This is a commentary from Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
The recent election in Virginia brought about significant changes in the partisan composition of the House of Delegates. While the election of Dr. Ralph Northam as governor and attorney Justin Fairfax as lieutenant governor along with the re-election of Attorney General Mark Herring kept the executive branch of government in Democratic hands, election results in the 100 House of Delegates districts were dramatically different.
Republicans went into the election with a strong advantage controlling 66 of the 100 seats. It appears with some recounts to take place that they will end up with 51 seats or maybe even tied with Democrats at 50 seats each.
No one that I know predicted such a major shift; some refer to the outcome of the election as a political tsunami. It was not simply that Republicans lost 17 seats when the most optimistic prediction was that Democrats would gain maybe ten or so seats. The majority party went into the election with a 66 to 34 advantage; they ended the election with the possibility of only a one member advantage or depending on the recount of votes a tie with Democrats.
Beyond the number of seats lost, the majority party lost their caucus whip, chairs of three major committees and two members of the Appropriations Committee including one of its conferees. Their caucus chairman seemed to have lost until a transposition of numbers was discovered that allowed him to hang on by a thread.
I served during the term beginning in the year 2000 when a power sharing agreement was reached allowing an evenly split body to go forward with its business. I thought the system worked effectively as there was a process for working together. In such an arrangement there can be an emphasis on solving problems rather than simply getting credit.
Most encouraging during this election cycle was the gain in the number of people voting in the election. The experience over many decades was that about 75% of voters go to the polls in presidential election years and less than 50% in years when the governor is elected. That number increased to about 60% this year.Those people who decided to go to the polls made the difference especially in the House of Delegates races.
A further exciting outcome of this election was the dramatic diversification of the membership of the House that had been dominated by white men throughout its history. Most of the losses of incumbents came about by women candidates defeating them. Not only are there more women, there are two Latino and two Asian women, the first transgender woman, and a lesbian. There will be more diversity in the General Assembly than ever before in its history. The Commonwealth will be better for it.
The challenge will be to bring the new members quickly into the process and embrace the strengths that diversity brings. The institution can accommodate the changes that the bloodless revolution of 2017 brought about to the degree that the leadership will permit it.
I am sure I will have some commentary on the outcome of the November 7 election in future columns, but as I write this column results are not yet known. No matter the outcome, I share the frustration experienced by many with the negativity that seems to inevitably overtake campaigns with high stakes. Political operatives who provide the advice upon which campaigns are planned continue to insist that negative advertising wins elections as it gets people’s attention and creates a fear or anger that moves voters to take part. I am not sure if anyone has measured how many people get turned off and decide not to vote because of the vicious ads.
Even more concerning to me than the half-truths and falsehoods that have slipped into campaigning is the cruelty that has moved into the operation of government. After years of complaining about the Affordable Care Act while in complete control of the Congress and now also the presidency, the Republicans have not been able to repeal and replace what they came to call Obamacare. The reason might simply be that provision of health care to all with coverage for pre-existing conditions in a developed nation is the right thing to do. Failing to achieve legislative success, the administration has set about trying to kill the program through administrative actions and neglect. That is where the cruelty sets in.
The first effort at killing the program came with an executive order to withhold subsidies which allowed insurance companies to keep premium increases to a minimum. With the loss of the subsidies, Anthem pulled out of Virginia in August leaving 60 jurisdictions with no insurer offering coverage; they reversed their action after intense efforts by Governor McAuliffe. The loss of federal support will be devastating in Virginia where 240,000 Virginians rely on subsidies to be able to afford insurance. There clearly must not be a lack of money in Washington with the huge tax cuts now being proposed for the very wealthy.
The cruelty does not end there. To reduce the program further the advertising budget to remind persons about open enrollment was slashed by 90 percent, and the time to enroll was reduced from 12 weeks to 6 weeks. The open enrollment started November 1 and will close on December 15. Tell anyone you know who might be eligible and spread the information through social media programs in which you participate that open enrollment ends on December 15.
A final crippling blow could be the administration announcement that it will not enforce the individual mandate that has been critical to keeping costs down by spreading the risk across a wide pool of participants. As though this is not enough, the Republican Congress and administration failed to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that provided care to 65,000 children and 1,100 pregnant mothers in Virginia. We have a new insurance program in place in this country; it is called Trumpcare. It is a very cruel system!
Despite the downpour of rain on Tuesday, a steady stream of voters cast their votes at Armstrong Elementary School in Reston. As of 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 209,223 residents of Fairfax County voted in Virginia’s election.
The state is only of of two in the United States with statewide elections this year. Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam are vying for governor in what is expected to be a narrow contest, according to The New York Times. Libertarian Cliff Hyra is also running.
In the last election in 2013, turnout rested at 46.8 percent. With a little more than four hours before polls close, turnout this year sits at 30.6 percent, according to the county.
A record number of absentee ballots were cast this year, according to Fairfax County officials. More than 41,000 Virginians participated in early voting, up by roughly 61 percent from voting in 2013. Absentee voting was up in every jurisdictions in Virginia, except three, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a non-profit organization that provides information about local politics.
There are more than 684,041 active registered voters in Fairfax County. Throughout the day, voters trickled in at various polling sites throughout Reston and Fairfax County. By 10 a.m., nearly 16 percent or roughly 109,000 of registered voters already casted their ballot.
All 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates are up for election. Fifty-five of those seats are contested.
Reston’s current Delegate, Democrat Ken Plum, is running without opposition in this election. Plum is currently serving his 36th year as the local Delegate for the 36th District, which includes Reston. Prior to his political appointment, he served for roughly 20 years as a public school teacher and administrator. Plum recently commented on his unopposed race for re-election in his weekly commentary.
Two candidates, Republican Jill Vogel and Justin Fairfax are running to replace Ralph Northam as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, a role which often presides over the State Senate, and has the power to break tie votes. The race for attorney general is between the current attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, and his opponent, Republican John Adams.
The Board of Supervisors has asked residents to approve the sale of $315 million in bonds. If approved, the county has published a list of school improvement projects they would use the money to pay for.
The American Civil Liberties Union received multiple reports from Virginia voters who said that they received calls falsely saying their polling place had changed. The civil liberties organization advised voters to confirm polling locations at elections.virginia.gov and report any issues by calling the organization at 804-644-8080.
Photo by Fatimah Waseem
The fall season brings beautifully colored leaves, wonderfully cool evenings and the ghosts and goblins of Halloween, but for me it also brings the jitters of the elections that occur the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every year in Virginia.
As one who has won many elections but has lost elections as well, the days and weeks leading up to Election Day can be nerve-racking. As well-planned as an election campaign might be, and as hard as the candidate and volunteers may have worked, outcomes are seldom certain. Last-minute attack ads or unrelated weather or news events can affect the outcome of elections.
An understandable question I often get is–why, without an opponent in this election, I would be nervous about it and would be campaigning so hard during the days and evenings leading up to it? There are several reasons.
The election season is the point in the year when the most people are paying attention to some of the issues on which I work throughout the year. It may be an old-fashioned idea, but I think campaigns are times when office-holders and office-seekers can have a dialogue about issues confronting the community and what should be done about them. Such discussions often get drowned out by all the trappings of campaigns like slogans, misleading brochures and commercials, and other distractions. My not having an opponent is not a choice of mine but should not keep me from having interaction with voters that I trust will leave all of us better informed. Not voting in the delegate race certainly is a choice voters have, but I seek votes as an affirmation of support for the work that I do.
I am also very active in political campaigns every year, whether I am on the ballot or not, because the outcomes of other campaigns are important to me. For example, this year it is critically important to me that Dr. Ralph Northam is elected Governor, Justin Fairfax is elected Lieutenant Governor, and Mark Herring is re-elected Attorney General. They share my values of supporting education, access to health care for all, common-sense gun safety laws to keep our neighbors safe, and ending discrimination in society. My efforts in the legislature can be enhanced or thwarted by those who occupy the executive branch positions.
The reality is that the outcomes of elections are determined by those who bother to vote. Presidential elections can get up to three-quarters of the voters to the polls, but state elections attract fewer than half of all voters. With the density of population in Northern Virginia, the large number of voters here can determine the statewide outcome. That is why I am working hard to help the get-out-the-vote campaigns that are now underway.
Above all, I get anxious this time of the year because I believe in democracy. Voting is one of the most critical ways we can respond to signs that some of our basic beliefs may be fraying. Let’s all participate in our democracy by voting this coming Tuesday, Nov. 7! Usual polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The strong positive response to my recent Staycation column caused me to think that I should write another one with travel suggestions for a different part of the Commonwealth. With the first column we went south through the beautiful Piedmont of Virginia.
For this trip I suggest that we go further west on I-66 to the Shenandoah Valley. Before turning south you might want to consider going north to Winchester on I-81 particularly during apple picking season. Also north is the wonderful Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (www.themsv.org) with its permanent exhibits as well as special shows.
Next door to the Museum is Historic Rosemont Manor, for many years the home of former governor and senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr. whose machine ran Virginia politics for decades. It has limited lodging available to the public but can be rented for special events. Also in Winchester is the home of Patsy Cline, the queen of country music, which is open to the public.
There are many civil war sites in the Valley. A Civil War Trails map is available at www.civilwartraveler.com. You can also head south at Front Royal until you come to the entrance to the Skyline Drive. The views are beautiful; in the first segment you can see seven bends of the Shenandoah River. The Drive gets crowded during the fall foliage season, but the beauty of the drive makes it all worthwhile.
If you have not been to a natural cavern, get off the Skyline Drive at Route 11 heading west to Luray. Most people agree that the natural beauty of the Luray Caverns cannot be beaten. Luray is in Page County where I grew up as a youngster. Head further west on Route 211 until you get to I-81 that runs down the center of the Valley. For a more scenic drive consider going south on Route 11. It is a little narrower with slower speed limits, but remember–on a staycation we take our time to enjoy the sights.
The campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg is beautiful, especially the early limestone buildings. Stop on Court Square in town and have lunch at Capitol Ale House. Further south to Staunton a recommended stop is the American Frontier Culture Museum, an outdoor museum with homes from the seventeenth century relocated from England, Ireland, Germany and other countries to show the kind of housing the early settlers had. If you need a meal, stop at Mrs. Rowe’s (Mrs. Rowes Family Restaurant). You will think you are back in the 1960s. A slice of pie is a must, and you can buy Mrs. Rowe’s pie cookbook.
We have about reached our limits for a one-day trip, so we can head home. It will add to the time of your trip, but if you go east on Route 64 you can pick up the Skyline Drive at Afton Mountain. Heading north you can eat at Big Meadows Lodge or spend the night at Skyland Lodge where I worked in the summers during high school.
If you want, we can plan a longer trip where we go to beautiful Abingdon, home of the Barter Theater or further west on the Crooked Road of Country Music (Crooked Road). I have traveled around Virginia all my life and never get bored with it. Glad to have you along.
Any report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is met with skepticism in some quarters, because these were the same people whose findings found that climate is changing and that human behavior is one of the causes.
The so-called “climate change deniers” continue to insist, regardless of the scientific evidence to the contrary, that humans are not to blame if there is any change in the climate. We can deny the latest report of the UCS, “When Rising Seas Hit Home,” at our own peril, especially in Virginia.
The scientists found that “important consequences of climate change are more subtle and slower moving than disasters. One such consequence is sea level rise. Unlike the catastrophic flooding that can accompany hurricanes, sea level rise impacts can take time to manifest. The final result, late this century and beyond, may be neighborhoods underwater.”
In a state like Virginia, with a major region named “Tidewater,” the impact can be especially great. UCS has identified three Virginia communities that will face chronic inundation by 2035, and 21 more by 2100. In the highest level scenario considered by the scientists, 38 communities would be exposed to chronic inundation by the end of the century. Visit the website to see a list of communities that will be hardest hit. Of little surprise is the finding that in the highest scenario, by 2080, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Hampton and the Naval Air Station would have up to a quarter of their land chronically flooded.
These findings should come as no surprise to Virginians. In 2015, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) completed a study on this issue at the request of the General Assembly. Its report, “Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia,” found that “recurrent flooding already impacts all localities in Virginia’s coastal zone and is predicted to worsen over reasonable planning horizons of 20 to 50 years due to sea level rise, land subsidence, and other factors.” The scientists wisely did not use the term “climate change,” which continues to be politically charged among some of Virginia’s political leaders.
Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded a grant to VIMS that, along with its match, will total $1.25 million to support “nature-based infrastructure” to help coastal Virginia counter and recover from flood events. Nature-based infrastructure includes tidal wetlands and living shorelines that can help to blunt and even absorb the effects of rising seas and recurrent flooding.
These efforts are important, but the UCS found even bolder policy changes and enhanced coordination among all levels of government must happen to protect our coastal areas. UCS concluded its report, “And even as the Trump administration seeks to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, we must work at state and local levels and with other nations to cut global warming emissions aggressively in order to help slow the pace of sea level rise.” Maybe then we can keep our heads above water!
Last week, without provocation, a woman in the checkout line at a local grocery store told another customer — a Muslim woman — “I wish they didn’t let you in the country.”
In the exchange that was recorded on a camera phone, the woman to whom the remark was directed explained that she had been born in the United States. Rather than leave it at that, the first woman went on saying, “Obama’s not in office anymore; you don’t have a Muslim in there anymore. He’s gone — he may be in jail in the future.”
I realize that there are more people than I would like to acknowledge that have strong prejudices against others because of their race, religion, ethnicity or other reason. It continues to shock me when I see the ugliness of the expression of such prejudices as the recording of this event provided. As the woman to whom the remarks were directed pointed out, it’s abnormal to start a conversation like that with someone you do not know. There really is something wrong with people who are so blinded by their prejudices that they feel compelled to lash out at a person who has done them no wrong. The comments reflect a deep-seated hatred that comes out for reasons only a mental health expert could help discover.
What is particularly troubling these days is the blurring of the line between political convictions and prejudice toward individuals. In our deeply divided political landscape, too often political views become opportunities to demonize people who hold different views. Unfortunately talk radio, social media and some cable news shows tend to invite this destructive phenomenon.
In addition to the repulsiveness I feel about the hateful comments, I was also saddened that social media and news accounts described the scene as a store in Reston, Virginia. I know from a lot of personal experience the amount of effort that so many people have made over the years to ensure that Reston is an open, welcoming and inclusive community. While I understand why the store did nothing to address the situation, I wish somehow there had been a disclaimer on the video: The woman speaking does not represent the views of the people of Reston.
The situation reminds us that building community is not a one-time occurrence, a workshop, or a feel-good session. Building a community of respect and love is an ongoing process that we work at a little every day. We greet those we meet; we hug each other; we attend each other’s houses of worship; we show respect to others; we speak out against hate and prejudices; we listen to each other. We use appropriate channels to discuss political views, and whether in person or online we stick to the issues and don’t resort to personal attacks.
A display of hateful and ugly prejudice as we have just witnessed must bring us together in mutual support and respect as we want Reston and every other community to display.
Among the many institutions that seem to be under attack these days, the federal Department of Education and public schools are of great concern.
Public education predates the federal Department of Education, but the Department has played an important role in raising standards and expanding access for all children. Left to their own devices, state and local school boards would go in many different directions that may leave quality and access more to chance than legal requirements.
I am reminded regularly by my constituents of their support for quality public schools, but last week I was reminded also of the range of controversy surrounding public education. A postcard I received in the mail had a picture of a yellow school bus on it with a caption: “The humanist machine.”
The card was from a group called Deconstructing the Coliseum whose stated purpose is “to eliminate humanist political policies, eliminate the machine (the civil government school system) that produces humanist politicians.” The text of the card goes on to explain that “The civil government is using force and coercion to advance its version of truth (humanism), under the guise of ‘public education.’ Thus, civil government schools must be abolished.”
Although this group has a Virginia address, I do not think that it would have many supporters in our community. Their ultra-conservative views are likely to get the attention of some downstate legislators.
As concerning are the views that are being espoused by the current federal Secretary of Education. As I understand her plan, public schools would be replaced by charter schools. Charter schools are held up by some as a panacea to cure ills real and concocted about public schools, but their results have been very mixed in the places where they have been opened.
The main issue for the proponents seems to be control. Rather than having elected or appointed school boards set school policy, there are proposals that groups of parents would control the charter school curriculum, standards and requirements without further supervision. There is a real concern that charter schools could lead to renewed segregation of the schools along racial and class lines.
Even with all their critics and those who remember wistfully how schools were when they attended, today’s public schools do an excellent job. Open to all students, they bring out the best in our children. They attempt to prepare our children for an unknown future. The school boards struggle every year with meeting needs that are greater than the resources available to them.
Whatever the perceived needs are in educating our children, there are none so great that would require the getting rid of “government schools” or replacing them with charter schools.
We need to look at paying teachers more to attract the best and the brightest to teaching as a career; the current deficit of $4,000 under the national average that exists in Virginia is not defensible.
And we need, in this season of teacher appreciation, to thank the teachers for the exceptional work that they do.
Last week I attended the retirement reception for the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. The Honorable William Howell of Stafford is retiring after 30 years in the House with 14 years as Speaker. His tenure is the second longest in the modern period
The Republican majority in the House wasted no time in picking his successor, who was known during the last session as the “Speaker designee.”
Speaker Howell was the 54th Speaker of the House; Edmund Pendleton was the first, serving for one year in 1776. The predecessor to the House of Delegates, the House of Burgesses, under the Royal Colony of Virginia, had speakers as well.
The role of the speaker is to allow for orderly debate by requiring all speaking to go through the speaker–hence the name. Under today’s rules, as in the past, members must be recognized by the speaker to request to speak or to ask a question and must receive permission to speak. No debate is allowed among members without going through the speaker. While it may sound cumbersome, it actually works to keep debate orderly and to prevent the chaos that could result from members shouting at each other directly.
The role of the Speaker has evolved over the years. Far from just directing debate, the speaker has tremendous other powers. For example, the speaker appoints the members of committees, assigns bills to committees and renders opinions on enforcing rules and parliamentary procedures.
Up until 1950 there had been 48 persons who had served as Speaker of the House for an average of 3.5 years each. Since 1950 there have been six speakers serving an average of eleven years each. One speaker during that period left office after two years because of a sex scandal. If he is not considered, the remaining speakers have served for an average of 13 years.
I served under the last five speakers. My observation on the office of the speaker is that it has become increasingly partisan. In 1950 Delegate E. Blackburn Moore of Frederick County who was a leading lieutenant in the Byrd Machine became speaker and served in that role for 18 years. He ruled with an iron fist. Many of the stories that are still told about abusing the role of speaker come from his era when he refused to put Republicans on committees that met. The House was referred to as “Blackie’s House,” borrowing the name of a popular restaurant of the time.
His successor was the Gentleman from Mathews, the Honorable John Warren Cooke, who was the first speaker under whom I served. He was a sharp contrast to Moore and treated all members alike regardless of political party. Since his service the office has been held by a series of nice individuals of both parties who have expanded the role to be in practice, if not name, the majority leader of the House.
Herndon Man Dies in Route 7 Crash — Rush Hone Elmore, 69, died Friday after his vehicle was rear-ended near Leesburg. The impact of the crash forced his car off the roadway, where it overturned. He died at Reston Hospital Center. [Leesburg Police Department]
Units Respond to Kitchen Fire in Reston — Firefighters attacked a blaze Sunday afternoon at a home in the 12300 block of Brown Fox Way. [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue/Twitter]
Plum Campaign Event Set for April 30 — Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax) will kick off his campaign for re-election to the state House of Delegates with a fundraiser at The Lake House (11450 Baron Cameron Ave.). Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is scheduled to be in attendance to show his support. [Del. Ken Plum]
Reston Students Profiled in ‘KidsPost’ — Katie Damon’s second-grade class at Terraset Elementary School voted on their favorite author, singer, sport and more for a profile in this weekend’s Washington Post. The kids also reported what they want to be when they grow up and what superpower they’d like to have. [Washington Post]
Bridge Title Claimed by Herndon Woman — Li Yiting was part of the team that won the Machlin Women’s Swiss Teams event at the Spring North American Bridge Championships last month in Kansas City. This is her third championship win. [Fairfax Times]
When Thomas Jefferson finished what he considered one of the most significant deeds of his lifetime in writing the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776, he returned home to Virginia and set about turning the ideals of the Declaration into steps that could lead to the formation of the first democratic republic.
Among his proposals was that a system of grammar schools be established throughout the state to be topped off by a grand university. He lived to see the University of Virginia become a reality, but his plan for a universal form of education for the masses did not come about in the Commonwealth until 1870 with a Reconstruction-era system of public schools.
The genius of Mr. Jefferson was the recognition that government by the people in a republic could be successful only to the degree that people were educated and that education could make them informed participants in the election of their representatives. Education is as important today, if not more so, as it was in the formation of the union. I am reminded of that fact daily.
The experiences of my early days as a classroom teacher remind me that there is a sharp difference between being schooled and being educated. The emphasis in recent times on the acquisition of facts with Standards of Learning and standardized testing fall short of the educated citizen that we need in today’s world. What facts could I have transmitted to my students that would stay with them to guide them through the rough waters of governance today? A few of course, but more important are the skills they may have learned by being social scientists, historians, and political scientists in my classroom and using the skills of those disciplines to understand and react to the world we face today.
Popular in the mid-1960s, when I was in the classroom, was the discovery approach to teaching the social studies made famous by Amherst College. There were few lectures in the classroom about what happened in history. Rather the students were taught to collect information, weigh evidence, identify points of view, question sources, draw conclusions and “discover” what went on in historic periods of history and why.
Those skills are more important today than ever. The ability to separate among news stories the fake news, alt-news, satire, points of view and evidence is increasingly vital. Hopefully there will come a time when more of those who make the news will be acting in an ethical and responsible manner, motivated to serve with the good of the whole in mind rather than simply personal gain.
With the increasing speed and number of sources of mass communications, skills of the social scientist are more important than ever. Thomas Jefferson was right — schools are critically important to democracy. Even more important is that the students coming out of school have the skills necessary to be functioning members of society that will preserve and strengthen our democratic republic.
At noon on Jan. 11, the sergeant at arms will enter the chamber of the House of Delegates carrying a 20-pound, 24-karat gold-coated mace that he will place in a holder in the front and center of the chamber signifying that the House of Delegates is in session. That formality has been followed since the 18th century, when it signified that Virginia was one of the British royal colonies. On the Senate side of the Capitol, the Lieutenant Governor, who is the president of the Senate, will call that body to order. The Governor will address a joint session of the House and Senate that evening.
With all the history and pomp and circumstance that surround a legislative session, the list of issues before the Assembly is very up to date. The need for legislation related to Uber, Airbnb and Tesla electric cars is likely to be heard within the context of new practices of commerce coming up against established traditions and turf. Lobbyists outnumber legislators more than six to one with some seeking to protect the status quo and others wanting new directions and innovation. The job of legislators is to determine the public good among conflicting interests.
Fortunately, not all issues are earth-shattering. Many of the more than 3,000 bills and resolutions that will be considered this year are fairly mundane, dealing with the operation of government. Since localities have only the powers delegated to them by the General Assembly, there will be numerous “local” bills that may affect only a given local government. There are likely to be only 15 or 20 high profile bills that will get widespread press coverage and heavy public lobbying.
With the outcome of the national elections, the social conservatives will feel empowered to put in their bills to limit or eliminate legal abortions. The Governor is expected to veto these bills if they pass just as he did a year ago when he vetoed Virginia’s version of North Carolina’s HB2 permitting discrimination against LGBT persons. The national election experience last year will result in more bills to eliminate fraud from elections even though none has been shown to exist in Virginia. These bills do keep many citizens from being able to register and to vote.
There is a strong citizen effort to have Virginia adopt an independent non-partisan redistricting law for which I have been advocating since the 1980s, but the party in power would have to relinquish their power for that to happen which makes the legislation a long shot. I and others will be introducing gun safety legislation, but the NRA grip on the legislature is firm. Hopefully more citizen involvement will help to loosen that hold and reasonable common sense bills can be passed.
The good news likely to be coming out of the session is that meaningful reform of Virginia’s mental health system will take place and positive steps reforming public education will be enacted.
I will be covering other issues in future columns. In the meantime, learn more about Virginia’s legislation process and the bills and resolutions being considered at http://virginiageneralassembly.gov.
While I enjoy studying history and reading the stories of the past, I equally enjoy studying the writing of history — historiography — which is “the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods.” (Merriam-Webster) Recently I taught a course at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at George Mason University that I entitled “A New Look at the Old Dominion.” The purpose of the course was not so much to retell the history of Virginia as it was to examine the way in which the story of the Commonwealth has been told over the decades. Certainly the story of Virginia is ideal for a historiographical analysis. Much of the history has been glamorized for so long as to leave a confusing and contradictory understanding of the state’s past. I have been particularly concerned about the picture of the Commonwealth presented in state-written textbooks that were used in our public schools over the years. One could get the impression from these books that the land settled as Virginia was god-given to the colonists that they could save it from the heathens who inhabited it, that slavery was good for the slaves, that the federal government was the bad guy in every controversy, and that states’ rights should be preeminent over human rights. Fortunately, through the hard work of many individuals much of that misinformation has been removed from the classroom.
My concern for the future is how individual citizens, historians and teachers deal with the deluge of fake news that is swirling around us. The presidential election of 2016 is historic in the amount of fake news to which voters were exposed through the new technologies of social media. Of great concern is the inability of traditional news sources to deal with the fake stories and the gullibility of some of the public to believe whatever they read or hear from their identified news source regardless of the lack of credibility that source may have. Journalists themselves were even questioning what was true among all the falsehoods, denials, and diversion to other topics that were going on during the campaign. Certainly historians will face a monumental task of explaining to future generations what happened during this phase of our history.
If our democratic republic is to exist, we cannot simply wait for future analysis to understand what is going on. Certainly students in school should learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for future potential employment and consumerism, but I believe that for the future of our country students need to learn the tools and methods of historiography: gathering and weighing evidence, critical thinking, evaluating sources, and others. Our citizens and voters need to arm themselves with the tools of social scientists as they choose their leaders. That is why we need more civics education in our schools.
The State Board of Education recently released its 2016 Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia. I think it is the most hopeful report on public education that I have seen in my tenure in office.
The report is honest and forthright as to the condition of public schools in the state and totally realistic as to the needs of public schools if they are to be improved. My highest compliments to Dr. Billy Cannaday, President, and members of the Board for their work.
During the last ten years, school enrollment in Virginia increased just over five percent for a total enrollment in 2016 of 1,286,711. During that same time period, economically disadvantaged students increased 39 percent, English language learners increased by 78 percent, students identified with autism increased by 222 percent, and the number of students in health impairment disability categories increased by 26 percent.
At the same time, Virginia students outperform their peers nationwide on the ACT by 15 or more points. The on-time graduation rate grew to 91.3 percent with more than half the students graduating with the most rigorous diploma. The Report recognizes that with the progress that has been made there continues to be a lot of work to do.
What stands out to me are the priorities that the Board has identified “to ensure that all children in the Commonwealth, regardless of their circumstances, have access to a quality education that prepares them for a successful, healthy and fulfilling life.”
The priorities are:
- The public school experience must be redesigned to better prepare students for life after high school by ensuring that all students, during their K-12 experience, achieve and apply appropriate academic knowledge, demonstrate productive workplace skills, exhibit responsible and responsive citizenship, and align knowledge, skills, and interests with career opportunities.
- Teachers and school leaders must be better supported to effectively deliver and serve all Virginia K-12 students.
- Virginia’s accountability system must provide tiered interventions aligned to need, encourage continuous improvement for all schools, and measure and report multiple indicators of school quality.
- Greater attention and support must be provided to school communities with high poverty where achievement and opportunity gaps persist.
Public education is a shared responsibility between state and local governments as defined in the State Constitution. The responsibility for running the public schools is at the state level by the State Board of Education and at the local level by county and city school boards. None of the boards at the state or local levels have taxing authority.
The State Board is dependent on the General Assembly and the governor; local school boards depend on boards of supervisors and city councils. Needed revisions to the state Standards of Quality will require additional investments that are required for future success.
It is essential that all elected officials review the State Board’s report, embrace its findings, and provide the revenue to ensure the success of our public schools.
The National Conference of State Legislatures sponsors a “Legislators Back to School Day” each year as a way to promote the idea that more legislators should visit their local schools to see the good work they are doing, as well as to understand the challenges that school administrators and teachers face.
I take advantage of that opportunity, and other times I am invited to visit schools in my district, and sometimes to visit schools in other areas to learn about special programs.
For me, the visits are very positive experiences. I continue to be impressed with the outstanding work that our schools are doing, especially considering the thousands of children–more than 180,000 in Fairfax County–they have to educate. Ensuring that every child reaches his or her full potential is a continual challenge, but I find administrators and teachers at every level working earnestly and diligently to make sure it happens. The children in our community are amazing! They are, for the most part, eager learners who are full of questions and curiosity. And they are good citizens.
One question that I get from children that may be a curiosity of some adults as well is, just what is a delegate? I discuss with the students the meaning of “to delegate” and explain that I am given a delegation of responsibility by the voters of my district to go to the state capitol each year to represent their interests.
In most states, and at the federal level, members of one house of the legislature are called “representatives;” they represent their constituents in the legislature just as I am delegated to do by the people who live in my legislative district.
Their follow-up question is a key one that must be answered appropriately if our representative form of government or republic is to be successful: How do I know the interests of my constituents? I give several explanations.
My term of office is for two years. When I stand for re-election every two years, I tell the voters in my district what I stand for and believe in. Their vote for me is an affirmation that I stand for the kind of things that they want in their government. If I do not represent the interests of my voters, they have an opportunity every two years to take back the delegation of responsibility they have given to me and give it to someone else.
Secondly, I know many of the interests of my constituents because I am out and about in the community all the time. I listen to a lot of people. I encourage people to call or write to me. I try to stay very active in the community to understand my constituents and their needs. I encourage people to respond to my annual constituent survey, which you can do at my website.
Along with Senator Janet Howell, I also hold public meetings; the next one is Monday, Dec. 19, 7:30 to 9 p.m., at the Reston Community Center at Lake Anne. Please come and participate.
Being a delegate is supposed to be a part-time job in Virginia; for me it is a full-time job and a half, but I am very honored to have been entrusted with this delegation of responsibility.
Photo of Del. Ken Plum at 2016 Legislators Back to School Day, courtesy Del. Ken Plum.