Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Some School Districts Do a Better Job Educating Poor Kids than Others

I’m playing around with Datawrapper, which provides cool ways to display data– don’t quite have the hang of it, but making progress. Anyway, my inaugural effort shows the considerable variability between school districts in pass rates for English Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

We all know that the socio-economic status of a student is a major predictor of their academic achievement. Because school districts draw their student bodies from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, it is not fair to compare the academic achievement of Virginia school districts without adjusting for demographics. Therefore, for this map I compare the English SOL pass rate for disadvantaged kids, kids who are poor enough to qualify for free school lunch.

Virginia school districts range from an 87.5% pass rate for disadvantaged kids in West Point, a mill town on the edge of Hampton Roads, to 49.3% for Danville, a mill town in Southside; and from 85.96% in Highland County, the locality with the smallest population in Virginia, to 51.68% in the City of Richmond, the state capital.

If disadvantaged kids in Danville, Petersburg, and the City of Richmond have dismal standardized test results, local educators can’t blame the outcomes on poverty alone. Other localities have poor kids, too, but they have significantly better outcomes. What could explain the variability between school districts?

One possibility is that some districts spend more money per student than others. Perhaps West Point and Highland County spend more per student than Danville and Richmond. The “more money” hypothesis seems less than plausible from a superficial look at the map above, which shows that the pass rates for disadvantaged kids tend to be lower in the affluent Northern Virginia localities. But maybe there’s an explanation that transcends spending per student. Maybe Northern Virginia school districts have more hard-to-educate English-as-a- Second-Language students. The issue warrants closer examination.

Another explanation of the variability seen in the map might be that poverty is worse in some localities than others — not more widespread, but more intense and socially destructive. In cities like Richmond, Petersburg and Danville perhaps the poverty is more concentrated in a few neighborhoods, or poor kids are more concentrated in a few schools, or the degree of social breakdown and dysfunction is greater.

Yet another potential explanation is that school districts have different racial/ethnic mixes and that different ethnic groups put a greater premium on succeeding academically than others. For example, Asians might study harder than their socioeconomic peers in other racial/ethnic groups. Or Hispanics might encourage their kids to drop out of school, become wage earners and contribute to their families.

Yet another option: Maybe some school districts do a better job with the resources and student populations they have.

Finally, a related possibility: Perhaps the move from traditional disciplinary practices to restorative justice disciplinary practices (my pet theory) has eroded discipline and promoted classroom disorder with deleterious consequences for kids who want to learn.

Clearly, the data in this map tells us only so much. But one limited conclusion does seem inescapable. Blaming poor educational results on the prevalence of “poor kids” in the school district goes only so far.

Assuming I can figure out how to create fully functional maps, I’ll be exploring these competing theories in the future.

Getting Virginians their Lives Back One License at a Time

LaPonda Carter lived with a relative in Amelia County, raising her daughter and driving to her job at the VCU Medical Center in downtown Richmond. She frequently loaned her car to the family member. Unbeknownst to her, the relative racked up frequent toll violations. The charges quickly added up — $0.75 per toll, plus $25 administrative fees for not paying on time, plus $500 court fines, plus court costs. The fees, fines and penalties eventually reached an astonishing total — nearly $100,000. Adding insult to injury, Carter had her license yanked.

By working with Drive-to-Work, a Richmond-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping lower-income Virginians get their driving rights restored, she managed to get her licensed reinstated. Now Drive-to-Work is working with her to resolve the toll-violation cases.

Virginia law allows for the suspension of revocation of driver’s licenses for a wide variety of offenses that have nothing to do with bad driving — collecting court costs, non-payment of civil judgments, and failure to pay child support. Of Virginia’s 5.8 million licensed drivers, 974,000 are under suspended-license orders. While some kind of sanction may be called upon for their offenses, says Drive-to-Work President Randy Rollins, a person deprived of a driver’s license often is unable to work and meet the very obligations the suspended licenses are meant to punish.

Ten years ago when Rollins first approached members of the General Assembly to reform the laws, he typically got a frosty reception. But attitudes are changing among both liberals and conservatives, he says. Restoring drivers licenses increasingly is seen as an issue that both advances social justice and supports individual responsibility and self-help.

The nonprofit group operates first and foremost to help people like Carter get their licenses back and work out arrangements so they can pay their fees, fines and penalties. Case workers have helped more than 2,000 individual clients to date. In a related initiative staffed by volunteer attorneys, Drive-to-Work has given 96 prison seminars to help offenders get their licenses when they are released from custody.

Rollins also is working with the Department of Corrections (DOC) to remove another potential impediment — the need to attend a driver improvement clinic before getting a license reinstated. What better time to attend such a clinic, he asks, than when offenders have lots of free time in prison? Drive-to-Work will deliver a clinic online for $65 per participant, a sum that will be reduced to $20 after DOC and Drive-to-Work subsidies. That program is temporarily in limbo up as DOC undertakes the migration of its IT systems to the state’s new vendor, but Rollins is optimistic the issues will be worked out soon.

In the meantime, Rollins, who served as Secretary of Public Safety during the Wilder administration, is working to help lawmakers identify ways to help the cause. He highlights one piece of successful legislation and two additional measures that he would like to see passed.

Pay plans for court fees. Millions of Virginians live paycheck to paycheck, and they don’t have a spare $1,000 to pay court fines and fees. Rather than suspend their licenses, making it harder to work and pay back anything, a law sponsored by Republican Del. Manoli Loupassi allowed for repaying the fines in agreed-upon installments and restoring the license when the agreement was signed, not later when the fines were paid in full.

After a year’s experience, says Rollins, the law appears to be making a difference. Judges are considering individual circumstances when setting payment agreements, many are requiring lower down payments, and a 10-day grace period is preventing defaults.

Suspensions for civil judgments. If a motorist drives a car while uninsured and causes an accident, his or her license can be suspended for failure to pay civil judgments to the insurance companies. While Rollins agrees that there should be sanctions against people who fail to pay, he says suspending their licenses for reasons unrelated to safety violations makes no sense. The license suspension is just another collection tool. If you owe a hospital money, the hospital can’t suspend your license. If you default on your credit card, the card company can’t suspend your license. Why should insurance companies be treated differently?

Child support payments. Licenses can be suspended for failure to pay child support. Child support obligations can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. While the courts do allow payment plans, the minimum down payment is too high, Rollins argues. A $20,000 obligation, for instance, would require a 5% down payment or $600, whichever was higher — often beyond the means of the poor and near poor. Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, sponsored a bill last year that would have set the obligation at the lower of 5% or $600. The bill was defeated last year.

“Suspensions for child support have nothing to do with traffic safety,” says Rollins. In fact the suspension can be a barrier to gainful employment and reduce the chances for paying any child support.”

Failing Richmond Schools Doubling Down on Failing Policies

Thomas Jefferson High School graduates. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Richmond Public School System is in crisis, roiled by two independent audits and the publication of new state data showing that the administration is hobbled by rampant inefficiency, there are deep and pervasive achievement gaps between white students and black and Hispanic students, and the high school dropout rate is the highest in Virginia.

The sense of urgency is welcome. The school system has been failing its students for many years. But the major players — school board members and school administrators — seem to be drawing the wrong conclusions. Judging from news accounts, educational power brokers are doubling down on their commitment to “restorative,” or therapeutic, disciplinary policies designed to reduce “inequities.”

From flawed assumptions flow flawed policy prescriptions. These policies, I predict, will backfire. The restorative justice approach to school discipline will make the racial gap worse by disrupting the education of minority students who come to school motivated to learn.

Captive to progressive dogma, Richmond public school officials are blind to the nature of the problem. That dogma was captured perfectly in a quote from the new school superintendent Jason Kamras, who said: “There’s nothing wrong with the kids in RPS. We, the adults who are charged with caring for them, have not done right by them for too many years.”

It’s true enough that the adults have failed spectacularly. As documented by one of the audits Kamras commissioned, the administration is riddled with inefficiency. Employees aren’t fulfilling basic tasks, for instance, such as building inspections, contributing to the disgraceful deterioration of the city’s aging school buildings. Richmond allocates significantly more per student on operational expenditures than neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield Counties — $10,973 in 2014 compared to $8,879 and $8,958 respectively — yet its physical plant often is in atrocious condition.

Unfortunately, there is plenty wrong with the kids, too. A large percentage come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and many are categorized as having learning disabilities. Describing the students as “economically disadvantaged” really doesn’t tell the whole story. Most “economically disadvantaged” kids also are socially disadvantaged. The problem isn’t material poverty, it’s social breakdown. The kids live in single-mother households; many if not most have absentee fathers. Many are subject to child abuse and neglect, often at the hands of live-in boyfriends. Their domestic lives often are chaotic. They receive little educational guidance or encouragement at home. Tragically, these dismal realities affect students’ success at school.

But look how the social-breakdown problem, when viewed through the social-justice paradigm, is translated into a racial issue (and here I quote the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s summary of an audit performed by The Education Trust):

The audits found major inequities in the district’s academics, ranging from suspension rates that disproportionately affect students of color to white students having better access to advanced courses….

The Education Trust’s report, which focused on academic equity, found that nearly 1 in 6 students were suspended out of school at least once in 2017 and 1 in 5 students were chronically absent. The report also found that elementary and middle schools with a population that skews white are much more likely to have students enrolled in gifted education programs and algebra in eighth grade, which have been shown to better prepare students for college and careers.

What’s the answer? Round up truant kids and get them back into school. Change policies to reduce the number of suspensions and other disciplinary actions. Get teachers to engage with problem students rather than expel them from the classroom. Judging by a Michael Paul Williams column in the Times-Dispatch, the RPS administration is doubling down on restorative justice in the expectation of reducing the inequities. Writes Williams:

Kamras, to his credit, appears focused on attacking those inequities. The hiring of Ram Bhagat to implement restorative justice practices and to develop a trauma-informed approach to education was inspired. Bhagat, a retired RPS teacher with substantial community capital, is the district’s manager of School Climate and Culture Strategy.

The power of ideology to blind people to reality is on full display in the Richmond public schools. Let’s start with the obvious: the fact that one in five Richmond students was chronically absent in 2016-17. The “inequities” decried by The Education Trust and school officials stems from that fact. Clearly, a high percentage of Richmond students — almost all of whom come from “economically” disadvantaged backgrounds — are not committed to advancing their education. Rounding up these kids and getting them back into school does not improve their motivation. Most of these students have already fallen far behind their classmates academically. They find class either boring, frustrating or threatening because, in many cases, they can’t keep up with what’s going on. Thus, they “act out.” Teachers spend more time focused on the problem students and less time with students wanting to learn.

By contrast, most white kids in Richmond public schools come from affluent families that place an emphasis on education. Parents have the wherewithal to invest considerable time at home reading to their children, teaching the alphabet, helping them with homework when they’re younger, and leaning on them do their homework when they’re older. Needless to say, chronically absent students aren’t attending the advanced classes, so white students are largely insulated from the consequences of politically correct policies that undermine order.

Here’s the real tragedy: There are thousands of black kids whose families value education and who expend great effort — often in the face of greater social obstacles than their white peers — to learn. Last year 80% of Richmond students were not chronically absent. Roughly half of Richmond’s black students passed their reading and math SOL assessments. One in twenty earned assessment scores that ranked them as advanced. I submit that very few of these black achievers are among those who skip school, skip class, and disrupt teachers when they are in class. To the contrary, these are the students who are cheated by the erosion of order in schools and classrooms. These are the ones who receive fewer hours of instruction every week while teachers are distracted by trouble makers. But no one speaks for them.

What can we expect as the flailing leadership of Richmond Public Schools doubles down on restorative justice? More disruptive students in classrooms. More distracted teachers. More demoralized teachers, who quit or transfer out of inner-city schools. More students short-changed of a full education. A continued erosion of student assessment scores. And more anguished hand-wringing by educators committed to the social justice paradigm whose policy prescriptions continue to fail.

The Catastrophic Effects of Henrico Schools’ War on Discipline

Sometimes I ask myself, do I write too much about race on Bacon’s Rebellion? I lament the nation’s descent into racial identity politics — am I contributing to the trend by dwelling upon the topic so much myself? Then I encounter a report like “A Review of Equity and Parent Engagement in Special Education in Henrico County Public Schools,” and I am reminded that I am only responding to the obsession about race in Virginia’s public policy establishment.

“A Review of Equity,” whose lead author is Anne Holton, wife of U.S. Senator Tim Kaine and a former state Secretary of Education, makes a fetish of statistical disparities between white and black students, whether the issue is the percentage classified as having disabilities, placed in special education classrooms, or subject to short-term suspensions and other disciplinary actions.

The report gives limited praise to the Henrico County Public School system. The system does not demonstrate “racial disproportionality” in identifying students with disabilities. Schools have reduced the number of short- and long-term suspensions in recent years as teachers and administrators implemented more “restorative” or therapeutic approaches to maintaining discipline. The number of expulsions and suspensions has declined markedly — 38% for black students and 41% for white students between the 2011-12 school year and the 2015-16 school year. Progress has been particularly evident among students with disabilities, and the white-black disparity in suspensions has shrunk by a third.

Yet disparities persist, notes the Holton report. Black students are still more likely than their white peers to receive short-term suspensions, even when the numbers are adjusted for poverty. The report views continued racial disparities as a big problem and major injustice. Suspending students reduces the time they spent in class, which makes it all the more likely that they will fall behind in their studies.

The report recommends that Henrico County act more aggressively to reduce in-school and out-of-school disparities in disciplinary actions.

Despite HCPS’s successful efforts in recent years to reduce suspensions and expulsions overall, the division still struggles with excessive discipline, particularly for Black students and students with disabilities. In addressing this persistent issue, HCPS should consider setting targeted goals around the reduction of suspension and expulsion rates for certain subgroups of students.

Henrico should “consider designing and implementing a locally tailored plan that explicitly focuses on race and culture to reduce exclusionary discipline practices in elementary and secondary schools.” Henrico’s Positive Behavior Intervention Supports approach, says the report, is beneficial to the extent that it relies on proactive rather than reactive discipline practices. “This shift in how to approach student behavior has been critical to advancing how to re-think discipline, particularly for students with disabilities.” The drawback, however, is that Henrico’s policies are “racially and culturally neutral.”

Instead of applying race-neutral disciplinary policies, Henrico schools should set “specific goals for the disciplining of Black students and students with disabilities.” In effect, Holton is calling for disciplinary quotas — capping the number of disciplinary actions for blacks — in order to bring about racial proportionality.

In pursuit of racial proportionately, Henrico should amend the Code of Student Conduct to promote “alternative discipline approaches” for minor infractions in place of “exclusionary discipline.” Specifically, infractions such as disobedience and disrespect — such as, to give concrete meaning to the report’s recommendation, refusing to be quiet and telling a teacher to go f— himself — should be reclassified in order to help reduce suspensions. And, of course, staff training should be mandated for “implicit bias, trauma-informed care, restorative practices, understanding of diverse cultures, and basic understanding of the needs of children with disabilities.”

Bacon’s bottom line. Nowhere in the report do Holton and her co-authors acknowledge the possibility that perhaps the reason blacks are disciplined at higher rates than other racial groups is that they engage in more disruptive behavior. Given the higher incidence of poverty, single-parent households, child neglect and abuse, and other socio-economic characteristics that affect children’s well being, this is hardly a novel suggestion. Yet the report argues that school disciplinary practices — not the disruptive behavior itself — is the problem.

And nowhere does Holton examine negative effects of Henrico County’s embrace, as insufficient as she believes it to be, of the therapeutic paradigm for maintaining school discipline. Holton and her co-authors authors totally ignore the “disproportionate” impact of eroding classroom discipline on black students who come to school ready and willing to learn. Teachers are required to spend more time on “positive behavior intervention,” which subtracts from classroom teaching time. I would argue that the student-hours of instructional time lost by students suspended from school is a small fraction of the instructional time that all students lose when trouble-makers disrupt classrooms.

Rule-abiding black students suffer the most from restorative disciplinary policies designed to benefit the rule breakers. The “disproportionate impact” is vividly on display in the table atop this column. The failure rate in reading, writing, math, science and history trended the wrong way for all racial groups between the 2015-16 and the 2017-18 school years as the new disciplinary policies took hold. The decline in performance was marginal for whites and Asians but catastrophic for blacks and Hispanics.

The war on discipline in Henrico County schools, launched on the pretext that previous disciplinary policies disproportionately impacted blacks, has… disproportionately impacted blacks (with Hispanics as collateral damage). Oblivious to deteriorating conditions in schools and classrooms, Holton and her colleagues double down on their disastrous prescriptions.

How much longer must black children suffer from the failed prescriptions of liberal white ideologues before someone calls a halt to this madness?

Update: In fairness to Holton and her co-authors, they were responding to Henrico County’s request to focus on disproportionality. (See LarryG’s comment here.) The obsession with race in this report ultimately emanates from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Metrics, Reality, and Virginia’s New Accreditation Standards

Tomorrow the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) will release the first public school accreditation ratings calculated according to the 2017 Standards of Accreditation. The new standards are designed to measure how well schools are educating Virginia’s school children, giving credit to schools that are showing progress even if they fall short of the standards.

VDOE has a tough job. On the one hand, educators want to set high standards of achievement so Virginia students can engage successfully in a highly competitive global economy. On the other, rule writers want to acknowledge the challenges faced by schools with disproportionately large numbers of “at risk” students — those with disabilities, from lower-income families, or who speak English as a second language. The new accreditation standards cut low-achievement schools some slack if they manage to improve performance year to year.

As VDOE summed up the new approach in a press release issued in anticipation of the accreditation report tomorrow:

The new state accreditation standards are designed to promote continuous achievement in all schools, close achievement gaps and expand accountability beyond overall performance on Standards of Learning tests. These new standards also recognize the academic growth of students making significant annual progress toward meeting grade-level expectations in English and mathematics.

You can read here a detailed explanation of what goes into the accreditation standards. Schools will be evaluated according to three broad sets of criteria:

  • Overall student achievement based on Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates for English, math, and science in elementary and middle schools, and on other criteria in high school.
  • Achievement gaps based on differences in average scores between “student groups.” The groups are not spelled out explicitly, but presumably are racial/ethnic groups or groups defined as “disadvantaged,” disabled, or ESL (English as a Second Language).
  • Student engagement metrics such as dropout rates, absenteeism, and graduation and completion rates.

VDOE provides an illustration (reproduced above) of how this might work for a sample middle school. Let’s say 10 students take the SOLs and only six students pass. But if two of the failing students showed “growth,” and one English Learner showed “progress,” the school would be given a “combined rate” of 90%.

The goal is admirable: to reward schools that show achievement gains even if the average pass rates fall short of desired standards. It makes no sense to shame teachers and administrators of poorly performing schools if they’re showing signs of engineering a turn-around. The danger of this approach, however, as amply demonstrated by SOL cheating scandals in recent years, is that teachers and administrators may be tempted to game show progress by manipulating the metrics.

That danger appears to be most evident in the high school “student engagement” metrics. One way school districts have combated high drop-out rates is by ramping up their anti-truancy programs. But it’s one thing to get kids back onto the school grounds, and another to get them into the classroom. At some schools, teachers literally patrol the grounds to get kids back inside. And even if kids are corralled into classrooms, there is no guarantee that they are learning anything. Indeed, to the extent that disruptive kids are coaxed back into classrooms, they may degrade the learning of others. In the end, evaluating schools based on drop-out metrics creates tremendous incentives to give kids so-called social promotions. Many students now attending graduation ceremonies receive “certificates of attendance” — improving a high school’s “completion” metrics but degrading the value of the high school credential and tarnishing the accomplishment of students who, despite the odds, earned a diploma.

There is another danger in the high school evaluations — how to show students’ progress in the absence of SOL tests, the last set of which occurs in the 8th grade. The VDOE summary mentions “assessments” for English, math and other subjects but does not say what they are. The following comments here are based upon a fragmentary understanding of how the system works, thus they are subject to correction. I bring up the topic in the hope that readers will fill in any gaps.

In Henrico County, high school teachers compile SGMs or Student Growth Measures, for each of their students. While students may fall short of standardized assessments, the idea is to document that they have at least shown “growth” in their understanding of a subject through the school year. Teachers are evaluated by the number and percentage of their students who show growth. The potential for sanctions creates incentives for teachers to fudge the evaluations — counting even miniscule signs of learning as “growth” — in order to give administrators what they want. The SGMs do not indicate mastery of a subject, but they allow administrators to say their students are making progress.

What happens in Henrico County may or may not be representative of what occurs in other Virginia school districts. But the temptation for teachers and administrators to fudge statistics is universal. VDOE can update its methodology for accrediting schools, and the department can try earnestly to safeguard its metrics against cheating and manipulation. But when schools are driven to graduate kids who have no desire to learn, and administrators are compelled to adopt restorative-justice disciplinary methods, and VDOE tightens its strait-jacket of rules and reports — in sum, when teachers and principals are asked to do the impossible — don’t be surprised if school statistics and accreditation reports become increasingly disconnected from reality.

ACLU: The System, Not Female Prisoners, Guilty

You find what you look for. When you look for statistical evidence of discrimination and injustice, you will find it.

In a corrections system in which 85% of prisoners are male, for example, the ACLU of Virginia finds evidence of “widespread and discriminatory suffering” imposed upon women. You see, while women constitute only 15% of Virginia prison inmates, their numbers are increasing at a faster rate than those of men — 32% over the past four years, compared to only 4% for men.

Over a 26-year period, the numbers are even more striking. The commonwealth saw a 930% increase in its female inmate population between 1980 to 2016: from 303 women in prison to 3,123.

“It was fairly shocking,” Bill Farrar, strategic communications director for the ACLU of Virginia told the Virginian-Pilot. “People should care about any group that is marginalized or adversely affected by their government in a disparate way.”

What Farrar finds shocking is not that women commit more crimes than they did three decades, which might be construed as a sign of corrosive social breakdown, but that society is incarcerating women who commit the crimes. In a study that prompted the Virginian-Pilot reporting, “Women in the Criminal Justice System: Pathways to Incarceration in Virginia,” the ACLU argues that many of the crimes are relatively minor in nature — “nonviolent crimes related to property, public order or drugs.” And, of course, the women themselves often are victims — of poverty, drug addiction or domestic abuse.

States the report:

Incarcerated women often become engaged with the criminal justice system as a result of attempts to cope with challenging aspects of their lives, such as poverty, unemployment, and physical or mental health struggles — especially those arising from drug addiction and past instances of trauma. …

The over-incarceration of women is a symptom of a complex network of social barriers, economic inequality, reproductive injustice, and racial and sexual discrimination deeply woven into our society.”

The ACLU’s bottom line: Society is guilty, not the women. The proffered solution: more study, more “training” of employees in the criminal justice system, more spending on social programs, more spending on substance-abuse programs, more spending on programs to deal with sexual victimization, elimination of cash bail, increasing the felony threshold to at least $1,500, repeal of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, and a host of other measures.

Bacon’s bottom line: A handful of ACLU recommendations might be worth considering, such as raising the felony threshold for property crimes, and steering women into substance-abuse programs as a first-time alternative to jail and prison. But one doesn’t need to frame such initiatives as responses to “widespread discrimination” in order to justify them.

Furthermore, not all women are in prison because of petty crimes. Roughly one in seven offenders in crimes of violence are women. The ACLU “reform” agenda would serve mainly to cast women as victims and hold them less accountable for responsibility for their actions, but do very little to curb anti-social behavior. 

Distracting from the Big Issues at W&L

Lee Chapel at Washington & Lee University

Washington & Lee University is the latest in a growing line of higher-ed institutions to engage in navel gazing and self-flagellation over its historical role in slavery and racial oppression. While honesty and candor in such matters is always called for — it is all too easy to sweep uncomfortable legacies under the rug — W&L’s priorities are largely misplaced. W&L, like other elite institutions, should be examining the role it plays in perpetuating elitism and tax-exempt privilege today. Of course, that would require asking truly uncomfortable questions for the people who benefit from institutional arrangements now, not those who ran the university a century ago.

The Washington Post’s higher-ed writer Susan Svrluga writes today of how President William Dudley has convened a group to “lead us on an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it — shapes our community.”

The matter is an especially delicate one when the “Lee” in Washington & Lee was none other than Robert E. Lee, who is buried with his family on the campus. Dudley must pursue a delicate balancing act placating both progressive activists in the faculty and student body, who revile Lee and his association with slavery and the Confederacy, and conservative alumni, who revere the general and university president for his personal integrity and role in knitting together a war-torn nation.

The unremitting focus on the past, which is paralleled by similar initiatives at the University of Virginia and other universities, serves the function of distracting attention from how higher education has become a bastion of liberal-progressive privilege today. Indeed, one suspects, that’s the entire point.

Tuition and fees at W&L was $50,170 for the 2017-18 school year — a 10% increase from three years previously. (For point of reference, the Consumer Price Index increased 3.7% over that period.) Room, board and other expenses, which decreased slightly, brought the total to $65,950, according to College Navigator.

Admittedly, that’s the sticker price, and only the wealthiest families pay the full freight. W&L discounts heavily depending on financial need, providing grants and financial aid to 57% of the student body. Here are the figures for average net price by income bracket in 2016-17:

College Navigator calculates average net price by subtracting the average amount of federal, state/local government, or institutional grant or scholarship aid from the total cost of attendance. While W&L does discount tuition for members of the middle class, the net price — $38,000 — is still extremely high for two-income, middle-class families making middle-class salaries amounting to more than $110,000 a year.

While higher-ed institutions like to emphasize that the net price is much lower than the listed price, over the past two years at W&L, the net price increased even more rapidly than the sticker price. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the net price increased 17% to $25,029. Unlike Virginia’s public universities, W&L cannot blame cuts in state support for the soaring cost of attendance.

W&L financial statements make a point of informing readers that the tuition charged does not cover the full cost of educating its students. In the 2016-17 school year, that cost was put at $63,000 per student. The previous year, the implicit subsidy was calculated to be slightly more than $13,400 per student per year. That balance was made up largely through the tax-deductible donations of alumni — $22.7 million in 2015-16 — and revenues from W&L’s tax-exempt endowment.

A couple of points are worth making here. First, a $63,000 cost per student sounds extraordinarily high. It may be peanuts compared to the tax-free sums lavished upon the students at elite Ivy League schools, but it is mind-boggling by any other measure. I can’t begin to imagine what kind of costs are baked into that figure, and the financial statements don’t tell us. W&L is not a research university, so there aren’t any hidden subsidies for laboratories, graduate students and super-star research faculty. Perhaps the faculty-student ratio is really low, and students benefit from small class sizes. Perhaps W&L has extravagant administrative overhead. It would be interesting to know.

Second, despite generous financial aid provided for lower-income students, the student body still is overwhelmingly affluent. College Navigator does not provide student household-income data, but it does provide a proxy — average SAT scores, which is closely correlated with income. The average SAT scores for reading and writing are 680 (25th percentile) and 740 (75th percentile). That’s high –a hair higher than the University of Virginia.

Even though W&L adopts an income-redistribution tuition model that sticks it to the middle class, the institution benefits from lavish tax breaks that benefit both an affluent student body and left-leaning professors and administrators. (I don’t know if W&L’s faculty and administrators are more liberal/leftist in their views and teaching than their peers at other institutions, but I feel safe in saying that they are more liberal/leftist than the tax-paying population as a whole.)

As a tax-exempt nonprofit, W&L pays no property taxes, sales taxes, BPOL taxes, machine-and-tool taxes, sales taxes, or corporate income taxes. It’s income (referred to as an “operating surplus”) is nominal, but the other tax breaks are significant. Meanwhile, W&L alumni enjoy tax deductions for the $20 million or so they donate every year to subsidize students’ tuition. And the $1.5 billion W&L endowment, which in 2016-17 had reported an 11.4% compounded rate of return over 10 years, is non-taxable.

I haven’t decided whether the biggest beneficiaries of the system are the privileged students who attend W&L or the privileged employees of an institution that relentlessly increases tuition & fees, benefits from taxpayer subsidies, and obsesses over the historical sins of their forebears. Either way, the question should stimulate a good discussion. And either way, it’s a discussion that we are less likely to have while fixating on century-old issues like slavery and Jim Crow.

More Bureaucracy Won’t Help Virginia Schools

Source: Cranky’s Blog. The gold square represents the City of Richmond; the red squares represent peer districts in Norfolk, Hampton and Newport News.

Among the most dismal of the Standards of Learning (SOL) results released last week by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) was that only 72% of 3rd graders had achieved reading proficiency — down 3% from the previous year ans 12% from a decade previously.

The usual suspects will respond to the news with the usual nostrums. Those on the left predictably will say that Virginia needs more money to (take your pick) hire teachers, pay teachers more, hire more counselors, or build newer, shinier school buildings. As an antidote to such thinking, contemplate the scatter graph above compiled by John Butcher on Cranky’s Blog.

In previous posts, Butcher has documented that there is very little correlation between per pupil expenditure and SOL achievement. In today’s post, he explores variations on the same theme, showing that there is minimal correlation on a school-district level between between the teacher-pupil ratio and SOL achievement in either reading or math.

In other scatter graphs, Butcher shows that there is even less correlation — essentially zero — between school size and reading/math SOL proficiency.

From the right side of the philosophical spectrum, as a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial opines, come calls for more charter schools, more magnet programs, and more publicly and privately funded vouchers. While such alternatives may be appealing as a long-term solution, one has to be realistic that politically they are a non-starter in a state run by a Democratic Party governor and a legislature that likely will turn blue as well. Conservatives and libertarians should continue fighting for school choice, but in the meantime they need to proffer serious analysis of what ails public schools and what can be done to fix them — or at least not make them worse.

If the problem isn’t money, or teacher-pupil ratios, or school size, what is it? I think I’m getting closer to some answers. Let me sketch out my thinking at this point in time.

What really ails Virginia schools. Virginia’s public education system combines a toxic mix of three elements that interact in terribly dysfunctional ways: (1) the sociological reality of a large and growing population of children raised in material poverty, absentee fathers, substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, and other dysfunctions; (2) the spread of politically correct doctrine, manifested most recently in the imposition of “restorative justice” as a means of achieving school discipline; and (3) a push for accountability metrics, of which the SOLs are only one, that pressure school districts, principals, and teachers to game the system in order to show progress where none exists.

This combination is especially poisonous at schools with concentrated poverty. A number of things are going on. Schools are under pressure to reduce the rising rate of absenteeism — both the problem of students skipping school and the problem, among students who do come to school, of skipping class. The educrats seem to understand that it is a farce to claim that high school graduation rates are declining even while absenteeism is increasing. They also understand that students won’t learn (and pass their SOLs) if they don’t enter a classroom.

But the absenteeism-reduction imperative conflicts with the restorative-justice imperative. When kids skip school, there’s usually a reason — they’re bored and/or frustrated.  They are bored and/or frustrated because they don’t understand the material, can’t participate meaningfully in class, and feel set up to fail. They feel all those things because they have been socially promoted to grades beyond their competence, a phenomenon that is itself the product of politically correct thinking.

So, Virginia schools now have more bored/frustrated kids sitting in classrooms. Some just tune out. But others act out, disrupting class. Here’s where the restorative justice approach to school discipline comes in. Schools subject to federal court order to reduce expulsions, suspensions, and other sanctions on the grounds that they disproportionately impact minorities typically have substituted a therapeutic approach. In Henrico County, I understand, teachers are first called upon to “de-escalate” a disruptive situation. If that doesn’t work, teachers are supposed to take the student into the hall and reason with them. If a student must be removed from class, the time can be 20 minutes, no longer. Following these steps consumes a significant percentage of the teacher’s time. (My source estimates that he spends about 25% of his class time dealing with disruptive students, more than ever.) The result is that teachers have less time to teach the majority of students who do want to learn and are willing to behave comport themselves properly…. which leads to lower SOL scores. Of course, as I have frequently observed, the victims of disruptive students are disproportionately minorities themselves.

Can things get worse? Yes, they can. This school year the VDOE is rolling out a new set of accreditation standards, which include a host of new performance processes and metrics. While the goal of establishing objective measures for holding schools accountable is laudable in the abstract, the new processes could mire schools in even more red tape, lead to more gamesmanship and data manipulation, empower those who figure out how to work the new rules and demoralize those who don’t. When placed in impossible situations, teachers, principals and school officials could be even more tempted to engage in ass-covering behavior to avoid sanctions that could hurt their careers. Virginia schools could plunge even deeper into self-deception and denial. That’s not a prediction, just a possible outcome — but one we should be alert to.

Consider yourself forewarned. More bureaucratic rules are rarely the answer to any complex problem.

The Political Economy of Dental Care

The bad teeth guy in the movie “Deliverance”

No sooner has Virginia enacted one vast new entitlement, Medicaid expansion, than the drumbeat begins on the next. No matter how much money government dedicates to health care, food, housing, education, transportation, legal aid, or whatever, there is always someone who is getting the short end of the stick by comparison. Always. And the answer is always the same: Expand entitlements. Always.

The latest case in point is an article in the Virginia Mercury highlighting the deficiencies in dental care experienced by hundreds of thousands of Virginians — a dental gap bigger than void in the bad-teeth guy’s mouth above. No question, the problem is a real one. Dental care costs too much for poor and working-class Virginians to afford, assuming dental care is even available in under-served rural areas. And the consequences of poor dental hygiene can lead to serious medical complications.

What’s the solution? Reports Katie O’Connor:

For years, advocates, such as the Virginia Oral Health Coalition have pushed the state to add a dental benefit for adults. So far, Virginia has expanded dental benefits to pregnant women and children until they turn 20.

As of the start of this year, 17 states offered extensive dental benefits — including preventive and restorative procedures — to their Medicaid populations, according to the Center for Health Care Strategies, a group that advocates for improved health care delivery for low-income Americans.

A benefit, advocates argue, would make a major difference for the 1.2 million adults covered in the state’s Medicaid program.

Creating the entitlement in Virginia would cost between $24.4 to $60.8 million, O’Connor says.

Of course, you’d expect from an alliance representing the dental profession to advocate a new entitlement that creates more business for the dental profession. It should surprise no one that the proffered solution to the problem entails transferring money from taxpayers to dentists.

Here’s a different idea. Expand the supply of dentists and dental technicians. How? Maybe start by reducing the total cost of attendance at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, which now runs about $133,000 to $140,000 per year over four years. Nationally, dentists graduating in 2016 carried on average $261,149 in debt, according to the American Dental Education Association. That number could well be higher in Virginia where the tuition runs considerably higher than the national average.

I don’t know why the VCU dental school is so expensive. I conjecture that the tuition bears little relationship to the cost of actually providing the education, and that someone high in the VCU hierarchy has made the calculation that the university will charge what the market will bear. I further conjecture that the School of Dentistry is a lucrative profit center, which VCU is milking for revenue to subsidize other programs. I may be entirely wrong, but when tuition is higher than almost anywhere else in the country, that’s a proposition worth looking into.

Now, if you entered a profession that took you four years to complete (which means four years of earning no money) and cost you roughly $500,000 in tuition, fees, room, board and expenses, leaving you $260,000 in debt when you graduated, would you want to move to Southwest Virginia where there is a paucity of patients capable of paying charges sufficient to help you retire your loans? No, unless you’re incredibly idealistic and willing to live at the foot of the cross, you’ll move to the suburbs where you can make $150,000 a year and pay off your debts.

Let me venture another hypothesis, which any enterprising reporter could verify or falsify: Given the sky-high cost of tuition, Virginia dentists have exercised their clout through Virginia’s professional licensing system to restrict competition from allied professions, such as dental technicians. I would conjecture that dental technicians, like nurses, are seriously circumscribed in what they can do or the circumstances in which they can practice.

Dental technicians earn about one-fifth of what dentists earn. Yet in my personal experience, dental technicians do 30 or 40 minutes of work cleaning teeth and taking x-rays while my dentist spends about 5 minutes checking things over. I love my dentist — he’s a great guy, and I’ve been using him for 30 years. But I’ve really got to wonder why it costs me $200 a visit when dental technicians are paid (on average) about $35,000 a year or the equivalent (taking benefits into account) of maybe $30 an hour.

I’m betting that (1) dentists exercise a strangle hold on the ability of dental technicians to provide independent teeth cleaning services, and (2)bill for technician’s services at a rate that many would consider obscene. Perhaps such practices, if in fact they occur, are justifiable in areas with no shortage of dental practitioners. But are they justifiable in areas that can’t attract dentists? Would it not be better to provide access to dental technicians to maintain dental hygiene at lower prices and make referrals as needed to dentists to fill cavities and perform other more advanced procedures?

I have no expertise whatsoever in the practice of dentistry, and I fully concede that I may be making some naive statements here. But I am convinced that we need to look differently at the problem. Instead of asking whether we should expand entitlements, perhaps we should be looking at how to expand supply and bring down costs.

Full Conformity Raises $3.6B In First Five Years

Projected State Income Tax Revenue Increases if Virginia Conforms With No Adjustments. Source: Secretary Layne’s Presentation

Assuming the Virginia General Assembly conforms the state’s tax rules to the IRS code as it exists now, adopting intact the recent federal changes, the state will reap an additional $3.6 billion in revenue over the next five years.

Almost $2.5 billion of that will come from personal income taxes, with an additional $1.1 billion collected from business tax returns.  By the sixth year, 2024, the total new state revenue attributed to conformity with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 reaches $950 million per year.

Those figures were revealed Friday by Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne, having been forecast by a new proprietary revenue model developed for the state by Northern Virginia-based Chainbridge Software LLC.  Layne’s presentation went into detail on the state’s revenue results for the fiscal year just ended, the official revenue forecast for the year that just started, and the federal tax conformity debate.

There are two key assumptions behind those Chainbridge projections.   The first is that the state makes no changes in state tax brackets or rates or state-specific exemptions, all of which could be changed to reduce the impact on individual or business taxpayers.  The second is that taxpayers take full advantage of the new federal rules when the federal benefit exceeds any tax cost at the state level.

While state taxes are projected to grow, federal taxes paid by most of those individuals are projected to decline by far higher amounts.  Aggregate federal income taxes on individual Virginia residents are projected to drop by almost $4 billion for 2018, more than ten times the expected state income growth on the same earnings.   These are projected totals, and to borrow a common disclaimer individual results may vary.

Governor Ralph Northam, who opened the meeting Friday with his own remarks, has proposed taking advantage of the revenue surge to amend Virginia’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) making it refundable, meaning taxpayers who qualify would get any excess credit – more than their state tax liability – given to them as a tax refund.

He used the example of a lower-income family with a state tax liability of $800 and an EITC of $1000.  Right now, Northam said, “Virginia keeps that additional $200.”  Under his proposal “we’re giving that $200 back.”   Critics of the idea would argue the $200 in question is coming from other Virginians as an income transfer payment.

Previous efforts to make the state EITC refundable have been estimated to cost up to $250 million per year.  For tax year 2018, according to Layne’s data, individual taxpayers declaring incomes above $50,000 per year would be paying the state an additional $290 million, only slightly more than the cost of the EITC refunds.

Layne forcefully argued for full state conformity with the federal changes, adopted in early 2019 so the rules can apply to tax year 2018 in full.  If Virginia stands still and does not conform, individual taxpayers will have to deal with as many as 20 major differences between their state and federal returns, and for business filers it is more like 30 provisions which would differ.  For decades Virginia has traditionally conformed fully or almost in full with the Internal Revenue Code.

Passing an emergency conformity bill at the start of the January session, which would need an 80 percent vote, would not preclude a later debate about adjustments Virginia might want to make to rates, brackets, or other provisions.  In statements outside the meeting, but not stressed Friday, many Republican legislators have discussed allowing Virginia taxpayers freedom to itemize deductions on their state returns while taking the standard deduction at the federal level.

The policy combinations are endless, and Layne pledged to work with the legislators who have ideas they want to test with the new revenue projection model.

(Note of apology – earlier versions used the wrong name for Chainbridge Software LLC.)