VA CPAs Say Conform, Hold Tax Funds for Later

The Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants (VSCPA) Monday called on the 2019 Virginia General Assembly to conform Virginia tax with recent federal changes, to track and sequester the hundreds of millions of dollars in higher taxes thus generated and to hold those funds for a future tax reform effort.

Nobody knows these issues better than the people who prepare tax returns, and the CPAs cite continued uncertainty over the full impact of the federal changes, especially with several issues still awaiting guidance from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.  The society’s position is detailed in a white paper.  It offers no firm advice on what policy changes should eventually be adopted.

“VSCPA leadership and the VSCPA Tax Advisory Committee considered and discussed numerous policy options in an effort to make a recommendation, considering extensive input from VSCPA members and tax professionals, and determined that there was no member consensus on any single policy prescription,” Vice President Emily Walker wrote in an accompanying news release.

The VSCPA has enhanced its clout on this issue by hiring former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walter Stosch as an outside lobbyist.  Stosch’s message to conform in full and then hold the money for later decisions is likely to carry greatest weight with his former colleagues in the Senate.

On the same day the CPA’s position was announced the first piece of proposed conformity legislation was filed, a House bill seeking to allow one major deviation from conformity.  It would allow Virginians to take the standard deduction on their federal returns but still itemize deductions on their state returns.  The deductions they can take will be under the new federal rules, however.

In previous Republican-generated statements pledging to allow Virginians to keep state itemized deductions while taking the federal standard deduction, the question of which deductions – new or old — has not been addressed.  The new federal law places limits on state and local tax deductions, eliminates the moving expense deduction, and make many other changes.

Delegate Richard Bell (R-Staunton) is not on either the House Finance or Appropriations Committees and it is likely other bills will emerge, probably many of them, before the session starts in January.  To apply retroactively to tax year 2018 any bill will have to pass with 80 percent super-majorities in both chambers, requiring a bipartisan consensus.  A bill changing policy for tax year 2019 needs just the usual majorities plus the Governor’s signature.

Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne was back discussing the issue before the House Appropriations Committee Monday, at the end of his regular presentation on the state’s finances.  A CPA himself, he probably helped influence that society position paper.  The Northam Administration is resisting efforts to make immediate tax policy changes in response to conformity but has not ruled out a tax reform effort next year.

That approach has its own challenges.  By the administration’s own estimates, conformity with no policy changes produces almost $600 million in additional revenue for tax year 2018 from individuals and businesses.  To hold the funds in reserve for a future tax policy debate would require great discipline on the part of the elected leaders.  And if done in special session next year that debate would take place during the run-up to what is likely to be a bitter primary and election season for both House and Senate.

Layne has access to the revenue model produced for the state by Chainbridge Solutions LLC and added a data tidbit yesterday:  While some people will see a tax increase if Virginia adopts full conformity, others will see a tax increase if the state does not.  The individual tax hike from non-conformity is more than $181 million.  That’s far less than the other way around but demonstrates the complexity of all this.

Speaking of complexity, an effort to explain this in easier-to-understand language led to the production of another white paper, this one mainly written by me and distributed Monday.  You can find it on the Thomas Jefferson Institute website here.

Empower College Trustees with More Data

In the previous post Steve Haner shows how Virginia’s public universities have relentlessly jacked up tuition and fees since 2010. What can be done? Students and parents can pick other colleges and universities — but most institutions have been raising tuition & fees just as aggressively. Alternatively, the General Assembly can try micro-managing the institutions by capping tuition or other means, but such arbitrary actions create their own set of problems. Ideally, change would come from within. Faculty and administrators are trapped in their own self-interested world view, so we can’t expect anything from them. Reform, adapted to the unique conditions at each institution, must from come from Boards of Visitors.

James P. Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability & Public Trust (a former sponsor of Bacon’s Rebellion), delivered some ideas worth considering to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) this morning.

“When only one out of 200 Virginia trustees votes against a tuition hike, our trustees are really just administrative rubber stamps,” Toscano said.

We need to empower trustees with information that enables them to own up to their share of responsibility and work jointly with college presidents to create a true shared vision that isn’t just pro-institution but balances the interests of students, paying parents and the taxpaying public.

So … SCHEV should give trustees the tools they need to engage in substantive institution-level discussions of cost by developing a statewide report on program-level costs by institution. Until boards of visitors have access to this information and can grapple with it to address cost issues on their own, boards and presidents can’t even begin to engage on simply questions of Return on Investment and fulfill their governing obligations.

Finally … SCHEV should publicly support proposals that require boards of visitors to listen to the voices of students and paying parents and faculty and others before making tuition decisions.

In my observation, board members are easily railroaded by college administrators. Most know very little about higher-ed issues or financing when they join the boards, and by the time they figure out how things work, they rotate off. To a greater or lesser degree, administrators frame the issues in ways that are most advantageous to them and spoon-feed the data that they want board members to see. Board members don’t know enough to pose tough questions, even if they were disposed to do so. It would be extraordinarily beneficial if SCHEV could provide an alternate source of data and analysis pertaining to programmatic costs.

Rather than imposing draconian, one-size-fits-all solutions on Virginia’s colleges and universities, as legislators have tried unsuccessfully to do in the past, the General Assembly could accomplish far more good by empowering boards of trustees. Expand the scope of SCHEV’s data collection and analysis to encompass comprehensive cost data, fund two or three positions to beef up SCHEV’s data capabilities, and distribute an annual update on programmatic costs to every member of every board of visitors at a public Virginia institution.

Chain Reaction: Tuition Rises Due To Higher Tuition

Annual average increases since 2010 in General Fund (GF) support and in-state tuition and fees at each school, compared to the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) and Consumer Price Index (CPI). At nine schools the state funds have lagged even the smaller inflation measure.  Source: House Appropriations Committee

Increased pay for faculty and administrators is one of the major cost drivers behind the continuing climb in tuition and fee charges, a member of the House Appropriations Committee staff told that committee Monday.   As those charges climb, the universities are also increasing the percentage of tuition revenue used to provide financial aid for students being priced out, transferring costs from one group of students to the other.

Anthony Maggio’s presentation went into details missing from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s own review of the cost increases.  His critical overview highlighted:

  • The six institutions that exceeded the tuition increases in their six-year plans. (Eight institutions including the Virginia Community College System stayed under the amounts in their plans.)
  • The amount the schools are still charging in their mandatory fees to support their athletic programs, now more than $1,500 at eight of fifteen schools and over $3,000 at one.  Legislation in 2015 slowed but has not stopped the growth.
  • A potential way he believes the universities may be shifting more research program costs onto the students’ tuition or fee payments, further explaining rising tuition.

Athletic charges included in mandatory comprehensive fees. Source: House Appropriations Committee

Maggio reported that Radford University increased tuition 7 percent instead of a planned 3 percent hike and blamed, among other things, enrollment loss and a commitment of funds to economic development activities.  The other schools that exceed their targets often mentioned salaries or fringe benefit costs.

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Will Virginia Legalize Recreational Marijuana Use?

High times today.  The marijuana legalization wave is beginning to wash over North America. Nine states (WA, OR, CA, NV, CO, MA, VT, ME and AK) along with the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.  Well over 20% of Americans now live in states which have legalized recreational marijuana use. On Oct 17 of this year recreational marijuana use will be legalized across Canada. While the various provinces will regulate the sale and use of marijuana in their own unique ways, it will be legal across Canada.

Higher times to come. Several more states are slated to decide the question of legalized recreational marijuana use this November (or sooner)…

Michigan – Voter initiated measure to permit those over 21 to grow and possess personal use quantities of cannabis and related concentrates.  Statewide polling data from this spring shows 61% of voters intend to vote “yes” on the measure. While you may not be able to drink the water in Flint it looks like you’ll be legally able to use it in a bong come this November.

New Jersey – The New Jersey legislature is debating bills that would legalize recreational marijuana in the Garden State. Interestingly, some of these bills would also expunge the criminal records of anybody convicted in the past of marijuana-related crimes. Was I ever arrested for weed?  Fuhghetaboutit!

North Dakota – A voter – initiated referendum will appear on North Dakota ballots this November. Uniquely, the North Dakota initiative would set no limits on the amount of marijuana people can possess or cultivate. Perhaps a large stockpile is required to get through those long, dark winters.

New York – A recent state commissioned study on recreational marijuana legalization came out strongly in favor of making ganja legal. Gov Andrew Cuomo quickly sprang to action setting up a working group to write a marijuana legalization bill. Put New York in the “when, not if” column.  This should give new meaning to Billy Joel’s song “New York State of Mind” (which has the opening line, “Take a holiday from the neighborhood”).

Oklahoma – This June Oklahoma voters approved a broad medical marijuana usage law. Activists have collected a lot of signatures to get the question of legalized recreational marijuana on the Nov 6 ballot. Whether there are enough signatures or enough time to get the ballot question approved this year remains to be seen. Sadly, Merle Haggard died in 2016 before being able to revise the first line of his famous song Okie from Muskogee … “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”.  It seems that sooner, rather than later, people will be openly smoking marijuana in Muskogee.

Delaware – In June, a majority of House lawmakers voted in favor of legislation to legalize marijuana use and retail sales. However, because the legislation imposed new taxes and fees, state rules required it to receive super-majority support. Lawmakers are anticipated to take up similar legislation again next year. I’ll predict that by 2020 people will be legally getting small in the Small Wonder.

A spot of hemp, Mr. Jefferson? Five of the first six presidents of the U.S. were Virginians and there is evidence that all five of them smoked a little hootch from time to time. You can read the evidence from an unimpeachable source … High Times …  here.

Will River City go up in smoke? But what of modern Virginians and Virginia politicians? In a 2017 Quinnipiac poll Virginia voters supported allowing adults to legally posses and use small amounts of marijuana by 59 – 35 percent. So, the voters would like to see marijuana legalized in Virginia. But since when did the voters matter to Virginia’s political elite? They don’t listen to voters, they listen to dollars. The Virginia Public Access Project tallies up the following donation totals for “all years”:

Beverages – Alcohol Distributors / Brokers – $20,885,384
Retail Sales – General $10,113,070
Restaurants – $6,533,357
Beverages – Alcohol Manufacturers – $3,993,418

As point of reference, Dominion Energy donated $11,354,842 during the same period.  Meanwhile, PepsiCo, owner of Frito-Lay – the maker of Cheetos – only donated $82,385.

— Don Rippert

U.S. News Adds Another Perverse Incentive

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, has long been a critic of the U.S. News & World-Report Best Colleges ranking. Writing in the Washington Post, he offers an analysis that is identical in ways to the indictment of America’s higher-education system we make here in Bacon’s Rebellion.

By focusing on factors like SAT scores, spending per student, alumni giving and surveys of peer institutional leaders, the rankings have long created incentives for college presidents eager for better U.S. News & World-Report scores to raise prices, compete for status and market themselves to the children of the affluent. In this way, U.S. News has been both a driver and a validator of an increasingly elitist and dysfunctional American higher education system. …

We’ve lavished more and more attention and dollars on a small number of highly selective schools that increasingly cater to upper-income families, while the bottom 90 percent of students struggle to pay tuition typically at underfunded public institutions, or, worse, at predatory for-profit schools.

I agree entirely with this critique. Unfortunately, in his zeal to combat elitism, Glastris advances ideas that are potentially pernicious as well. He lauds U.S. News for updating its ranking methodology to favor colleges and universities that “succeed at enrolling and graduating students from low-income families.” Indeed, he argues that U.S. News should give more weight to what he calls “social mobility” metrics, as Washington Monthly does in its own annual college rankings.

Underlying his argument is this core proposition: “Because of changes in the economy, a post-secondary credential has gone from something every American ought to have a right to pursue to something every American needs to pursue just to have a shot at the middle class.”

Let me be clear: Socio-economic mobility is a good thing. I believe in creating a society that rewards merit and provides opportunity for all. However, I worry that Glastris’s idea can easily go off the rails.

First, a “post-secondary credential” is a very different thing from a “college education.” For hundreds of thousands of Virginians, a post-secondary credential may provide skill sets that open up jobs requiring some technical knowledge such as plumbers, electricians, HVAC repairmen, cable TV installers, and IT help desk workers. It is unquestionably in the public interest to ensure that Virginians have affordable access to community colleges and career colleges (which U.S. News & World-Report does not rank), which provide those highly marketable skills. But we should not leap to the idea that everyone should have a shot at a four-year, residential college education, which is implied by Glastris’ emphasis on applying social-mobility metrics to all colleges and universities, including institutions that cater to the cognitive elite.

Here in Virginia we have a system of higher education, in which different institutions fill different niches. The University of Virginia and College of William & Mary cater to Virginians (as well as a significant number of out-of-state students) who belong to the cognitive elite. Their curricula and academic standards are geared toward students with the strongest verbal and mathematical skills. Other public institutions cater to students with skills and academic backgrounds that aren’t quite as high, and some to students whose skills are considerably lower. While it is praiseworthy for a UVa or W&M to aggressively recruit academically qualified students from lower-income backgrounds and to make sure they can afford the cost of attendance, it would be a misallocation of resources — and, just as importantly, a dis-service to the students — to admit students who lack the wherewithal to compete successfully. Students who struggle at UVa might prosper at, say, George Mason University or Virginia Commonwealth University.

When U.S. News & World-Report gives weight to “social mobility” metrics, it incentivizes that very misallocation. Under social justice logic, the responsibility to provide higher-ed access to lower-income Virginians belongs not to Virginia’s higher-ed institutions as a system, but also to UVa and W&M as individual institutions. But the proper way to foster upward mobility is for all institutions to define their niche, identify the students appropriate to that niche, recruit them, and serve them well — in other words to place students where they will prosper. If you take issue with a system that lavishes resources upon elite institutions, then target the tax breaks for alumni donations and endowments by which elite institutions perpetuate their elite status. (For the record, Glastris does express approval of a provision in the 2017 tax code that taxes large university endowments.)

A second and related concern is that the obsession over lower-income Virginians attending college overlooks the terrible reality of collapsing academic standards in many Virginia public high schools, especially those that serve low-income students, raising the question of whether many grads belong in college at all. Many metrics by which we gauge the performance of Virginia’s high schools are untrustworthy. Social promotion is rampant. Administrators manipulate high school drop-out and graduation rates. More students than ever require remedial schooling in college. Promoting the idea that “every American” needs to pursue higher education just increases the stakes, intensifies these pathologies, encourages kids to attend college when they shouldn’t, and loads drop-outs with student-loan debt they cannot repay.

Yes, it is vital that Virginia provide pathways of upward mobility for all of its citizens. Yes, we should ensure that academically qualified students from lower-income households have the means to attend the best institutions they can gain admittance to. Yes, we should be skeptical of a U.S. News & World-Report ranking system that incentivizes colleges and universities to squander resources in the competition for status. But ranking higher-ed institutions according to “social mobility” metrics just adds another layer of perverse incentives.

Bacon Bits: In with the New, Out with the Old

In with the new…

Data Center Alley too hot to handle. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has sold 424 acres west of Dulles International Airport to data-center developer Digital Realty Trust for an eye-popping $236.5 million — $558,000 per acre. MWAA will place $207 million in a segregated account used to reduce costs that airlines pay to do business at the airport. The transaction expands the large and growing data-center presence of Digital Realty in Loudoun County, reports the Washington Business Journal.

Virginia’s next big solar project? Solar developer Community Energy has applied to build 125-megawatts in solar capacity in Augusta County, reports PV magazine. To offset concerns about neighborhood impact, Community Energy plans to surround the facility with a buffer of vegetation and put into place measures to diminish the limited audio output. Instead of purchasing the land, the power company is leasing it from landowners, providing farmers an ongoing revenue stream rather than a lump-sum payment.

Out with the old..

Gutted newsrooms. Ned Oliver with the Virginia Mercury has quantified the shrinkage of news staff at Virginia’s largest daily newspapers in recent years. After quietly laying off another eight newspaper employees at the beginning of the month, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom has gone from 42 news and sports reporters in 2010 to 26 today, from nine to six photographers, and from 20 to 13 editors. The Virginian-Pilot has dropped from 67 reporters to 33, 35 editors from to 22, and eight photographers to five. Newsroom staff at the Roanoke Times has eroded by 35% to 25 reporters, 11 editors, and three photographers.

“Meanwhile,” writes Oliver, “there is still no clear model for metro and community newspapers to make up for the loss of all that ad money to digital giants like Google and Facebook.”

Tarheel coal ash overflow. In an event sure to impact the debate over coal ash in Virginia, heavy rains from Hurricane Florence eroded a coal ash facility at a Duke Energy power plant near Wilmington, N.C. The utility is investigating the possible release of about 2,000 cubic yards of the material — enough to fill two-thirds of an Olympic-size swimming pool, according to the Herald-Sun. It was not clear whether any of the ash, which contains traces of heavy metals, reached public waterways.

The release reinforces the necessity of removing coal ash from unlined, uncapped containment ponds where electric utilities have been restoring the coal-combustion residue for decades. Environmental Protection Agency regulations were designed to prevent incidents like this by consolidating and capping coal ash ponds. While environmentalists, regulators and utilities haggle over whether it’s better to store the material in lined landfills, a process that could take two to three decades, existing containment ponds remain vulnerable to extreme weather events like Florence.

Virginia and the Next Global Debt Crisis

Ten years ago the Lehman Brothers debacle precipitated the financial meltdown we associate with the Great Recession, and the financial media are full of retrospectives. A key question is what lessons we learned from the epic failure. The main conclusion drawn, according to Daniel J. Arbess in the Wall Street Journal today, appears to be that the way to dig out of a debt-fueled financial crisis is to pile on more debt. But that doubles down on the original problem, he warns:

In the past decade, total global debt (sovereign, corporate and household) has spiked nearly 75%. This includes a doubling of sovereign debt, from $29 trillion to $60 trillion, according to a recent McKinsey report. Total corporate debt increased by 78% over the same decade, to $66 trillion. Bank loan volumes have been stable, although low-quality “covenant lite” loans have dominated. Bond markets have filled in, with nonfinancial bonds outstanding up 172%, from $4.3 trillion to $11.7 trillion. McKinsey says 40% of U.S. companies are rated one notch above “junk” or lower, and the Bank for International Settlements estimates 10% of legacy companies in the developed world are “zombies,” meaning earnings before interest and taxes don’t cover interest expenses.

This is what zero interest rates and quantitative easing have wrought — more debt and lower credit quality. … Higher rates are coming, possibly heralding a tsunami of credit defaults.

As the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank slowly dial back quantitative easing, interest rates will rise, stressing debt-laden governments, corporations and households. We are already seeing the effects in Turkey, Venezuela, Argentina and other developing nations as higher U.S. interest rates push the value of the dollar higher. Defaults in developing countries will be transmitted to the developed world in ways foreseeable and unforeseeable. The financial media have remarked upon the massive exposure of Spanish banks to the Turkish economy, for instance, which could prove problematic for the larger Spanish economy, the 13th largest in the world. But global markets are so complex and intertwined that defaults can spread as unpredictably and explosively as the sub-prime mortgage loan crisis in the U.S. did ten years ago via financial innovations that have so far eluded the notice of media and regulators.

What’s it to us? That’s all fine and good for bond traders and hedge fund managers, you say, but what difference does it make to Virginia? It matters because Virginia is part of the global economy and global financial system, and what happens elsewhere will impact us. The policies we pursue at the level of state/local government can make us more vulnerable to, or more resilient in the face of, the next financial crisis.

To be sure, the Commonwealth is nowhere as vulnerable as, say, Puerto Rico was before it declared bankruptcy, or as Illinois and Chicago now are. We have a AAA credit rating, we balance our budget with only a modicum of chiseling, and we pay our bills on time. But the bond rating of the Commonwealth does not tell us anything about the indebtedness of our local governments, our universities, our hospitals, our quasi-government organizations, our economic development authorities, our housing authorities and all the other bond-issuing entities in the state. No one has toted up all those numbers.

We continually discover things we didn’t know before. While Virginia’s $20 billion or so in unfunded pension liabilities are well known, only recently has our attention been drawn to the $3.5 billion in pension liabilities at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates Northern Virginia’s heavy rail mass transit system and much of its bus system. As the Government Accountability Organization concluded, “Due to their relative size, proportion of retirees compared to active members, and investment decisions, these pension plans pose significant risk to WMATA’s financial operations, yet WMATA has not fully assessed the risks.”

How many other WMATAs are out there?

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) comprehensive annual financial report indicates that the authority’s two pension plans were fully funded as of Dec. 21, 2017. The General Employees Retirement Plan was seemingly in great shape with assets amounting to 105% of pension liabilities. Great news! But dig into the assumptions, and we see that the pension plan projects a 7.5% annualized investment rate of return. Many actuaries are saying now that a 7% or 6.5% rate is more realistic.

Similarly, the Ports of Virginia reported an unfunded pension liability of only $8.9 million as of June 30, 2016, an improvement over the previous year. The pension was about 91% funded. The ports assumed a 7% investment rate of return, somewhat more conservative than MWAA’s assumption.

MWAA and the Ports of Virginia are two of the largest quasi-governmental business entities in Virginia, and it is reassuring to see that they have their pensions under reasonably good control. But there are dozens if not hundreds of other bond-issuing entities in the Commonwealth. After the Petersburg fiscal meltdown, the General Assembly began watching for early warning signs in Virginia’s local governments, but there are dozens if not hundreds of other entities that issue bonds and borrow money. The federal government conducts “stress” tests on too-big-to-fail banks to see how they would hold up under adverse economic circumstances. Is anyone conducting stress tests for Virginia’s public and quasi-public entities? Not very likely.

The bottom line: Another global debt crisis is inevitable, the only questions are when it happens and how the damage ricochets throughout the global economy. How vulnerable is Virginia? We really don’t know. To be forewarned, as the saying goes, is to be forearmed. We are neither.

Who Were the Puerto Rico 3,000; How Did They Die?

The death rate per 10,000 rises after Hurricane Maria a year ago, but more in line with historical trends before a “displacement adjustment.” Source: George Washington University

So, who were those 3,000 Puerto Ricans who died because of Hurricane Maria last year?  What killed them?  The storm down south and the controversy swirling over our illustrious President’s defensive tweet sent me searching for data.

It turns out there is no list of names.   There is no accounting of what causes of death were attributable to the aftermath of the devastating storm.  In fact, having now scanned the George Washington University report at the heart of this all, I have an itching feeling they missed a big statistical point.

The bottom line is that the researchers developed a model and made a projected estimate of the number of deaths to be expected on the island during the six months following the storm, based on previous year’s death numbers.   They then factored in the fact that a full 8 percent of the population, 280,000 people roughly, left the island following the storm.

With that population change factored in, the “expected” number of deaths was about 3,000 fewer than the 16,000 deaths which were recorded September through February.  Those 3,000 “excess” deaths above the projection are the one’s being attributed to the effects of the storm.  I’m rounding because their report admits the projection is not exact.  The chart I included above notes the higher death rate per 10,000 people.

There are not 3,000 death certificates noting hurricane-related causes (loss of electricity, stress, poor transportation response) and the authors chide the local medical community for not being sufficiently exact in filling out their death certificates.  So they are left with models and projections and estimates, which have translated into MSM-accepted Truth.

Here’s my question, the itch not addressed in the report, that I saw:   Who left?  Who departed following the storm?  Would the elderly, infirm and impoverished have been the ones to decamp to the mainland?  Or would they have been the one’s left behind?  Doesn’t the shift in the baseline also at least in part explain this?  The death rate really only jumped dramatically when you reduce the baseline population.

Had those people who left stayed, the number of deaths might have been the same (and then more in line with past history.)  Are they assuming mortality should have gone down after the migration but didn’t, and that’s a sign the storm continued to kill 500 more per month?

We estimate that in mid-September 2017 there were 3,327,917 inhabitants and in mid-February 2018 there were 3,048,173 inhabitants of Puerto Rico, representing a population reduction by approximately 8%. We factored this into the migration “displacement scenario” and compared it with a “census scenario,” which assumed no displacement from migration in the hurricane’s aftermath. We found that, historically, mortality slowly decreased until August 2017, and that rates increased for the period of September 2017 through February 2018, with the most dramatic increase shown in the displacement scenario accounting for post-hurricane migration (emphasis added).”

No question, the number of deaths from this kind of disaster is not – and never has been – limited to the people killed at the height of the storm.  But are the numbers being fudged here just a bit?  You must consider who could and would leave and who could not, and the population left behind.  But that takes away this wonderful cudgel for beating Trump (and it’s his own damn fault for taking the bait).

Gee, if you take a population and subtract 8 percent – most of them younger, healthy and affluent – is there anyplace in the world where you would NOT see an uptick in the death rate among those left behind?  Just asking.

How Restorative Justice Is Wrecking Schools

School discipline in the days before students told teachers to go f— themselves.

As Virginia lawmakers brainstorm ways to prevent school shootings, recommending more funding for mental health and school resource officers, they continue to ignore the breakdown in school discipline that is causing the decline last year in Standards of Learning in schools across the state. They are fixated on hypothetical calamities while remaining oblivious to the very real disaster unfolding before our eyes.

If I’m right about what’s happening in Virginia’s public schools — school discipline is worsening under “restorative justice” disciplinary regimes, and the quality of classroom instruction is deteriorating as a direct result — SOL scores will continue to erode. And the decline will be concentrated in lower-income schools populated disproportionately by African-Americans where discipline problems are worst. White supremacists could not devise a more clever, insidious way of keeping African-Americans ignorant and poor than the social-justice regime imposed by the ACLU and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Maintaining school discipline has always been a challenge, especially as the family structure has broken down among Virginia’s lower-income groups, creating generations of neglected, defiant, and poorly supervised youths. Relying heavily upon suspensions and even arrests, the Zero Tolerance disciplinary regime that prevailed until recently may well have been harsh and arbitrary. But it did have one positive benefit — it removed the disrupters from the classroom. Teachers could get on with the job of teaching.

The new therapeutic approach may or may not be helping the bad students — there’s not enough good evidence to know — but it is definitely distracting teachers from doing their jobs. As evidence, I proffer the thoughts of a former Henrico County school teacher who blogs under her pen name, Christine S., on the Unbarbaric Yawp blog.

Christine S. loves teaching and loves her students. After quitting her job at an unidentified school to have a baby, she has no plans to return to teaching any time soon. She doesn’t think society sufficiently appreciates what teachers do, and she believes administrators and parents fail to give teachers the trust and confidence they deserve — sentiments that are commonly expressed and are no secret to the rest of the world. But her most compelling post addresses the new realities of school discipline, which have gotten very little attention. She makes several key points:

Discipline takes time. Under restorative justice protocols, more of the disciplinary burden now falls upon teachers. Instead of booting trouble-makers out of class — or school — teachers now are called upon to deal with student’s misbehavior on the spot through coaching and reasoning. She writes:

It takes time to address it in the moment. It takes time away from learning. It takes time (that frankly I don’t always have) during my planning period or before/after school.

I appreciate that experts, Central Office, administration, and parents want teachers to be the first point of contact for discipline issues. Teachers SHOULD be the first point of contact, for sure! Instead of immediately writing a student a referral to the administrator, teachers should have conversations with kids, come up with a behavior contract, assign a detention of their own, or do whatever other steps they deem appropriate.

But in order to do that, teachers need TIME. When I taught, I had one 90-minute planning period every other day. I often had meetings before school, during lunch, or after school (or I was a coach and had practice after school).

I really didn’t mind calling parents or writing up behavior contracts or having a kid in my room for detention. But I needed time to do this. A planning period every day would’ve been so helpful for discipline (and other things, of course). Or teacher workdays that are ACTUALLY teacher workdays (teachers nowadays have so much professional development and few actual workdays, which many who are not in education don’t realize).

And one reason that sometimes my discipline wasn’t followed through, on MY part as the teacher, is because I simply did.not.have.time. I guess I could’ve made time — at the expense of grading assessments, making copies, tutoring, sponsoring clubs, coaching…

Teachers spend 80% of their time on 20% of the students. Writes Christine S.: “This is the most frustrating part of discipline issues for me: I literally spent the majority of my time addressing the same handful of students all year long.”

They have a right to an education, but at the expense of all of my other kids? I don’t think so. But as a teacher, sometimes my hands are tied. The system is flawed. The disruptive student who is making poor choices gets to stay in class, and no matter what I try or who talks to him or how many behavior plans we go over or how many times I call home, the student’s behavior doesn’t change, and class is ruined for 25 kids who actually want to learn.

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A Model Transfer Program That Should Be Copied

Under prodding from the General Assembly that goes back years, Virginia’s four-year institutions are finally developing an easier path from community college to a bachelor’s degree.  Unfortunately for students, it is spreading slowly.  Unfortunately for anybody obstructing the process, there is one place where the full potential is being realized and proving the concept.

The dual enrollment and transfer relationship between Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University is so seamless the community college students have GMU identification cards and access to GMU recreational facilities.  The Nova Advance program works for 20 degrees with a goal of expanding to 50 possible degrees.  Community college students have access to advising and other forms of support from the start.

Paying community college prices for two years saves $15,000 or more towards a bachelor’s degree.  Also, before this process community college transfers often found they needed more credits than traditional students, adding additional and wasted cost.  With the early guidance toward the right courses and firm agreements to accept the credits the standard 120 credit hours should now do it.

GMU Vice President for Academic Innovation Michelle Marks said getting this ready for launch this term “is the most complicated process I’ve ever worked on.”  Hundreds of faculty members at both schools had a hand in course and program design.  They planned to start with five degrees, but the enthusiasm pushed them way beyond that.  “People wanted to do this,” she said.

There will be some lost revenue for both schools but the presidents of both see this as “right for the families and right for the students.” Marks said.   The first 129 Advance students are in class now, with 189 more lined up to start in the spring.  The long-term growth plan runs to four digits.

This past summer, Virginia Commonwealth University and the two Richmond community colleges announced they are working on a similar program, but on a  smaller scale and limited to arts and humanities degrees.  Previously about 75 students per year have switched from John Tyler or J. Sargeant Reynolds to VCU.

The new program will take three years to implement, with the first year (underway now) spent on evaluation and planning, and is supported by $2.4 million over the period from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  It will be another year from now before students enter the pipeline.

Jeff Kraus of the Virginia Community College System mentioned three other working relationships, involving Virginia Tech, James Madison and the University of Virginia and their neighboring community colleges.

Sharon Morrissey

These examples do make a key point: What is working is a relationship between the four-year school and its neighboring community college or colleges, rather than a statewide, system-wide focus.  “Community college students are not going to travel to the other end of the state to finish a degree,” said Sharon Morrissey, VCCS Vice Chancellor for Academic Services.  The dream remains far more widespread portability of transfer credits from community colleges.

The General Assembly started pressing this forward years ago with the classic carrot, financial aid in the form of a program of scholarships for VCCS transfers to four-year programs.  Those transfer grants have grown to almost $4 million per year, and the 2,500 students using them this term can receive up to $3,000 per year if seeking a science, technology, engineering or math degree at one of the major institutions.

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