From the Editor’s Desk: I think I’ve seen this movie before

Published 9:01 am Sunday, November 12, 2023

The emails started coming in not even a day after the story went up. Last week, we covered the first meeting of Virginia’s Chronic Absenteeism Task Force, a group set up by Gov. Glen Youngkin to address the extreme problems districts are facing in getting students to show up for class. And several residents of Prince Edward and Buckingham counties had thoughts as to what the task force should work on. 

The problem is that in each of my conversations, there seemed to be a key misunderstanding. There seems to be a belief some magical entity is going to give this task force billions of dollars to implement new programs, build new structures and pay for a fleet of transport vehicles with bluetooth capability, as well as drivers that can pick up students at any point in a given day.

I literally got a flood of ideas that the readers were sure would bring kids back to school. Creating an eSports facility would be fantastic, but you’ve either got to find secondhand equipment or buy it new. And where would you put them? (Sidenote: For those wondering what eSports is, it’s a massively growing trend where people play video games and audiences watch. Instead of watching two football teams go at it, you’re watching two teams of gamers compete at Super Mario or Tetris. If you’ve got the talent, there’s millions of dollars involved on the pro level, but we’re talking several levels below that here).

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Another idea was for an automotive program that would basically compete with local businesses, teaching students how to do things like changing oil, repairing brakes and refurbishing old vehicles. Basically, I got several emails suggesting bright, shiny new programs. The problem, people seemed to agree, is that students aren’t interested in or excited to go to class. Options like this, they believe, would fix that. And for those who miss the bus and parents can’t take them to class, some residents suggested a program that’s basically like Uber, where students can call for and schedule pickup. Except, where are the vehicles going to come from and who would be driving them? 

All of these are great ideas, if money was no object. And that seems to be the misunderstanding here, a belief that this task force will have a blank check to work with. So let’s clear this up. As we mentioned in our two stories about the task force so far, once this group is finished, it will turn recommendations over to the General Assembly. And sadly, we’ve all seen how this movie ends. 

The group will make recommendations about how to fix chronic absenteeism. The Assembly will say “great” and vote to push all of these through… but without any funding. Instead, they will kick the responsibility on figuring out how to fund these things to the cities and counties. Don’t believe me? Think back on how many times this has happened in the past. Exactly how many times did the state fully fund the end result? Oh, they give a portion, anywhere from 25% to 50% of the cost. But that still leaves a significant amount that local governments have to figure out how to fund. 

Now for places like Alexandria or Norfolk, it’s a frustration but they’ll find the money to make it happen. In places like Farmville or Cumberland, that’s not so much the case. The money just simply doesn’t exist here to implement all of these ideas the Assembly so kindly approves as unfunded mandates. That’s why it’s taken so long to renovate Prince Edward Elementary. The money just isn’t hiding behind a bush, no matter which political party is in charge. That is, unless you increase taxes. And nobody wants that. 

So is chronic absenteeism a problem? Absolutely. But before you propose massive new projects that our schools need, let’s remember that while the politicians in Richmond will agree with every word you say, the likelihood they’ll fully fund the idea is slim to none.