Sunday, December 27, 2009

Can We Afford to Cut Our Colleges?

How much longer will Virginians tolerate shortchanging our future generations? Hopefully, not as long as Dan Snyder will tolerate Jim Zorn.

While suffering through another awful Skins game, I came across another ominous article in tomorrow's Washington Post regarding borrowing from future generations and lack of investment in our people. The article reports that lenders are cutting off access to students loans and credit cards in the face of skyrocketing tuition from state budget cuts. Home equity lines also no longer provide families with the reserve they need to finance education.

Here are some stats:
  • Since 1980, the cost of college in the United States has risen by 121% while median household income has risen by 18%.
  • A decade ago, tuition at UVA was $4,000 in-state and $17,000 out-of-state. Today it is $10,000 and $32,000.
  • The Governor cut higher education by 15% last year - $19,000,000 of UVA's $140,000,000 budget.
  • The University of California System is increasing tuition by 32% this year.
  • Stafford Loans are limited to $5,000 per year.
  • In 2008, the average 529 Plan lost 20% of its value.

Here are some stats from persona experience:

  • I went to JMU from 1989-1993. My recollection is that tuition was about $3,200 year. Today, it costs $8,244.
  • I went to UVA School of Law from 1993-1996. When I started, it cost $8,500 per year and was 60% in-state students. The General Assembly pulled all state funding out of the School of Law during the 1990-1992 recession and the school entered into a privization agreement with the state while I was there. Today, UVA Law costs $38,800 and is 40% in-state students.
Here's the last two paragraphs from the article:
"If you are the average family and you've got two car payments and a mortgage, sadly, you are probably living paycheck to paycheck these days," said Gary Carpenter, executive director of the National College Advocacy Group. "And you've got a big problem -- how are you going to afford a state institution at $20,000 a year, not to mention a private one for than $40,000?"

Some educators worry that college programs will sacrifice quality to contain costs or become limited to those who can afford it.

"The big macro question is: Will we have to sacrifice the quality of education, or the access, based on talent rather than the ability to pay?" said Marx, the Amherst president. "Either of those make America less competitive for the next generation."
Of course, this article does not point out that this economic crisis has caused public secondary school enrollment to skyrocket as people can no longer afford private schools. The same wave must surely be en route to our more affordable public universities and community colleges.

It is in the face of this that the Governor has proposed cutting higher education by 26% over the next two years. No question, Governor Kaine as forced to make the hardest cutting decisions of any Governor since The Depression. However, Governor-Elect McDonnell is sure to propose larger cuts or increased privitization due to his no-tax pledge.

I mentioned my concerns about higher education cuts in a post last week and described higher education cuts as an attack on the Middle Class. It is not looking good. If you are lucky enough to have some cash and some young children, go buy a Virginia Prepaid Education Plan now.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Richmond's Attack on the Middle Class

Last week, Governor Tim Kaine proposed his 2011-2012 budget to the Virginia General Assembly. Governor Kaine has a responsibility to balance the budget, but I also believe that his proposal is unduly focuses its burdens on Virginia’s poor and Northern Virginia’s middle class.

First, his budget proposes to delay “rebenchmarking” or correction of the formula that determines state funds for local schools – the Local Composite Index (“LCI”). Because Fairfax County has some of the highest income earners and property values in Virginia, the LCI approach disadvantages us and we get very little money from the state. However, because our property values cratered more rapidly than other Virginia localities, Fairfax County is slated to receive an additional $60-70 million more per year from the state.

The budget proposes to delay rebenchmarking one year to give local jurisdictions “more certainty.” One would think that “more certainty” would favor 25% of the Commonwealth (e.g. Fairfax, Arlington & Alexandria) getting this money to avoid cuts to full-day kindergarten, elementary band & strings, focus programs, or increased class sizes, after all, most rural jurisdictions have property tax rates that are half of what we pay in Northern Virginia and they have room to grow. If his proposal is adopted, we could pay higher 2010 property taxes to make for the shortfall or that the Fairfax County School Board will have to cut an additional $315,000 from every school ($60 million divided by 190 schools).

Next, the Governor’s budget proposes to prohibit any new enrollees in Medicaid and to cut Medicaid payments to health care providers by $419 million. “Cutting” Medicaid does not “cut” anything. It reduces the availability of health care and it causes health care providers to increase rates for private insurance to make up the “cut” – small businesses and middle class working families in Fairfax County. “Cuts” to government healthcare programs (Medicaid or Medicare) are really not “cuts.” They are simply a way to pass the buck on health care for the uninsured to those with private health insurance – in other words, Northern Virginia’s middle class. These so-called “cuts” are what causes businesses’ health insurance costs to rise 15 percent per year.

In addition, people who have no way to pay for their healthcare, end up in hospital emergency rooms, the most expensive form of health care for which we all pay. Medicaid also pays for 43 percent of all nursing home care. As the population ages, cutting funds for what little coverage we have for long-term care makes no sense.

Third, in October 2009 Governor Kaine cut higher education by 15 percent. He proposes cutting by another 26% over the next two years. Historically, when there are budget shortfalls, Virginia cuts funds for colleges and universities and then raise tuition rates or admit more out-of-state students - taking up positions that should be reserved for Virginia residents. These are not “cuts” they are cost shifts to the middle class who make long-term plans to utilize our high-quality public universities for their children. To add insult to injury, he proposes to inflict these costs on middle class families right in the middle of an anemic economy.

If you think the attack on the poor and Fairfax County’s Middle Class is over - just wait. It has just begun. Remember that the budget that was just proposed contained $300 million of tax increases to close a $4.0 billion hole. Also, remember that this does not even begin to address transportation. While raising taxes is rarely welcomed by anyone, revenues must come from somewhere or government services must be cut. Governor-Elect McDonnell and House of Delegates leadership has already rejected Kaine’s proposals foreshadowing what in my view will be an all-out assault on Fairfax County’s middle class instead spreading the burdens fairly among people who can afford to bear them. This is just the beginning of the War on Fairfax.

While this budget may be bad, it is also partly a function of an outdated tax system that was designed for a homogenous rural and agricultural economy that cannot support an increasingly urban-suburban and service-oriented economy. If we approached this rationally, we would view this budget crisis as an opportunity to transform the way we do business in this Commonwealth. It is time for a fair tax structure that raises revenues commensurate with all income and productivity, and equitably focuses expenses commensurate with need and economic development. So long as we adhere to old constructs, Northern Virginians will be sacrificed in the process and I will fight all efforts to balance this budget on the backs of the poor and Mount Vernon’s middle class.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Evaluating Govenor Kaine's 2010 Budget

I haven't fully reviewed Governor Kaine's 2010 Budget yet, but I have read some briefings about it, some new reports, and I've skimmed some the materials on the state website here. The Governor is not in an enviable position, but I also believe that some parts of his proposal are seriously flawed.

I wrote about what was coming in my post two weeks ago in my post entitled Train Wreck or Day of Reckoning? The budget situtation is really ugly.
  • State revenues are decreasing to around 2005 levels.
  • The General Fund revenue decline is the largest in 70 years.
  • We did not feel the hit last year due to stimulus money - this year we are falling off a cliff.
  • The expected revenue decline will be the first time revenue has gone down two years in a row since the Great Depression.
The budget crisis presents a true opportunity to address long-term structural problems in Virginia's General Fund and Transportation Trust Fund revenue structure. I am still studying all of this, but here are some principles I would follow right now in terms of where I draw some lines.
  • At a minimum, the budget should not shift more of the state's revenue burdens to Northern Virginians than already exists.
  • We should endeavor to avoid cuts that can cause permanent damage to state and local programs.
  • Programs that have a proven track record of creating jobs should be preserved and enhanced.
  • Cuts or taxes which disproportionately focus burdens on those who are most vulnerable or have the greatest need or the middle class must be avoided.
  • Education should only be cut after all other options have been exhausted.
  • New revenues, if any, should be focused upon those with the greatest ability to pay or upon those who have a choice as to whether to pay them.
  • The use of debt to pay for ongoing expenses must be avoided and we must maintain our AAA bond rating.

I will post some articles subsequent to this regarding parts of this budget that I believe violate these principles such as the following:

  • Continued significant cuts to higher education;
  • Refusing to rebenchmark the local composite index (not give Fairfax County back more education money due to declining property values);
  • Continued further reductions Medicaid reimbursement rates.
  • Lack of any plan in this budget regarding Virginia's transportation funding crisis.

In the meantime, if you think my decisional matrix is wrong here, post up some comments. I'm willing to listen.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Blizzard in the 44th

Here are some pictures from around my house from the blizzard on December 19, 2009. I think we're probably pushing 20" at this point. Click on a picture to enlarge them.

Here are some holly trees blanketed next to my house.

My azaeleas and hemlock hedge are taking some abuse.

This is a light on the walkway into my house. As you can see, it's pretty much entirely submerged.

This is a hemlock tree I planted a few years ago.

Our cars in the driveway......

Mail hasn't come yet...

Street sign at the corner of Tauxemont Road and Alexandria Avenue.

Here is Alexandria Avenue looking east from Tauxemont Road.

Tauxemont Road from Alexandria Avenue looking North.

Tauxemont Road looking North along my hemlock hedge.

This is usually a break in my hemlock hedge where you can walk out to the street....

This is the walkway out to our driveway....

This is the railing on my back deck and a light on the ground.

You can get a feel for how deep it is here by looking at the bench on the left and the snow piled up in the patio chairs out back.

Not much action on the playset today.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

**UPDATED** Healthcare Filibuster Threatens Hundreds of Millions for Mt. Vernon Road Improvements

During my campaign, I repeately argued that the key to bringing jobs and improving the Mount Vernon economy, schools, and quality of life was bringing significant improvements to U.S. 1. While speaking last week at the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Richmond Legislative Agenda meeting, I noted that I could not think of a single road in the 44th District that has been widened in my lifetime (since August, 1971) notwithstanding years of fighting for improvements by our officials. This is something that simply has to change.

While knocking doors, I also found thousands of Mount Vernon residents who were extremely worried about the traffic impacts of BRAC. The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Belvoir BRAC improvements (see Page 4-82) predicted that commuters could be looking at three to four hour delays to get on base if U.S. 1 and I-95 were not improved. That would not help.

The biggest problem to improving our roads and Metro is revenue and the Virginia Department of Transportation's lack of it. And given our new administration, we need to work creatively to secure revenue from as many sources as possible. The very first bullet on my campaign transportation agenda was this:
Fight to ensure that the federal government adequately funds mass transit and transportation projects, especially to support the move of 19,300 jobs to Fort Belvoir.

Tonight, the Washington Post Virginia Politics Blog is reporting that Congressman Jim Moran may have secured $300 million in funding to mitigate transportation impacts at the Ft. Belvoir Community Hospital and Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda. $100 million would widen an awful lot of roadway.

Unfortunately, this funding is part of the Defense Appropriation Bill that the Republicans are filibustering right now as a tactic to hold up health care reform. The obstructionist games in Washington is now really hitting home here in the 44th. People in Mount Vernon and in all of Northern Virginians should be outraged.

Call Senator Warner and Senator Webb to voice your support to end this filibuster, improve our roads, and get on with the People's business.

The Senate voted to end debate after midnight. Fillibuster avoided by three votes for now.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Three New Fairfax Circuit Court Judges

Tonight, the Fairfax County Delegation met to select three people to serve as our new Fairfax County Circuit Court Judges. I discussed the process in an earlier post this weekend and the importance of selecting capable and qualified people to serve on our bench.

The three individuals selected were the following:

We had an extremely competitive field and it took us over five hours to reach a decision. The results reaffirm the value in the bipartisan merit-based process used in Fairfax County which has the finest Circuit Court bench in the Commonwealth. We look forward to their service to Fairfax County in these very important positions.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Goodwill Store Opening On U.S. 1

Yesterday, I attended my first ribbon cutting with the opening of the new Goodwill store on U.S. 1 just north of Pinto Contractors and near Elsie's Magic Skillet with U.S. Congressman Gerry Connolly.

The store is the location of the old Barnes Furniture and has been vacant for about 2 years now. It is always good to see a new business open on U.S. 1.
Demand at stores like Goodwill is way up given the current economy. The Washington Post ran a story shortly before Thanksgiving focusing on booming demand. With retail rent down and demand up, Goodwill is opening 12 new stores to take advantage of the increased demand.

There was a line of 30 people waiting to get in when they opened the door and friends have told me that they have been doing a brisk business since opening earlier in the week.
Ms. District of Columbia stopped by to sing Christmas Carols and I got to meet the charity's leadership and some of the new employees who posed with us below.

Judge Pickin' Time in Fairfax

Judge selection is a fundamental prerogative of the Virginia Legislature. It is also very important. Over a million people travel through the Fairfax County Courthouse every year alone. Judges mediate disputes regarding right and wrong, life and death, and decide matters are personal as where a child should live or have a guardian appointed to manage their affairs. Selecting high quality individuals with the right mix of knowledge, skill, temperament, and judgment is critically important to ensure that mistakes are avoided, citizens feel like they had a fair hearing, and most importantly - that the right result was reached.

Unless you are a Virginia attorney, you are probably not very familiar with how someone becomes a judge in Virginia. It is actually fairly unique as things go in the United States. Only two states in the United States give the legislature final authority on judges - Virginia & South Carolina. The American Judicature has some interesting summary information on Virginia's process. Some states have partisan or non-partisan elections, independent commissions, nomination and confirmation, or combinations. This article summarizes systems across the U.S and here is a table. While Virginia's process suffers from flaws, my impression is that in general, it works pretty well (at least in Fairfax County).

Virginia's judges are elected by the General Assembly. Appellate judges - The Supreme Court of Virginia, the Court of Appeals, and the State Corporation Commission Judges - are picked by the entire House & Senate. Local judges - Circuit Court, General District Court, and Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Courts - are technically picked by the entire House and Senate, but the majority parties defer to their local delegations on local choices. The various bar associations typically vet and review the candidates. In Fairfax there are five bar associations that review candidates (Fairfax Bar Association, Women, African-American, Asian and Hispanic Bar Associations) and the Fairfax Bar Association has an endorsement election. If the Assembly cannot or does not act, the Governor can appoint an individual until the next General Assembly session.

Fairfax County also has a unique bipartisan system that was created in the 1980's by former Mount Vernon State Senator Joe Gartlan. In most jurisdictions, the delegates from the majority party in each chamber select (Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate). In Fairfax County, the entire House and Senate delegation meet as a group, consider the local bar reviews, Fairfax Bar Association election results, input from constituents and others, and interview the candidates. We vote as a group (one elected, one vote) and whoever gets the majority of votes, gets the recommendation. After the Republicans took control of the legislature in 1999, the Republicans continued this system in Fairfax in deference to the old system and the Democrats giving them a role in the process when they were in the minority.

On Monday night, we are selecting three new judges for the Fairfax County Circuit Court. This important for a number of reasons. The Circuit Court is the highest Court in Fairfax County hearing disputes ranging from $5,000 to $500,000,000, speeding tickets to capital murder, and from the administration of estates to issuing permanent injunctions. If a judge makes a mistake, the consequences can be enormous. Also, Fairfax County only has fifteen Circuit Court judges - Monday night we are appointing 1/5th of them.

What criteria am I using? The American Juridicature Society has a Chapter on suggested criteria. About a month ago, I was fortunate to meet Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg after one of my new constituents, an old friend from JMU Jim Scott, invited me to a reception at the U.S. Supreme Court. I actually asked her what criteria I should use. She said I should pick someone who was:
(1) Intelligent;
(2) Knew how to listen;
(3) Can speak and communicate well; and
(4) Has an appreciation of the real life consequences of their decisions.
Having practiced law at all levels of Virginia's Courts for 13 years, I would also say that possessing an even-keeled temperament is critical. Courtrooms can become very passionate environments and having someone who can keep a lid on things without also taking people's heads off every time is essential.

If you have any input for me on the current candidates, please send it along to my official email address at I will post the results here on Tuesday morning.

Friday, December 11, 2009

67 Years of Tauxemont Preschool

This week's Mount Vernon Gazette featured an article about one of my favorite places - Tauxemont Preschool which is celebrating its 67th anniversary this year.

My grandparents were one of the first twenty families who moved into the farm fields around Fort Hunt during World War II with their two year old son Ed in 1941. Due to the lack of any community institutions or services in the rural countryside, the community was founded on a cooperative spirit - the houses were built collectively with no developer, trash was done collectively, and the community built its own water system which is the only community water system in operation in Fairfax County today. If you are a really history geek, you can read a much more thorough history of Tauxemont in the community's application for listing on the State and National Register of Historic Places. The community was placed on the list in 2005 - one of the only communities to be listed in Fairfax County.

In 1945, my father had come into this world, the war was ending, war spending had the local job market booming, and there were twenty familes with over a 100 kids and a lot of people looking for education and daycare and no choices. My uncle tells me that Tauxemont Preschool "started" as cooperative daycare in a basement on Accotink Place. The article bears out the history a bit more. That cooperative spirit carries through today - parents are active participants in school on a daily basis.

Three generations of my family have gone to Tauxemont Preschool including ten people with the last name of Surovell (my father and his two siblings, me, my brother and sister, and my four children). My youngest two children - Mara & Colin - currently attend and my wife and I parent help there about 1-2 times per month. The more I talk about it, the more I run into people who were alumni. It is an incredible community institution that has educated many people.

In my campaign and on this blog, I've repeatedly called for better preschool and daycare solutions in the broader Mount Vernon community. There is significant access to daycare and preschool between U.S. 1 and the Potomac River, while on the west side of U.S. 1 in the communities of Woodlawn, Janna Lee, Hybla Valley, Groveton and Huntington, there are very few choices.

This lack of access has long-term impacts for children by creating serious readiness disparities among the children in our community and we need to do all we can so that all members of the broader Mount Vernon community have access to institutions like Tauxemont Preschool.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The 44th Gets #88

I spent a rainy day in Richmond today at the first day of our three-day Freshman Class Orientation. It was a fascinating day.

We got acquainted with the new members of our freshman class of 20. There are 12 Republicans and 8 Democrats. We are also a very large freshman class. Typically, one-fifth of the House of Delegates does not turn over each election.

We are a very diverse class in many ways. We have two doctors, a handful of lawyers, folks experienced in economic development, defense contracting, military affairs, technology businesses, telecommunications, trucking business, etc. We have new members from Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Southside, the Shenandoah Valley, the Richmond suburbs, and Southwest.

We spent the first few hours touring the State Capital Building designed by Thomas Jefferson. In anticipation of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, the state invested about $104M in a renovation that was completed on-time and within budget. It has really transformed the complex. It is a fascinating, historic, and remarkable facility that every Virginian should tour.

There were portraits of George Mason, Merriweather Lewis, and Henry Clay. Busts of the 7 Virginia born Presidents. The most valuable piece of artwork in the building is a statue of 44th District resident General George Washington which was appraised as worth $50,000,000. It is the only statue General Washington every lived modeled. Interestingly, in all the artwork and portraits, there were no portraits of any african-americans and only three portraits of women - Queen Elizabeth, Lady Astor, and a woman who I was told had something to do with decoration schemes in the building years ago. Walking throughout and looking around, you really get a feel for the history, tradition, and what an honor it is to serve in this legislative body.

We also got to know the House Clerk, Bruce Jamerson, who runs a really tight ship and ran this ten hour program nearly on time to the second with virtually no breaks. The Clerk is also the keeper of the institution - Mr. Jamerson told me that he was the 20th Clerk in the history of the institution and there have been 54 Speakers. Talk about an exclusive club.

We also spent hours learning how to submit bill requests, received a sobering briefing on the budget situation, learning about FOIA, ethics, and at the end we drew for seniority. When it was my turn to pick, #1-3, 5-7, and #19-20 were gone along with many in between. Being at the end of the alphabet was like Deal or No Deal with no Banker.... Mr. Jamerson held out a small box with a few slips of paper left in it. I pulled #8. Not bad given what was left. That makes me #88 in seniority in the chamber, on a license plate, and moves me up on the list for picking office space, etc. If Democrats regain control, it could mean the difference between Chairing a committee or not in the future.

While the budget situation may be dire, you could really feel a sense of energy, excitement, and anticipation among the twenty members of our freshman class. There is a lot of work to be done.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Train Wreck or Day of Reckoning?

Last year, Virginia was able to avoid serious budget cuts due to $652m of federal stimulus dollars that came our way. This year, those dollars are gone and things are still heading south.

Two weeks ago, Delegate Albert Pollard from the Northern Neck gave me a great article summing up where we stand called Virginia's State Budget - A Train Wreck About to Happen. by James J. Regimbald, Jr. Here are some important points:
  • The entire bipartisan General Fund tax increase pushed through by Governor Warner in 2005 ($1.5B/yr.) has been depleted due in the last two years by (1) reduced sales tax on food (2006, $381M/yr.), (2) shifting auto insurance premiums and recordation taxes to the Transportation Trust Fund (200, $400M/yr.), and (3) Estate Tax Repeal (2009, $280M). P. 6.
  • The General Fund revenue decline is the largest in 70 years. P. 1.
  • The revenue decline expected for FY 2010 will be the first time revenue has gone down two years in a row since the 1930's. P. 1.
  • We currently have a $1B/yr. shortfall going forward in providing existing reduced services. P. 2.
  • Virginia only has the capacity to issue another $125M of bonded debt and maintain its AAA bond rating BEFORE the latest reduced revenue projections. P. 4. For some perspective, Fairfax County votes just approved $232M of bonds for school construction in November, 2009.
  • Virginia's unemployment trust fund has run out of money and Virginia will need to borrow from the federal unemployment insurance trust fund to pay its benefits. P. 6
  • He concludes by noting that we are facing at least a $3B budget gap in the next biennium (2010-2012) and that "major policy changes will be necessary to balance the 2010-12 budget." P. 6.
  • While the state is currently projecting $2.5B of revenue growth for the 2010-12 biennium, nearly all of that is consumed by growth in Medicaid spending using conservative estimates. P. 8.
  • By the way, this is only the General Fund we're talking about, not transportation. FY 2010 transportation revenues have declined by over 22% and the state's 6 year improvement plan was cut by $4B. P. 7.

In short - this is ugly. What is his conclusion? Here you go:

First, do everything possible to encourage job creation in Virginia by prioritizing investments in education and improvements to our infrastructure. A healthy economy is the only long-term answer to a healthy public sector. Next, Virginia's government is giong to continue to get smaller and even cor programs are going to be reduced further. Finally, determine whether Virginia's tax structure and rates are adequate to sustain a high quality public education, public safety, health and welfare, and transportation system that Virginians have come to expect. This debate may result in the roll back of tax relief that has been provided over the last decade. P. 8.

Do we have anything close to the revenue bandwidth to sell off the liquor stores or divert sales taxes to the Transportation Trust Fund as proposed by Governor-Elect Bob McDonnell? Does any of this take into account federal health care plans that contemplate a big expansion of state Medicaid plans? No.

We all know what happened in California with the state issuing IOU's after their assembly could not pass a budget. This story from today's New York Times is the latest in a parade of stories about the trainwrecks happening all across the United States as the fallout from the recession really hits and legislatures fail to deal with these problems. After the 2001-2002 budget cycle, I'm told that Mount Vernon Senator Gartlan and Governor Wilder never spoke again. This is going to be a very difficult cycle full of difficult choices for all sides.

On the one hand, this recession is as ugly as it gets. On the other hand, its hard not to look at the $3.7B/year of tax cuts enacted since 1999 (See P. 6) and wonder whether we would be this far in the hole with rotting infrastructure, bottom tier poverty programs, and skyrocketing college tuitions with those decisions. It is also clear that had we been more prudent - stashing more of our money away during boom times - would would be able to survive this budget crunch without as much disruption.

The first place to start with long term fixes is to take a hard look at changes to the Virginia Revenue Stabilization Fund ("the Rainy Day Fund") which was created after the crisis in the early 90's so we can better smooth out economic speed bumps. These problems also highlight the continuing structural problems in Virginia's tax structure where leaders have failed to adapt the government of this formerly rural state to an increasingly urban/suburban state with a service-based economy. The idea that the job and revenue engine of this Commonwealth (Fairfax County) receives 19% of its education budget from the Commonwealth while some rural jurisdictions get 80% is anachronistic.

In the meantime, get ready for a contentious 60 days session.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Invest in Preschool, Invest in the Future

Yesterday, I spent about five hours raking leaves at Tauxemont Cooperative Preschool with a dozen other parents - part of our duties along with our "school job." Tauxemont is a cooperative preschool which means it has significant parent involvement in the operation of the school. Two of my children went through their program, two currently attend, I'm an alumni, along with my brother and sister, and my father, uncle and aunt who attended in the 1940's after my grandparents helped start the school with other families in the mid-1940's.

Saturday morning, there was an interesting article in the Washington Post regarding the importance of preschool and the evolving debate over teaching techniques. During my campaign, I talked a lot about the importance of preschool and the lack of it in parts of my district. One paragraph jumped out at me:
Research has shown that by 23, people who attended play-based preschools were eight times less likely to need treatment for emotional disturbances than those who went to preschools where direct instruction prevailed. Graduates of the play-based preschools were three times less likely to be arrested for committing a felony.
Here's a link to the study. Of course, there is a whole chicken and egg aspect to this - play-based preschools might be more prevalent among certain demographics, regions or areas, children with early emotional disturbances probably could not participate in play-based preschool, and the list goes on. Notwithstanding, it is something to think about.

The broader point is that the ten precincts in the 44th District on the east side of U.S. 1 have over a dozen preschools (Westgate, Whitman, Woodley, Hollin Hall, Fort Hunt Stratford, Waynewood, Sherwood, Belle Haven, & Bucknell). The four precincts on the western side of U.S. 1 have zero (Huntington, Groveton, Fairfield & Woodlawn).

The lack of preschool on the west side of U.S. 1 translates to more children arriving for kindergarten not as prepared as children on the east side and playing catch up from the first day they are in school. With test scores at some of the schools in our community heading in the wrong direction, we need to start looking at solutions immediately.

As with sports, knowing the fundamentals at an early age goes a long way towards being competitive. Preschool teaches important fundamental skills such as problem solving, cooperative play, language development, or things as simple as learning how to hold a pencil.

Virginia spends about 60% of what Maryland per child on preschool. Preschool also typically costs less per child than the $12,000 per child it typically costs to educate kindergartners. Governor Kaine tried to significantly increase Virginia's preschool spending, but was blocked by the House of Delegates.

The expansion of preschool would have meaningful benefits for the Mount Vernon community, especially compared with the rest of the County. I am going to put together a group to recommend solutions for expanding access to preschools in our community. If you are interested, drop me a note at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Michelle Obama Spotlights Hollin Meadows Elementary

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama visited Hollin Meadows Elementary School. Hollin Meadows is right on the border of the 44th District in Kirkside Precinct, but also serves many children in the 44th district who live in Sherwood and Bucknell Precincts. The school is a terrific success story.

The student population at Hollin Meadows is very unique. The school draws from the solidly middle-class sections neighborhoods of Kirkside, Hollin Hills, Milway Meadows, and parts of Hollin Brook Park, but also from the diverse and less affluent Mount Vernon Square Apartments, Cherry Arms Apartments, and Woodley Estates mobile home park on U.S. 1. Over 18 languages are spoken at the school representing over 30 countries. Over 70% of school population is minority and it is classified as a Title I School due to its low income population with 45% of the students receiving free or subsidized lunches.

The parents-teacher organization has been very active in focusing on how to best provide an education to every child at the school and very active in alternative programs. Hollin Meadows is a Math & Science Focus School and as part of that the PTA has focused on a children's outdoors education and gardening to help the kids with science. Today's Washington Post article focuses the First Lady's recognition of this program.

Programs like this have been a real success story. Student test scores have risen dramatically over the past four years - with over 85% of last year's 6th graders passing their 6th grade Standars of Learning English Exam and 75% passing Math. The parents and the students are happy. The schools is a terrific success story about how a community can come together to build a valuable institution.

Unfortunately, the recession has jeopardized about $200,000 per year of funding for the school's Math & Science focus programs. Other schools in the 44th District are facing similar cuts in their own focus programs plus valuable programs like full-day kindergarten which currently exists at 12 of 13 elementary schools that serve the 44th.

If the state provided a fair share of support to Fairfax County's Schools this would not be as much of a problem. I raised this issue in my campaign. Fairfax County only receives about 20% of its school funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia - other jurisdictions receive over 70%.

Schools are largely funded with local real estate taxes. Fairfax County's real estate tax rate is $1.04 per $1,000 of value. In jurisdictions whose school programs are heavily subsidized by the Commonwealth, their real estate tax rate is less than $0.50 per $1,000 of value (plus their property is worth a lot less than ours). Addressing these structural funding problems in Virginia's budget is one way to help resolve Virginia's current budget crisis and provide long-term relief in ways that does not sacrifice our children's futures.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Welcome to the Dixie Pig

On November 3, 2009, I was lucky enough to be elected to the Virginia House of Delegates after a hard-fought campaign. Although I have lived in this community my entire life, I learned a lot about the 44th District and this community so I created this blog to talk about my experience and issues of concern to the 44th District.

After setting up my Blogger account, I needed to come up with a name. That was easy. Back when Fairfax County had 40,000 residents and 2,000 square miles of dairy farms, when U.S. 1 was The Road to Richmond, and Beacon Mall was an airport on the highest hill for miles around, there was a sign at the corner of Beacon Hill Road and U.S. 1 with a happy dancing pig emblazoned with neon lights featuring "Air Conditioning" and The Dixie Pig - a reliable presence on Beacon Hill for 50 years.
Courtesy of Greg Willis
Image Courtesy of Greg Willis

The Dixie Pig was my grandmother's favorite restaurant. Granny always ordered her old standby, especially after her hearing went bad, a B.L.T. and "a Bud." The Dixie Pig was definitely a place where you could get a B.L.T. and a Bud.

When I was a kid, U.S. 1 was laden with its old quirky drinking holes - Hillbilly Heaven in Lorton, Jim's Country Club in Woodlawn, or The Belvoir Grill in Pohick (Fairfax's Finest had other names for these establishments). U.S. 1 had the only remaining duckpin bowling alley in the Commonwealth at Penn Daw, the only Krispy Kreme at Kings Crossing, a year-round flea market called the Thieves' Market in Hybla Valley, and one of the few drive in movie theatres in Fairfax County at Gum Springs. U.S. 1 was a very quirky and unique place. This great article says it all. It's about one man's quest to find the old Dixie Pig sign and perfectly summarizes Route 1 around the time I graduated college.

Since then, things have changed. Many of the old trouble spots are gone along with the 40's-era motor lodges and in 1996, The Dixie Pig was bulldozed for a Rite Aid. U.S. 1 has been invaded by a dozen new drug stores, banks, and the occasional big box store. The Thieves Market has been redeveloped into a California-style mall. However, our local supervisors complain that banks, drug stores, and big box stores are the only development they can attract to U.S. 1 as compared to the mixed use projects or office buildings sprouting up in Arlington, Tyson's Corner, Reston and western Fairfax County. The larger question is why?

The closing of Lorton Prison and development south of Fort Belvoir has turned the bottlenecks along U.S. 1 into a parking lots. Increased property values have compressed large families into smaller spaces. The recession has unemployment and poverty on the rise. Increased school populations are resulting in a proliferation of trailers. Demand for Head Start is up. Longtime elderly residents are looking for support to continue living independently in our community.

The lack of a modern transportation infrastructure has hindered redevelopment, job growth, and quality of life. Proposed school budget cuts brought on by a recession and the prospect of 14,000 new jobs + an $800,000,000 hospital coming online next year just south and west in Ft. Belvoir have people even more concerned with increasing traffic and its effect on our quality of life. After knocking 8,000 doors, I can tell you that people are restless, looking for action, and an end to the obstruction from Richmond that our representatives have battled for a decade or more.

It is time to invest in our community - in it's infrastructure and in its people. It is time to talk about real solutions to these problems not gimmicks. As I said in my campaign, it is time to fight for our share.

I look forward to representing the citizens of the 44th District as we all work to make our community a better place. Thank you for giving me a chance to represent this community and help make our community a better place. I won't let you down.