Does Rural Virginia Need Mo’ Money for Schools?

ED = Economically Disadvantaged. NED = Not Economically Disadvantaged

by James A. Bacon

Instead of getting all torqued up about becoming Second Amendment sanctuary cities, suggests a Roanoke Times editorial, citizens of rural Virginia counties should be mobilizing to demand more funding for local school systems.

Arlington County spends $20,460 per student, notes the editorial. The City of Norton spends only $9,219. While the editorial writer concedes in passing that “throwing money at the problem” may not be the best answer, he or she insists that money can fix leaking roofs or buy new technology.

“While you’re all fired up with civic activism,” the editorial admonishes, “start passing some resolutions in favor of more school funding. Unless, of course, guns really are all you care about.”

Ah, so much conventional thinking packed into so little space. Where do I begin? Continue reading

How Influence Is Played in Richmond

By Peter Galuszka

It helps to have an influential father, especially if you are Peter Farrell.

The 36 year-old former Republican delegate and financial investor has been named to the Board of Visitors of Virginia Commonwealth University by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Northam, a Democrat, has accepted thousands of dollars in political donations from Thomas Farrell, Peter’s father, who heads Dominion Energy, which has also contributed to Northam.

There’s nothing especially wrong with young Farrell’s appointment although his age and relative inexperience might raise eyebrows. He served in the House of Delegates from Henrico County from 2012 to 2018 when he said he wanted to “retire” to spend more time with his family and investment business.

But there’s always been a whiff of inside baseball with him. According to a 2016 book by Richmond author Jeff Thomas, the way was cleared for Farrell’s ascendance into politics literally behind closed doors. Continue reading

Replacing One Existential Threat with Another

by James A. Bacon

I’m a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose thinking on such subjects as “black swan” events, “Intellectuals Yet Idiots (IYIs),” “antifragility,” and “skin in the game” I have incorporated into my commentary on this blog. So, when Taleb invokes the precautionary principle in the context of climate change, I take his argument very seriously.

In a nutshell, Taleb contends the accuracy of climate models predicting catastrophic increases in global temperatures don’t matter. We have only one planet, and if there is even a remote chance that rising CO2 emissions will wreck it, humanity cannot afford to take that chance. The environment is a complex system, he writes. “Push a complex system too far and it will not come back.” The uncertainty surrounding climate change projections, far from being a reason to dismiss predictions of catastrophe, puts the burden of proof upon those who claim absence of harm. Read a succinct statement of his thinking here.

I’ve been pondering this argument for quite a while, and I agree with it… to a point. But I think it is incomplete. In the statement I linked to above, Taleb (and his co-writers) do not explore the implications of their logic. The obvious follow-up question is, OK, if climate change is an existential threat, what do we do about it?

What if the proffered solution to climate change creates its own existential threat? Continue reading

School Discipline Study Cuts Two Ways

by James A. Bacon

There has been a long and unresolved debate over the impact of school disciplinary policies on student achievement. In recent years in Virginia the discussion has focused on the existence of a “school to prison” pipeline created by referring students with disciplinary issues to the criminal justice system. A new study finds that removing disruptive students from classrooms has a slight beneficial effect on educational outcomes for some students, but the positives are more than outweighed by the negative affect on the students who are disciplined.

“The negative impact of attending schools with higher conditional suspension rates is largest for minorities and males, suggesting that strict suspension policies expand pre-existing gaps in educational attainment and incarceration,” write the authors of an National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, “The School to Prison Pipeline: Long-Run Impacts of School Suspensions and Adult Crime.” “We also find some limited evidence of positive effects on the academic achievement of white male students, which highlights the potential to increase the achievement of some subgroups by removing disruptive peers.”

The authors reached the conclusion based on a large and sudden boundary change in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, schools in 2002, in which a large number of students switched from schools with tough disciplinary policies and schools with more lax policies and vice versa. Continue reading

Open the Sluicegates! More Free Stuff!

by James A.Bacon

Virginia’s revenue forecasts for the next two years are looking rosy, and special interests are bursting with ideas on how to spend the money. First Medicaid, then K-12 education, then public four-year colleges. Now the Virginia Community College System.

Governor Ralph Northam, we learn today from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is pitching $50 million in community college spending over the next biennium in targeted programs to support student access and affordability.

Meanwhile, reports The Virginia Mercury, community college Chancellor Glenn DuBois wants to explore the idea of building dormitories on community college campuses to help offset a decline in enrollment. No price tag provided.

Nowhere in this discussion do we hear the phrases, “restructuring,” “focusing on core missions,” or “reallocating resources to address new priorities.” Continue reading

Tuition-free college?

It seems that the Northam administration is poised to propose actions that will address two of the concerns expressed in this blog—lessen the cost of higher education and help the middle class  In the tradition of well-timed leaks on budget proposals, the RTD reports today that the administration is considering some form of a tuition-free program for community colleges.

Although no final details are yet publicly available and those details are likely still being thrashed out in the budget development process, the basic outline seems clear. For low-income and middle-income students, the state would cover the difference between the total cost of tuition and any available federal aid. There would probably be some conditions attached to such assistance, such as the student committing to work in a public-sector job or in a “high-priority” field. Continue reading

Ignore the ROE Decision. Dominion Gets It All.

Crying All The Way To The Bank

By Steve Haner

After a long, expensive and contentious legal battle producing a huge case record, the State Corporation Commission left Dominion Energy Virginia’s authorized profit margin unchanged Thursday.  The return on equity figure did not go higher, as the utility demanded, and did not go lower, as just about everybody else involved in case demanded.

The SCC order is here.

You will see report after report in news media now that the authorized return is 9.2%, such as this one. This is wrong. The authorized return, because of Virginia’s uniquely pro-stockholder state law, is really 9.9%. The law allows the utility to keep 100 percent of the first 70 basis points of excess profit above the stated allowed profit.  With the large amounts involved over multiple years, that extra 70 basis points is real money out of your pockets.  Continue reading

Rent Seeking, Runaway Higher Ed Costs, and the Middle-Class Squeeze

Source: “Update on Higher Education Affordability”

by James A. Bacon

I don’t know what’s going to happen to Tony Maggio, a fiscal analyst with the House Appropriations Committee since 2001, when Democrats take control of the General Assembly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the new leadership finds his analysis, such as the graph above, to be highly inconvenient.

That graph shows the history of tuition & fees at Virginia’s public four-year institutions for undergraduate, in-state (I/S) students. It is inconvenient because it clearly shows how cuts to state support for higher education account for only a small portion of the increasing unaffordability of higher education. As such, the analysis undermines the argument — that cuts to state support are mainly to blame for higher college costs — advanced by a favorite Democratic Party constituency.

The graph appears in a PowerPoint presentation, “Update on Higher Education Affordability,” that Maggio made during the House Appropriations Committee retreat earlier this week.  That PowerPoint also shows how higher-ed spending, not cuts in state support, is driving the cost increases. Continue reading

Rent Seeking, Runaway Medical Costs, and the Middle-Class Squeeze

Source: The Commonwealth Fund

by James A. Bacon

Mirroring national trends, Virginia healthcare markets are severely out of whack. The main difference is that here in the Old Dominion, they’re even more out of whack than they are for the country as a whole. In 2018, total out-of-pocket medical insurance costs for Virginia employees (employee contribution to premiums + deductible) amounted to $8,143 — 10.2% more than the national average.

That’s on top of what employers pay. According to the latest data compiled by the Commonwealth Fund, employers on average contribute $6,635 for single coverage and $19, 512 for family coverage. Add up the employer and employee share, and the cost of family coverage is equivalent to about $13.30 per hour in earnings for a full-time employee.

These costs have rapidly outpaced the general cost of living. As a percentage of median income, out-of-pocket costs have increased from 6.9% of median income to 10.7%.

Out-of-control medical insurance costs constitute a crisis for Virginia’s middle class. While the public policy debate in Richmond has focused almost exclusively on how to extend insurance coverage to the poor and working poor in the form of Medicaid expansion and Obamacare, nothing more than lip service has been given to the crisis for people who pay their own way. Continue reading

Virginia Likely to Impose Excessive Minimum Wage

Beneficiaries… or victims… of a $15 minimum wage?

by Hans Bader

It doesn’t make sense to ban jobs that pay a living wage, just because an employer can’t afford to pay a still higher wage. But that is what a $15 minimum wage does in regions where living costs and wages are low. There are cheap regions to live in where $11 an hour supports a decent lifestyle. If someone can afford decent food, clothing, and housing on $11 an hour, and their employer can’t afford to pay them more than $12 an hour, it is pointless and cruel to ban their job just because it pays less than $15 per hour.

But that is what a $15 minimum wage does. It bans jobs that pay less than $15 per hour, regardless of whether an individual employer and worker have a good reason for a lower hourly wage.

Virginia is now poised to join seven other left-leaning states, such as New Jersey, in imposing a $15 minimum wage. The incoming majority leader of the state senate, Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, has introduced a bill to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2025, and then adjust it for inflation in future years. Every Democrat in the state senate has already voted for a similar bill in the past, and Democrats took control of Virginia’s legislature this November. Continue reading

The Rank Hypocrisy of Rural Gun Sanctuaries

by Peter Galuszka

When Donald Trump ran for president on a platform of virulent xenophobia, one of the rallying cries he favored was the idea that liberal-minded localities were forming “sanctuary cities” and would not cooperate with federal immigration officials on the prowl for undocumented aliens.

Right-wing Virginia politicians, notably Corey A. Stewart, who led anti-foreign hate raids when he was Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Prince William County, locked onto the idea with a vengeance. Listed as “sanctuary” cities were places like Virginia Beach and Richmond.

The problem was that they were no such cities or counties. True, short-funded police departments tended to stick to their real work – enforcing local and state laws as they should – but there were no formal pronouncements of “sanctuary cities.”

So, it is indeed ironic that the anti-control mob is creating a series of so-called “sanctuary” cities and counties where authorities will refuse to enforce gun control laws. So far, the counties of Appomattox, Campbell, Carroll, Charlotte, Patrick and Pittsylvania have declared themselves ‘Second Amendment Sanctuaries,” reports the Washington Post. Continue reading

Metro in the Age of Crazy

by James A. Bacon

The chronic problems of the Washington metro system can’t be blamed entirely upon its dysfunctional, multi-state governance system or even the poor choices of its governing board. Any realistic appraisal of the Metro must take into account the fact that the country is increasingly populated by friggin’ lunatics!

The Metro board came up with the idea of selling off the naming rights to Metro stations. Most recently, the board waived its existing naming rules in order to finalize a deal with a “Fortune Global 500 company” to rename the soon-to-open Innovation Center station (near the Center for Innovative Technology building) to a name selected by the unnamed corporation. Now members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors are in a snit that the county wasn’t consulted.

People, get a grip. As WTOP states succinctly, “Metro hopes station naming rights deals could help offset losses from ridership declines to help keep the budget in line without more significant fare increases.”

Speaking of significant fare increases… fare jumping in the Washington Metro is already a significant problem, accounting for $29 million in losses.  That could well get worse, depending on whether local riders heed calls for an international transit fare strike. Proclaims the “It’s Going Down” website: Continue reading

Appalachia’s Job Growth Challenge


by James A. Bacon

Employment growth in Virginia’s Appalachian region since 2002 has been the weakest of all five states in the Central Appalachian region, according to data contained in a recent Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) report, “Industrial Make-up of the Appalachian Region: Employment and Earnings, 2002-2017.”.

Making matters worse, job growth in Central Appalachia was the worst in all of Appalachia, which was half that of the United States as a whole.

The growth gap between Virginia on the one hand and Tennessee and North Carolina on the other has been particularly marked, the gap between Virginia on the one hand and West Virginia and Kentucky not quite as bad.

Earnings growth in Appalachia also has severely lagged that of the United States as a whole — 17.5% compared to 27.3%. Continue reading

The Issue of Guardianship and the Contribution of a Newspaper

Ora Lomax with a picture of her husband, William, who was committed to a nursing home against her wishes. Photo credit: Richmond Times Dispatch

On Sunday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a remarkable article. It was remarkable both in the amount of space the newspaper dedicated to it, 5½ whole pages, and its subject, guardianship, a subject about which little is known by the public, but that could affect anyone.

The publishing of this series of articles illustrates the continuing value of newspapers. The RTD invested a lot of resources into this story. It was a year-long investigation in which staff combed through the records of hundreds of guardianship cases originating in the Richmond circuit courts. They examined all the public documents related to those cases. They created a database with all the relevant data from those cases. They also looked at some guardianship cases filed in Henrico and Norfolk circuit courts to see how such cases were handled in different jurisdictions. They interviewed dozens of people and attended guardianship hearings. No other media for the general public could, or would, dedicate this amount of resources to a single topic. Continue reading

Virginia Judges, 1; Artificial Intelligence, 0

by James A. Bacon

It sounded like such a good idea: Develop a criminal-sentencing algorithm to help judges identify felons least likely to reoffend and either give them shorter jail sentences or divert them to probation or substance-abuse treatment programs. Virginia created just such an algorithm in 2001. Minimizing the subjective element in sentencing, it was thought, might even reduce sentencing disparities between the races.

The results didn’t turn out entirely like people hoped. In a deep dive into the data, Megan T. Stevenson, a George Mason University professor,  and Jennifer L. Doleac, of Texas A&M, authors of, “Algorithmic Risk Assessment in the Hands of Humans,” found that the Virginia algorithm does influence outcomes: Defendants with higher risk scores got longer sentences and defendants with lower risk scores got shorter sentences. However, they found “no robust evidence that this reshuffling led to a decline in recidivism.”

While they found no evidence of an increase in racial disparities statewide, the authors did find that among the judges most likely to factor the risk scores into their sentencing decisions, there was a “relative increase in sentences.” Continue reading