Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

The Parental Backlash Against SOL Tests

SOL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

Although their numbers are small, more Virginia parents are refusing to have their children take the state’s Standards of Learning tests, saying that test preparation takes away from true education.

In the 2013 -14 school year, 681 SOL tests were coded as parent refusals out of the nearly three million given, with Northern Virginia, Prince William County in particular, having the highest number.

Some parents are annoyed that teachers in public schools spend so much time teaching how to take the SOLs, which are used to measure a child’s educational standing and also rate how well school districts are performing.

“Students can spend up to one-third of their time of the school year preparing for the tests and that is wrong,” says Gabriel Reich, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Virginia Commonwealth University. Last year, he refused to allow his fifth-grade daughter to take the tests.

It isn’t really clear if parents and their children have the legal right to take the tests or not. If parents refuse, the child gets a “zero.” That might go against the school’s overall rating.

How it affects the student isn’t clear. Continual refusals could keep children out of special programs, such as ones for gifted students. But students from private schools, where SOLs are not usually taken, regularly transfer to public schools with little problem.

In different parts of the state, parents have formed grass roots groups to educate and support parents who have concerns that the mania for standardized testing is hurting true education.

Throughout the state, ad hoc groups are forming where parents can meet and plan refusals. In Richmond, RVA Opt Out meets every third Monday evening of the month and has tripled its attendance in the past several years.

Confronting standardized testing is in part a reaction of politicians who insist that standardized testing is a primary – if not the only – way to make sure that students are being educated properly. Such tests have been around for years but got a strong boost in former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program of 2002.

Standardized testing has also been used as a weapon against teachers’ unions. Some politicians have suggested that data from SOLs and other tests be collated and configured to give individual teachers ratings that could be made public – something teachers associations bitterly oppose.

What’s more, SOL and other similar data have been used for purposes that have little to do with education. Realtors often collect schools’ performance data to push home sales in certain neighborhoods to give for sale prospects snob appeal.

Critics say that multiple-choice testing doesn’t always reflect a student’s ability to think or show what he or she really understands. It also doesn’t reflect creativity to draw, paint or perform or write music.

The anti-testing movement is growing nationally. In one case in New York state, about 1.1 million children in grades three through eight typically take reading and math tests. Last year, about 67,000 children skipped the tests.

The push-back is growing.

Do Asians Face Discrimination at Top Virginia Universities?

racial_breakdownby James A. Bacon

Many Asian-Americans are getting frustrated with the enrollment caps on Asians at some of the United States’ most prestigious institutions of higher education. As Jason Riley recently opined in the Wall Street Journal, Asian-Americans are the new Jews, academic high achievers who are under-represented on top college campuses in comparison to their qualifications.

A coalition of more than 60 Asian-American groups is asking federal authorities to investigate possible racial bias in undergraduate admissions at Harvard University. Harvard, like many prestigious universities, makes extra room for “legacies,” mostly white, in appreciation of, or expectation of, generous alumni contributions. At the same time, Harvard also considers race/ethnicity among other factors when admitting African-Americans and Hispanics. That leaves non-legacy but high-achieving Asian-Americans in the cold at a competitive disadvantage. Writes Riley:

Asians have some of the highest academic credentials but the lowest acceptance rates at the nation’s top schools, a result that the coalition attributes to “just-for-Asians admissions standards that impose unfair and illegal burdens on Asian-American college applicants.” A 2009 paper by Princeton sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford found that “Asian-Americans have the lowest acceptance rate for each SAT test score bracket, having to score on average approximately 140 points higher than a white student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic student and 450 points higher than a black student on the SAT to be on equal footing.”

Bacon’s take. So, I began wondering, what is the track record of Virginia’s public universities? Are Asian-Americans getting a fair shake in the Old Dominion? I had no idea what to expect, but I crunched some numbers.

Asian-Americans represented 5.5% of Virginia’s population in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (The percentage is probably higher today.) But that’s not a proper basis for comparison. Asians out-perform all other racial/ethnic groups academically in high school, so a better basis of comparison is the percentage of academic high achievers. There may be different ways to calculate that number, and I welcome any input on different ways to do it. What I did was consult the Virginia Department of Education’s online build-a-database tool to ascertain a racial breakdown of students who scored “advanced pass” in their SOLs for all grades.  For each racial/ethnic group, I averaged the advanced-pass rate to derive a composite score, as seen in the pie chart above.

By this metric, Asian-Americans comprise 12% of the top-scoring students in Virginia K-12 schools. For purposes of the argument I’m making, this is a very conservative measure. The numbers could well be even more skewed for metrics of college-ready students such as SAT scores or AP exam results.

So, how does the Asian enrollment compare for Virginia’s most selective institutions of higher education? Here are the percentages for Asian undergraduate enrollees at Virginia’s highest-ranked public universities:

asian_enrollments

The University of Virginia is dead-on target but the other three fall far short. While suggestive enough to demand digging deeper, these numbers are not, by themselves, proof of discrimination against Asian-Americans. Perhaps one reason there are so few Asians at James Madison University, to take one example, is that the institution gets very few Asian-American applicants.  A better basis of comparison is the percentage of applicants accepted at each university.

uva_admissionsWhile I could not find current racial breakdowns of admission as a percentage of applicants in an online search this morning, I did locate a research paper that provided some statistics for fall 2003 admissions. The paper, “Affirmative Action at Three Universities,” compared undergraduate admissions at the University of Virginia and North Carolina State along with law school admissions at the College of William & Mary.

While Asians were admitted at a slightly lower rate than Hispanics or whites at the University of Virginia, the rate was not severely out of line. Any discrimination in admissions was markedly in favor of African-Americans, not against Asians. At the William & Mary law school, Hispanics were severely under-represented, while Asians were somewhat under-represented. (Please note: This data is more than 10 years old and not necessarily reflective of current patterns.)

This scatter-shot evidence suggests that Asians may face discrimination when applying to some of Virginia’s top-tier universities. But the evidence is impressionistic at best. It would be necessary to get better data before drawing definitive conclusions. On the other hand, I would argue that the evidence is strong enough to warrant taking a closer look.

Sexual Chaos on Campus

Vigen Guroian

Vigen Guroian

by James A. Bacon

Vigen Guroian, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, ran a sexuality seminar a year ago in which students talked candidly about what he describes as the “deep, pervasive sexual chaos” that dominated the grounds. William Wilson, an academic dean, has met with “dozens” of young women so shaken from their sexual experiences that they had stopped attending classes.

Guroian and Wilson are well versed in the problem of rape and sexual assault on campus. And in an op-ed piece published yesterday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch as well as an essay in First Things, they argue that university and student leaders campaigning against the “culture of rape” are focusing on the symptom rather than the underlying cause — “a toxic sexual environment that damages all the young people touched by it.”

William Wilson

William Wilson

Their analysis of sexual violence at the University of Virginia, which erupted into a national issue with the now-discredited Rolling Stone article about a fraternity-house gang rape, dovetails precisely with the arguments I advanced in this blog at the time. One difference is that, while I opined from afar, Guroian and Wilson base their observations on testimony from dozens of students. Another is that they are even more strident in their portrayal of how campus sexual culture has degenerated.

During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, colleges and universities abolished the “rules, manners and conventions of courtship” that they had long encouraged, write the two religion profs. No more sexually segregated dormitories. No more adult supervision at frat houses. No more restrictions about visits to bedrooms. As the old restraints fell away, a new campus culture of sexuality arose.

Our students have told us what is wrong. In vivid detail they have recounted stories about “incestuous” dorm “hook-up” parties, young women spread out all but naked on fraternity house floors in the early  morning hours, and the general rough and tumble of sex gone awry, a formless sex with no purpose other than momentary impulse or recreational titillation. …

We contend that young women were not empowered by the changes that followed. Rather, the hook-up culture and casual cohabitation in dormitories gravely disadvantaged young women. …

None of our students have objected that we exaggerate the sexual free-for-all that envelopes their lives. No one has argued that the demise of dating and courtship has brought about liberation from repressive sex roles. The laissez-faire sexual economy, which the university lets happen, puts young women at risk and threatens to turn young men into louts.

What is to be done? Defining the problem narrowly as rape and sexual assault is not helpful.

When for administrative purposes we categorize rape as one specimen among many of sexual misconduct, we lose a vital sense of the full scale of sexual disorder that afflicts college life. When we become incapable of responding to rape as what it is, an act just one step short of murder, then all else that has gone awry with sex in the university takes on the look of normality.

One way to start is to admit what is occurring: “For decades a destructive disordering of relations between the sexes has festered right under our eyes [and] a feckless institutionalization of the sexual revolution in our colleges has resulted in maiming countless young people,” write Guroian and Wilson. They go on:

Complete neutrality about sex leads to complete sexual exploitation, and sometimes violence. We must stop blaming fraternities, drinking or the heritage of an all-male university education for the sexual chaos beyond our classrooms. That chaos is of our own making.

Measuring Educational Value Added

Lexington -- national center of value-added education.

Lexington — national center of value-added education.

by James A. Bacon

What are the top colleges and universities in Virginia? We know the usual roster, based upon the annual survey by U.S. News & World Report: The University of Virginia, College of William and Mary, and Virginia Tech. Essentially, U.S. News measures the prestige of an institution. But how well do colleges and universities actually actually prepare students to earn a living? That’s a very different question, and it’s one that that the Brookings Institution has set out to answer with a very different kind of study in “Beyond College Rankings: A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools.”

A university can have immense prestige based upon factors such as the star power of its faculty, the size of its endowment or the average SAT scores of its student body. But if the faculty stars delegate much of their teaching to graduate students and the endowment underwrites the building of magnificent edifices, and if students spend more time partying than studying, prestige may not translate into effective learning. Conversely, an institution whose faculty members excel at teaching rather than, say, publishing books and winning research grants might actually do a better job of preparing their students for the world beyond.

eva

In the Brookings rankings, 100 is the highest score.

Based upon Brooking’s methodology, Washington & Lee University provides the most educational value added in Virginia, followed closely by Virginia Military Institute. Virginia Tech surpasses the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary looks decidedly mediocre. The performance of Virginia’s community colleges looks especially dismal. It’s a very different profile than the U.S. News rankings that allow Virginians to proclaim that the Old Dominion provides the best undergraduate education of any state in the country.

Brookings compares actual economic metrics such as mid-career earnings, occupational earnings potential and repayment of federal student loans to the “expected” level based upon race, ethnicity, family income and academic preparation. The greater the gap between actual and expected, the greater the value added. It is important to note that this methodology does not capture all value from a college education, such as a person’s intellectual, artistic or spiritual development or a person’s preparation for civic or political participation. However, insofar as the primary justification most people give for attending college is to prepare for a career and increase their earnings potential, Brookings arguably captures the most important data.

Due to its immense prestige, Harvard University attracts some of the brightest students from across the country. Many of those students would be successful in life no matter where they attended college, or even if they dropped out. It’s no surprise that Harvard graduates earn a lot of money. As it turns out, Harvard still performs better than most institutions in adding value, giving a bigger edge to already advantaged students. But in terms of creating economic value added, Washington & Lee in Lexington, Va., out-performs Harvard, while VMI, also in Lexington, almost equals it.

A fascinating aside: One could argue that tiny Lexington is a national center of excellence for economic value-added education. One small Virginia town is home to two of the highest ranking institutions in the Brookings list.

Bacon’s bottom line: Brookings’ calculus is terribly complex and, truth be told, I have not had time this morning to do any more than skim the surface. I am in no position to evaluate the methodology, and I’m sure that many institutions (especially those who fare below expectations) will take exception to it. But I will say this: Brookings is asking the right questions. Educational institutions should be judged not on their prestige but upon their ability to deliver tangible value to students. If there are flaws in the Brookings approach, let’s fix them and keep moving.

Beware the Bonds

junk_bondsSweet Briar College had many problems, most notably a high tuition and shrinking enrollment, but the kiss of death was a high debt load. The small women’s college, which announced its intention to close earlier this year, had issued millions of dollars in bonds to pay for such projects as a Village Green that provided eco-friendly residential facilities. The announced closure of the college may have been accelerated by a potential default on $25 million in two outstanding bond issues, reports the News & Advance.

The warning bells had been sounding for more than ten years. But in 20o8 the board of directors approved an $11 million bond issue to build the $3 million Village Green as  well as a new fitness and athletics center.

Last November, S&P  revised its outlook on the BBB rating of the college’s 2006 bond issue from stable to negative. “The negative outlook was a result of numerous factors, including Sweet Briar’s enrollment challenges and high tuition discount rate,” wrote reporter Sherese Gore. “S&P warned of a potential lowering of its rating on the 2006 bonds during the two-year outlook period if there were further declines in enrollment and increased operating deficits.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The big question that bond rating agencies are asking about college finances these days is how well are student enrollments holding up? For most colleges and universities, tuition and fees paid by students is the dominant source of revenue. The cost has gotten so high that many families are balking, and enrollments are eroding at many institutions. The loss of revenue is all the more acute for colleges that have loaded up on debt. The obligation to hold debt obligations sacrosanct accentuates budget cuts to programs. If the quality of education or the residential experience is compromised, colleges run the risk of further enrollment declines, setting off a vicious cycle.

The United States hasn’t appeared to have learned anything from the 2007 real estate crash, which was driven by excessive indebtedness. Federal government borrowing has reached record levels, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the GDP. Exploiting near-zero interest rates, businesses are leveraging their balance sheets, taking on debt to increase their return-on-equity numbers while using cash flow to purchase shares. Even households, chastened by the recession and real estate crash, are beginning to take on more debt, although they haven’t matched the excesses of the 2000s. Scarily, China, Japan, France, Spain, Italy and other major economies have been every bit as undisciplined as the U.S. There will be a global debt reckoning.

There is no way of knowing when that day will come. But when it does, the fear-of-debt contagion will spread with frightening rapidity as confidence unravels, transmitted through the international economy in ways that no one today can predict. Survivors of the shake-out will be those who maintain tight financial discipline. For those of us concerned about public policy, that means paying close attention to the finances of state and local governments, industrial development authorities and colleges and universities.

– JAB

Private Immigrant Jail May Face Woes

Farmville jail protest

Farmville jail protest

By Peter Galuszka

Privatization in Virginia has been a buzzword for years among both parties. In this tax-averse state, contracting off public functions is seen as a wise and worthy approach.

But then you get debacles such as the U.S. 460 highway project. And now, you might have one brewing down in Farmville.

The small college town is in Prince Edward County, which gained international notoriety from 1959 to 1964 when it decided to shut down its entire school system rather than integrate. Many white kids ended up in all-white private schools and many African-American children were cheated out of an education entirely.

About six years ago, another creepy project started there – a private, for-profit prison designed exclusively to imprison undocumented aliens. It’s a cozy little deal, as I outline in a piece in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Farmville gets a $1 per head, per day (sounds like slavery) from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Immigration Centers of America, the private firm run by Richmond executives Ken Newsome and Russell Harper, gets profits. Then, in turn, also pay taxes to Farmville and the county.

The ICA facility, whose logo includes an American flag, pays taxes as well and provides about 250 jobs locally. The project even got a $400,000 grant from the scandal-ridden Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission for water and sewer works.

What might sound like a no-lose operation, except for the mostly Hispanic inmates who might have entered the country illegally, overstayed their visas, or had other bureaucratic problems, may face problems.

The census now at the jail is about 75 percent of what it could be. President Obama has issued an executive order that could free some five million undocumented aliens. It is being challenged by 26 states but Virginia Atty. Gen Mark Herring has filed an amicus brief in favor of Obama.

So what happens to Farmville if Obama wins? It could affect 96,000 aliens in Virginia. Could there someday be no prisoners? Wouldn’t that be too bad for Farmville?

Recent history is instructive. Back in the 1990s, Gov. George Allen, a conservative darling, was pushing private prisons in Virginia as he successfully got rid of parole in part of his crime crackdown. Slave labor was part of the deal.

Executive Intelligence Weekly wrote in 1994:

“Slave labor in American prisons is increasingly being carried out in what are called “private prisons.” In his campaign to “reform” Virginia’s penal laws, Gov. George Allen pointed to prison privatization as the wave of the future, a moneymaking enterprise for the investor, and a source of good, cheap labor for Virginia’s municipalities. Indeed, after taxes, pay-back to the prison, and victim restitution are removed, the inmate earns an average of $1 per hour in these facilities.”

Well guess what happened. Allen pushed for more public and private prisons. They were overbuilt. Demographics changed. Crime rates dropped. Prisons had to be shut down.

So, if immigration reform ever comes about what happens in Farmville? Don’t forget, the private jail came at a time when a construction boom, especially in Northern Virginia had drawn in many immigrants especially from Latin America. Their papers may not have been in order.

Neo-racists like Corey Stewart, chairman of the board of supervisors of Prince William County, ordered a crackdown on brown-skinned people who spoke Spanish. But when the real estate market crashed, fewer Latinos arrived. And, if they did, they avoided Stewart’s home county.

Wither Farmville?

Big Data: the New Wave of Wealth Creation

apt

by James A. Bacon

We’ve all been hearing more and more about “Big Data,” which arises from the ability of computers to collect and process unimaginably huge gobs of data and sophisticated mathematical equations to detect patterns and anomalies that can be used to drive business decision-making. Capital One used Big Data before it had a name to revolutionize the credit card business, and it’s one of the biggest, most profitable companies in Virginia. Now comes Arlington-based Applied Predictive Technologies, which just sold out to MasterCard for $600 million.

That’s a remarkable valuation for a 16-year-old company of 300 employees and revenues approaching $100 million. Humongous pay-offs like that are routine for Silicon Valley but they’re rare in Virginia.

“We will stay Ballston-based, but we will be growing faster,” APT chief executive Anthony Bruce told the Washington Post in an email. “Our opportunity to grow and expand will be accelerated by this partnership, in Arlington and elsewhere.”

Here’s how the company describes its product: “APT’s Test & Learn software is revolutionizing the way leading companies harness their Big Data to accurately measure the profit impact of pricing, marketing, merchandising, operations, and capital initiatives, tailoring investments in these areas to maximize ROI.”

An illustration can be seen in the graphic above. Drawing from data on retail and restaurant sales at more than 100,000 locations nationwide, APT charted the impact of the 2015 NCAA Final Four basketball tournament on restaurant sales in Indianapolis. The APT Index also integrates weather and demographic data to allow retail executives to ask an even broader range of questions. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how MasterCard could use its relationship with retailers globally to sell this as a value-added product.

Read “Data Crush” by Chris Surdak to get a feel for how Big Data will transform industry after industry in ways we mortals can barely comprehend. Big Data will blaze a path of creative destruction easily equal to that of the Internet.

Bacon’s bottom line: Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be lawyers. Engineers and computer programmers will make a decent living in the economy of the early-mid 21st century, but if you want your kid to have a shot at becoming the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, tell them to major in any branch of mathematics that lends itself to Big Data analytics.

If you want an argument in favor of STEM education (the “m” stands for mathematics), this is it. The Big Data revolution may have started in the United States, but the industry will move to wherever there are pools of mathematically gifted employees. We neglect mathematical instruction at our peril. (So says the guy who couldn’t tell you the difference between sines, cosines and tangents, much less between integral and differential calculus, much less actually compute anything requiring a retention of anything beyond 8th-grade algebra. I’m a dinosaur but at least I know it.)

Obessions of Inequality

Graphic credit: "Geographies of Opportunity"

Graphic credit: “Geographies of Opportunity”

by James A. Bacon

Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, authors of “Geographies of Opportunity,” provide a state-by-state and congressional district-by-congressional district measurement of “well being” across the United States. Overall, Virginia fares reasonably well in the report, scoring 11th overall. Well being is determined by a set of measures for life expectancy, education and median income. But state averages can mask a lot. Indeed, Virginia stands out for the inequality of income and well being inside its borders.

The premise of the report is that there other ways to measure progress than by the usual metrics of economic growth. The study draws upon the United Nation’s Human Development Index to measure three “fundamental human dimensions” — a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. “There is a broad consensus that these three capabilities are essential building blocks for a life of value, freedom and dignity.”

The Index score for the United States as a whole is 5.06. Connecticut is the best off, with an index of 6.17, and Virginia comes in at 11th at 5.47. Mississippi (no surprise) comes in last at 3.81. (Play with the data here.)

Burd-Sharps and Lewis also break down the numbers by congressional district. Virginia has three of the top 20 districts in the nation ranked by well being — the 8th (Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax), the 10th (Manassas to Winchester), and the 11th (Reston to Quantico). And it has one of the poorest — the 9th, in the far Southwest.

OK, what does all this tell us? I’m really not sure. Other than obsessing about what we all know to be true — there are huge wealth gaps in the United States — the study doesn’t tell us much. Gee, there’s a link between education level and health? Who would have figured? And there’s a link between income and health, too? Gosh, tell me more.

In a sidebar, the study notes how the ethnically pluralistic residents of the 8th district in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., live eight years longer than the predominantly white residents living in the isolated mountains of Southwest Virginia. Longevity in affluent U.S. congressional districts exceeds that of Japan. Longevity in the poorest districts, like the 9th, compares to Gaza and the West Bank.

So, what do we do about it? Improving human development outcomes in Appalachia, the authors opine, “requires greater investment in peoples’ capabilities to thrive in the new economy” — specifically, a high-quality pre-school experience.

But elsewhere we read that the higher the proportion of foreign-born residents in a congressional district, the longer the district’s life expectancy. In sunny California, there is a “surprising” 3.2-year life expectancy gap in favor of foreign-born Latinos as compared to their U.S.-born counterparts. Surprising — really? It’s only surprising if you think that the only meaningful determinants of public health are education and income levels, and that culture has nothing to do with it. As it turns out, the longer poor Latinos live in the U.S. and adopt fast food-heavy diets, the greater their risk of obesity-related illnesses.

Now that would have been an interesting angle to pursue. When affluent populations have better health outcomes than poor populations, the assumption is that the difference can be attributed to superior access to health care. Surely some of it is. But how much is due to different diets and lifestyles? Are there strategies that attack health problems more directly than, say, by increasing spending on pre-K?

Another thing that irritated me was the failure to adjust incomes for cost of living. If the purpose is to compare well being, the cost of living is a major consideration. The authors contrast Connecticut and Wyoming, states with similar GDPs per capita, in the $65,000 to $68,000 range. “Does this mean that the people living in these two states enjoy similar levels of health, education and living standards?” the authors ask. “It does not. Connecticut residents, on average, can expect to outlive their western compatriots by nearly two and a half years, are 40 percent more likely to have bachelor’s degrees, and typically earn $6,000 more per year.”

Here’s what the study doesn’t bother to tell you. According to CNN Money’s cost of living calculator, earning $50,ooo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is the equivalent of earning $64,900 in Hartford or $76,600 in New Haven. Incomes are lower? Yes, but the dollar stretches 30% to 50% further. The question I would ask is this: How is it that the residents of Wyoming, who aren’t nearly as well educated as the residents of Connecticut, manage to earn higher incomes on a cost-of-living-adjusted basis?

As an aside, let’s talk about income disparities within congressional districts. Which state do you think has greater disparities of vast wealth and poverty in close proximity — Wyoming, a state of cowboys and coal miners, of Connecticut, a state of inner-city poor and hedge-fund billionaires?

For a document entitled, “Geographies of Opportunity,” this study has almost nothing to say about the economics of opportunity. It has nothing to say about strategies that poor people can pursue to lift themselves out of poverty or lead healthier lives. All recommendations call for an activist and interventionist government. Promote health by cracking down on smoking. Regulate food advertising. Invest public dollars in recreational facilities and (a remedy I actually agree with) in more walkable neighborhoods. Expand pre-school programs. Keep teens in high school until they graduate. Raise the minimum wage. The list goes on with a host of suggestions that have absolutely nothing to do with the data presented. As for the one sure-fire way to wage raises for the poor — create conditions conducive to economic growth so that companies hire more workers, drive down unemployment and bid up wages — it doesn’t warrant a mention.

The numbers in this study are potentially useful. The analysis and recommendations are not.

Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

Almost a year ago, Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph- Macon College, made national headlines when he defeated Eric Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader, in the 7th District Brat Republican primary.

Brat’s victory was regarded as a sensation since it showed how the GOP was splintered between Main Street traditionalists such as Cantor and radically conservative, Tea Party favorites such as Brat. His ascendance has fueled the polarization that has seized national politics and prevented much from being accomplished in Congress.

So, nearly a year later, what has Brat actually done? From reading headlines, not much, except for making a number of bizarre and often false statements.
A few examples:

  • When the House Education and Workforce Committee was working on reauthorizing a law that spends about $14 billion to teach low-income students, Brat said such funding may not be necessary because: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and the Plato trained Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  • Brat says that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a step towards making the country be more like North Korea. He compares North and South Korea this way:  “. . . it’s the same culture, it’s the same people, look at a map at night, half the, one of the countries is not lit, there’s no lights, and the bottom free-market country, all Koreans is lit up. See you make your bet on which country you want to be, right? You want to go to the free market.” One problem with his argument:  Free market South Korea has had a single payer, government-subsidized health care system for 40 years. The conservative blog, BearingDrift, called him out on that one.
  • Politifact, the journalism group that tests the veracity of politicians’ statements, has been very busy with Brat. They have rated as “false” or “mostly false” such statements that repealing Obamacare would save the nation more than $3 trillion and that President Obama has issued 468,500 pages of regulations in the Federal Register. In the former case, Brat’s team used an old government report that estimated mandatory federal spending provisions for the ACA. In the latter case, Politifact found that there were actually more pages issued than Brat said, but they were not all regulations. They included notices about agency meetings and public comment periods. What’s more, during a comparable period under former President George W. Bush, the Federal Register had 465,948 pages, Politifact found. There were some cases, however, where Politifact verified what Brat said.
  • Last fall, after Obama issued an executive order that would protect up to five million undocumented aliens from arrest and deportation, Brat vowed that “not one thin dime” of public money should go to support Obama’s plan. He vowed to defund U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services but then was told he couldn’t do so because the agency was self-funded by fees from immigration applications. He then said he would examine how it spent its money.

The odd thing about Brat is that he has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor. Why is he making such bizarre, misleading and downright false statements?

Beware Stalling Growth in Northern Virginia

northern virginia mapBy Peter Galuszka

For at least a half a century, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington County have been a growth engine that that has reshaped how things are in the Greater Washington area as well as the Old Dominion.

But now, apparently for the first time ever, these Northern Virginia localities have stopped growing, according to an intriguing article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, the county saw 4,673 arrivals but in 2014 saw 7,518 departures. For the same time period, Alexandria saw 493 arrivals and then 887 departures. Arlington County showed 2,004 arrivals in 2013 followed by 1,520 departures last year.

The chief reason appears to be sequestration and the reduction of federal spending. According to a George Mason University study, federal spending in the area was $11 billion less  last year than in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the area lost 10,800 federal jobs and more private sectors ones that worked on government contracts. Many of the cuts are in defense which is being squeezed after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most dramatic cuts appear to be in Fairfax which saw a huge burst of growth in 1970 when it had 450,000 people but has been slowing for the most part ever since. It still grew to 1.14 million people, but the negative growth last year is a vitally important trend.

Another reason for the drop offs is that residents are tired of the high cost and transit frustrations that living in Northern Virginia brings.

To be sure, Loudoun County still grew from 2013 to 2014, but the growth slowed last year from 8,904 newcomers in 2013 to 8,021 last year.

My takeaways are these:

  • The slowing growth in NOVA will likely put the brakes on Virginia’s move from being a “red” to a “blue” state. In 2010, Fairfax had become more diverse and older, with the county’s racial and ethnic minority population growing by 43 percent. This has been part of the reason why Virginia went for Barack Obama in the last two elections and has Democrats in the U.S. Senate and as governor. Will this trend change?
  • Economically, this is bad news for the rest of Virginia since NOVA is the economic engine for the state and pumps in plenty of tax revenues that end up being used in other regions. Usually, when people talk about Virginia out-migration, they mean people moving from the declining furniture and tobacco areas of Southside or the southwestern coalfields.
  • A shift in land use patterns and development is inevitable. The continued strong growth of an outer county like Loudoun suggests that suburban and exurban land use patterns, many of them wasteful, will continue there. The danger is that inner localities such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will be stuck with more lower-income residents and deteriorating neighborhoods. The result will be that localities won’t have as much tax money to pay for better roads, schools and other services.
  • Virginia Republicans pay lip service to the evils of government spending and have championed sequestration. Well, look what a fine mess they have gotten us into.

The rest of the Washington area is seeing slowing growth, but appears to be better off. The District’s in-migration was cut in half from 2013 to 2014 but it is still on the plus side. Ditto Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

NOVA has benefited enormously from both federal spending and the rise of telecommunications and Web-based businesses. It is uncertain where federal spending might go and maybe increased private sector investment could mitigate the decline. Another bad sign came in 2012 when ExxonMobil announced it was moving its headquarters from Fairfax to Houston.

In any event, this is very bad news for NOVA.