do? That question never gets asked.

Unfortunately, the searchable NAEP database does not allow us to make that comparison. What a surprise. I guess it never occurred to NAEP officials that such a comparison would be worthwhile. It would be nice if state educators would get over their black/white obsession and begin asking a wider range of questions.

Want Proof of the Decline of Western Civilization?

A white rap artist who goes by the name of Lil Dicky joined a black rap artist, Chris Brown (born in Tappahannock, Va., and best known for slapping around songstress superstar Rihanna) to produce a song, “Freaky Friday.” The conceit of the song and video is that Lil Dicky and Chris Brown find themselves occupying each others bodies, which gives rise to such witticisms as

I’m in Chris Brown’s body
I look at my soft dick with delight, it’s my dream dick…
My dick is trending on Twitter, fuck

and toward the end of the video when contributing “artist” Kendall Jenner says…

Huh, I’m Kendall Jenner
I got a vagina, I’m gonna explore that right now (woo)
Holy shit, I got a vagina (uh), I’m gonna learn
I’m gonna understand the inner workings of a woman

Then  there was this, in which Chris Brown (occupying white Lil Dicky’s body) croons the following:

Wonder if I can say the n-word (wait for real?)
Wait, can I really say the n-word?
What up, my nigga? (woo)
What up, my nigga? Big ups, my nigga
We up, my nigga, you pussy ass nigga
Man, fuck y’all niggas, ’cause I’m that nigga
Nigga, nigga, nigga, I’m that nigga

Apparently, that’s what passes for art — or maybe it’s humor — in the Millennial generation. We’ve come a long way from Rogers and Hammerstein, baby!  Released in March, this foul little ditty soared to number one in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, and reached number eight on the US Hot 100. As of today, the YouTube video has received more than 90 million views. The mind-dumbing vulgarity didn’t seem to offend anyone….

Until the words were sung by members of the Virginia Tech women’s lacrosse team. Someone posted a Snapchat of exuberant young women after a win over Elon University dancing in the aisle of their bus and singing the song. Including Chris Brown’s grotesque nigga-nigga-nigga sequence.

Social media went ballistic. Charges of racism were hurled. Next thing you know, Coach John Sung was apologizing for the use of the epithet, although he insisted that there was no malice involved. “They had just won,” he said. “They’re singing songs. The first couple songs were Disney songs… They were celebrating and they were dancing and they were excited.” (From “Let it Go” to “Freaky Friday” — quite the transition.)

Then came the crowning blow, the condemnation of their peers. The Virginia Tech Student Government adopted a resolution condemning the use of the racial slur, describing it as “one of many episodes of discrimination and animosity toward marginalized groups that have occurred on the campus of Virginia Tech in recent months.”

According to the Campus Reform website, the resolution stated:

Examples of such discriminatory incidents include… a guest lecture by Dr. Charles Murray, a white-nationalist known for inaccurate theories linking race and intelligence; a Steven Crowder speaking event in which promotional materials contained homophobic language; and the invitation of Charlie Kirk, a controversial right-wing speaker whose rallies have attracted the support of white nationalists and ended in violence such as the February 2nd event at Colorado State University, to speak on campus April 30th.

Asserting that “such discriminatory incidents contribute to members of marginalized communities feeling unsafe on the campus of Virginia Tech,” the resolution goes on to “completely and wholeheartedly” condemn the Women’s Lacrosse team out of a desire to “stand in solidarity with our fellow students.

Basically, anyone to the right of Mother Jones is deemed a racist, a homophobe, or a borderline Nazi worthy only of condemnation and exile. This is concocted outrage. It is selective indignation. It is bullying. It is totalitarian intimidation. It is all about silencing opposing views and silencing anyone who even has a stray thought resembling an opposing view.

Look, the song is total trash. It is offensive from start to finish — not least the mindless repetition of “nigga nigga nigga” — and if I were the parent of one of the girls who had learned the lyrics by heart, I’d be mortified that she’d wasted her time listening to such garbage. But in the minds of the Virginia Tech student council members, there’s no problem with Chris Brown using that language. There’s no problem with putting that language on a YouTube video. There’s no problem with 90 million people listening to that language. The problem is that the wrong people used the language. When a bunch of white girls used the N word while singing the song — not in in a way meant to denigrate anyone — they were singled out for condemnation and humiliation.

I reject the N word, I never use it, I don’t defend anyone using it, and I suppose you could say the lacrosse team girls had it coming for being so vapid as to use it. But the double standards applied here are just appalling. It’s all about the power. It’s all about defining who can say what and who can’t.

But this bullying will backfire. If you want more Donald Trump, this is how you get more Donald Trump. If you want more Alt-Right, this is how you get more Alt-Right. That may be fine with the far Left because anything that engenders hate and polarizes the nation is fine with them, but it’s not the kind of country I want to live in.

We have a choice. We can succumb to the narrative of aggrievement or we can build a narrative of achievement. We can surrender to envy, resentment, nihilism, and destruction, or we can embrace hope, collaboration, improvement and uplift. Pick one or the other. That’s what it’s come down to.

Does Anybody Notice the $300 Million Tax Increase Baked into Medicaid Expansion?

Governor Ralph Northam (left), Richmond School Superintendent Jason Kamras, and Senator Mark Warner met yesterday to discuss Medicaid expansion and school funding. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Governor Raph Northam and U.S. Senator Mark Warner hit the road yesterday with the media in tow, making the case that Medicaid expansion will free up $421 million over two years for other priorities such as K-12 schools.

“When we talk about education, we have to talk about health care,” Warner said during a roundtable discussion at Albert H. Hill Middle School in Richmond, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We’ve got to do this.”

Meanwhile Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne is making the case that enacting Medicaid expansion is necessary to preserve Virginia’s coveted AAA bond rating, which is teetering on the edge of a downgrade.

That’s quite the rhetorical jiu jitsu move. For years, Republicans have opposed expanding Medicaid under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it would be fiscally irresponsible, running up state Medicaid expenditures even after accounting for a 90% federal contribution, and competing with other priorities such as K-12 schools, higher education, and pay raises for state employees.

How is it possible for the Commonwealth to simultaneously expand Medicaid at an estimated cost of $300 million over the next two years and free up $421 million for other programs, as the Washington Post quotes Northam as saying? Two things. First the state cost of Medicaid expansion would be offset by means of an “assessment” — in other words, a tax — on the net patient revenue of Virginia’s acute care hospitals. Surprised to hear about that? Yeah, so am I.

Second, Medicaid expansion will allow the state to reduce spending by $380 million on indigent care funding, state spending on mental health, prison inmates and various programs for the poor, according to the House version of the budget. (I can’t figure out where Northam gets his $421 million estimate.)

Voila! That’s $380 million (or $421 million if you use Northam’s figure) that can be spent on other things, such as directing money into the state’s cash reserves and/or K-12 schools. Regarding those reserves, the state has only $281 million set aside in the event of a several revenue downturn, with $154 million scheduled to be injected this year. The budget submitted by former Governor Terry McAuliffe would have added $281 million, but the proposed budget adopted by the House would add only $91 million over the next two-year budget, and the proposed budget adopted by the Senate would add only $180 million.

Bacon’s bottom line: Does the public realize that there is a $300 million tax increase embedded in this plan? I did not understand that to be the case until I read the news accounts with a fine-tooth comb. The Times-Dispatch and Washington Post coverage mentioned the tax only in passing deep in their stories. Of course it’s in the interest of Democrats to downplay the tax increase, but, remarkably, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Senate Republicans, who oppose expansion, have made an issue of it.

Let’s imagine an alternate universe in which Virginians said, (a) we want Medicaid expansion, and (b) we want to fund it without a tax increase on hospital revenues, which likely would be passed on to patients in the form of higher hospital charges. If the state is generating savings in the realm of $400 million a year from Medicaid expansion, why not just apply those savings to the 10% state share of the program? Why the necessity of adding a roughly $300 million “assessment?”

According to the numbers we’ve been given, paying for Medicaid expansion with savings to state programs would leave about $100 million left over to plunk into the state’s cash reserve. Of course, that approach wouldn’t allow Northam and Warner to tell people that “Medicaid expansion” will help Virginia schools, and it wouldn’t put as much money into the state’s cash reserves as Layne would like.

I find it astonishing that the hospital assessment has not become a hot-button issue. Health care costs are out of control as it is, and a $300 million tax on patient revenues can only make the problem worse (unless you believe that hospitals will settle for lower profits, in which case I’ve got some great swamp land in Florida I’d like to sell you.)

You’ve got to give Northam political credit. He and House Republicans are very close to pulling off the trick of expanding Medicaid and “freeing up” hundreds of millions of dollars for new spending without Virginians even noticing that they’d be indirectly paying for a $300 million tax increase on hospitals. This guy is good.

The Battleground of Race and Public Memory

The University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello have just wrapped up an international symposium, “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory & the Built Landscape.” The conference, a great success according to the symposium website, provided a forum for “a free-ranging conversation about researching the enslaved past, disseminating findings to a broader public, and breaking down disciplinary boundaries as we collectively work to tell a fuller story about our own pasts.”

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the subject of reparations came up more than once.

Said Ana Lucia Araujo, a Howard University professor of history:

This very city and campus are living examples of how such public battles over public memory can unfold. But where reparations for slavery are increasingly accepted and embraced by governments and other institutions, there is usually a great silence surrounding the idea of financial reparations for slavery.

Symbolic reparations touted by government and universities — renaming buildings, adding memorials and plaques, creating commissions, may not be enough.

Then there was this from Craig Wilder, author of “Ebony and Ivory”:

A lot of the universities have launched reports, but they have launched reports and studies somewhat reluctantly. The question of reparations was, in part, a reflection of how a lot of colleges and universities got to the point of studying their histories … which was often driven by students.

It’s impossible for us to know whether comments about reparations were typical of the sentiments expressed during the conference or cherry-picked by the Times-Dispatch reporter because they were controversial. And one can only conjecture whether the dialogue at the international symposium will reflect the tenor of the upcoming “Teaching Race at UVa” seminar, the purpose of which is to inspire UVa faculty to revise their course syllabi to “present reality of race and racism both locally and nationally.”

My fear, however, is that the sentiments expressed are widely shared by the “subject matter experts” who will be teaching the “Teaching Race at UVa” sessions. If I am correct, the Leftist views espoused at the “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory & the Built Landscape” conference will inform the perspectives propagated by the “Teaching Race at UVa” seminar, which will alter the syllabi of a wide range of courses taught at UVa, which in turn will shape the worldviews of a new generation of students. Leftist thought might be diluted in the process, but the flow of influence will be entirely one way.

The study of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, racial prejudice and desegregation are entirely appropriate subjects for a university to undertake. Indeed, as a former student at UVa and the Johns Hopkins University of slavery, the Atlantic slave trade, and African history, I find myself intrigued by much of the symposium’s subject matter. Furthermore, I agree that it is appropriate to use history as a tool to illuminate contemporary society. We are, after all, products of the past.

What worries me is the narrow range of intellectual perspectives that are considered. The historic focus on past racial injustices is part and parcel of the larger obsession with racial and ethnic disparities today. The underlying assumption is that disparities in income, education and other outcomes are the result of America’s grievously flawed institutions and continued white privilege. The modern academy gives very little attention to the possibility that over the past 50 or so years the modern welfare state, social engineering projects and social justice initiatives have backfired badly, harming those whom the Left purports to help.

The obsessive focus on race represents a form of intellectual doubling down on the bad bet that once Civil Rights were affirmed for all, government then needed to intervene proactively to address equality. African-Americans especially have been the subjects of one botched policy experiment after another. Thus we have witnessed the devastation of intact neighborhoods by urban renewal, the concentration of the poor into housing projects, the undermining of the family structure by the welfare state, the denigration of “bourgeois virtues” that facilitate upward mobility, the assault on disciplined behavior in public schools, the push for lower-income households into home ownership and the subsequent obliteration of wealth after the housing crash, and most recently the credo that everyone is entitled to a college education despite overwhelming evidence that low-income Americans are disproportionately likely to drop out before earning a degree and accumulate debt they can never discharge.

While these policy disasters have afflicted low-income Americans of all races and ethnicities, they have devastated African-Americans most of all. The Left, fixated on race, identity politics, and the sinfulness of America, is unwilling to acknowledge its grotesque failures. Instead, it has adapted to the persistence of poverty and social breakdown among African-Americans (replicated to various degrees among Indians, Hispanics and whites) by finding racism in micro-aggressions and blaming poverty on ever-more-subtle forces of institutional racism.

That’s the problem I have with these academic seminars and symposia. Far from fostering “free-ranging conversations,” they tolerate only a limited spectrum of views. They ignore strains of thought that would threaten their sinful-America paradigm. Instead of embracing a positive approach — how can individuals and communities lift themselves up from poverty — they pursue a divisive, zero-sum game. Reparations in the United States is a non-starter. The idea of collectively punishing one race for the sins of committed by members of that race more than 100 years ago in order to repay the descendants of the victims is intellectually incoherent. Not only does the idea stir great resentment, it distracts us from the proper task at hand — identifying policies that actually work.

Uh, Oh, New Richmond School Has Unusable Gymnasium

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

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

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

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

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

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

Er, Remember those Improving Graduation Numbers?

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

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

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

Today, WTOP television reports this:

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

In 2016 the Washington Post also reported this:

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

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

A Plug for Virginia’s Scholarship Tax Credit

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

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

Record Enrollment, Record Bachelor’s Degrees Granted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McAuliffe Acts to Stem Teacher Shortages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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