Need “Consensus”? Try Pre-K for At-Risk Students

If Governor Ralph Northam is looking for a place to build legislative consensus, here’s one place to start: Support for pre-k programs aimed at better preparing at-risk four-year-olds for kindergarten and beyond.

True, conservatives remain skeptical about building massive universal government-run pre-k programs, as should liberals: In a “universal” program, once budgets get tight, the ones shunted aside are usually those who need help the most – low income children and parents.

And while some studies have shown that the impacts of pre-k programs fade or disappear over time, a recent study by Mathematica Policy Research of the KIPP charter school program concludes that “KIPP pre-K programs have a positive impact on students’ academic and cognitive skills that persist …”

This is buttressed by studies of the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) consistently showing that children attending VPI are more likely to meet early literacy benchmarks, score higher on the third grade Standard of Learning tests, and more likely to be promoted on-time to eighth grade.

Created during the George Allen Administration more 23 years ago, the VPI program was intended to serve at-risk four-year-olds not served by Head Start or other public preschool programs. Under it, the state and localities share financial responsibility for giving these children a better start in life.

Today, VPI serves more than 17,000 children — but nearly 7,500 other children are left without access to a quality pre-k program. There are three primary reasons for this gap: Some localities are unable to meet the required match. Others have insufficient space. And, especially in rural areas, there are too few eligible students spread too thinly to make a program cost-effective.

More than 5,800 of these unserved children are in just 10 school divisions; another 400 children are in school divisions that do not participate in the program at all.

Policymakers are thus left trying to answer the question: “How do we reduce the number of unserved children in Virginia?”

Answering it includes figuring out how to lower barriers to participation. Northam and the General Assembly cannot rely on state and local funding alone. Localities either cannot or will not contribute and many simply don’t have enough facilities. And it’s unlikely that state funding will be found to cover both state and local shares.

The only solution – if we’re serious about increasing the number of students served – is greater involvement of quality private providers.

But few non-public providers are involved in the delivery of VPI because of barriers identified by the Virginia Child Care Association, among them: decisions by school systems to simply not include private providers; a high, expensive and arguably unnecessary requirement for licensed teachers; and a complex funding mechanism.

Fortunately, Delegate Steve Landes and Senator Bill Stanley have come up with at least a partial answer – and one endorsed by the Virginia School Readiness Committee, created by the General Assembly and Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2016. In response to the “urgent need” to increase access to early childhood education, the committee – composed of early childhood practitioners, policy experts and legislators — proposed expanding the Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit (EISTC) program to pre-k children.

Currently, the EISTC is available for K-12 students only. Donors to approved scholarship foundations receive a 65 percent state tax credit, and the foundations, in turn, provide scholarships to at-risk public school students seeking to attend a private school that better fits their needs. The revenue lost to the state is more than compensated by the savings from no longer paying for the child’s public education.

The Landes and Stanley legislation would ensure only quality pre-k programs were eligible to participate in the expanded EISTC by requiring a high quality curriculum, at least one teacher for every 10 students, at least a half-day program, and professional development of credentialed teachers in the classroom. Scholarships, in turn, would be capped by the amount the Commonwealth committed to spend had the child been able to attend a VPI program, so that the pre-k program would be as revenue neutral as the K-12 program.

The Stanley legislation was just unanimously approved by the Senate Finance Committee. The two bills differ largely in child eligibility: Landes’ bill matches the VPI income qualification; Stanley’s echoes the qualifications for the K-12 EISTC program. But both are means-tested to focus on at-risk children.

In the past, “conservatives” have generally been viewed as opposing pre-k expansion as too expensive; “liberals” have been viewed as opposing any programs outside of those tightly run by government entities. Those views are falling away as both pre-k effectiveness with low-income children and the limitations of government-exclusive programs become more evident.

The Landes and Stanley legislation offers consensus and compromise that would expand opportunities to at-risk children who do not receive these important services. It – and the children to be served – deserve support.

(A version of this column ran in the Richmond Times Dispatch on January 26, 2018)

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Expanding Access to Natural Gas is Smart Public Policy

The recent debate over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline has highlighted the growing divide in Virginia over how to approach our Commonwealth’s energy needs. While reasonable people can debate the most prudent energy mix (natural gas vs. coal vs. oil vs. nuclear vs. renewables), there can be no debate that our energy needs are increasing. Our economy can only expand if the required energy resources are available to power new industry, homes, schools, hospitals, etc.

Despite all the emotional rhetoric from opponents of these infrastructure projects, natural gas is safer, cleaner, more abundant and more affordable than most alternatives. Natural gas emits 60 percent less carbon dioxide than coal and 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil. We should harness American creativity and competitiveness to drive efficiency from all energy sources. By making use of all of the United States’ domestic energy sources, we can ensure the best environmental outcomes at the lowest costs.

Natural gas complements renewables like solar and wind and helps ensure that we have a diverse mix of energy resources. While solar and wind can produce varying amounts of energy, they cannot meet our energy needs alone. Natural gas is available on demand immediately and provides critical support to our renewable resources as it also helps us reach our nation’s clean energy goals. Today, natural gas generates 40% of our electricity and is an essential partner of solar, wind, hydro power, and even coal, for our long-term energy needs.

As for the two proposed projects here in Virginia, our domestic abundance of clean natural gas is delivered via the safest energy system in the nation according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Pipelines are the safest, most environmentally-friendly and most efficient and reliable mode of transportation for natural gas according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In fact, a Washington State University nationwide field study in 2015 found that as little as 0.1 percent of the natural gas delivered nationwide is emitted from local distribution systems. Without new pipelines, our streets and highways could be overwhelmed by trucks trying to keep up with the nation’s demand for energy. And the carbon footprint from transporting fuel by pipeline is far less than moving energy by any other method of transportation.

Natural gas is safe, clean, reliable, affordable and abundant. While U.S. natural gas production is up 50% since 2005, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are down 11% as technological innovation continues to drive down natural gas emissions and costs. Natural gas serves nearly 66.7 million homes in America; 5.4 million businesses including restaurants, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, and hotels; 192,000 factories; and 1,900 electric power plants. On a daily basis, the average U.S. home uses 196 cubic feet of natural gas.

That’s why the Virginia Water Control Board recently approved the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and granted conditional approval to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline pending additional information from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. That’s why pro-business Democrats like Governor Terry McAuliffe support these important infrastructure projects.

(This column first ran in the Roanoke Times on January 22, 2018)

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Transparency and Accountability for EDA’s

How transparent and accountable should Economic Development Authorities be to the public?

That’s the fundamental issue raised by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who submitted a bill that would require local government approval for all EDA grants and budgets. That bill was defeated by one vote in the Senate’s local government committee, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but Chase said she hopes to resurrect it in the near future.

“Bureaucrats who are not elected by the people should not be allowed to dole out taxpayer money,” said Chase. “I’m tired of elected officials abdicating their responsibility so bureaucrats can do their dirty work.”

The bill arises from a controversy in Chesterfield County over county plans to build an industrial megasite in the Bermuda district. The EDA wants to rezone and buy about 1,700 acres of land as a site for potential large, industrial users. The paucity of so-called megasites in Virginia has been identified as a bottleneck to economic development, ruling out the state for consideration by automobile companies, aerospace firms and other large-scale manufacturers. Success in attracting a major manufacturing concern could create $1 billion in investment and create up to 5,000 jobs.

Chesterfield economic developers contend that EDAs are accountable indirectly because authority members are appointed by boards of supervisors, and EDA expenditures of tax dollars are approved in counties’ budgetary process in open meetings. Additionally, all EDA expenditures are recorded by Chesterfield’s accounting department, and the EDA does an annual audit.

But members of a Chesterfield citizens group, the Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development (BARD), say they have many unanswered questions about EDA expenditures and the proposed megasite.

EDAs have many powers, including the ability to acquire land and borrow money, said Patrick McSweeney, an attorney speaking on behalf of Chase’s bill. “This creates a shadow government potentially in every locality in Virginia. Once a decision is made by these authorities there is little that can be done about it unless they have done something blatantly illegal.”

“There’s no reason that local governments can’t do what they do,” he said. “There’s no reason not to have (EDAs) as an advisory body.”

Bacon’s bottom line: EDAs do spend millions of local dollars, they do issue tens of millions of dollars in municipal bonds, and their decisions do impact local communities. Virginians should insist upon total transparency in decision making regarding the assembly of land and building of infrastructure in industrial parks, and they should insist that elected officials be accountable for multimillion-dollar grants and expenditures. I don’t see how Chase’s bill does EDAs any harm, and I can’t understand why anyone would object to it.

(This article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on January 31 ,2018)

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The Saga of the Mysterious Frog Continues

(Editor’s note: This is a follow up to the article on this “frog story” in our last issue here.)

On Jan. 22, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear and decide whether the U. S. Department of Interior (DOI) and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have boundless authority to control local land and water using the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as its authority.

Several readers of this blog either called or wrote me with the same reaction – This cannot be happening in the United States! It is happening and the current U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is supporting this taking of private property. Several environmental groups opposed the U.S. Supreme Court reviewing this case. The Supreme Court has the authority not to hear cases it considers not worthy.

One group supporting FWS in suggesting it has boundless authority to control local land and water use is the Center for Biological Diversity. This environmental group supports FWS claims that ESA’s critical habitat designation would have many benefits for the invisible frog, and that the Markle Interests claims regarding costs are exaggerated. (Remember, the frog cannot even be found on the Markle land.)

The defenders of DOI and FWS claim the Supreme Court should not “…delve into the administrative record to examine such a fact-specific issue dependent on the agency’s exercise of its scientific expertise.”

The Center notes that the dusty gopher frog is highly endangered and lives underground in pine forests and undertakes its breeding “…in small ephemeral ponds that lack fish.” In fact, the frog lives in three small isolated populations in two counties in southern Mississippi. It is claimed only one pond shows any reproduction by the frog.

About 100 adult frogs exist in the wild and they are threatened by habitat loss and disease.
The Center sued the FWS in 2001, and this litigation caused FWS to propose the Markle Company’s land in Louisiana as a critical habitat for the frog. FWS made public its proposed rule in 2010 and all of the experts claimed the amount of habitat proposed was insufficient, and noted there should be additional critical habitat designated in Alabama and Louisiana.

The final FWS rule designated 1,544 acres of the Markle Company’s land and approximately 5,000 acres in four counties in Mississippi.
As we know, FWS found that the Markle Company’s land is essential for the conservation of the frog. The argument of FWS is there are five ponds and ephemeral wetlands on the Markle property and that adult frogs could move between these ponds and create a “meta” population.

FWS believes the low number of remaining population and the restricted range of the dusty gopher frog could cause the species to die out due to disease or drought. It is believed that maintaining five ponds where the dusty gopher frog could be translocated is essential to stopping the extinction of this frog.

According to the environmental brief, FWS “…concluded that petitioners (Markle) would experience no economic impacts if they continued to use the land as pine plantations…”
You may remember the Markle Company has other plans for this land. You may also remember that FWS estimated the Markle’s economic loss in development value of the property to be approximately $34 million over 20 years.

The Center argues that the ESA can define critical habitat to include unoccupied areas as long as that area is “essential for the conservation of the species”. The ESA does not define “essential” and the Center believes FWS has the authority to use its expertise to decide when a habitat is essential on a case-by-case basis.

If this is true, and the Supreme Court does not overturn prior decisions in this case, none of your property is safe from being taken by the federal government when an endangered species might find your property useful.

The Center also points out the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals supported the frog experts who all claimed that it was essential for the conservation of the species to designate critical habitat in Louisiana or Alabama. FWS therefore claims it had the authority under the ESA to determine any area it chooses as essential for the conservation of the dusky gopher frog.

Just remember this could happen to you unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules that private property laws still have teeth in the United States.
(This column first ran in Farm Futures on January 31, 2018)

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Express Lane Pricing and Politicians

Controversies over the performance of relatively new express toll lane (ETL) projects are still simmering on both coasts, with Seattle and northern Virginia as cases in point. In the first, the year-old ETLs on congested I-405 face possible legislative termination for not quite meeting promised performance improvements. And just about every reader of this newsletter has heard about last month’s outrage over $40 tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway in northern Virginia. In both cases, the outrage was far from justified.

The I-405 case involves the conversion of an existing HOV lane each way to an ETL, with an additional priced lane added for the majority of the corridor. In approving the project, legislators gave the project conditional approval: unless it met two key performance metrics in its first year, the tolls would be removed. Those were:

  1. Generating enough revenue to pay all the ETL operating costs; and,
  2. Maintaining the federal minimum of 45 mph at least 90% of the time during peak periods.

Demand for congestion relief has been so high that condition #1 has been easily met. But condition #2 has not quite been achieved. Though the lanes are doing much better than when they were HOV, the 45 mph target was met only 85% of the peak time northbound and 78% southbound. So opponents are calling for termination.

A report for the Washington Joint Transportation Committee, by University of Minnesota researchers (January 8, 2017), identifies the culprit. The legislature also put a $10 ceiling on the peak toll rate. As the report notes, “the toll algorithm and pricing is not controlling input traffic along the ETL effectively, which in turn can result in too many vehicles in the ETL, unmanageable congestion, and ETL breakdown.” The near-term fixes include a more-responsive dynamic toll algorithm, extending the AM peak to 10 AM (from the current 9 AM), and yes, increasing the maximum toll rate! It remains to be seen if these sensible recommendations will be accepted, saving the project from termination. [Disclosure: I was a member of the Washington State DOT Expert Review Panel that recommended implementation of this project back in 2010.]

In northern Virginia, by contrast, there was no ceiling on dynamic toll rates, and when motorists who had been forbidden to use I-66 during peak periods (only HOV-2s were allowed until now) finally had the option of paying to use it, so many tried to do so that the peak toll for a short period on the first day did reach $40. Politicians immediately cried foul, citing predictions by Virginia DOT that round-trip tolls would be about $17. Legislators and local officials of both parties denounced VDOT and the governor, and called for cutting back or eliminating the tolls.

Fortunately, cooler heads at VDOT and the governor’s office prevailed, and were supported by a strong editorial in the Washington Post (December 10th): “Virginia Should Stick with its I-66 Express Lanes—Tolls and All.” And once the first day’s frenzy passed, and drivers figured out how the system worked, VDOT put out actual data on first-day tolls. The average AM peak-period toll was $10.70, and the average PM peak period toll was only $3.80. Thus, the average round-trip toll was $14.50—which is lower than VDOT’s projected round-trip average of $17.00.

With the situation calmed down by early January, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission rejected a motion by one of its members that would have mandated lower rates, and simply called for VDOT to evaluate the system’s performance and report to the board by late spring.

As the Washington Post‘s editorial board wrote, the tolling system “is doing exactly what it set out to do”—limiting the number of vehicles using I-66 during peak periods to an amount consistent with relatively uncongested travel. And in very high-demand corridors, an arbitrary cap on toll rates would undercut that powerful mechanism for congestion relief. Let’s hope Washington State legislators get this message on I-405.

(This article first ran in the January 2018 issue of Surface Transportation Innovations)

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