A Step toward A World-Class Education? What a Joke!

Bureaucratic wasteland

by James A. Bacon

Virginia is gearing up for its biennial budget extravaganza, and Governor Terry McAuliffe has the chance to put his stamp on state spending priorities without meddling from previous or succeeding gubernatorial administrations. Yesterday he announced his plan for increasing spending on K-12 education by $1 billion over the 2016-2018 budget.

Key initiatives include:

  • Adding roughly 2,500 instructional positions — about one per elementary school and two per middle and high school — at a cost of $139 million.
  • Funding the cost of re-benchmarking the Standards of Quality (SOQs, not to be confused with Standards of Learning, SOLs) by $430 million.
  • Providing $50 million to divisions based on free-lunch population to be spent flexibly.
  • And committing $41 million for a “cost of competing” adjustment in areas with high living costs.

Said McAuliffe in making the announcement: “With thoughtful, bold ideas like the ones I am proposing, we will get back on the right track and ensure that we are laying the foundations for the New Virginia Economy. … I believe that if we want to have a world-class economy, we need a world-class education system, and this is where it starts.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The budget proposals may indeed be “thoughtful,” in the sense that a lot of thought went into them, but I would hardly call them “bold.” This is just stuffing more money into the same old educational model, tweaking the margins and packaging it with lofty rhetoric. To suggest that these changes will put Virginia on the path to a world-class education system is to engage in fabulist thinking.

teacher_collaborativesYou want bold? I’ll give you bold. Take the $5.5 billion in aid to public education given to school systems, and instead of empowering the bureaucratic status quo, empower parents of school children by giving them vouchers worth $4,000 per child. (The $5.5 billion averages out to $4,300 per child for the current school year, but if vouchers were given to every school child, they would cover children now attending private school as well as public school students; to stay budget neutral, the voucher per student would have to be smaller.)

Thousands of families that can’t afford private school tuition at $6,000 to $10,000 per child (and much more for elite institutions) could stretch their budgets and send their kids to private schools if they had a $4,000 voucher.

Of course, anyone who wanted to send their kids to public school would be free to do so. Local governments would continue supplementing their public school budgets with local and federal funds. Public school students would come out ahead from the arrangement because, to the extent that more kids attended private school, public schools would have fewer kids to educate — and more money per kid.

Virginia would experience a surge in experimentation. We would see educational marketplaces arising to match students with schools, teachers, tutors and teaching collaboratives. Lines would blur between school-based education, online education and home schooling. Free from red tape and bureaucracy, teachers could be freer to practice their profession as they choose — directly accountable to their students and students’ parents, not to bureaucrats and arbitrary standards. Bad teachers would lose clientele. Great teachers would prosper.

Will anything like this ever happen in Virginia? Of course not. We can’t even pass a decent charter school bill. But as a mental exercise, it’s useful to remind ourselves how hide-bound we are in our thinking, how timid we are in our actions, and how totally unserious we are about giving our children a world-class education.

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35 responses to “A Step toward A World-Class Education? What a Joke!”

  1. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Define “world class”…and I’m not being facetious. I imagine that if you surveyed the undergrad student bodies at the Ivies (excluding Cornell which has some “state” colleges), Duke, MIT, and Stanford, Virginia would be over represented compared to most states when you control for population. As those schools would all be considered world class….maybe Virginia is doing something right with its educational policies.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    hells bells – you want BOLD?

    how about this – take your voucher idea and amp it up! Make the voucher school program applicable ONLY to schools that have failing SOL scores and AMP it up by subjecting the voucher schools to the same exact SOL standards – with a money-back guarantee for every kid they fail to deliver on!

    1. “Make the voucher school program applicable ONLY to schools that have failing SOL scores.”

      I’d go along with that. We do we have to lose? The schools suck, the kids aren’t learning what they need to learn. It’s a good place to start and see how vouchers work.

      “Subject the voucher schools to the same exact [same] SOL standards – with a money-back guarantee for every kid they fail to deliver on!”

      I’d agree with subjecting voucher schools to SOL standards as a way to get feedback on how well they’re working and allowing parents to make informed choices. I’d even agree that schools that consistently deliver sub-par results (adjusted for disadvantaged populations) should be removed from the list of schools eligible to receive vouchers.

      As for a money back guarantee, that would kill the economics of the voucher program (which, I suspect, the suggestion is designed to do). The fact is, parents don’t get a money-back guarantee today, and no one would force them to put their kid in a voucher school, so there’s no grounds for such a guarantee — unless the school voluntarily provided it.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        re: ” As for a money back guarantee, that would kill the economics of the voucher program (which, I suspect, the suggestion is designed to do). The fact is, parents don’t get a money-back guarantee today, and no one would force them to put their kid in a voucher school, so there’s no grounds for such a guarantee — unless the school voluntarily provided it.”

        we need some level of accountability for voucher schools to insure we don’t end up with for-profit versions of “failed” schools.

        how do you not let that happen?

        how do you prevent voucher schools that do not work from continuing to get vouchers?

        1. We’ve tolerated failing schools in the public system for decades without shutting them down, so failing voucher schools hardly would lead to a social catastrophe any worse than what we already endure. The difference between public schools and private voucher schools is that if the voucher schools suck, parents can yank their children and put them somewhere else. We just have to make sure we give them the data to evaluate the performance of the voucher school.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    For the schools in Va that fail with economically disadvantaged as well as other students – do provide the voucher – but require the voucher schools to accept every child, no cherry picking and let them use whatever techniques and policies “work”.

    But if they fail – the money gets refunded.

    that ought to keep the fly-by-night folks out of the game and truly incentivize the honest players.

    I suspect the public schools would be GLAD to let others take over the tougher students…!!!

    I’d give the voucher schools Title 1 and Head Start AND pre-K money – as long as they did “deliver”.

    I totally believe the bigger school systems do a disservice to the poorer neighborhood schools and yes – we need to take that money away from them and give it to people who deliver results.

    but let’s not go from the frying pan into the fire… over totally lame Conservative ideology – either.

    let’s actually achieve results and kick out the for-profit posers as well as the ideological zealots.. and get on to things that do work…

    1. “I suspect the public schools would be GLAD to let others take over the tougher students…!!!”

      I suspect you would see private voucher schools popping up that specialize in dealing with the tougher students. Voucher money would be supplemented by private philanthropy.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        no. what you’d see is K-12 versions of fly-by-night higher ed schools that screw armed forces veterans out of their GI benefits..

        you’d just be creating govt-funded crony capitalism…

        where are your REAL solutions that are actually intended to succeed ?

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” We’ve tolerated failing schools in the public system for decades without shutting them down, so failing voucher schools hardly would lead to a social catastrophe any worse than what we already endure. The difference between public schools and private voucher schools is that if the voucher schools suck, parents can yank their children and put them somewhere else. We just have to make sure we give them the data to evaluate the performance of the voucher school.”

    nope. turning over money to for-profit ventures with no accountability is worse than public schools with SOME accountability.

    You’d not even KNOW which schools fail right now if it were not for govt rules.

    so why do you take for granted the govt rules that require accountability and require the schools to take action and you’d not require any of that for private schools?

    that sounds like typical lame ideology whose real goal has nothing to do with real solutions… but rather just vandalizing govt.

    1. Your money-back guarantee is a poison pill that ensures that a voucher system can never get off the ground, which is probably what you intended from the beginning.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I still love reading Bacons Rebellion. It’s like coming home to a familiar, fuzzy [air of warm slippers. ALways the same.

    Just like this blog post.

    It reassuringly starts from the (absolute) premise that public education is a hopeless failure that turns out ignorant kids and bureaucrats with fatter salaries.

    We start from this axiom and then say that paying any extra public money for public education is a waste when Virginia has actually been underfunding its public schools for years.

    The money instead should be given for vouchers for PRIVATE schools, which, of course, are in reach for everyone, regardless of income, race, ethnicity and so forth.

    In other words, in Richmond, worthy kids should get public vouchers to go to Collegiate or Trinity or St. Catherine’s. If they can’t make it, they are unworthy and undeserving of an education anyway.

    It’s sort of like Tammy Hawley, press spokesman for Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, explaining why it is OK to let the city’s troubled schools rot on the vine. Only 11 percent of the city’s taxpayers have kids that need schooling anyway.

    Either approach — Bacon’s or Hawley’s — means that money spent on public education is simply wasted.

    I can see Virginia having a truly bright future!

    1. “It reassuringly starts from the (absolute) premise that public education is a hopeless failure that turns out ignorant kids and bureaucrats with fatter salaries.”

      False: The starting premise is that a large majority of parents are perfectly happy with their public schools and will not want to avail themselves of vouchers. The idea is to provide greater choice for those who want it.

      “In Richmond, worthy kids should get public vouchers to go to Collegiate or Trinity or St. Catherine’s. If they can’t make it, they are unworthy and undeserving of an education anyway.”

      False: $4,000 vouchers will not make Collegiate or St. Catherine’s affordable for anyone. The idea is to make lower-cost private school educations affordable. There are a couple of private academies serving inner-city kids in Richmond already, but they operate on a shoestring and are limited as to how many kids they can enroll. Expanding vouchers would allow them to expand, or allow similar schools to enter the marketplace.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        this from the guy who implies you can’t teach some kids.. because of culture and genes and parents who don’t read to their kids…

        jesus h. keeeeerrIIIST

        how would voucher schools solve that problem?

    2. Cville Resident Avatar
      Cville Resident

      I agree. Where do we get the premise that Virginia public schools are failing?

      There was a similar premise a week or so ago that attacked U.Va. and affordability for “middle class Virginians” as its premise.

      But then, viola, Kiplinger’s hot off the presses just found that U.Va. is the 3rd best value of public schools in all of America:


  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    here’s the thing. Most schools do not “fail” with most students – ESPECIALLY the ones whose parents “read to them”.

    In fact some schools in Va succeed with most students INCLUDING economically disadvantaged, minorities – and economically disadvantaged minorities.

    the issue is the kids who some schools fail – at the same time they do not fail with other kids….

    as well as the schools that “fail” with all or most of their kids – which I would assert are a very small subset.

    so exactly what should be the target of the voucher schools?

    and how would you hold the voucher schools to some level of equivalent accountability to public schools?

    and what is your solution to “failed” voucher schools? ?

    at that point do you just give up?

  7. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    HB 3 Constitutional amendment; charter schools (submitting to qualified voters).
    Robert B. Bell

    Summary as introduced:
    Constitutional amendment (voter referendum); charter schools. Provides for a referendum at the November 8, 2016, election to approve or reject an amendment to grant the Board of Education the authority to establish charter schools within the school divisions of the Commonwealth, subject to any criteria or conditions that the General Assembly may prescribe.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      that’s a proposed legislation. It’s gotta get through the legislative hoops and at some point – folks are going to ask the same questions about how we’d make sure that for-profit voucher schools don’t end up taking money and showing no results.

      you guys kills me .. you raise holy hell about public-private partnerships and crony capitalism then you just jump off the cliff on this.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Fairfax County Public Schools have fought charter schools consistently because the School Board and Staff want their say. A number of years ago, parents of children with autism approach FCPS and asked to a special program of services for their children in the schools. The Schools undertook a ten student trial for a year. Two students accelerated in their development; two went backwards; and the remaining six stayed just about the same. Given the high costs and mediocre results, FCPS said it would not implement the requested program. The parents then proposed a charter school, where the new method could be used.

      Opposition to a charter school in Fairfax County was so strong with the school board and staff that the Division agreed to implement the high-cost services even in light of the unpersuasive trial results.

      Lower-income parents in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County wanted to start a charter school. The Staff told the public that, if a charter school was started as requested, needed renovations to Falls Church High School would be delayed for years.

      The GA needs to limit local powers over charter schools. They should be supervised by the state Department Education and be held to progressively stricter standards.

  8. Well I would support a voucher system but I doubt that would solve all of the problems because it creates a two tiered system and the public schools would need to be better or there would bet two separate but unequal systems. And someone would still be responsible for those not in a voucher school for whatever reason.
    Both of my children started in private schools in Hanover County and we were very pleased. But my career moved me around and not every place had a good private school close enough.
    But later we did put our son in a private school because of the quality of the high school we were assigned to. He had 38 pupils in his algebra I class and ended up with a C grade. The teacher really did not know the names of each of the pupils. We then sent him to a private high school where the typical class size was 15 pupils per room. The kids sat in a circle of chairs with an empty seat on either side. And the teacher would go around the room sitting beside one kid and then another helping them individually. He ended up getting a master’s degree in engineering geology.
    Now I have a grandson in the 3rd grade in a highly rated public school system in Virginia. He is in a class with 28 kids. In many states the maximum class sizes have been lowered. For example, in Florida the state law provides that there can be no more than 20 pupils per class in K-3rd grade. Public schools in Virginia and other places are organized according the out dated 19th Century industrial model with time and motion studies ie tests ruling the roost.
    If there is one thing that would help public schools it would be more focus on lowering class size. If that is the aim of the governor wanting to hire 2,500 more teachers I would support that. Too much time and motion study stuff going on now and not enough attention to the individual kid.
    But that is just me.

    1. “There would be two separate but unequal systems.”

      That’s what we already have. How would it get worse by empowering poor people with vouchers?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        if we turn over education to for-profit voucher schools – we’re going to get exactly what we have right now with higher-ed for-profit schools that steal money from veterans.

        that’s not a solution to K-12 “failings”. That’s a recipe for disaster.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: class size. Don’t we send kids to college that then sit in auditoriums with 100-200 other kids that the graduate “instructor” doesn’t “know” either?

      class size is extremely important in K-3 core academic but at some point – it’s up the kid to show some initiative on their own and apparently the colleges think so also.

      If a 10th grader can, by himself, go onto Khan Academy and learn Calculus and many other kids can also – is it up to taxpayers to pay for what amounts to private tutoring?

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Agree, public schools should raise class sizes, for at least some classes, as students get closer to graduation from high school.

  9. Virginia once up on a time had vouchers. I am for vouchers but well regulated.

    1. I remember that well. It was part of what came to be called “massive resistance” but many thought it was one feature that, even if passed for the wrong reasons, might still accomplish good. But the VEA lobbied to kill vouchers, and they got the GA’s ear first.

      As for your fear of a “two tiered system,” isn’t that exactly the competitive alternative that’s needed? A little shaming of the public system’s bloated bureaucracy by example? A lower teacher-student ratio at a lower cost per pupil? Higher SOL scores? Motivation? Is an upper, private, tier in a two-tiered system with these characteristcs something we should be afraid of?

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    well-regulated vouchers … totally agree.

    so that’s why I often wonder why Conservatives like Jim B don’t want accountability for voucher schools even as he talks about “failing” public schools.

    Jim B would not even KNOW what schools fail – if it were not for govt-required accountability – that he does not want to “burden” voucher schools with.

    to what I say – what the DOODA kind of “conservatism” calls that better than govt?

    we already know -have plenty of evidence how vouchers work with for-profit post K-12 education. Nationwide – there is a phalanx of so-called “schools” that basically fleece armed forces folks of their GI benefits and civilian schmucks who go into hock up to their eyeballs for largely worthless “degrees”.

    so let’s have none of that for K-12 vouchers… there is nothing like tax-payer paid-for benefits to draw the shysters…

    I’m shocked that “conservatives” would support such scams.

    1. Larry, your hyperbolic rhetoric and misrepresentation of my views is grating. If state government is handing out vouchers, state government sets the rules. I agree there has to be accountability built into the system, and I think it would be useful if this forum could explore what that accountability could look like rather than engaging in straw man arguments.

      There are ways to hold voucher schools accountable. I’ve described some. I’m sure others would have useful ideas. Mandating money-back guarantees is not a useful proposal. The only thing that idea would guarantee is that vouchers would be still-born.

      Just ask yourself Larry, if you’re poor and black in the City of Richmond, what kind of “guarantees” do you get now? You seem perfectly willing to let poor black kids rot in a failing public school system because the voucher alternative doesn’t meet your utopian ideals.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    well what you get right now is the knowledge of how black kids do in Richmond right now according to SOL benchmarks.

    you would want no less from voucher schools

    and what do you do if the voucher school also “fails”?

    you should not misunderstand my sentiment – I think Richmond AND Henrico DO FAIL some kids –

    you have to ask yourself – honestly – how Henrico does so well with some schools and so bad with others – and if you …. honestly think … vouchers will fix that problem.

    you’ve argued, along with a few others here that some kids cannot be educated.. because of their “culture”. Are you now arguing that they CAN be helped with voucher schools?

    If you truly think they cannot be educated then what are you advocating in voucher schools?

    I think most of those kids CAN be educated but not using standard public school approaches but I also am not going to buy that ANY voucher school can do it either. I think it requires a different approach and I DO think some schools know how to do that and those schools I’d sign up for vouchers in a minute. But I’m not buying the generic voucher argument that just by virtue of going non-public things will be better.

    we have a ton of experience with for-profit education providers and we know that without strict requirements that bad actors will take the money and deliver nothing.

    No one who claims legitimately to be a Conservative should support voucher schools on the front – but “willing to discuss requirements”.

    The Requirements should be on the front – with nothing going any further until the rules are agreed to – FIRST.

    How about student growth measures – the same thing you’ve advocated for public schools?

  12. Virginia had a voucher system during Massive Resistance. You could take the amount he state allocated to a local school district for a child and use it to send your child to another school in another county or city or a private school.
    Any voucher system should have rules and regulations before tax payer money is redistributed.
    I am confident it could be worked out but it needs to be done thoughtfully and in detail.

    1. We have that experiment ongoing right now in DC, but nobody wants to notice. VA doesn’t like to look to DC for ideas very often, but in this case one proof of the concept is, look at how schools have improved there, and how real estate values in the City have skyrocketed. You don’t think there’s a relationship between improved schools and housing values? Right!

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      totally agree. the wrong voucher system will not be non-public schools that actually deliver better results for economically disadvantaged minorities but instead subsidized private schools for those not economically disadvantaged.

      I think this is so obvious that I do wonder about advocacy for voucher schools that does not acknowledge this.

      so I would ask folks like Bacon to propose a system that will explicitly provide guaranteed real alternatives to those economically disadvantaged who currently fail at public schools if we are going to use public monies to do that.

      Let’s not tap dance around that bush.

  13. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: the relationship between housing values and schools.

    people make that claim but fundamentally if a neighborhood consists of people of a lower economic strata – then the only way it increases in value is if it gentrifies which then makes that housing unaffordable for those who lived there and they will have to move – and invariably they will move to other neighborhoods they can still afford – and attend neighborhood schools that reflect the demographics of the neighborhoods they serve.

    In other words – gentrification is not a benefit to those who are low income…. the schools don’t matter if you cannot afford to live in a gentrifying neighborhood.

    and this is what I was talking about when arguing that voucher schools should have to serve – only (neighborhood) schools and kids with failing SOL scores. In other words, they would have to serve the poorer neighborhoods – AND they have to produce results to keep the voucher money and they could not be used to essentially subsidize those of higher economic means to send their kids to de-facto private schools.

    that’s not a deal-killer as Bacon claims – it’s a cherry-picking killing as jwgilley points out, vouchers have indeed been used in Virginia to essentially allow richer folks to send their kids to private school while poorer folks won’t get enough from the voucher to afford the “voucher” school even after they outlaw the “white” only rules!

    In other words – we will not use tax money to subsidize private schools for those whose kids are not failing SOLS.

    You’d think that Conservative types like Bacon would see that kind of use of tax dollars – for subsidies as flat wrong … but nope… not if your belief is that public schools need to be de-funded in the first place because that’s essentially what would happen. if voucher schools ended up as de-facto subsidized private schools for those who could afford to add their own extra money to pay the tuition while those in the lower economic strata could not with the voucher alone.

    Bacon sees such rules to prevent that as “poison pills”. I see those rules like Jwgilley does – that we’re not going to use tax dollars to create subsidized private school systems for those of higher economic status on the pretence that it will “help” poor minorities… which is about as hypocritical and dishonest as can be.

    so … we ASSURE that voucher schools actually do what they are claimed to do:

    1. – we require voucher schools to serve the demographics – the actual lower income demographics that are failing the SOLs – not those who are not failing SOLs.

    2. we evaluate their performance on an apple-to-apple comparison with public schools and their SOLs – not some dishonest “equivalent”

    3. – if they do not do not deliver results – we stop paying them…period

    in other words voucher schools will do what the proponents are asserting is the reason to have them…

    and folks with wretched faux conservative motives for voucher schools like Bacon can go suck lemons!!!!

  14. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    And here’s a great example of a public school in Virginia demonstrating “world class” quality. Fourth in the world isn’t too shabby. I also found the acronym “BACON” “Best All-Around Club of Nerds to be amusing considering this blog and all of us public policy nerds on here:


    1. Great example of what public schools can accomplish! Success stories like this should be celebrated and publicized.

      There are plenty of public schools that are doing great things. Students at those schools will have little reason to want to attend private school. Vouchers will have no appeal to them. Sadly, the experience of Charlottesville High School is far from universal.

  15. LarrytheG Avatar

    The fundamental purpose of ANY voucher system should be to save taxpayer money and to produce the best ROI for the buck for education money.

    It should not be a proxy for ideological views about how education is delivered unless the context is – to save taxpayer money.

    It should not be a proxy about the legitimacy of the govt providing education – either.

    or let’s put it this way – if it is – then that should be disclosed by the advocates – that their purpose is really not to deliver more bang for the buck or save dollars – but to challenge and change the concept of the govt role of using tax dollars to provide education.

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