What the Virginia “Education” Association Is Trying to Hide

by John Butcher

It’s a strange state we live in. The meetings of our legislators are open to the public; their work product goes in the newspaper and on the Internet. The public is free to evaluate their positions, express opinions, and hold them accountable by voting them in or out of office.

Virginia’s judges perform in open court. Their work product is public and subject to legal review by the appellate courts. Judicial Performance Evaluations based on feedback from attorneys and jurors go to the General Assembly, which has the power to fire judges, and to the public, which can fire members of the General Assembly.

By contrast, the data showing how effectively public school teachers are educating our children are treated as a state secret.

The Virginia “Education” Association says that performance data might let the public make “prejudicial judgments about teacher performance.” They want teacher evaluation to be left to the school systems, which are free to ignore ineffective teaching — and do. So, Virginia parents are deprived of information to evaluate their children’s teachers or even to gauge how school divisions are managing — or mismanaging — inadequate teachers whom parents are taxed to pay.

Brian Davison of Loudoun sued the Department of Education and punched a small hole in this conspiracy against Virginia’s schoolchildren. (See Davison v. Virginia Education Dep’t, No. CL14 -4321; circuit court, city of Richmond, final order, 12 April 2016). Now the Virginia “Education” Association has threatened to sue VDOE, Brian, and me, seeking court orders to prevent, among other things, our disseminating and commenting upon Student Growth Percentiles (SGPSs) and, perhaps, other data regarding teacher effectiveness.

At the outset, this demonstrates that the Virginia “Education” Association is too stupid to count to “one.” The First Amendment bars this attempted prior restraint of our truthful speech.

As well, the information already available provides a window into what the Virginia “Education” Association is trying to hide.

We know that the Standards of Learning are an imperfect measure of teacher performance. The scores go down as there is a strong correlation between SOL scores and the socioeconomic disadvantage of students increase. In contrast, the Student Growth Percentile (“SGP”) provides an indicator of effective instruction, regardless of a student’s scaled score. Indeed, the SGP, which measures improvement, not absolute scores, appears to be insensitive to economic disadvantage.

VDOE calculated SGPs in reading and math for three or four years, ending in 2014. Here are the 2014 statewide distributions of average SGPs by teacher.

2014_reading_math

Here we see, as expected, a few very good teachers, a few ineffective ones, and a whole bunch who get average or nearly average performance from their students.

The 2014 data allows us to take a close-up look at individual teachers, albeit with personal identification data stripped away.

Continue reading

Virginia Sleeps through the Blockchain Revolution

Blockchain - 2A bitcoin for your thoughts? Approximately eight years ago Satoshi Nakamoto published a white paper entitled, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.”  CoinDesk, a company dedicated to reporting on bitcoin, defines bitcoin thus: “Bitcoin is a form of digital currency, created and held electronically. No one controls it. Bitcoins aren’t printed, like dollars or euros – they’re produced by people, and increasingly businesses, running computers all around the world, using software that solves mathematical problems. It’s the first example of a growing category of money known as cryptocurrency.” Bitcoin attained some mainstream media infamy when the FBI shut down the website named Silk Road which was accepting it as payment for the sale of illegal drugs. Silk Road and the man who founded Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, had bitcoins worth approximately $100 million at the time of his arrest. Over the next two years the U.S. Marshal’s Services auctioned off the seized bitcoins for about $80 million.  As it turned out Mr. Ulbricht would have no use for those bitcoins since he was convicted on a host of charges and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Today, over 100,000 merchants worldwide accept bitcoin payments.

Ian Drury and the Blockchains. At the heart of the bitcoin system was a brilliant bit of software design called a blockchain. Technically, the blockchain is a form of distributed database. Functionally, it serves as the public ledger of all bitcoin transactions. It’s the blockchain that gives bitcoin owners faith in the value and provenance of their bitcoins. That might have been an interesting footnote to the 15 minutes of fame enjoyed by bitcoin. However, as so often happens in technology, people began to see blockchain as much more than a foundation for a cryptocurrency. Blockchain-based systems are now seen as revolutionary changes to industries from banking to shipping to rental cars. Just as dirty dishes gave rise to penicillin, bitcoin has given rise to blockchain.

The Swiss Army knife of software. Blockchain-based systems are now seen as revolutionizing functions as diverse as stock settlements, diamond insurance, medical records management and government record keeping.

Asleep in River City.  Given the potential magnitude of the blockchain revolution one would think that the business development geniuses in our state government would be awash in blockchain ideas. It could make Virginia ports more competitive, add transparency to government record keeping, reduce the costs of government and the headaches of complying with regulations. Vermont has an active program in place to enable self-service government. Delaware is pioneering the use of blockchain-based smart contracts to help public and private enterprises lower transaction costs.  Virginia?  ** sound of crickets chirping **.

Not dead yet.  While the Virginia General Assembly slumbers through modernity a small group of Virginians hailing from Blacksburg see the future and are acting on it. Follow My Vote is a start-up trying to use blockchain technology to implement “a secure and transparent voting system for the modern age.” Excellent work!  Perhaps, one day, we can use blockchain voting software from Virginia-based Follow My Vote to finally throw the bums out!

— D.J. Rippert

Virginia in No Rush to Address Impending Metro Meltdown

metroby James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration seems to be in no hurry to bail out the ailing Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) commuter rail system crippled by declining ridership and an $18  billion capital spending shorttfall over the next ten years. Bolstering state support for the transit authority, which has been plagued for decades by union featherbedding and short-sighted, politically driven decision-making, would divert billions from other projects around Virginia.

At a recent discussion of Virginia’s rail and transportation budget Tuesday, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said there are no immediate plans to send more money to Metro, although there could be discussions with the General Assembly in the future.

“At some point, based on the estimates that I have seen as to what the capital needs are going to be, there’s obviously going to be that discussion for additional revenues,” Layne said, as quoted by the Washington Post. “That is not contemplated in these budgets.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This discussion is unavoidable, and the sooner it starts, the better. The Washington Metro is mission-critical transportation infrastructure for Northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington region. It cannot be allowed to fail. Failure to address the system’s maintenance needs will result in more accidents, more delays, more malfunctioning escalators and other conditions that drive away ridership, which in turn will cut into operating revenues.

At the same time, Virginia taxpayers are understandably reluctant to pour billions of dollars down a rat-hole, diverting funding from their own much-needed transportation projects, without some assurances that the commuter rail system can be made to run efficiently. Among major concessions that I would push for are higher fares, revisions to union contracts, prioritization of maintenance funding over expansions of the system, and an overhaul of the governance system.

Working out an agreement that satisfies constituencies in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. will be incredibly difficult, given the different ideological and geographic interests involved — not to mention the inevitable turnovers in political leadership. Negotiations could take years. Metro doesn’t have years. Discussions need to start immediately. McAuliffe could show leadership by convening a high-level confab to bring together major stakeholders from across the Washington region and surfacing the major issues that must be resolved.

What Donald Trump Tells Us about the Changing Character of Virginia Politics

by Frank Muraca

When Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee, Virginia’s Republican candidates for governor and Congress offered tepid support. Barbara Comstock, representing the diverse 10th district in Northern Virginia, actually withheld an endorsement, saying that Trump needed to “earn” her vote.

And when House Speaker Bill Howell told the Times-Dispatch that he, too, would back Trump, he tacked on an interesting comment:

Politics at the national level won’t change how Republicans in Virginia govern and lead. We’ve distinguished ourselves from Washington over the years, and I think voters recognize that.

Howell’s comment was true – Virginia has historically distanced itself from the unpredictability of national politics. There was a time when Virginia’s political leaders could step away from national politics, even declining to support their own party in presidential elections. But the fact that Virginia’s Republican establishment fell in line for Trump, whose persona and ethos run counter to the Commonwealth’s image of politicians as genteel statesman, shows how much that independence has waned in the past few decades.

The legacy of Harry Byrd Sr. influences Virginia politics today. From the 1920s until the early 1960s, Virginia was dominated by a one-party oligarchy that maintained unbridled control over the state government. The “Byrd Organization,” was just one of a handful of conservative, Democratic machines that controlled the political apparatus of southern states in the first half of the 20th century. Former Senator John Battle, one of the organization’s top leaders, described it as follows:

It is nothing more nor less than a loosely knit group of Virginians … who usually think alike, who are interested in the welfare of the Commonwealth, who are supremely interested in giving Virginia good government and good public servants, and they usually act together.

V.O. Key, one of the preeminent political scientists to study southern politics in this time period, wrote that Virginia was a “political museum piece.”

Of all the American states, Virginia can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy. Political power has been closely held by a small group of leaders who, themselves and their predecessors, have subverted democratic institutions and deprived most Virginians of a voice in their government. The Commonwealth possesses characteristics more akin to those of England at about the time of the Reform Bill of 1832 than to those of any other state of the present-day South.

One of Byrd’s most consequential accomplishments was creating a political reality separate from the national scene.

With a small, controllable electorate, Virginia’s Democratic leaders were able to act independently of national trends or opinions. The organization flexed its muscle during the Great Depression when President Roosevelt, a fellow Democrat, was selling the New Deal to the American electorate. Virginia, a Democratic stronghold committed to fiscal conservatism, was one of the least cooperative states in enacting the New Deal’s programs. Continue reading

You Want Studies? We’ve Got Studies!

The latest news in the Bacon’s Rebellion in-box…

Coal ash. Resource International, an engineering and consulting firm hired by Prince William County, has concluded that lead found in well water near the Possum Creek Power Station  has no connection to the coal ash ponds nearby. Concludes the study:

The test results for the sample collected from the wells … appear typical of shallow wells in the Virginia Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions. Natural hydrogeologic processes do not allow for movement of shallow groundwater from the Possum Point Power Station toward the residences on Possum Point Road.  … Based on the foregoing, it is reasonable to conclude that the Dominion Ash Ponds do not represent a potential source in connection with lead or other constituents identified in the private well samples.

Mountain Valley Pipeline. Meanwhile, a new study by Key-Log Economics, commissioned by foes of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, estimates that the total net-present-value cost to an eight-county region in Virginia and West Virginia would amount to between $8 billion and $9 billion. Annual costs in lost property value and lost ecosystem service value would range between $119 million and $131 million yearly.

The same group had estimated in an earlier study that the annual cost of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run around $141 million annually.

— JAB

Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure” Initiative Progresses

Virginia Tech's Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Tech has been re-thinking for a several years now how to invigorate traditional engineering disciplines by integrating civil engineering and computer engineering to create “smart infrastructure.” The $100 million initiative received a $5 million boost yesterday from the Hitt family, owners of Falls Church-based Hitt Contraction, a company that typically recruits eight to ten Virginia Tech graduates every year, according to the Washington Business Journal.

The Tech initiative is incredibly timely. In arguably the biggest revolution since the invention of structural steel that made possible the construction of new classes of bridges and skyscrapers in the 1930s, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is introducing radical change to the construction industry. The IoT is a catch phrase for the integration of ubiquitous sensors into buildings and structures that generate data that can be used to improve performance.

An in-house Virginia Tech article made note last year of Virginia Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure Laboratory,” which includes smart building technology that, among other things, can guide occupants to safety during disasters, and its Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team, which works at the intersection of engineering materials and systems to advance structural safety, resiliency and durability.

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall … is known as the world’s most-instrumented building for measurement of vibrations. Measuring motion and vibration inside and outside the walls, 212 accelerometers can detect even the slightest movement. The sensors feed data into data acquisition boxes via 65,000 feet of cable interconnecting the entire system. Data can be used to save energy costs, guide maintenance crews, or deploy first responders in an emergency.

The Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team has a measurement and visualization system that can generate 3-D representations of any object or environment over time. These models can identify gradual changes such as a gusset plate buckling in a bridge or cracks in a building after an earthquake. The system has been used to measure deformations in a steel plate wall and in the field to identify cracks in a concrete bridge over the James River.

Virginia Tech will start work in January on “Hitt Hall” for smart construction and another unnamed building for intelligent design. Meanwhile, Tech is expanding and linking its smart road partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), its smart city partnership with Arlington County, and a 300-acre “smart neighborhood” to serve as a proving ground for new technologies.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Internet of Things is revolutionizing the built environment — everything from buildings to roads and bridges, from waste water systems to electric grids. The cost of sensors is plummeting, and so is the cost of transmitting data to the Cloud. The idea of “smart” bridges and “smart” buildings is not hype — it’s real. It’s here. And leading construction companies like Hitt are building teams that can pull all the pieces together. Tech is wisely making the program multidisciplinary, opening it up to engineers, business majors and students in other study areas, reports the WBJ, “as the lines between technology, infrastructure and business continue to blur.”

I can’t believe that Virginia Tech is the only university exploiting this opportunity — I don’t track what other institutions are doing — but at the very least it deserves kudos for being an early mover. Hopefully, Virginia-based companies like Hitt Construction will tap graduates with the new skill sets to gain a competitive economic advantage in the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Virginia political and government leaders would do well to acquaint themselves with the state-of-the-art work at Virginia Tech and start thinking creatively how to apply the Internet of Things to Virginia’s own infrastructure. The potential maintenance savings from the application of smart technologies to government-owned buildings, utilities and transportation infrastructure is immense. The potential to optimize transportation systems, conserve energy and reduce man’s impact on the environment is transformative. VDOT and Arlington County are ahead of the curve. Everyone else needs to get with the program.

W&M Takes the Money and Runs

History of William & Mary cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board,

History of William & Mary cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board) for in-state students.

by James A. Bacon

The General Assembly boosted state funding for higher education by $300 million in the upcoming two-year budget in the hope that public universities would restrain tuition increases. Most universities have complied. Even the University of Virginia dialed back its planned tuition hike from 3% to 1.4%. But the College of William & Mary has decided to take the money and run. An extra $3.8 million from the state is not enough to induce the university to back off its plan to jack up tuition 12% for the incoming freshman class this fall.

W&M’s defense, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Technically, the tuition does not constitute an increase, for it applies to incoming undergraduate students only, and the university has pledged to freeze their payments for their four-year attendance at the college.

Maybe so, but tuition just keeps climbing, along with the overall cost of attendance, as can be seen in the graph above taken from online W&M data. (You might notice that four years of data are missing. That’s because W&M switched formats for reporting the cost of attendance, omitting the cost of room and board for four years, making it impossible for anyone drawing information from the Web to make a continuous, apples-to-apples comparison of the total cost of attendance.)

If the total cost of in-state attendance had marched in lockstep with the Consumer Price Index, it would be about $9,400 today. Instead, the actual cost will be an eyelash shy of $36,000 — four times higher.

The perennial excuse for higher tuition and fees is cuts in state funding. There’s just enough truth there to be semi-plausible. State support for William & Mary has rebounded in recent years but it is still lower than back in 2001. Here are the numbers for state support:

2000-2001 school year — $50 million
2012-2013 — $40.6 million
2013-2014 — $42.4 million
2014-2015 — 42.5 million
2015-2016 — $43.7 million
2016-2017 — $47.3 million

Adjusting for inflation, the General Assembly has fallen $20 million behind over 16 years. But consider: there are 6,300 undergraduates enrolled at W&M. At $36,000 a pop, increased tuition, fees and revenues (before adjusting for student aid) should bring in $227 million, an increase of about $189 million. Cuts in state support for higher education account for about 10% of that increase. Clearly, there are far more important factors at work, and just as clearly, those costs are out of control.

Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is not happy. “I’m extremely disappointed,” he told the T-D. “This is mind-numbing ad potentially shows the (college) board of visitors are out of touch with reality.”

Said Vice Chair R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta: “”They’re really making it tough for middle-income individuals and families to afford William & Mary.” The board’s decision, he said, is “outrageous.”

Bacon’s bottom line: William & Mary perceives itself as a “public ivy.” Its administration, faculty and board of visitors are all driven by a desire to maximize the prestige of the institution, which means enrolling students with higher SAT scores, recruiting more prestigious faculty, building a bigger endowment, and doing all the other things that win accolades in the U.S. News & World-Report top college rankings — even while competing against other prestigious institutions who also want to climb in the rankings. Meanwhile, the university is buckling under higher regulatory costs, with the federal government playing a more intrusive role than ever before, and it needs more money to pay for financial aid for poor and working class students.

Of all the competing goals that W&M would like to achieve, affordability for the middle class gets the short stick… which happens to be a top goal of General Assembly politicians catering to middle-class constituents. Tension is built into the state-university relationship.

Deep down inside, William & Mary wants to privatize, jack tuition and fees to the level the market will bear, recycle money back to the poor, and increase its standing and prestige compared to peer institutions. While I vacillate on the topic, I usually tend to the view that we should let W&M be W&M. Let the institution go private, end state support, and re-direct the $47 million a year to other public institutions.