Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

CIP: the Secret to SW Virginia Schools’ Success

School divisions participating in the Comprehensive Instructional Program

by James A. Bacon

The school districts of Southwest Virginia are among the poorest in the Commonwealth, but that hasn’t stopped them from out-performing more affluent districts across the state. Public schools in Region VII, stretching from the City of Radford to Virginia’s far-western tip in Lee County, have the lowest per-pupil funding in the state, yet they have the highest average pass rates for Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores. I highlighted those findings in a recent post. What I couldn’t say then was how Region VII managed to score the best results of the state’s eight education regions.

So I talked to Matt Hurt, curriculum director for the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP), a bottom-up initiative starting in Southwest Virginia, to find out more. It is a remarkable story and an encouraging one. With the right approach, Virginia schools can lift themselves up by their boot straps. Lesson for the General Assembly: The answer isn’t Mo’ Money.

Southwest Virginia students have not always been top SOL performers. Their rise to the top has occurred in just the past few years, says Hurt. The secret: Local school districts pooled resources to do three main things: (1) identify the most successful teachers across the region; (2) share their instructional materials and other best practices; (3) set high expectations, and (4) measure what works. Five years have made a significant difference. Continue reading

We Can’t Explain Virginia’s Declining Test Scores — Just Trust Us and Give Us Mo’ Money

by James A. Bacon

The Richmond Times-Dispatch took a good hard look today at the alarming decline in reading scores by Virginia students in standardized tests, including both the state Standards of Learning (SOL) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). But reporter Justin Mattingly came up dry in explaining what might have caused the lower scores, which represent a stark reversal from improving or steady scores over the previous decade. “Why scores are on the decline,” he writes, “is the million dollar question.”

Mattingly makes a remarkable statement in the article that deserves highlighting: “State education leaders — who aren’t sure why the scores have dropped so much —  are calling for $36 million to go toward new reading specialists.”

That’s not all they’re asking for. The State Board of Education is recommending the state increase support for K-12 education by $950 million next year. Virginia’s educrats can’t explain the decline in reading and math scores, but they still have the audacity to say, “Trust us to spend more of your money.”

The usual suspects, like the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, are backing them up. Providing no evidence to demonstrate an empirical link between the funding decline and student achievement, CI has been pounding the drums to remind legislators that state support, adjusted for inflation and increasing enrollment, is 8% less than before the Great Recession. Continue reading

Housing Values and School Quality

Virginia school proficiency levels. Source: StatChat. Click to enlarge.

by James A. Bacon

In an essay posted earlier this week on the StatChat blog, Spencer Shanholtz with the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia explored the relationship between housing values and school quality. He documents the reality that children living in census tracts with low-value housing are more likely to attend low-performing schools. He finds this disturbing. “Children in lower-cost housing should be able to attend good schools,” he says.

I quite agree. Every child should be able to attend a good school. The pertinent question is whether it is necessary for a school to be located in an affluent neighborhood and have students from affluent families in order to accomplish that goal.

In this, first of two blog posts, Shanholz provides some useful data. It would unfair to critique his argument until he publishes the second post. For now, let’s take a look at the case he makes and raise some questions for him to answer in his follow-up post. Continue reading

Rapid Rehousing: a Homelessness Program that Works

by James A. Bacon

Not only can Virginians count on getting electric current when they flip on the light switch, the Old Dominion can boast of something else that Californians cannot: The number of homeless people in the state is declining. A lot. And we’re spending a tiny fraction of the money that Californians do to deal with the problem.

The number of homeless people in Virginia has tumbled 36% over the past decade, from 9,080 people in 2010 to 5,780 this year, according to figures provided by Pam Kestner, deputy director of housing at the state Department of Housing and Community Development in a presentation to the Virginia Housing Commission. (Virginia Mercury reported on the presentation here.)

The homelessness rate in Virginia runs about seven homeless people per 10,000 residents compared to 33 in California and 46 in New York. Progress has been especially evident in the Richmond area, where homelessness dropped from 1,158 people in 2007 to 497 this year. While the state of California spends roughly $1 billion a year on programs for the homeless (and local governments spend hundreds of millions more), Virginia and federal government together have budgeted $17.4 million for homeless services this year in the Old Dominion.

This is a remarkable untold story. Who knew that Virginia had been so successful in copying with homelessness? Continue reading

Virginia Reading Test Scores Plunge

by James A. Bacon

Reading scores of Virginia students taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, a national standardized test, plummeted this year, and math scores declined as well. The average reading scores of Virginia fourth- and eighth-grade students on the national tests fell by four and six points, respectively. The average math scores for percent proficient fell by two points for both grades.

In releasing the results, Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane acknowledged that Virginia has a big problem. “The latest NAEP results — coupled with the declines we have seen during the last several years on our state reading tests — underscore the importance of the efforts already underway at the state and local levels to strengthen reading instruction for all students,” he said.

He implied that factors other than the Progressive “racial equity” policies he has championed are to blame. Rather, he said, “We must … recognize that Virginia’s schools are enrolling increasing numbers of students whose learning is impacted by poverty and trauma.”

The solution: $950 million in money for “equitable supports and services for all of the students who need them.” Continue reading

How to Integrate Richmond Schools: More Charters

by James A. Bacon

The Richmond Public Schools school board is desperate to get more diversity in its schools, meaning it wants more white kids in schools dominated by African-Americans. The board has been considering a proposal to smear the cream, so to speak: spread the limited supply of white kids, concentrated in two elementary schools, among more schools. Another option, described in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, is to create a “weighted lottery” for open enrollment, giving preferential treatment to students from low-income students trying to get into schools that aren’t in their neighborhood zones.

One option that the superintendent and school board have steadfastly ignored is creating more charter schools. Richmond’s only charter school, the Patrick Henry School of Sciences and Arts, is about as integrated as you can get. The 318 students enrolled in 2018-19 were 41% white and 56% black, according to Virginia Department of Education statistics. Forty percent of the student body is classified as disadvantaged. In other words, Patrick Henry fits progressives’  dream of mixing poor African-American kids with better-off white kids.

Why don’t Richmond school officials look at Patrick Henry as a model? Could that school be doing something different than other public schools?

Continue reading

Do Financial Literacy Classes Do Any Good?

by James A. Bacon

It’s not often that I speak kindly of government programs of any kind. But a few days ago, I praised a financial literacy initiative recently announced by the City of Richmond with the goal of empowering citizens, especially lower-income citizens, with the knowledge to make better consumer decisions. The program not only educates but preaches the virtues of saving money, building assets, and participating in the banking system.

Now a column in Governing Magazine calls into question the value of financial literacy education, especially if it is tied to obtaining Medicaid benefits, as has been proposed in Kentucky. Matt Darling, vice president of Ideas42, a nonprofit that “uses behavioral science for social good,” argues that poor people already know how to handle their money better than wealthy people. They, unlike the wealthy, have to stretch a dollar. Additionally, he cites a 2014 study, “Financial Literacy, Financial Education and Downstream Financial Behaviors,” as evidence that “financial education programs, while well-intentioned, don’t noticeably improve the financial behavior of their participants.” Continue reading

Finally, an Anti-Poverty Program that Actually Might Reduce Poverty

by James A. Bacon

Most anti-poverty programs are double-edged swords. They alleviate the symptoms of poverty — insufficient money for housing, food, health care — but do nothing to induce poor people to change their behavior and improve their condition. But this program is different: With funding from the the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund (CFE), the City of Richmond will start providing free, professional, one-on-one financial counseling as a public service to residents.

“Financial empowerment is necessary to build an equitable economic environment,” said Mayor Levar Stoney in a press release. “This opportunity for one-on-one counseling will give residents the power to make informed financial choices with confidence.”

Bacon’s  translation: Rather than treating poor people as passive victims, the financial counseling program will explain how they can take control over their financial destinies by taking modest, achievable steps. The program teaches, dare I say it, personal responsibility. Continue reading

Is Inclusionary Zoning the Answer to the Housing Crisis?

Source: “Inclusionary Zoning and Housing Market Outcomes.” 

by James A. Bacon

I have often advanced a common-sense proposition: If you want to create more affordable housing, increase the supply of housing. If the housing stock increases faster than demand, the price declines. A new study on “inclusive housing” policies in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, which includes Northern Virginia, gives some support to that proposition, although it suggests that in highly regulated housing markets, the relationship between supply, demand and price is not straightforward.

Emily Hamilton, a research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, has undertaken an in-depth study of inclusionary zoning in the Washington-Baltimore metro. Inclusionary zoning (IZ) is a policy in which local governments require or incentivize real estate developers to provide below-market-rate houses in new housing developments.

Economic theory (which has informed my thinking on this blog) predicts that IZ could be counter-productive. By increasing the cost of building new units, the policy diminishes the supply of new housing, which has the effect of pushing housing prices higher overall. But IZ programs vary widely in design and impacts vary, says Hamilton in her paper, “Inclusionary Zoning and Housing Market Outcomes.” Continue reading

Our Little Five Billion

UVa President James Ryan

by James A. Bacon

University fund-raisers are like presidential elections — as soon as one campaign ends, another one starts. Here in the Old Dominion, the University of Virginia is in the midst of a $5 billion boodle-building campaign. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is raising $1.5 billion, the College of William & Mary $1 billion, Virginia Commonwealth University $750 million, and George Mason University $500 million. That’s pretty serious dough. For purposes of comparison: Harvard, the wealthiest institution of higher education in the country (and probably the world), raised $9.6 billion in its last five-year campaign.

It never ceases to fascinate me how higher ed, which obsesses over issues of racial and socio-economic equity, has become such an engine of elitism. Donors get tax write-offs for their contributions, and public university endowments pay no taxes on income. (The 2017 federal tax law imposes a 1.4% excise tax on private-institution endowments worth $500,000 or more per student.) Here in Virginia, public university endowments also are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Sweet deal — tax breaks out the  wazoo, and freedom from public scrutiny! All to benefit whom? Faculty, administrators and, disproportionately, the children of the well-to-do.

Not surprisingly, university administrators cast their pitches for mo’ money as benefiting students and the public — more financial aid, more enriching education, more research, and, of course, as UVa President James E. Ryan, puts it, a “fearless search for truth.”

You can’t spend $5 billion without doing some good for somebody. But it bothers me that almost no one ever pushes back. No one ever questions the fund-raising goals. No one asks if the money could be spent to better effect elsewhere. There are rare exceptions — listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “My Little Hundred Million.” But you never hear such voices in Virginia. Continue reading

Dems & Dom, RGGI Grows, Medicaid & Work

By Steve Haner

What Was Lost Is Found Again.  Couldn’t they wait at least another few weeks?  Anybody foolish enough to believe that Dominion Energy Virginia and the Virginia Democratic Party establishment have really parted ways (as Jim Bacon seemed to think a while back), take note of this from today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch:   Governor Ralph Northam’s new communications director, Grant Neely, is totally plugged into the Dominion Energy/Richmond’s Navy Hill/Mark Warner and Bob Blue nexus.  You can fool some of the people some of the time, but certain Democrats just about any time you want.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

The P in PJM Now Joining RGGI.  Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has signed an executive order that his state should be the next to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.  According to this from The Philadelphia Inquirer, the executive order route comes after being rebuffed by the legislature.  It is a strong first step but not a done deal, with litigation one possible route for opponents.  Virginia’s on-hold membership will likely be determined by the General Assembly elected next month.

Continue reading

Why Are So Many Rural Virginians Stuck in Place?

Declining geographic mobility. Graph credit: McKinsey Global Institute

by James A. Bacon

A recurring question on this blog and elsewhere is why don’t more Americans (and rural Virginians) move to areas of greater economic opportunity? Why do they remain stuck in communities with high unemployment and low wages? Americans have always moved to economic opportunity in the past. What’s different now?

Those questions give rise to another set of questions. If people refuse to budge, should the rest of society take pity on them and subsidize their choice to stay put? As Don Rippert commented in a previous post, “The best thing the state can do is issue relocation vouchers to rural residents.”

The authors of a McKinsey Global Institute report, “The Future of Work in America,” tackles the geographic-mobility question. The biggest factor, they suggest, is the vast and growing gap in the cost of living between prospering cities and lagging communities. “Variations in the cost of living — and particularly in housing costs — are a clear contributing factor holding back geographic mobility in the United States. The cities offering the greatest job opportunity also happen to be expensive places to live.” Continue reading

UVa’s Booming R&D Program: What It Means

University of Virginia research funding. Source: UVa.

by James A. Bacon

One can debate how well the University of Virginia is serving the interests of students, families and the general citizenry through its aggressive increases in tuition, fees, and other costs of attendance. But there is no denying that Virginia’s No. 2 research university has been successful at attracting outside research dollars.

Sponsored research funding has increased from $311 million in 2014-15 to $412 million in in 2018-19 — a 32.5% increase, according to data recently released by the university.

“Our outstanding teams of faculty, staff and students across all the schools have propelled us over the $400 million mark in research funding,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Liz Magill. “Meanwhile, researchers … are targeting interdisciplinary approaches that improve the chances of receiving grants down the road.” Continue reading

Want More Affordable Housing? Build More Luxury Apartments.

Camden Fairfax Corner luxury apartments. Yes, building more housing like this is part of addressing the affordable housing crisis.

by James A. Bacon

Planners in the Washington metropolitan area are worried, as they well should be, that continued population growth coupled with housing shortages could turn the region into another unaffordable hellhole like San Francisco or Los Angeles where legions of homeless people are taking over the public spaces and making life miserable for everyone. The solution, says the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), is to build more housing.

“You can’t afford to live in San Francisco — the workforce [there] is being displaced,” said COG Vice Chair Derrick Leon Davis, from Prince George County, Md. “We don’t want to be that region.”

Davis is absolutely right about that. Unfortunately, the solutions proffered by the regional planning organization aren’t practicable. COG says the region needs to add 320,000 housing units between 2020 and 2030, 75,000 more than previously forecast. Of those, reports the Washington Post, at least three-quarters should be “affordable to low- and middle-income households.” That, in turn, likely requires increasing public subsidies such as rental vouchers and low-cost loans or redirecting funds from schools, transportation or other priorities.

In other words, COG planners have set a goal and then established preconditions that make fulfillment of that goal politically and fiscally impossible. Continue reading

Danville Free Clinic Bites the Dust

by James A. Bacon

Before Virginia embarked upon Medicaid expansion, the state had a network of free clinics that provided primary-care services to people lacking health insurance. It was an imperfect safety net, to be sure, but at least it was something. Now, more than a half year into Medicaid expansion, that safety net is fraying in places.

The Free Clinic of Danville has closed its doors after experiencing a sharp drop in patient volume, reports GoDanRiver.com. In operation since 1993, the clinic survived on state grants, local foundation grants, private donations, and volunteer labor.

The drop in patients following Medicaid expansion was felt almost immediately. The clinic, which had 187 patients at the end of 2018, had only 15 by July. The remaining patients are being transferred to Piedmont Access to Health Services (PATHS), the SOVAH Family Medicine Residency Clinic and other providers. Continue reading