My Side of the Fence

The danger isn't going too far. It's that we don't go far enough.

Category: Schools (page 1 of 17)

Whose job is it anyway?

So the House of Delegates has passed the Charter School bill.  This bill would enable an un-elected state board to have control over who can create charter schools.  This authority currently lies with the local school board.  I hear a lot of banging on about school choice and whatnot but I'm unsure this fixes anything.  To listen to many Delegates – includes some folks that represent us – this action is the solution. 

Let's have a quick quiz:  Guess how many charter school applications have been received in Manassas?  Give up?  It's zero.  Just a fact, not a conclusion.capitol

I think charter schools would be great but I have misgivings.  I don't think the public schools are perfect by any means.  But I worry….

I worry about the job that the government gave the public schools: educate all comers.  Very few other institutions have that kind of requirement.  Ponder on that for a minute.  It's not an abstract issue.  Think about trying to do that where you work.  Imagine your boss comes to you and says "Hey, Mark, I need you to teach this guy how to be a real estate agent…oh, btw, he only speaks Urdu.  Now, get after it.  He needs to take the test (in English) in 3 months."  Reckon what your odds of success are?  That's what our schools are faced with ever day.

I worry about intent and practical effect.  It's great to say that "the parents of every kid that comes to this school must volunteer 15 hours each semester to work in the school."  It's a great idea.  It inextricably links the parents with their childrens education and every scrap of research indicates that this is always beneficial.  It also eliminates most single-parent households.  Especially if they are low income.  So, yes, this school will perform well but is it fulfilling its mission?  Should we just skip mission for some schools?  If we do, aren't we just moving the problem around?

I worry about state overreach.  Just because something hasn't happened does not mean the state has to get involved.  "We only have 5 charter schools in Virginia and XXX place has 20" doesn't sound like much of a reason to me.  Honestly, I can just hear my mother: "If your friend Scott jumped off a cliff would you do it too?"  I'd also point out that the localities provide some 40% of the funding for the schools.  Seems like we should maintain some voice in that.  Local control is no bad thing.

I worry about taking the easy way out and maybe that's the bottom line.  Much like the column I wrote that complained about toll roads and stratifying public infrastructure – aren't our representatives at the local and state level taking the easy way on this issue?  In both cases are we not just outsourcing our problems?  Education is a great equalizer.  Our mandate as a society is to keep that institution healthy.  Does this Bill do that or are we just shirking the hard work that's necessary?  

In Manassas have we done the heavy lifting that's necessary?  I think that most would agree that the schools have embarked on a years-long turnaround that has begun to show results.  What has the City Government done to help?  Have they passed tough policies that might help?  Engaged the public?  Could the School Board go farther?  What have the Council and School Board done together?

 I think until we can answer all of those questions with real action then we haven't done all that we can do and Charter Schools are just a convenient way for local politicians to check a box.  I think the same thing at the State level.  It would be far more work – and far more politically dangerous – to actually undertake meaningful action so we're stuck with Charter schools and survival of the fittest….or wealthiest.

Look, I'm not opposed to infusing experimentation into the mix.  While Vice Mayor I worked cooperatively with the schools to do just this on several occasions while in office.  Manassas Next got our Science and Tech program started and began our involvement with the Tech Sector.  When I got out of office I started an organization to keep doing the same thing: applying private sector thinking to education problems.  Time will tell whether some of these nascent ideas bear fruit or not.  Deep in my entrepreneurs' heart, I know that the state government should always be in the business of helping localities innovate.  In schools or other core government functions.  Relentless innovation is an American trait and one we wear on our collective sleeves.  However, in this case shouldn't it be done with an eye towards enabling our public school systems to succeed instead of replacing them or diluting their mission?  Shouldn't we focus every ounce of our energy on that?  

Seems like it to me.


Advertised Tax Rate

Some days the City budget process reminds me of a Motely Crue mosh pit that I visited in 1991.  Other times it seems like we're going to mosh and everyone walks away, thinking better of it.  That second is pretty much what happened last night.  The Council was presented by the City Manager with 3 possible scenarios.  All had various line items and numbers that ranged from the existing tax rate to much, much higher rates.  Some had a line item for "Jail Fund" and others had one for "Community reinvestment" (or something close to that).  As always, several different variables that help the Council arrive at a rate.budget

Recall that the pain point here has been the creation of a "Jail Levy" by the City Manager.  That essentially removes revenue from the General Fund that is shared with the schools.  I was very encouraged by the discussion I heard last night.  Mr. Way was as analytical as ever – glad to see that – and I thought Mr. Elston had some interesting observations.  The Mayor offered what I thought was a strong and thoughtful commitment at the end to working with the schools and inside of our existing agreements.  He also encouraged the Council to do the same.  I was glad to see the Mayor do that.  His commitment to our community is undiminished and he's really good at that stuff.  Although I hate to lose him, I would reiterate my endorsement of his candidacy for Senate.

The Manager did offer that he thought the Council had the authority to set aside revenue from the sharing agreement as they see fit.  I agree that the Council has that authority but it's an authority that should never be exercised unilaterally.  If revenue is going to be "carved out" it should only ever be done in consultation with the schools.  It takes a lot more work to build trust between institutions than it does to tear it down.  In this particular instance, creating a "jail levy" seems wrongheaded to me.  In contrast to standing up an entire Fire department from scratch and funding a long-term capital plan, the Jail has been around since I was in short pants.  This seems like an operational cost that the city just doesn't want to pay.  Yes, it's expensive but the revenue sharing agreement is based on the expectation that as the City's costs go up, so do the schools.  This is, in fact, the case. 

It might be that this is just too big a nut to crack in a single year – we may need a hybrid solution where the city creates a levy that sunsets in a couple of years as the levy is merged into the operating budget.  I don't know, maybe that's too silly a construct but it's a thought.  In any event, the Council voted to advertise the Managers recommendation of $1.39.  What this means is that this is the highest rate that can be enacted by the Council.  I view this as a good thing.  I don't know whether or not the Council will elect to set the rate at $1.39 but it gives them room to maneuver and, given their comments last night, they are inclined to work with the schools to get where we all need to go.

I'm encouraged, but we'll have to keep watching to make sure our elected bodies work together!  This sort of uncertainty certainly highlights the need for longer-term planning.

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