Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools

by James A. Bacon

Why aren’t we making more progress improving the academic performance of Virginia’s school children? Many reasons have been advanced. Some say that school divisions don’t get enough money or that the money is unfairly distributed between schools. Others say that the public school system is over-regulated, bound by bureaucracy and resistant to innovation. Yet others blame society at large (sliding work ethic, the distraction of electronics) or point to the different emphasis on education among different racial/ethnic groups.

But there is another explanation that gets very little attention. Could the root of the problem be demographic? Could Virginia schools be struggling to raise academic achievement scores because school children increasingly are drawn from the ranks of the poor?

The correlation between poverty and socioeconomic status is well known. The challenges of poverty and economic insecurity — homelessness, frequent moves between school districts, family dysfunction, domestic violence, inadequate nutrition — distract poor children from focusing on school work. There is a cultural overlay as well: Because poor children tend to come from less educated parents, they grow up in households where reading is not emphasized and academic achievement is not stressed.

It is an indisputable demographic fact that poor women bear more children than middle-class and professional-class women. According to “Fertility of American Women: 2008,” published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, the breakdown by income category looks like this:

fertility_by_income

The poorest women, typically unmarried women, have the most children. Not only do they tend to have more children, they tend to have them at younger ages than higher-income women who typically wait until they complete their educations and get married before bearing children. Thus, to cite an extreme example, a poor family in which successive generations of women give birth at age 18 produce two generations of offspring in the same length of time as a more affluent family in which a woman has her first child at 36.

When poor women give birth to more children and they do so at an earlier age, the result is that the student body of school systems is significantly poorer than the population at large. Here is a list of the 10 Virginia school divisions with the largest gaps between general poverty rate and poverty among children under 18 (a proxy for the poverty rate of children in the school system):

largest_poverty_gaps

Source: 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data

The same pattern prevails in every school division in Virginia with the exception of five small localities with large university populations in which the number of “poor” is skewed by the presence of college students. (To see the poverty gap for all Virginia school divisions, click here.)

Even with a fair amount of upward economic mobility — poor people lifting themselves out of the ranks of the poor — the tendency of the poorest women to bear more children at a younger age continues to fill up school houses with their poor progeny, with all the economic and cultural disadvantages they suffer. I subscribe to the idea that many school divisions could be doing a better job with the resources they have — the horror stories I could tell you about the City of Richmond school system! But the problem is bigger than bad schools, bad teachers or inadequate funding.

The question that should concern us all: Will the trend of schools filling up with poor children get better or worse over time?

Bonus question: What does this mean for the ongoing debate on the war on poverty? Does the persistence of widespread poverty in the U.S. represent a failure on the part of U.S. institutions to foster upward economic mobility? Or does it reflect the fact that poor people replenish their ranks faster than people can raise out of poverty?

Virginia Students Achieve SAT Gains

SAT_scores

Table credit: Virginia Department of Education

Some good news about College Board SAT scores in Virginia to balance out the dismal news about Standard of Learning (SOL) pass rates: Public school students eked out gains in average SAT scores in 2014, continuing to outperform their counterparts nationally. Average public school reading scores improved by three points on the 200- to 800-point scale, while math scores gained a point and writing lost a point.

Virginia public school juniors and seniors ranked fourth nationally for the percentage (19.2%) earning a qualifying score (at least 3 out of 5) in one or more exams.

While Asians and whites continue to earn higher SAT scores on average, Virginia’s solid performance comes after years of steady expansion in the number of black, Hispanic and low-income students taking the exam. According to the College Board, 69% of Virginia public school graduates took the SAT in 2014.

SAT_participation

Image credit: College Board 10th Annual Report to the Nation

Also, black and Hispanic students out-performed their peers nationally. Indeed, Virginia Hispanics out-performed Hispanics nationally by a wide margin, possibly reflecting the large concentration of Hispanic students in Northern Virginia, a region of that sets higher educational expectations and has one of the best educated populations of the entire country.

Forty-five percent of Virginia’s 2014 public school SAT takers achieved the College Board’s benchmark for college readiness, according to a Virginia Department of Education press release. The benchmark score of 1550 ( reading, mathematics and writing sections combined) indicates a 65% likelihood of achieving a B-minus grade-point average or higher during the first year of college. Nationwide, 42.6% of SAT takers met the readiness standard.

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s population is bifurcating along educational lines. On the one hand, an increasing percentage of high school students are achieving college-ready standards. On the other, a large and intractable percentage are failing to meet basic standards of proficiency. To a large extent, K-12 educational achievement is economic destiny. As the economy increasingly rewards cognitive skills over manual skills, that divide will become more and more pronounced. Scary prospect.

– JAB

Good Ruling on Congressional Redistricting

The 3rd Congressional District

The 3rd Congressional District

 By Peter Galuszka

A panel of federal judges in Richmond has scrambled the carefully laid plans of legislators, most of them Republicans, to pack African-American voters into one congressional district to give the GOP an advantage in some of the  state’s 10 other districts.

The panel of U.S. District Court judges decreed that the General Assembly’s 2012 decision to draw new boundaries in the 3rd Congressional District stretching from Richmond east to several Tidewater cities was in error.

The state has until next April to redraw the 3rd District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat who is the state’s only African American congressman.

That will undoubtedly impact other districts represented by white Republicans including U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes of the 4th District, U.S. Rep. Scott Ringell of the 2nd District and Robert J. Whitman of the 1st District.

This is indeed an interesting start to what could end up being a messy line of dominoes falling. And it shows just how wrongheaded politicians are when they tinker with voters by race by packing people of color in one district so races in other ones will be decidedly less competitive.

It also raises other questions about ways the GOP is doing its best to minimize the influence of young and non-white voters through the use of voter identification cards and other means.

To get an idea of how nuts the 3rd District is, look at a map. Moving west to east, it goes through eastern Richmond and Henrico County, swoops down the James River peninsula, and hop-scotches parts of the 1st District to include heavily African-American parts of Newport News and Hampton. Then, the District crosses Hampton Roads to include heavily black parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth and then heads west again to take also-black parts of counties on the south shore of the James River.

Scott is Virginia's only African-American Congressman

Scott is Virginia’s only African-American Congressman

This scheme packs African-Americans into one unit while mostly-white parts of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake and Williamsburg are covered in the 1st, 2nd and 4th Districts, all represented by white Republicans. Mostly-black Petersburg, a city of 32,000, was taken out of the 4th District and put in Scott’s 3rd District, giving white Republican Forbes of the 4th District an advantage.

Democrats such as State Sen. Mamie Locke have long complained about schemes that hop-scotch geography to give white candidates an advantage. They want tighter, more contiguous districts.

One can tell just how serious this is when Del. William Howell, the Republican House Speaker, had nothing to say about the court’s decision. He will have to somehow help navigate drawing up new district plans.

He’s really under the gun. He can’t just set up a road block as he did with Medicaid expansion and tell Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe where to stick it. If Howell shuns a bipartisan effort, then McAuliffe would likely veto whatever he and his colleagues come up with. Then it would go back to the judges to decide.

It is in Virginia’s interest to make sure all of its districts and not just ones for Congress are shaped to allow for more competitive races. Very few elections for state positions are contested. This, in turn, ruins bipartisan consensus and makes the primaries, usually for Republicans, more consequential than the races themselves. The results are either legislative gridlock or laws that have little to do with the wishes of many voters.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is what Mother Jones magazine has identified as a large-scale, national effort, mostly by Republicans, to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote. They tend to vote Democratic and helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 and in 2012.

Since 2012, 22 states have passed new voting restriction laws that shorten voting hours or require a government-issued identification card or proof of citizenship. North Carolina has perhaps the worst of such measures. There are shorter hours and no more same-day registration to vote. It even gives the nod to “poll watchers” who can stand around outside polling places and hassle voters about their eligibility to vote. I guess that means if you look black or Hispanic or youthful, you get rousted by vigilantes. The odd part is that states, including Virginia, went for more restriction when there wasn’t much evidence of voter fraud.

To be sure, Virginia’s redistricting efforts were begun by federal initiatives such as the Voting Rights Act which gave Bobby Scott an opportunity to win as an African-American in the early 1990s. The Voting Rights Act was meant to ensure that minorities were represented but that concept has been cynically morphed into a Frankenstein that keeps minorities “packed” in a district or districts so whites maintain their hold on most of the other districts in a state.

The court’s decision is most welcome. Let’s hope it grows into a movement to return democratic competition and ends undemocratic restrictions like demanding extra and unnecessary pieces of identification for qualified voters.

 

Health Insurance as Driver of Income Inequality

Road to serfdom

If you want to address increasing income inequality in the United States, a good place to start would be to bring runaway health insurance costs under control. Health care costs — not globalization, automation or corporate greed — are the biggest driver in income inequality today, argue Mark J. Warshawsky and Andrew G. Biggs in the Wall Street Journal today. Warshawsky is a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

Here’s what the usual media analysis doesn’t tell you about the growing income gap. If you compare total compensation — wages/salaries plus benefits — low-income workers actually fared better than high-income workers between 1999 and 2006. Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Warshawsky and Biggs note:

For low-income workers, total pay and benefits rose by 41% from 1999 through 2006. But those workers’ wages increased only by 28%, barely outpacing inflation.  The reason: Employer costs for those workers health costs nearly doubled. …

Total compensation for [those earning $250,000 or more a year] rose by 36% from 1999 through 2006. That’s actually less than for low-income workers. But the one-percenters’ health costs rose from just 4% of compensation in 1999 to only 4.3% in 2006.

The authors do not explain why they cite data only through 2006 when data is available through June 2014. Whatever the reason, it appears that the cost of benefits continues to outpace wages/salaries. According to the BLS, for the quarter ending June 2014, “wages and salaries (which make up about 70 percent of compensation costs) increased 0.6%, and benefits (which make up the remaining 30 percent of compensation) increased 1.0 percent.

In other words, much if not most of the perceived increase in income inequality in recent years is an artifact of the tax code. Employer-paid health insurance is not taxable, thus not reported as income, while wages/salaries are taxable and reported as income. Eliminate the tax break for employer insurance and the growth in the wage gap disappears.

If we are sincere about wanting to reduce income inequality, the first place we should be looking is at inflation in health care costs. Here’s a real irony that Warshawsky and Biggs do not explore: Insofar as Obamacare shifts the cost of health care to employer-sponsored health insurance plans — I have a friend, a small business owner, whose health insurance is scheduled to go up 35% next year — it doesn’t just destroy job creation, it shifts compensation from taxable income to non-taxable health insurance, thus aggravating the reported income gap.

Meanwhile, the low interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve Board rewards the Top 1% by pushing up the price of stocks and bonds and punishes small savers by depressing interest rates. It is no accident that income inequality is worse under Obama than Bush. Perhaps Obama acolytes can cite the Warshawsky-Biggs research as evidence that the administration’s policies haven’t been as unfair to the poor as they seem to be.

– JAB

Petersburg’s Renaissance

PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.

Do-Gooders Doing Bad

by James A. Bacon

In a recent post, “Spotlighting the Wrong Victims,” I questioned the premise that “disparities” in arrests and suspensions of Henrico County students for school offenses represented some form of racial injustice. John Butcher, author of CrankysBlog, sheds further light on the issue. Read this post as a footnote to the original.

First, John notes, Henrico County has been reporting fewer disciplinary incidents each year for its high schools, as reflected by the number of individual offenders as a percentage of the school population:

Henrico_offenders

What’s noteworthy here is that the most dramatic declines occurred at Henrico’s predominantly black high schools. On the surface, the trend looks highly positive. Fewer students are experiencing disciplinary issues. Perhaps Henrico County’s new politically correct approach to handling problems, put into place at the instigation of the ACLU and U.S. Justice Department, is working!

Alternatively, perhaps school administrators aren’t recording incidents they once would have. Perhaps they’re hiding the problem and, by hiding it, failing to deal with it — a very bad thing. We can’t tell from this data. But we need to know.

Next, John took the offense data from each school and graphed it in relationship to (1) the percentage of black students and (2) the percentage of economically disadvantaged children.

offense_frequency

The correlation between the percentage of children experiencing a disciplinary offense and the percentage of blacks in a high school was very high — an r² of 0.907. But the correlation with the percentage of economically disadvantaged students was even higher — an r² of .9619, which is extraordinarily high. As John observes, “Correlation is NOT causation but at least this is consistent with the notion [that] the root of the disorder is economic status, not race.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Do-gooders who attribute the high rates of arrest and suspensions among black Henrico County students to prejudice, discrimination or institutional bias are fanning the flames of racial resentment with little basis in fact. I’m not stating that discrimination doesn’t exist but I am saying that the do-gooders have not presented meaningful evidence that it does.

As an alternative explanation, I hypothesize that the critical variables affecting the likelihood that a student will be arrested or suspended from Henrico County schools are sociological. Students classified as “economically disadvantaged” are far more likely than other students to come from dysfunctional families where the biological father is absent, where there are substance abuse issues, where there are domestic violence issues, where adolescents are more subject to the peer pressure of “the street,” and, in sum, where adolescents, especially boys, do not learn the rules of behavior required for a school setting.

Poor discipline in school is not a race issue. It’s a class issue. By making it a race issue, I would argue, the do-gooders are distracting school administrators from dealing with the real problems.

Here’s a prediction. Henrico’s politically correct response to the “racial disparity” controversy will undermine administrators’ efforts to maintain school discipline. Actual discipline will suffer, even if not reflected in the reported statistics. Deteriorating discipline will negatively impact classroom teaching conditions, mainly in schools where the discipline problems are concentrated. Standard of Learning (SOL) scores will suffer. Disadvantaged black students who abide by the rules will suffer the most.

Spotlighting the Wrong Victims

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Black students comprise 39% of the public school student population in Henrico County but account for 80% of all the kids arrested for offenses committed in schools. That disparity, combined with the fact that black students are disproportionately suspended from Henrico schools, is something that some people find disturbing, according to the Sunday Times-Dispatch. Although the article does not explicitly describe the difference as an injustice, the headline entitled, “School data show racial disparity in Henrico,” certainly implies that it is. In the progressive/liberal worldview “disparities” between the races are ipso facto evidence of discrimination.

“If they don’t know they have a problem, they have their eyes closed,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, which has made an issue of the differing rate of school suspensions in Henrico. “The numbers don’t lie, and the suspension rates are disproportionate as it relates to African-Americans, and I think we see that the arrest rates are as well,” said Tyrone Nelson, a black supervisor from the Varina district.

There are two very big problems with the article. First, it provides no evidence whatsoever that black students are disciplined more harshly than whites for comparable offenses. That evidence may exist somewhere but the article doesn’t provide it. Second, the article follows the standard victimization narrative of troubled black  youths suffering from a system that is stacked against them. But it totally ignores the invisible victims of disorder in the schools — classmates, disproportionately black, whose educational experience is disrupted by the misbehavior. If we want to understand the “disparities” in educational achievement between the races, differences in school discipline is a factor worth exploring.

The incidence of disorderly behavior in schools is tightly correlated with the socio-economic characteristics of the student body. Families from “disadvantaged” backgrounds are more likely to suffer social disorders arising from economic insecurity, substance abuse, domestic violence and the lack of a biological father in the house. Youths raised in such an environment — especially adolescent males — are far more prone to disruptive and violent behavior at home, on the street and in school.

According to our trusty tool, the Virginia Department of Education  SOL Assessment Build-a-Table, 65% of all economically disadvantaged students in Henrico County are black. Insofar as kids who get in enough trouble at school to get suspended or arrested are economically disadvantaged, more than half the so-called racial disparity disappears. A more refined look at the data — I would point to the presence of biological fathers in the household as a better indicator of a family’s ability to impose social norms on rebellious adolescent males — could show that the disparity disappears entirely. Conceivably, a closer look will show no such thing. We won’t know until we do the research. What is reckless, irresponsible and inflammatory is to assume, as a default proposition, that any differences in suspension and arrest rates reflects discrimination by schools and law enforcement.

Under investigation from the hyper-politicized U.S. Justice Department for the “disparity” in school suspensions, Henrico County authorities have been making an effort to cut that disparity. As the Times-Dispatch notes:

In the 2012-2013 school year, the number of suspensions in Henrico County schools dropped to 7,604 from 9,165 the year before, a 17 percent reduction. But the share of suspensions going to black students remained stubbornly high, rising almost half a point to nearly 77 percent.

Unless we’re willing to attribute some kind of subtle racism or prejudice to Henrico County principals and teachers — many of whom are black themselves, especially in the schools where discipline problems are the greatest — the logical conclusion is that the rules and procedures for administering discipline isn’t the problem. The kids are the problem.

There is, in fact, an injustice in this story. The injustice just happens to be the precise opposite of what is commonly asserted. The real problem is that disruptive behavior in the classroom has a negative impact on teacher morale and makes it harder for well-behaving students to learn.

Source:  Virginia Department of Education

Click for more legible image

How prevalent is disruptive behavior in Henrico classrooms? According to the “Discipline, Crime and Violence Annual Report, 2012-2013,” we know that discipline issues are a big problem. Henrico County logged more than 7,200 disciplinary offenses during the 2012-2013 school year. Highlights are shown at left.

These are just the offenses that were recorded for the record. It goes without saying that many fights, scuffles, bullying and lesser offenses take place out of the sight of teachers and administrators, and much of the disruptive behavior in classroom is simply ignored because teachers learn that reporting it or complaining about it is a waste of time.

Who suffers from this behavior? The three high schools that account for the overwhelming majority of the arrests are overwhelmingly black. That means the students suffering from the disruption, bullying, scuffling and assaults also tend to be black. The well-behaved, law-abiding black kids who go to school and want to study find it more difficult to learn because the teachers are spending classroom time dealing with problem students instead of teaching.

There is important secondary fallout from the discipline problem: Teachers find it demoralizing. Teacher burn-out accounts for much of the high turn-over in schools serving low-income student students; teachers with experience and seniority seek employment in schools where they don’t have to contend with discipline issues. The result: teachers in schools serving low-income populations tend to have less seniority, maturity and experience teaching challenging student populations.

Making an issue of “disparities” in arrests and suspensions based on the paltry evidence presented by the Times-Dispatch is a gross injustice to Henrico school and law-enforcement officials who are trying to preserve a decent learning environment. Such articles distract from the far bigger problem of school discipline. If the T-D, the ACLU and other do-gooders want to help struggling black kids mired in under-performing schools, perhaps they should start by asking what effect the breakdown in discipline has on the kids who want to learn.

Changing the Culture of Reading

carolyn_boone

Carolyn Boone reading with patient. Photo credit:

by James A. Bacon

Dr. Carolyn Boone is a pediatrician who serves a largely African-American patient base in Northside Richmond. In addition to providing check-ups and vaccinations, she participates in the Virginia “Reach Out and Read” program, the goal of which is to teach the joy of reading to young children — and maybe to their parents as well.

Participating doctors dispense books to children and advise parents on the importance of reading out loud. Even if babies just put the book in their mouth, that’s OK, says Boone in a Reach Out and Read video. Pretty soon, they notice the faces in the book. And then they want to be read to.

“You see the children come in. They run to the bookcase, and they want a book. And they want you to read the book, and they’re pulling their mothers to read a book,” says Boone. “In my office, I don’t hear the screaming anymore. It’s quiet.” Instead of yelling at the child to sit down, “momma may be sitting down with them and reading a book.”

Lower-income Virginians tend not to place a high value upon reading (although there are always exceptions). In many cases the parents may be barely literate themselves, and they rarely have the money, even if so inclined, to buy books for their children. The middle-class ritual of reading to children at bed-time is a foreign concept. Little wonder, then, that so many poor children are ill-prepared when they enter kindergarten.

A study just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms what a mountain of previous studies have already concluded. Head Start pre-school enrichment programs can help poor children make dramatic cognitive gains, but the gains fade away in elementary school. Head Start can’t make up for an entire childhood raised in a cognitively poor environment. It can’t make up for parents who either don’t care, don’t know how, or don’t have the means to encourage their children to read.

There is nothing intrinsic to being poor that discourages reading. Raised in a log cabin, Abraham Lincoln famously read by firelight. Anyone, no matter how destitute, can check out books from the public library or school library. Reach Out and Read tries to change the culture of poverty not just by handing out books to children who can’t read them yet but by enlisting parents, usually mothers, to participate. For a young child, half the pleasure of reading is snuggling into a parent’s lap or cozying up in bed with mom or dad at night. The bonding experience reinforces the positive associations with reading.

Reach Out and Read, which distributes more than 215,000 books annually to more than 121,000 children across Virginia, claims that participating children enter kindergarten with better vocabularies, stronger language skills and a six-month developmental advantage over their peers.

School teachers can help teach a love of reading but they can’t do it by themselves. Reading has to take place at home. Parents have to get involved. If we, as a society, want poor children to acquire the reading skills needed to participate in a 21-century knowledge economy, we can’t expect the schools to do it all. We have to reach the parents, too. We have to change the culture of reading, which means changing the culture of poverty.

Values, Income and Academic Performance

Douglas Freeman High School

Douglas Freeman High School

by James A. Bacon

Last night my wife and I engaged in an annual ritual of the school calendar. We went to Douglas Freeman High School to meet our son’s teachers and learn about the classes he’s taking. This was not a social event. We know very few Freeman families. Our motives were pragmatic. We wanted to arm ourselves with the information we need to be good parents. What is expected of our child academically? How much homework will he have? How can we keep track of his grades? How can we communicate our concerns, if we have any? We want our son to succeed academically because we want him to get into a good college. We also want him to develop the habits of self discipline and iniative that will stand him in good stead as an adult.

Many other parents there last night undoubtedly were thinking the same things. Here’s what surprised me, though. I’d guess that parents of only half the students showed up. Assuming the average class has about 25 kids, one would expect twenty-five parents (or even more, if both father and mother attended, as my wife and I did) to come meet each teacher. But few of the classes we visited were more than half full. While a few parents might have been working late, or were traveling out of town on business, or didn’t have access to a car, or had some other practical reason for missing parent’s night, it’s also likely that some of them didn’t care enough to bother.

And that brings me back to one of the big themes I’ve been hammering on the past couple of weeks in my analysis of Virginia Standard of Learning scores: the role of culture and the role of socio-economic status in influencing the pass rates for SOL tests. I made a huge mistake in the beginning of the analysis. Correlating the performance of Virginia school divisions with the percentage of students classified as “disadvantaged,” I found that 57% of the variability in SOL scores from division to division could be attributed to socioeconomic status. I then proceeded to slice and dice the other 43% in an effort to determine how much of the variability could be attributed to “cultural” factors, as opposed to inequitable distribution of resources or even to the quality of local school leadership.

What parent’s night reminded me is that social-economic status and culture are entwined. Typically, embedded in the truism that academic success in K-12 school is highly correlated with socio-economic status is the assumption that greater household income is what makes the difference. I don’t deny that income is a factor. Affluent parents can buy their kids more books. They can send their kids to summer enrichment programs. They can hire tutors. They can seek help if their child has mental health issues. Without question, all those things make a difference. But they’re trivial compared to the day-in, day-out discipline of going to class, paying attention and doing the homework.

The correlation between academic success and socioeconomic status is complex. The fact is, some people value education more than others do. Some people are willing to make bigger financial sacrifices, spend more of their own personal time and undergo more stress and angst to ensure that their children maximize their educational opportunities.

Anyone who has been a parent to an adolescent male knows exactly what I’m talking about. Parenting takes a lot of effort. It’s easy to let your kid skate by with Cs. By contrast, it can be exhausting to bird-dog your kid every day to enforce rules about watching TV and playing on the computer — basically, banning them from doing the things that adolescent males like to do — and cracking the books instead. Kids argue. They throw tantrums. They sneak behind their parents’ backs. If moral suasion and positive reinforcement don’t work — and frankly, they’re pretty weak compared to the allure of Call of Duty or Halo, or the party culture of sex, alcohol and drugs -- the only recourse is running a household police state of constant surveillance.

In the liberal/progressive worldview, it’s the money, or lack of it, that explains a child’s socioeconomic success later in life. If a kid grows up in an affluent household, odds are he or she will be an affluent adult. If a kid grows up in a poor household, odds are that he or she will be poor. As I acknowledged before, access to money can ease stress and lack of it can increase stress. But it’s not the money they have growing up that makes upper middle-class kids successful in life. It’s the values they are raised with. It’s the time and effort their parents put into raising them. Indeed, spoiling a kid with too much material wealth — big allowances, a new car on their 16th birthday, trips to Europe — can breed a sense of entitlement and destroy their initiative. Conversely, a kid who grows up poor and hungry but with the right values, is far more likely to succeed financially.

Socio-economic status is associated with higher academic achievement in significant part because the values and character traits that contribute to successful careers and the accumulation of wealth also contribute to higher academic performance. The values come first, the money follows. That’s why some kids raised in poverty succeed in rising above their circumstances. That’s why some affluent kids become spoiled, find no sense of purpose and fall below their potential. Parenting is hard — that’s why kids from stable, two-parent households have an advantage over kids from broken homes, or kids whose fathers play no role in their life.

Economic determinism doesn’t get us very far in understanding why some kids excel in school and others fail. We have to dig deeper if we want to figure out what it takes to give every child a chance in life to succeed.

BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.)

Local officials touted BRT as a jobs project. “We’re going to make jobs available to people,” said Jones. The bus would shave a quarter hour travel time along the 7.6-mile route, said Foxx. For a person in poverty or without a car, that could mean “the difference between getting a job or not.” Then came this from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “BRT will allow thousands of people in the East End of Richmond to apply for jobs in the West End they wouldn’t even think about applying for before.”

Really? At the eastern terminus, the BRT system will be anchored in Rocketts Landing, an upscale, New Urbanist development along the James River — across the railroad tracks from Fulton Hill, home to thousands of poor and working-class African-Americans. Is this some kind of cruel joke? The lawyers, investment bankers and advertising executives living in Rocketts Landing are not the ones who need access to minimum-wage retail jobs in the Broad Street corridor west of town. For the people who need the jobs, it will be a long, long walk to the BRT station.

Moving west along the proposed route, there aren’t many poor people living in Shockoe Bottom, a commercial area lined by the upscale Tobacco Row condos and apartments on the one side and yuppified apartments for the creative class on the other. As the bus route proceeds through downtown, it does pass through the traditional African-American Jackson Ward neighborhood, but that is rapidly gentrifying as more affluent Richmonders seek proximity to the jobs and amenities of downtown. Further west, the route passes through VCU, but college students hardly constitute a downtrodden class (until they have to start paying back their student loans).

West of downtown, the BRT route skirts past the Carver neighborhood with a couple thousand African-Americans. BRT could provide them better access. But the route then passes Scott’s Addition, an old industrial park that traditionally has had little residential, although it is gentrifying now with the addition of apartments and condos designed for middle-class tastes. Near the western terminus at Willow Lawn, the neighborhoods are middle-class.

For the most part, the only working poor of Richmond’s East End whom the BRT will benefit are those who take a local bus downtown and then change routes. That shaving 15 minutes off their travel time makes the difference between those people having jobs and not having jobs, however, is not a proposition that BRT backers have proved.

The other question that no one seems willing to address — at least not in public speeches — is what happens when the poor East Enders get off the bus on the West side of town. On the plus side, they can walk to their destination on sidewalks — yes, there are sidewalks on this part of Broad Street, unlike farther west. On the downside, the sidewalks are not the kind that actually invite people to walk on them, as can be see in the Google Street View atop this post. The Broad Street stroad is designed for cars, not walking. The sidewalks abut right up to streets with cars traveling 35 miles per hour or faster. Crossing the street can be challenging. Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable.

Even more grievous is the fact that Richmond and Henrico need to zone for higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor. Zoning for greater density is the easy part. The hard part is coaxing property owners not to build a new generation of the same old low-rise schlock that aligns the corridor. Another issue that neither jurisdiction has answered — not in public statements, at least — how much it will cost to build “complete street” streetscapes that accommodate people and bicycles as well as cars and BRT buses.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t escape the feeling that the state, the feds and the localities have gotten ahead of themselves. They’ve got the money, so they’re going to build the project, regardless of whether they have put other elements of a corridor-revitalization plan in place. Current estimates say the BRT will cost $2.7 million a year in ongoing subsidies to operate. That could be a modest price to pay if the project stimulates a transformation of the Broad Street Corridor along the lines of Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit system, which has been cited as an example of what Richmond can accomplish. But that transformation will not occur in a vacuum. The job does not end with construction of the BRT line. It will take decades of follow-up to the community that arises along it.