Category Archives: Education (K-12)

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.

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.)

Keeping the Spirit of the Constitution Alive

Rob Peck teaches advanced placement U.S. government class at Douglas Freeman. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Rob Peck teaches advanced placement U.S. government class at Douglas Freeman. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Kudos to two Richmond-area schools — the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School and Douglas S. Freeman High School — for their superb performance at this year’s annual We the People competition. Fifty-six teams that made it through districts and regionals competed in the nationals. Maggie Walker, a perennial powerhouse, scored 2nd while upstart Freeman scored 3rd. Grant High School from Oregon came in 1st.

Four-student teams get a multi-faceted topic relating to the U.S. Constitution that could range from the Dred Scott case to the Magna Carta. After having time for research and analysis, they sit across from three judges who engage in a lively Q&A.

Students spent hundreds of hours prepping for the event. As one participant, Carson Whitehurst, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Read a lot. Specifically, the Constitution, court cases, the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers, and anything we could find from scholars or anything related to our question.”

As late-night show comedians frequently remind us with their laughably sad man-on-the-street interviews, civic ignorance is rampant in the United States. It is reassuring to see that in the state whose leading citizens articulated key Constitutional principles more than 200 years ago — James Madison, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson — at least at least a few young people are learning the philosophical underpinnings of our system of governance.

– JAB

An Encouraging Response

Tara Adams

Tara Adams. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

Last week a brawl broke out in the cafeteria of Varina High School in Henrico County, leading to mayhem and a lockdown of the school. On Sunday, 200 parents, teachers, school officials and some students gathered to discuss how the community can prevent future incidents. I found the comments, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, to be encouraging. No one blamed the police, or the school system, or poverty, or society at large. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that parents need to step up and hold their children accountable.

“We’ve just got to do a better job as parents,” said Tyrone E. Nelson, Varina District supervisor. “We have to hold each other accountable when we are dealing with our children.”

“We need parents instead of the police to be the presence,” said Tara Adams, a former president of the PTA. “Stand up. Be adults and be accountable.”

However, observed Times-Dispatch reporter Jim Nolan, “It was not lost on the gathering the the parents and students most likely to be in need of hearing the message were likely not in the audience.”

Image capture from YouTube posting, "Crazy Ass Varina Fight."

Image capture from YouTube posting, “Crazy Ass Varina Fight.”

Bacon’s bottom line: In other words, the audience consisted of parents who already do hold their children accountable for their behavior and who show every sign of caring deeply about the quality of education their children are receiving at Varina. With all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the students on the receiving end of school and police discipline, this meeting serves as a reminder that there are plenty of students from responsible families whose education is disrupted on a regular basis. The mass fight in the cafeteria was an extreme manifestation of a more pervasive problem reflected in smaller altercations and incidents. Thanks to the Sunday gathering, responsible families had a venue to express a perspective that does not get heard enough.

The Varina incident comes as the Henrico County Public Schools system overhauls its Code of Community Conduct, which describes the rights and responsibilities of students and parents, outlines the progressive consequences of continued bad behavior and describes “corrective” strategies.

The new approach has had a positive impact on the number of incidents at schools, William Noel Sr., director of student support and disciplinary review, told me for an article I never ended up writing. Unless the infraction is egregious, he said, there is a process in which the administration meets face-to-face with the student and with parents. A behavior plan and student supports are put into place. The idea is to teach the child to make better choices, while recognizing that there may be reasons based on what’s happening at home why the child is “acting out.”

Sounds touchie-feely to me. But at the time of the interview a few months ago, the approach seemed to be working, as measured by a declining number of infractions. If it’s working, that’s great. But I also think there’s wisdom in what the Varina parents were saying yesterday. The onus of improving school discipline shouldn’t fall mainly upon the schools. Parents have to play a role as well. And that won’t happen unless the responsible members of the community speak up and set expectations of acceptable behavior.

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?

McAuliffe Climate Change Commission Playing for Small Stakes

climate_changeby James A. Bacon

In December 2008, Governor Tim Kaine’s climate change commission issued a detailed action plan. In 2009, Bob McDonnell was elected governor, and work on anything remotely connected to climate change promptly ended. In January 2014 Governor Terry McAuliffe took office, and he set up a new commission to review and update the Kaine plan. What can we expect from this latest initiative?

Judging from the proceedings of a meeting of the Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission yesterday at the University of Richmond, nothing breathtaking is likely to emerge from this group. Part of the reason is that the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would radically restructure Virginia’s electric power industry for the purpose of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, is so massive that everything else seems small by comparison.

But the other reason for expecting only tweaks to existing policy is that McAuliffe set politically realistic goals. McAuliffe understands that multimillion-dollar spending or regulatory initiatives to combat climate change will be still-born in the Republican dominated General Assembly. So, he has charged the Commission to develop recommendations that can be implemented either through executive action or in partnership with private groups. And it’s quickly becoming obvious that only so much can be accomplished this way.

The small-bore nature of the proposals under discussion became evident from preliminary reports of working-group chairs.  The education/outreach work group, for instance, suggested building a website to function as a authoritative clearinghouse for Virginia-related climate change and resilience information. Of course, that can happen only if resources can be found within an already over-stretched state workforce to build and curate it. Another work group is trying to identify data sources on everything from sea-level rise to the carbon sequestration capacity of Virginia forests for use in intelligent decision making. It’s not clear yet how much of this data even exists.

The public-funding work group seeks ways to leverage limited public funds with private dollars. “We don’t have a printing press here in Virginia,” quipped Walton Shepherd with the NRDC. His group is looking for opportunities to create public-private partnerships, to create “resiliency bonds” for infrastructure-hardening improvements, or to find a clever way that the up-front cost of flood-proofing improvements, such as elevating houses, can  be paid for through lower flood insurance rates. This group is thinking creatively, but it’s not clear whether it can come up with anything tangible.

The energy work group is wrestling with some of the biggest issues, like how to promote cogeneration (which utilizes waste heat) and microgrids (which better accommodate small-scale renewable energy sources). Not only would such recommendations likely require General Assembly action, however, it may be difficult to obtain consensus within the work group. As an example of the potential friction within the commission, an individual representing Virginia’s electric co-ops questioned the blithe assertion of another commission member that a warming climate will increase the frequency and severity of storms. Contrary to predictions, the incidence of hurricanes along the U.S. Atlantic coast actually has declined in recent years.

More to the point, it is difficult to see how a commission that meets episodically over one year can master an incredibly complex suite of issues and develop solutions that meet McAuliffe’s political criteria. As Jagadish Shukla, with the Institute of Global Environment and Society at George Mason University, said at one point, the commission needs more time. “Two hour meetings don’t do justice to these problems.”

— JAB

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.

Amateur Hour at the General Assembly

virginia_state_capitol502By Peter Galuszka

If you are an ordinary Virginian with deep concerns about how the General Assembly passes laws that impact you greatly, you are pretty much out of luck.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of non-profit public interest groups in a report released this week. Their findings  came after members studied how the 2015 General Assembly operated.

Among their points:

  • Notice of committee hearings was so short in some instances that public participation was nearly impossible.
  • Scores of bills were never given hearings.
  • In the House of Delegates, committees and subcommittees did not bother to record votes on 76 percent of the bills they killed.

“Despite a House rule that all bills shall be considered, not all are. Despite a Senate rule that recorded votes are required, not all are,” states the 21-page report, whose main author is Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Transparency Virginia is made up of 30 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, the the Virginia Education Association and the League of Women Voters in Virginia.

The scathing report underscores just how amateurish the General Assembly can be. It only meets for only 45 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The pay is pin money. Delegates make only $17,640 a year and senators earn $18,000 annually.

It is not surprising then that a part-time group of 100 delegates and 40 senators can’t seem to handle their 101 committees and subcommittees that determine whether the consideration of thousands bills proceeds fairly and efficiently.

“A Senate committee chair did not take comment on any bills on the agenda except for the testimony from the guests of two senators who were presenting bills,” the report states. In other cases, legislators were criticized by colleagues for having too many witnesses. Some cut off ongoing debate by motioning to table bills. Bills were “left in committee” never to be considered.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that open public meetings be announced three working days in advance. A General Assembly session is considered one, long open session. But the FOIA is often subverted by sly legislators who manipulate the agendas of committees or subcommittees or general sessions.

Agendas of the General Assembly are not covered by the FOIA because there is too much work to cram in 45 or 60 days. In the case of local and state governments, similar meetings are, presumably because they meet more regularly. House and Senate rules do not stipulate how much notice needs to be given before a committee or subcommittee session. So, crucial meetings that could kill a bill are sometimes announced suddenly.

The setup favors professional lobbyists who stand guard in the Capitol ready to swoop in to give testimony and peddle influence, alerted by such tools as “Lobbyist-in-a-Box” that tracks the status of bills as they proceed through the legislature. When something important is up, their beepers go off while non-lobbyist citizens with serious interests in bills may be hours away by car.

The report states: “While most of Virginia’s lobbyists and advocates are never more than a few minutes from the statehouse halls, citizens and groups without an advocacy presence may need to travel long distances.” Some may need to reschedule work or family obligations, yet they may get only two hours’ notice of an important meeting. That’s not enough time if they live more than a two-hour drive from Richmond.

The report didn’t address ethics, but this system it portrays obviously favors lobbyists who benefit from Virginia’s historically light-touch approach when it comes to limited gifts. That issue will be addressed today when the General Assembly meets to consider Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that a new ethics bill address the problem of allowing consecutive gifts of less than $100 to delegates or senators.

The only long-term solution is for Virginia to consider creating a legislature that works for longer periods, is better paid, more professional and must adhere to tighter rules on bill passage. True, some 24 states have a system somewhat like Virginia and only New York, Pennsylvania and California have truly professional legislatures.

The current system was created back in Virginia was more rural and less sophisticated. But it has grown tremendously in population and importance. It’s a travesty that Virginia is stuck with amateur hour when it comes to considering legislation crucial to its citizens’ well-being.