Friday, May 28, 2010

Virginia Education Association Rookie of the Year

Last week, I was named one of the Virginia Education Association's Rookies of the Year. Below is my press release regarding that honor.

May 28, 2010

Contact: Christopher Bea,
Legislative Assistant

Delegate Scott Surovell was named a “Legislative Rookie of the Year” by the Virginia Education Association in recognition of his efforts to strengthen public education throughout the Commonwealth during the 2010 legislative session. “As a product of Fairfax County Public Schools, I am honored to be recognized by the VEA,” said Surovell. Surovell was one of six newly elected delegates to receive a 100% rating from the VEA.

The VEA, founded in 1863 comprises over 60,000 educators in Virginia. Dr. Kitty Boitnott, president of the VEA said of Surovell: “Delegate Surovell has begun his legislative career as a solid supporter of our public schools. We have acknowledged his 100% pro-education voting record by awarding him VEA’s Rookie of the Year award. We look forward to working with Delegate Surovell in the years ahead. He is a welcomed friend of public education.”

Surovell graduated from West Potomac High School in 1989, James Madison University in 1993, and the University of Virginia School of Law in 1996. He made public education one of the cornerstones of his 2009 campaign. “Education, from pre-K to graduate school, is a top priority in the Mount Vernon community and throughout the Commonwealth,” the Delegate noted. “Fairfax County Public Schools are one of the most effective economic development tools in our government's toolkit. Strong schools mean good jobs, a strong economy and a better way of life for area residents.”

Surovell was one of several legislators who took the lead in maintaining
state funding for public school systems throughout Northern Virginia. “While the Local Composite Index is a flawed set of rules, we have used it to allocate school funding for years,” Surovell said. “We can’t abandon it when it produces a result that some members of the legislature don’t like.”

Looking ahead, Surovell stated, “I appreciate the work the VEA does for students and teachers throughout the Commonwealth. I look forward to working alongside them as we defend and improve Virginia’s reputation for educational excellence.” Surovell is currently examining means to increase preschool access in Mount Vernon and along the Route 1 corridor.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Medicaid's Chickens Come Home to Roost

When the General Assembly passed a budget this past session, I voted "No" for a variety of reasons. One of them was because I thought that the Budget was "balanced" using some very risky strategies. You can read my comments here - Harry Byrd Rolls Over.

One of these was counting on about $400 million of federal Medicaid "stimulus" monies that had been approved by the U.S. House and Senate but were stuck in a conference committee waiting for a final compromise and President Obama's signature. Over the last two years, the Federal Government has reimbursed Virginia's Medicaid expenditures at $0.60 on the dollar instead of $0.50 on the dollar to help with state budgets. The idea was to extend that one more year. That was nearly three months ago.

The Virginia Medicaid Program cares for our low-income, elderly, and children. It cares for our most vulnerable citizens and Virginia's Program is the second most restrictive in terms of eligibility in the United States.

Today, I received an email from the House Budget Staff indicating that federal stimulus monies still were not approved yet and that the adopted Budget has restrictions that were triggers to start July 1, 2010 without the federal money. In order to be prepared for the spending reductions, Virginia is going to start announcing these "service changes." They are not going to be pretty.

If this comes true, first you are going to hear about the poor being denied medical care because more doctors and hospitals will stop accepting Medicaid patients. Then you are going to hear about service disruptions to the severely disabled. You are going to hear a loud scream from hospitals like Fairfax INOVA that gives birth to more children paid for by Medicaid than any other facility in Virginia. Finally, you are going to see a nice fat health insurance increase in your paycheck.

However, this is exactly what I warned about when the Budget was adopted. If we had assumed these cuts were going to occur, the State Budget might have been structured very differently because these kinds of program changes would not have been acceptable. Instead, a massive service disruption is about to hit down on our state's sick, elderly, poor and least capable of bearing these expenses - our most vulnerable.

If you want to see what's coming. Read my prior article - Second Class Citizens? - and watch the video embeded in that post.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Fred Malek & The VA Government Reform Commission

Today, I appeared on the Politics Hour with Mark Plotkin on WTOP to discuss Fred Malek and Governor McDonnell's Government Reform Commission. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Back in January, Governor McDonnell signed an executive order creating his Government Reform Commission. In general, I think a bipartisan blue-ribbon task force focused on government reform is a great idea. There are many things about Virginia's Government that ought to be looked at - Bipartisan Redistricting, Two Term Governors, Transportation Funding, Reforming City-County Authority, Criminal Justice Reforms, greater use of technology, green energy reforms.

We have split party control of state government right now. If we are going to get anything done, we will need to have Republican and Democratic ideas considered. For this Commission to be effective, it needs to be an honest broker of ideas that will propose bipartisan solutions that merit investing taxpayer dollars at a special session. If the Commission turns into a partisan exercise, the special session will be a waste of time and taxpayers' money.

When I first heard about Fred Malek's appointment, I was concerned because of his history with the Nixon Administration, but I figured I would let it pass. Later, I learned more. Recently, I came around to the idea that he's the wrong choice for three reasons.

Strike One. In 1971, Malek prepared a list of 13 Jews to be fired or laid off at the request of Bob Haldeman after Nixon became convinced that a "Jewish cabal" was cooking employment statistics in the Department of Labor. After initially denying any involvement and being confronted with written evidence by Bob Woodward, Malek claimed he fought Nixon's request, was sorry for his involvement in the affair, and was outraged anyone would suggest he was involved in actual firings. He was forced to resign as Vice Chair of the Republican National Committee. He became involved in Jewish philanthropy and was ultimately forgiven by many national jewish organizations.

At that time, there was one memo that Richard Nixon was refusing to disclose. In 2007, that memo was released after Nixon's death. In the memo, Malek wrote:
"These moves do not go as far as I would have preferred," writes Malek in the September 1971 memo, "but represent a reasonable compromise that I feel will make the BLS a more responsive and effective unit." Nixon's Jew Count, The Full Story, Slate, 9/27/07.
That is a very different story from what he told the public. The inconsistency between the written record and his explanation leaves his credibility suspect.

More importantly, Virginia needs to leave its history of discrimination behind. Virginia has a whole history of anti-jewish discrimination that I discussed on the Plotkin Show - half of my family lived it. Nominating people like this continue to rip the scabs off old wounds.

Strike Two. In 2006, Malek and his firm paid dual fines for violating federal security laws when he gave a $375,000 do-nothing job to an individual in exchange for a contract to manage $75 million of Connecticut state pension money.

This was only four years ago. It is important to note that Malek was fined personally for $100,000 and not just his company which was separately fined another $150,000. Someone in charge of government reform should not have a record of shading dealings with state government within the last four years.

Strike Three. On May 7, 2010, Governor McDonnell announced the members. He named Fred Malek as Chairman. Five days later, Fred Malek wrote the Governor's PAC a check for $25,000. There is no question that donors and supporters are going to get appointments, but writing a $25,000 check within five days of receiving a major appointment does not really build the kind of spirit of "government reform" that taxpayers would hope could be brought to the table. Plus, it completely undermines the idea that this commission is going to be seriously bipartisan.

I'm sure Fred Malek is a bright guy, has a lot of experience running companies and probably has some good ideas and experience. I have no problem with his presence on the commission. He just shouldn't lead it.

I hope the Governor reconsiders.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Transfer of Jens Soering

In 1985, a couple was brutally killed in Bedford County, Virginia. In 1990, the former boyfriend of the victims' daughter, a German exchange student named Jens Soering, was charged.

At trial, he revoked his confession and claimed that he had confessed to protect his girlfriend who had committed the murder. There was no DNA, fingerprints, or witnesses connecting him to the scene, and today he maintains his innocence. After a three week trial, a jury convicted him and he was sentenced to two life terms in state prison.

In one of his last acts of office, Former Governor Kaine, approved the transfer of Soering back to Germany. Upon inauguration, Governor McDonnell took steps to revoke this transfer. The U.S. Attorney General is currently evaluating the request. It appears that if Soering were transferred to Germany he would be eligible for parole in two years.

During the session, Delegate Rob Bell circulated a letter indicating support for Governor McDonnell's efforts to revoke the request for transfer to Germany. I signed that letter.

While Presidential and Gubernatorial Pardons are always possible, they do not happen frequently and usually only for good cause. If the American Criminal Justice System is going to operate as it should, punishments rendered by our system must be upheld unless overturned on appeal or new evidence conclusively establishes that a jury's decision was wrong. There is no reason for this person to be spared any clemency at this point in time.

I am still not clear what the rationale was behind approving the transfer to Germany. Governor McDonnell is right to oppose it and to continue to lobby the U.S. Attorney General to stop it.

AG Should Unload Thompson's Contribution

Today, the Washington Post has a story regarding a $55,000 donation that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli received from Bobby Thompson, "a man who served as director of a charitable organization that is now under scrutiny by officials in three states and that led an effort to loosen laws governing charity registration in Virginia this year." The story went on to report that:
The newspaper found that most of the millions raised each year by the group had been solicited by professional call centers that retain up to 60 percent of their collections. The only director the newspaper could find was Thompson, who moved from his Tampa duplex shortly after he was interviewed and left no forwarding address. . . . The association is under review by authorities in New Mexico, Florida and Missouri, according to news reports.
Section 57-49 of the Code of Virginia requires most charities soliciting contributions in the Commonwealth to register their organization with the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The purpose of this registration is to weed out scam artists and bogus charities, and to provide a resource to consumers if they are being solicited.

For example, when you type in the charity in this case - The U.S. Navy Veterans Association - you currently get a page indicating they are not currently authorized to solicit donations in Virginia. Entities are required to file verified financials with the Commonwealth and other information that confirms their legitimacy (click here for more info). Section 57-59 of the Code of Virginia also authorizes the Attorney General to issue civil investigative demands to entities violating the charitable solicitation rules.

Shortly after making this contribution, Thompson was able to get legislation introduced and ultimately passed unanimously that exempted veterans' organizations (ostensibly his group) from registration requirements. That law is not effective until July 1, 2010.

During his campaign, the Attorney General campaigned on the idea that he was going to be an aggressive consumer-oriented Attorney General. Instead, his first 100 days were focused on gays, covering breasts, global warming, fighting the largest employer in this state, and issuing civil investigative demands regarding academic climate change research insteading focusing on protecting consumers from things like bogus charities.

Today, we found out that his second largest contributor who gave him $55,000 in unsolicited contributions was the officer of a "charity" that he is supposed to prosecute if they are breaking the registration law. The Washington Post reports that the Governor, Speaker Howell, and Senator Ticer are all returning Thompson's contributions or donating them to charity. I applaud them for their quick action.

If the Attorney General expects consumers to believe he is serious about protecting consumers, this is one contribution he needs to refund.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Visiting The Northern Virginia Training Center

Last month, I visited the Northern Virginia Training Center to learn about the Commonwealth's role in caring for our community's disabled.

The Training Center was started in the early 1970's on a campus of about 85 acres of land about five miles off the Capital Beltway on Braddock Road. The Center cares for about 190 individuals with severe physical and mental disabilities who are not capable of caring for themselves. It is one of five such facilities in the state.

The facility is largely funded through state funds and Medicaid and staffed by a very dedicated team of highly trained staff and volunteers. Our recent round of budget cuts significantly affects these kinds of services.

I spent about two hours walking through the various programs and services that are offered. Aside from the services necessary to care for people and enhance their quality of life, the Center even does bulk mailing, recycling processing, and I even saw a group of residents assembling hard drives. I also had a chance to talk with many community members who were very happy, engaged, and very welcoming to me into their home.

These services are frequently one of the first places we look for budget cuts and they also do not have armies of well-paid lobbyists advocating for their cause. Walking through a facility like this gives you some perspective regarding the importance of state government, our social safety net, and help you to remember why it is important to look out for everyone in the state and not just those who are best at getting your attention.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Isn't Redistricting Reform on the Government Reform Agenda?

Late last week, Governor McDonnell named forty people to serve on his Government Reform Commission to develop recommendations in anticipation of a special session this fall.

Today's Richmond Times-Dispatch says that one idea up for discussion is ending Virginia's curious status as the only state with a one-term Governor.

After spending one session in Richmond, it is clear to me that one of the biggest obstacles to any serious change in Richmond is legislative districts that have been drawn to be heavily partisan. During my campaign, I endorsed the concept of exploring bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting. Bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting was also endorsed by Governor McDonnell.

If a two-term Governor is on the table, I am not clear why we redistricting reform is not on the table as well. It should be.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cleaning Up Quander Creek

Yesterday, I trekked into the woods with about twelve volunteers to help clean up a creek in my district called Quander Brook. There is a map of Quander Brook to the right. It starts as three streams originating from the Old Quander Farm (West Potomac High School), and two branches in the Fairview Neighborhood that join near the JPG Rosenfeld property (Chuck E. Cheese) and then parallels U.S. 1 down to Great Hunting Creek.

The segment of the stream we cleaned up, also runs through 8.5 acres that was recently donated to Fairfax County by the Fairchild Family for use as a County Park.

This stream has a number of problems that this service project was useful to highlight:

  • Excessive storm water erosion damage and loss of biodiversity.
  • Significant trash contamination.

The short version is that this creek parallels many restaurants and properties that do not control their trash. The forest behind these properties is littered with boxes, beverage containers, and food wrappers that all wash into the woods and eventually the creek. The 1950's-era storm water facilities also basically sweep up all kinds of trash from U.S. 1 and neighboring parking lots directly into the creek. When coupled with massive storm water flows, the creeks suffers from massive erosion problems caused by large water flows and "trash dams" that form in the creek. All of this eventually washes into the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.

All of this leads to zero biodiversity. I did not see one bug, crawfish, fish, turtle, frog or any sign of life in this stream. The closest thing we found was a porcelain frog.

I will write a broader article for our local papers this week about it that I will post upon publication, but the problems with this property can be fixed through a number of issues.

The cleanup was a terrific success. We gathered two pickup trucks full of trash including 13 tires, a stereo, 3 tents, several blankets, a dryer top, a vacuum cleaner, a porcelain frog, about 1000 feet of "Caution Tape," and about 40 bags worth of plastic and beverage containers. Here are some pictures.

Thank you to JBG Rosenfeld for allowing us to access the property from their property and for providing us with a large dumpster for the trash and trash bags. Also thanks to community leaders Martin Tillett and David Dale who led our trek into the woods and gave us a tour of the property we did our work.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Washington Examiner Features Hybla Valley

The Washington Examiner ran a terrific article featuring Hybla Valley earlier this week in one of its housing features.

Fifty-million years ago, Hybla Valley was an oxbow turn in the Potomac River and George Washington's Mount Vernon was in Maryland. At some point, the mother of all floods occurred, the Potomac River cut through a small slice of land, and Hybla Valley became an oxbow lake. Over the next fifty million years, the lake filled in and Hybla Valley turned into some of the flatest most fertile land in Fairfax County.

George Mason's grandson owned part of Hybla Valley and had his vacation house at Huntley Manor just outside the 44th District. Later, the area became known as Hybla Valley. Some trace the word to the town of Hybla in Sicily that means "sweet."

In the early 1900's, a large amount of Hybla Valley was slated to become a landing area for Zeppelins from Europe. That didn't work out and a large part of Hybla Valley ended up in the control of the federal government and ultimately became Huntley Meadows Park and a small airport.

When my grandparents moved to Mount Vernon, Hybla Valley was a series of farms and Hybla Valley Airport which closed around 1955. Over the ensuing decades, they turned into retail and homes. When I was a kid, we used to go to carnivals on some of the old runways. When my wife and I were renovating our house, we lived in a condo on the old airport grounds called South Meadows.

Today, Hybla Valley is a community in transformation. The older neighborhoods are turning over. New developments are sprouting up. Mount Vernon Plaza was completely renovated by Federal Realty. It has come a long way from an airport, a dusty southern highway, and acres of dairy farms.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Do Charter Schools Really Work?

Governor McDonnell has been a proponent of charter schools throughout his campaign and since he was elected. One of his major initiatives this session was a bill to improve the charter school authorization process. Most people expect this issue will be back before the end of his term.

President Obama is also a strong proponent of charter schools through his Administration's "Race to the Top" Program.

Last fall, The Washington Post declared in an editorial that the charter school debate was over.

OPPONENTS OF charter schools are going to have to come up with a new excuse: They can't claim any longer that these non-traditional public schools don't succeed. A rigorous new study of charter schools in New York City demolishes the argument that charter schools outperform traditional public schools only because they get the "best students." This evidence should spur states to change policies that inhibit charter-school growth. It also should cause traditional schools to emulate practices that produce these remarkable results. Charter Success, Washington Post (Sept. 27, 2009).
Today, the New York Times is reporting that a much bigger study found exactly the opposite.

Ms. Hoxby’s study, released in September, followed by three months the much
broader investigation by a Stanford colleague
, at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which showed discouraging results for charters nationally. Drawing on data from the District of Columbia and 15 states (but not New York), that study’s finding that 83 percent of charter schools are doing no better than local public schools shocked many advocates. . . . Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools is Mixed, The New York Times (May 1, 2010).

No story from The Washington Post, but WAMU recently ran a story about how charter schools are overwhelming poorer neighborhoods and causing problems in those neighborhoods. Still no new editorials.

The Post also ran a story in March about how athletics ignored in charter schools and when they do have athletic programs, "they play by their own rules."

At most of the District's charter schools, sports are little more than an afterthought. . . .[B]ecause schools such as Friendship, KMA and Cesar Chavez are operating their boys' basketball teams as independents, they are free from restrictions from any central authority. Residency is just one issue; some rosters include players competing in their fifth high school season. "Even though public charters are public schools, we operate like private schools. We make our own rules," said KIMA Coach Levet Brown. . . . D.C. Charter Schools Still Play by Their Own Rules On the Baskeball Court, The Washington Post (Mar. 19, 2010).

Other papers have run stories about teacher turnover at charter schools being significantly higher than at typical public schools.

We found that 25% of charter school teachers turned over during the 2003-2004 school year, compared to 14% of traditional public school teachers. Fourteen percent of charter school teachers left the profession outright and 11% moved to a different school, while 7% of traditional public school teachers left the profession and 7% moved schools. Using multi-nomial logistic regression, we found the odds of a charter school teacher leaving the profession versus staying in the same school are 132% greater than those of a traditional public school teacher. The odds of a charter school teacher moving schools are 76% greater. Our analysis confirms that much of the explanation of this “turnover gap” lies in differences in the types of teachers that charter schools and traditional public schools hire. The data lend minimal support to the claim that turnover is higher in charter schools because they are leveraging their flexibility in personnel policies to get rid of underperforming teachers. National Center on School Choice (2009).

Charter schools also do not do anything to reduce school expenditures. When charter schools are created, no one talks about shutting down community schools - the third rail of school politics. Therefore, the school system still has the same fixed costs for overhead and staff, notwithstanding the new schools.

Finally, another fundamental problem of charter schools is that in order to get accepted, students frequently have to win a lottery. The idea that a child's public educational future is the function of a lottery is Anti-American. We are all in this world together. When everyone is in the same boat, it incentivizes everyone to want the best for our entire community. Systems that allow people to opt out of local neighborhood schools dilute interest in and support for local schools in our public school system.

The schools in the West Potomac and Mount Vernon Pyramids have some of the most challenging needs of all schools in Fairfax County and are just as much in need of resources as many other schools in this Commonwealth. There are schools in my district with incredible PTA support and others with none where teachers pool their resources to help their kids. Different schools have different needs and different resources.

Charter schools are not the silver bullet. The major problem is a lack of government support. Fairfax County mostly pulls its weight - it is the state that does not when it only picks up 19% of our education budget, while paying over 75% in other jurisdictions.

In light of the new over the last eight months since their editorial, I am still waiting for the new editorial from the Washington Post, but I don't have a feeling that it's coming.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Good Shepherd Housing Helps Mt. Vernon's Needy

About two weeks ago, I went to the annual gala for Good Shepherd Housing - one of U.S. 1's great charities.

Good Shepherd Housing was created in 1974 to help with housing problems on U.S. 1. They help people with income and credit problems get back on their feet by putting them transitional housing. This allows people to get their finances in order, credit restored, and gives them a foundation to move on in life - it's kind of like helping them hit a reset button to get people out of downward financial spirals.

The annual banquest was attended by over 300 people and raised over $200,000. It was really incredible. This video below describes what Good Shepherd does. We're lucky to have charities like these in our community (click here if the video does not fit on your screen).