Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Gravity Effect

During my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to study under Sir Robert Brill in his Advanced Grammar and Composition class.  Sir Robert was Northside’s version of Prof. Charles Kingsfield Jr. (John Houseman), that hard-nosed law professor from TV’s The Paper Chase.

Brill’s class was split between learning the nuances of transformational grammar the first semester and seeking the perfect paragraph in the second.  For Brill, the perfect paragraph was exactly forty-nine words in length.  Should a student use any fewer words, he would be subjected to the wrath of the red pen and the letter “F”.  Should he over-shoot the magical mark, he would be bludgeoned with “Wordy, Wordy, WORDY!!!”  (65 words…WORDY WORDY WORDY!)

One of Sir Robert’s assignments  that second semester was for us to map a room in our house using only words.  After reading our forty-nine word composition, he had to be able to understand exactly where each piece of furniture or room feature was in relation to the other pieces.  Failure on any point meant a failure on the overall task.  Needless to say, many “A” students sweated each carefully chosen word in their compositions.  Brill’s pen was demanding and nondiscriminatory. 

I mention Sir Robert as I reflect on my journey to Brosville, Virginia and the “Gravity Road”.  Supposedly, a stopped car at the intersection of Berry Hill and Oak Hill Roads will seemingly roll uphill when parked unbraked in neutral at the junction.

Beth Wellford of the website  shared the supposed phenomenon on February 21.  Wellford’s  description, however, would not have satisfied Sir Robert Brill.   After reading it, I had no clear idea of exactly where I was supposed to stop prior to observing the anti-gravity effect.  Should I stop on Rt 311 (Berry Hill Rd) prior to turning right onto Oak Hill or should I stop at the Oak Hill stop sign before turning left onto Berry Hill Rd?  Unsure, I decided to approach the intersection from the one-lane Oak Hill road.  I figured that it wouldn’t be especially safe to stop in the middle of a major two-lane artery.

I approached the stop sign carefully, fully stopped, and popped my truck into neutral.  Within a second, my truck began rolling slowly backwards away from Berry Hill Rd.  I approached the sign again and observed EXACTLY THE SAME RESULTS.

I asked myself if my results were unexpected or unusual. To which I answered, “No.”  My truck approached the stop sign along a straightaway, progressing along a gradual incline.  Predictably, the truck began rolling backwards after the stop.  Unfortunately, I have no scientific instrument to prove the gentle backward declination, but the movement of the truck in reverse met my optical prediction.

So I sped away from the intersection debating four possible conclusions.  There is no “Gravity Hill Effect”.  The “Gravity Hill Effect” should have been measured while turning onto Oak Hill Road from Berry Hill Road, in opposition to what I did.  Wellford needs to take an advanced composition course. The good people of Berry Hill and Brosville enjoy snickering at people with cameras in trucks rolling backwards at the Oak Hill Rd. stop sign.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

A Little 'ol Thing Called Charter Schoolz

By Bob Stuart of The Charlottesville Daily Progress
With Embedded Commentary by Thomas Ryder of Facebook

The Virginia General Assembly is debating and about to vote on SJ1 and HJ1, bills to give the state board of education the authority to establish locally funded charter schools anywhere in Virginia.  If the measures pass the assembly, they will be put forth to the citizens in the form of ballot questions in the general election this fall.

Sen. Mark Obenshain has heard the arguments against a constitutional amendment to expand the approval authority of public charter schools to the state Board of Education.

I do not personally know Senator Obenshain, but I do know that I frequently find myself disagreeing with his views on public school education in our state. I believe that there is a distinct difference between hearing something and understanding it. 

Now under Virginia law, only local school boards can approve charter schools and there are only nine operating in the commonwealth.

As it should be.  Localities in Virginia control their own school boards in compliance with basic standards of quality set by the state. 

Virginia’s public education system ranks well above the national average, bested only by a few union states in the north and well ahead of all of our neighboring states to the south and west on EdWeek’s composite.

The real question should be, is Virginia funding its public schools exceptionally, adequately, or frugally? Take a look at and understand the data to make your own determination.  Hint: EdWeek gives Virginia a D+ grade in funding K-12 education.

"This is an opportunity for parents and kids in failing school divisions to offer a public school alternative that has worked in Republican and Democratic states,'' said Obenshain, the Senate sponsor of the charter school legislation.

The TRUTH isn’t as simple as Senator Obenshain decrees.  While it is true that SOME charter schools in other states have proven successful, the latest research into charter school effectiveness is dubious, at best.  According to CREDO based at Stanford University,

“Across the charter schools in the 26 states studied, 25 percent have significantly stronger learning gains in reading than their traditional school counterparts, while 56 percent showed no significant difference and 19 percent of charter schools have significantly weaker learning gains. In mathematics, 29 percent of charter schools showed student learning gains that were significantly stronger than their traditional public school peers’, while 40 percent were not significantly different and 31 percent were significantly weaker.”

And while charter schools would offer a more flexible format for educating Virginia students, there also would be funding issues. Funding would have to come from the locality and perhaps the state and federal government. Currently in Virginia, charter schools are funded locally, said Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave.

There’s the kernel of truth hidden in the weeds.  The funding for these schools would fall upon the localities, despite the affected localities having NO say in whether or not to fund these schools. That’s what makes this constitutional amendment such a dangerous proposition.

Obenshain thinks offering charter schools across Virginia can provide a more level playing field for students who are in failing school districts. The Republican senator from Harrisonburg said education in the commonwealth "should not be by zip code."

He’s exactly correct, but again, he’s having a difficult time making the cognitive leap from hearing to understanding.  Education quality shouldn’t be negatively impacted simply by where one chooses to live in the state.  But that problem is best addressed by reforming the out-dated and unfair SOQ funding formulas.

Resolutions for the amendment still require final approval this General Assembly session in both the Virginia House and Senate, and both chambers would need to authorize a referendum for the amendment on the November ballot. Ultimately, Virginia voters would need to approve the amendment expanding the creation of charter schools to include the state Board of Education.

Charter schools if run right, could provide innovation in curriculum and teaching without "the constraints of the Standards of Learning and No Child Left Behind,'' Obenshain said.

Here’s what RUBS ME THE WRONG WAY.  If Senator Obenshain feels so strongly about the SOL’s and NCLB, then why doesn’t he advocate vacating those programs?  If they are as limiting as he seems to believe, why does he insist that those children not fortunate enough to attend one of his state charter schools be condemned to schools chained by these ineffective bureaucratic constraints?

Landes, the chairman of the House Education Committee, said it is possible a regional charter school could be set up to include multiple jurisdictions. "This is an added option for those who feel the system is not working for their child,'' he said.

It sounds so innocuous…simply another option. You know like if you’re going to choose where to eat out.  You could go to Olive Garden, Appleby’s, or Outback Steakhouse.  But wait, you could have other choices as well. What if you could add Steak ‘n Shake to your choices?  Simple, right?  More CHOICES means more places you can eat!  But in the serious matter of education in this state of finite resources, more choices means more dilution of those finite resources.

The amendment's opponents, which include the Virginia School Boards Association, a number of Virginia school districts and the Virginia Education Association, say no amendment is necessary. They say Virginia's current charter school law invests the authority in local school boards, the most knowledgeable local elected officials about what is right for students.


Meg Gruber, the president of the Virginia Education Association, said local school boards are the best judge of whether a charter school is needed.

"We want our students in Virginia to learn,'' she said. "But it's another thing to understand the nuances of what goes on in a local community to meet those goals."
Gruber said she is not hearing "a clamoring'' from VEA members across the commonwealth for charter schools. "We have a top notch school system across the state. There is always room for improvement,'' said Gruber, who said Virginia ranks 41st nationally in its support of public K-12 education.

More Truth. Meg’s right.

School boards in Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro have passed resolutions in opposition to the charter schools constitutional amendment.

Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Jeff Cassell said the Virginia Constitution is clear in vesting the authority for charter schools to local school boards. "There is no reason to deviate from local control. If a locality has an interest, there is a process for that (a charter school) to occur,'' Cassell said.

Cassell said the fact that so few charter schools exist in Virginia "shows there is not a great demand."
Staunton Schools Superintendent Linda Reviea said research "does not bear that charter schools are the silver bullet."

See the CREDO study.

Augusta County Schools Superintendent Eric Bond said the outcomes are mixed regarding charter schools. "We outperform them in some areas,'' said Bond of traditional public schools. The Augusta County schools administrator said the school district would certainly listen to any proposal for a charter school before making a decision. "We would follow the proper protocol and procedure,'' he said.

I would go further in stating that in MOST cases, charter schools perform the same or WORSE than traditional public schools.

During Thursday night's Augusta County School Board meeting, members said they want to keep the current protocol for charter schools. North River District School Board member Nick Collins said "as long as it's been within our authoirty [sic], that's been good."

Reviea believes it is important for school districts to work with families and be flexible in meeting student needs. And she said there is much more flexibility in 2016 in Virginia schools working with students who have special circumstances.

But for proponents of expanded access, Virginia is lagging in providing charter schools.

Nina Rees, the president/CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), said Virginia has not reaped the benefits of its charter school law, which is 20 years old. She said the commonwealth only has nine charter schools, and says the odds of creating new ones through local school boards are not good.

Rees said charter schools can succeed with the choice of a "no excuses'' leader, who believes children of all backgrounds can learn.

Readers beware of wolves in sheep clothing.  Rees organization is at the heart of a moneyed movement all across the United States in partnership with a shady organization called, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Essentially, ALEC is a collection of businessmen, lawyers, and legislators.  They meet in secret and develop model legislation in which they push out to legislative members in the 50 states.  NAPCS works in cooperation with ALEC in promoting ALEC’s privatizing agenda. ALEC’s members, arguably, view public schools as profit centers and cash cows.  Recent charter stories from Ohio, Florida, Louisana, and Wisconsin bear this out.

"Give the leader the authority to hire the best teachers,'' said Rees, who said that leader could also expand the school day and year, offer a creative curriculum and commit to results. And if the school did not succeed, the governing board could shut the charter school down.

The reality of what’s actually happening where these schemes are playing out is that a for-profit entity petitions a state board for a charter in a locality, absorbs state financial support, and cashes out after the results don’t live up to expectations or corruption is uncovered. The children, the employees, and the community are effectively robbed.

Obenshain and Landes say many details would have to be worked out if the amendment passes the legislature and the November referendum.

Why should we get bogged down by silly things like details?

Federal funding would have to be explored. Obenshain said the Obama Administration's "Race To The Top" program provides funding for charter schools Virginia is not now eligible for He said the funding could be accessed with a greater charter school program.

I love his sentiment.  Obenshain laments the fact that Virginia does not qualify for federal funding to help these unfortunate students, and all we have to do to tap this free federal financial funding resource is to make charter schools more accessible. 

I wonder how he feels about tapping the free federal financial funding source to expand Medicaid in Virginia.  Well, I found these comments attributed to him.

 “I want to expand health-care access, but not through Medicaid expansion. Expansion requires additional state spending that accelerates over time. Medicaid spending is already crowding out other priorities like education and transportation. Since 2005, Virginia’s spending on Medicaid increased by 79 percent, growing 50 percent faster than total general fund spending. Instead of a proportionate decrease in uncovered Virginians the problem has just gotten worse. Whenever government programs fail to eradicate their targeted problems, liberals say if only we’d spend more it would get the job done. It never does. States that have expanded have found it more expensive than advertised.

“Medicaid should focus on better serving needy and vulnerable enrollees, not able-bodied working adults this proposed expansion targets. We need free market solutions to provide affordable insurance coverage and that encourage patients to be “smart shoppers” with incentives to spend their health-care dollars wisely. We need expanded access to innovative models like health savings accounts. Health insurance purchased by individuals should be tax deductible, just like coverage purchased through employers. We need incentives for wellness and to remove restrictions on interstate insurance competition, allowing a state’s residents to buy insurance from a provider regulated by another state.”

So my concern here if you take his Medicaid reasoning is that he does not view public schools as a wise way to spend education dollars.  He believes in a free-market approach to public school education. I wonder how that would jibe with article VIII, section 1 of the state constitution.

 Article VIII, Section 1. Public schools of high quality to be maintained
The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.

And both legislators say it would be vital for local school boards to stay involved. "If we can identify high quality charter school applicants, local boards will want to make the decision,'' Obenshain said.

How does that work?  What does that mean?  The whole point of the amendment is to usurp the power of local school boards.

Obenshain has made passage of the charter school constitutional amendment his top priority during the current General Assembly. He believes the change could be one of monumental importance for Virginia children.

I agree 100%, but I suspect not in the same way he does.

"This has the most capacity to affect more lives than anything I'll ever work on in the legislature,'' he said. "I believe it with all my heart."

Without a doubt, this constitutional amendment will affect more lives in a negative way than any other legislative action since Massive Resistance in 1956.