Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Wesley Joe
“I ran [for governor] to get off the school board. That’s the worst job I ever had.”
–Former U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Arkansas)
A remarkable feature of this year’s Arlington School Board election was the last-minute drive to recruit candidates for the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) endorsement.
More troubling was the absence of more candidacies among our best prepared Arlingtonians — those who have led in unglamorous roles on the school advisory groups, such as Advisory Council on Teaching and Learning, Budget Advisory Council, County Council of PTAs, and Joint Facilities Advisory Commission.
Arlington Public Schools (APS) needs knowledgeable, experienced decision-making and oversight. APS is a complex $670 million per year system that helps to shape the lives of our 28,000, highly varied children. Its services range from preschool to career training to mental health and more. It is one of the county’s largest employers and maintains dozens of substantial physical plants. The leadership problem is even more urgent now, as Arlington seeks to recover learning losses sustained during the pandemic.
Can we do anything to encourage more of our best prepared leaders to join the School Board? To answer this, I asked several people who have served in the roles I identified above.
Some barriers, such as work and family commitments, are well known. As one long-time leader said:
[Beyond regular meetings and work sessions], the work…also includes attending events at their assigned schools, participating in the work of school board citizen committees…[and] thousands of hours informally meeting with and talking to parents and community members. It is more than a full-time job.
Another was more blunt:
“The job has crappy pay, long hours, and huge responsibility.”
We ought to enable Board members to serve full time and pay accordingly.
Nearly all of the long-term community leaders I talked with cited public incivility as a reason — often their top reason — for not running. This predates COVID-19, but the pandemic has only intensified this deterrent. Here, “incivility” means what one person referred to as “a lot of caustic, coarse, uninformed, nasty behavior” and personal attacks on School Board members’ values and character. The public should observe workplace norms with board members.
Another frequently cited concern is the ACDC endorsement’s influence over the general election outcome. ACDC’s endorsement provides a valuable information shortcut to the many general election voters who aren’t involved with the schools. In an overwhelmingly Democratic jurisdiction, the endorsement usually determines who wins the seat. That reality discourages some experienced Arlingtonians from running. ACDC has sound reasons for exercising its right to endorse a candidate. But as a lifelong Democrat, I think Arlington would be better off if independent candidates had a realistic chance of winning local elections.
Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Progressive Voice Editors
Progressive Voice editors recently talked with Miranda Turner and Mary Kadera, candidates for the Democratic endorsement for Arlington School Board. Here are excerpts from their answers to questions that probed their experience, new ideas and understanding of challenges facing the school system.
Disparity in Free and Reduced Lunch populations. Do you believe more efforts need to be made to distribute F/R lunch students more evenly across APS schools? If so, how would you approach this?
Turner: It’s surprising to many people that we have such disparity, with some schools at 83% and others at 2%. The disparity suggests economic segregation and that’s concerning. Historically, communities have tried to deal with this in various ways… that haven’t worked well… such as busing. I live in Green Valley and when low-income and minority kids were bused out of here [in the 1970s] as a way of integrating, that was hard on the community.
The way to approach is… maximize the walk zone around a school [safely] and… then look at the demographics. If there is a way to enhance diversity and bring schools closer to the mean of Arlington, that deserves a hard look. If we can, enhance diversity in a way that doesn’t disrupt school communities, doesn’t raise transportation costs, doesn’t disrupt walkability and still preserves the neighborhood character of schools.
Kadera: Historically, it most often has been students of color and low-income who get bused away from their neighborhood schools, to schools that often have excess capacity. Their neighborhood schools have set up supports to serve needs of those students like food pantries and tutoring programs afterschool. For all those reasons, it strikes me as problematic to propose a “busing and boundaries” solution.
I would concentrate on making every neighborhood school the best it can possibly be, and being sure students have equal access to opportunities and services.
Option schools are another way we can look at balancing demographics. I’d like to see APS double down on making sure all families are aware of options…and figure out ways of doing more intentional outreach to lower-income families and families of color. Read More
Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Kathie Panfil, with the Abuelitas
“I feel like you really are my Grandma.”
The child who shared that thought with a retired Arlington teacher is an English Learner (EL). Her tutor is an “Abuelita” (grandmother) with both wisdom and special skills.
When schools went online, former Arlington teachers of English as a Second Language knew how hard distance learning would be. Acquiring skills and vocabulary from English-speaking peers couldn’t happen. Relationships would have to be developed remotely. Parents would have to figure out the technology, and support their children’s learning, while fearing job loss and illness.
While we knew our community would face overwhelming challenges during the pandemic, we did know one we could tackle in Spring 2020 — we knew how to teach. Identifying the children who would most benefit from our one-on-one tutoring was done through our networks. Old friends still teaching in our schools told parents about the Abuelitas, and soon we had waiting lists. The Abuelitas also needed a communication platform, so we learned to use WhatsApp, which most parents preferred, letting the children both see and hear us on their parents’/caretakers’ phones. Abuelitas had translators within our ranks when needed.
Abuelitas know oral language is critical for English learners, and that it develops both on the playground and in the classroom. So the Abuelitas ask questions, such as “Is there anything you want to talk about?” Some days the children tell about the lessons they are learning online from their “real” teachers, practicing new vocabulary. Sometimes, the Abuelita and the child talk about feelings. One child beginning hybrid classes said, “What if my friends don’t remember who I am?” His Abuelita reassured him, and phoned later to hear about his wonderful day. The personal connection is a gift to both the student and the Abuelita.
How do we know what to teach? “The scope of what the children must learn is huge,” one Abuelita explains. Sometimes we hear from the child’s teachers, but mostly, we use hands-on activities, and we follow the interests of the child. Sometimes we work on reading and writing, but often we read to the children, fiction and non-fiction, because they need listening skills. “Don’t stop,” the children say. Some of us have developed and published materials: on gratitude, on the coronavirus and more.
We’ve taken advantage of free resources in Arlington: we thank Arlington Library for its Take and Make Crafts which we sometimes send to our children. We got Mars Base Camp kits from Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, and some gooey slime kits from Arlington Parks and Recreation. The whole family often gets involved in craft projects.
We became strong advocates for internet access, because despite efforts within the schools and the community, some families lack sufficient connectivity. We joined broadband advocacy efforts. We know connectivity is as essential as water and electric services. We like ArlFiber.org.
In fall 2020, when schools continued virtually, we heard about pods forming in some Arlington homes. Our students lacked the space, strong internet and English-speaking supervision needed for a pod. We continued one-on-one tutoring but we also wanted to form pods for students who lived in Gilliam Place, affordable housing apartments.
We looked for a location nearby and Arlington Presbyterian Church became a caring sponsor. A skilled parent volunteered to run our first pod in fall 2020, and a second pod was added in January 2021. Two nonprofits, Edu-Futuro and Our Stompin Ground, became strong collaborators. These pods worked well, with Covid safety protocols, Arlington Schools online, and everyone working together.
Throughout, we have been deeply impressed by the dedication of our former colleagues: teachers, other school staff and those providing technology. Abuelitas have touched the lives of about 40 learners, although there are many more children who need support. Each of us knows the strong contributions our former EL students made to American society, so as these children grow, we are eager to see what lies ahead.
Kathie Panfil is a former principal at Key and Randolph elementary schools. She is now a retiree active in Arlington community affairs.
Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Maurine Shields Fanguy
The January attack on the United States Capitol reminds us of our duty to protect democracy and the importance of local civic engagement, especially as Arlington prepares for gubernatorial and local elections this year.
At the same time, a year in quarantine also has opened up new opportunities to support democracy–more important than ever to combat voter suppression efforts springing up across the country.
Virtual Citizen Comment.
In a historic first, Arlingtonians now may address the County and School Boards over voice and video conferencing. Commenting on this development, County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti remarked, “We are able to hear from more citizens online, but it is also important to consider the Digital Divide.”
This allows people to make their voices heard from home, instead of sitting through lengthy board meetings to share opinions. Board members also foster engagement through virtual office hours. De Ferranti noted that although, “we miss the sense of community from in-person meetings, there could be benefits to retaining remote engagement options alongside in-person. At the very least, we must modernize the Arlington Way and make it much more inclusive. Allowing for online options is worth exploring as a step in the right direction.”
Voting Early and Conveniently.
November 2020 saw the largest voter turnout in Arlington history, with 63% of active Arlington voters voting early. More than 45,000 voted by mail and nearly 60,000 through early in-person voting – nearly a three-fold increase over 2016 early voting.
Arlington’s Democratic Committee demonstrated impressive alacrity by shifting to a mail-in caucus just a week after the Governor’s stay-at-home order in March 2020. A historic first, the May 2020 caucus resulted in over 5,700 ballots cast, nearly eclipsing prior county caucus records. Future caucuses, primaries and general election must allow the same flexible options for early voting.
Welcome to the Next Generation of Election Officers.
2020 marked an incredible response to calls for Election Officers who facilitate free and fair elections. The Arlington County Board of Elections reported a wait list of more than 500 citizens who offered to serve in 2020. Election officers are unsung heroes in any election, arriving at 5 a.m. and staying until the last vote is tabulated. (Disclosure: I served as an election officer this year and in prior elections.)
This year was particularly challenging with the need to implement new safety measures during the pandemic. Anyone who has served as an election officer or as an observer in our county has seen first-hand the stringent measures to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. If more people served as election officers or observers across the country, perhaps we might hear less “stop the steal” rhetoric and citizens would appreciate the beauty of our electoral process. It is important to encourage the newly minted election officers of 2020 to serve again in 2021 and future elections.
Candidates Embrace Virtual.
School Board Vice-Chair, Barbara Kanninen observes, “People in Arlington have traditionally liked to kick the tires when it comes to local candidates. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, so much engagement is on social media — not an ideal format to get to know how a candidate thinks.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced candidates for elected office to change how they engaged with voters. Video conferencing allowed candidates to reach more people through virtual events. Advocacy groups promoted virtual candidate forums and debates, enabling participation by a wider audience. And voters could join all of these events conveniently from their homes. Kanninen predicts that “…post-pandemic, I would expect to see a spectrum of campaign strategies, including those that rely heavily on social media and others that focus on old-fashioned, personal engagement at farmers markets and community meetings.”
Every Vote Counts.
Although Arlington did not experience close races in 2020, we saw across the country how even a hundred votes could swing an election. We must reach out to neighbors who have recently become U.S. citizens and those who recently moved to Arlington to keep their voter registration information updated. The acceptance of elections as free and fair depends upon broad participation in the process.
Maurine Shields Fanguy served as an election officer in 2020 and in prior Arlington elections. An Army brat who lived around the world, she is proud to adopt Arlington as her hometown where she works and raises two children.
By Rev. Jonathan Linman
A year ago, Resurrection Lutheran Church in Westover voted to call me as their pastor. Shortly thereafter, the global pandemic was declared and the congregation, in keeping with safety protocols, discontinued meeting for Sunday worship. Only once have I experienced this congregation as a people that actually congregates in the church building in person on Sundays!
Meanwhile, our entire nation entered into at least three intersecting crises – the pandemic, the economic upheaval that resulted, along with people pouring into the streets throughout the country to protest unjust killings of Black persons at the hands of police.
What a way to begin a new ministry with people I barely knew, and to seek to lead them through these crises. Yet, there was significant energy among leaders in our Congregation Council (our board of directors) to respond to the crises.
In response to the pandemic, motivated by love of our most vulnerable neighbors, and like most other churches, we went online and provided resources for worship at home. In response to the economic crisis, we are collecting food twice a month, a doubling of our usual practice, donating what we collect to the Arlington Food Assistance Center. In response to the call for racial justice, our Council voted in June 2020 to place Black Lives Matter signs and banners on our church property to publicly signal support for racial justice.
This latter initiative, as you can imagine, provoked the most energetic response. Within an hour of the signs’ placement, I began to receive emails and phone messages both from members of the congregation and people in the wider community expressing opposition to the signs on church property. There were also expressions of support for this public witness.
The decision to place the Black Lives Matter signs was the result of thoughtful deliberation by the lay leaders on our Council. But the deliberation was undertaken via meetings on Zoom and within group email exchanges – not ideal ways to engage on sensitive and difficult topics. Yet, the urgency of our days prompted the decision to go forward with the signs.
Alas, thoughtful deliberation about all of this did not benefit from the salutary effects of people gathering in person, face to face, for heartfelt conversation. Moreover, there was not occasion to hear from wider segments of the congregation so that viewpoints across the political spectrum could be heard. I regret that, but the urgency of the crises and the limitations of our digital formats precluded what otherwise might have been a more holistic and orderly process of discernment and decision-making.
As pastor of this congregation, I certainly hold forth a vision that our church will be a community of moral discernment that thoughtfully engages the salient issues of our day in ways that honor and respect a wide array of viewpoints – conservative, progressive and moderate. I especially envision this congregation to be a place of civil civic discourse, a reality in short supply during these divisive days across our nation. I hope that ours will be a congregation in which we can agree to disagree on some topics, and yet remain in community together, bound to each other in the love of God for the sake of the healing of the nations.
Still, amidst the messiness of our pandemic-induced realities, our Council resolved to make public our support for racial justice. It strikes me that this is in keeping with our congregation’s Lutheran tradition when Martin Luther, protesting the materialism and the spiritual and theological abuses of the church in his day, nailed his 95 Theses to the church door, ultimately saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God.”
Jonathan Linman is Pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church on Washington Boulevard in Arlington. In May of 2020 he relocated here after 18 years in New York City, where he was a professor at The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church and a Bishop’s Assistant in the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the authors’.
“A thankless job.”
“Your life is not your own.”
“A toxic environment out there.”
These are perceptions among some in the community of what it’s like to be on the School Board these days. If even some of the comments are true, why should a good person run? And why should we care?
For starters, the decisions the School Board makes deal with two things most valuable to many people who live here–their children, and their property values. Good schools are a top factor in choosing where to raise a family and they contribute to strong property values. Good schools also strongly influence what makes Arlington an attractive place for businesses to locate and grow. With all that at stake, we need strong, principled, experienced leaders making the decisions on the School Board and thinking strategically.
Given the upcoming School Board vacancy and a Democratic caucus likely in May, the Progressive Voice editors sat down with a few knowledgeable experts to ask their thoughts on what makes a top-notch board member.
Big-Picture, Whole System Outlook. “The primary quality I want to see is somebody that sees all of Arlington,” says Stacy Snyder, who has served on the APS Advisory Council on Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) and is currently vice-chair of the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC). “They understand that every decision, whether a boundary or something else, affects all of Arlington.” Snyder understands that “we all come with our own perspectives, experiences with certain schools,” but says, “I’d want to see someone who’s open to learning, evolving.”
Long-Term Perspective. The Arlington school system has had challenges with growth and capacity of buildings over the past decade, leading to a slew of construction projects amid frustration over a lack of land. Greg Greeley, a veteran of FAC over several years, refers to this situation when explaining why he’s looking for a candidate’s long-range mindset. “The thinking has been more ‘Where can we build the fastest?’ when it should have been ‘Where can we build to best fit the needs of the system?'”
Greeley adds that “There’s a good chance we’ll need a fourth high school in the next 20 years.” Hearing a candidate detail how she or he would approach the problem would “reveal a lot.” Greeley explains that in discerning a candidate’s long-term perspective, he would be listening for depth in how “they describe the problem.”
Deep Knowledge of Facts, Strong Work Ethic. Many candidates list various organizations they’ve been involved with. But a person’s depth of experience and contribution can vary greatly. To get a clearer picture, former School Board member Tannia Talento says, “I’d zero in, like ‘I see you were on the Budget Committee. What did you think of last year’s budget?’
Snyder observes, “When candidates talk…I want to see that they know their facts. If I heard a candidate talk about an inequity that’s not really based on fact, but more in outrage, then it’s a sign.” She worries “when people choose outrage over information.” Snyder says, “If x percent of third-graders aren’t reading at grade level, I don’t want [candidates] giving a solution without showing me how it’s going to work.”
Greely agrees that School Board candidates and members must go beyond platitudes. “The question should be ‘How would or could you make this good idea happen?'” Read More
By Detta Kissel and Charles Head
A growing group of Arlingtonians are calling for the County to form a broadband authority to provide high-speed, low-cost internet.
This movement arose in response to scenes of school children accessing lessons in fast food parking lots, along with others seeking jobs, vaccines, and assistance. The pandemic has only highlighted what was there all along, excessively high-priced internet access that created a digital divide, leaving some Arlington residents without access to services essential to modern life, and everyone paying more than we should.
The pandemic also revealed that not just any internet connection will do. During this pandemic, working parents compete with their children for bandwidth, and social and civic engagement requires a reliable connection. Non-fiber connections are quickly overwhelmed, leading some providers to respond with data caps, price-hikes, and throttling. Only optical fiber provides reliable, high speed internet connectivity that can handle the demands of any household, now and in the future.
To eliminate the digital divide and protect all residents from higher rates, slower speeds, and reduced services, Arlington should join other jurisdictions in Virginia and around the country that treat the internet as a utility, with optical fiber infrastructure owned by the locality.
Virginia law allows localities to establish broadband networks by creating a broadband authority, an entity similar to a utility commission. A broadband authority is a flexible tool that can build and own infrastructure, and provide internet service directly, or license network access to multiple internet service providers who compete for customers. While customers would not be required to switch to service provided through the broadband authority, experience shows that broadband authorities provide higher quality internet service at lower rates, due to the increased competition. What’s more, Arlington need not go it alone; we could partner with adjacent jurisdictions to create a regional network with greater economies of scale and cost sharing.
Does this sound expensive? There are three things to remember. The first is that Arlington already built the backbone of this network. Nearly 10 years ago, the county government made a strategic investment that has more than paid for itself — it chose to build a fiber network to provide its own internet services rather than remain dependent upon a large telecom. While building its network for government needs, the County included fiber sufficient to provide service to every home and business in Arlington. The task that remains is to extend the County’s network by running fiber to homes and businesses in Arlington.
Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Reid Goldstein
We all talk about it, but without pulling together, we can’t achieve it. Equity, that is.
Arlington Public Schools’ definition of equity is found in its Strategic Plan, which aspires to “Eliminate opportunity gaps and achieve excellence by providing access to schools, resources, and learning opportunities according to each student’s unique needs.”
However, eliminating opportunity gaps and achieving excellence is more difficult when our students — upper and lower income, native English and English learner households — are separated from their peers due to decades-old land use and housing policies that exacerbate inequity. When the County Board approves new housing developments or expands density in the same few areas of the County, the same set of schools are repeatedly impacted. And where schools are repeatedly impacted, stability is disrupted, and opportunity gaps can and do widen to adversely impact equity in our school system.
Newly approved multi-family residences bring increased school enrollment which inevitably spurs additional relocatables, potential capital expansion, boundary changes, staffing changes, bus route changes, program moves, and parent organization leadership and advocacy changes. While these are normal growing pains, the growing happens repeatedly in the same places.
To eliminate opportunity gaps and achieve excellence, the School Board needs the County Board’s help in managing growth and looking at its consequences, especially where increased density is contemplated. One strategy needs to be a commitment to greater socio-economic integration in the classroom.
Greater classroom socio-economic integration is a path to universal opportunity for a shared educational experience and the social intelligence and awareness that comes from exposure to peers from wide-ranging walks of life. The Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg has written extensively on its benefits. In addition to improved academic outcomes, classroom socio-economic integration can narrow the opportunity gap and create a 21st century workforce and citizenry adept at collaborating across diverse groups.
To reach the excellence that equity promises, all schools require sufficient funding for unique needs, high-quality staffing and professional learning support, and student and family engagement — all factors that strengthen a school’s stability. APS provides additional resources through increased staffing for schools with higher proportions of English learners, as well as staffing and funding through the Federal Title I program for students from economically disadvantaged households. Yet those additional resources have not achieved equity.
On its own, APS has limited tools to accomplish greater socio-economic integration in classrooms. Doing so through boundary readjustment faces the challenge of overcoming the geographic concentration of socio-economic disparities in the County. Relocating students out of their neighborhoods was one factor creating near-universal dislike of busing as that practice played out in the 1970s and 1980s. Further, school boards and communities have to wrestle with which neighborhoods are bused, and why.
A third method, option schools, can encourage a measure of socio-economic diversity. The percentage of students receiving free-and-reduced lunch, a measure of poverty, cluster around the county average at option schools Arlington Traditional School (31%), Claremont Immersion (31%), Key Immersion (39%) and the Montessori Public School of Arlington (28%), for example, in the most recent data available. Yet option schools also come with waiting lists, more students bused longer distances, higher transportation costs, less walking and the character of the school system tipping away from neighborhood schools.
Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Wesley Joe
Despite the heroic efforts of Arlington Public Schools (APS) staff, students and parents, our K-12 students are sustaining consequential learning losses this year. The declines are sharpest among more vulnerable students, such as English learners, special education students, and low-income minority kids. By the end of the school year, losses could be disastrous.
Looking at national achievement data from the fall, McKinsey and Co. found that “students of color could be 6 to 12 months behind, compared with 4 to 8 months for white students.” While the community grapples with the challenges of learning during a pandemic, we must also consider measures that enable students to make up the year’s lost ground.
In the hope of initiating a broader community conversation, I offer some suggestions. Planning for these efforts and finding funding must begin now. The recovery measures will cost money, preferably offset by temporary, supplemental state funding. Hence we must encourage our elected officials to put this issue on the agenda of the state legislative session that begins later this month. APS and the County Board also will need sufficient lead time to create alternative funding sources. A School Board member with whom I spoke acknowledged the difficulty of finding substantial new funding.
Recovery work should proceed mostly in face-to-face mode, once it is safe to do so. This view is based on parent feedback I’ve heard as a member of APS’s Math Advisory Committee, and my own experience as both an APS parent and someone who teaches online (albeit postsecondary, which in some ways is easier than K-12). APS students and teachers will recover learning losses more quickly and effectively in a live classroom. That said, virtual options should be available for families who need them.
As a start, APS should offer supplemental coursework to help reduce the learning losses. In high school, current students should be able to take an additional semester of classes. If doing so delays matriculation to college, a student could devote the remaining time to compensated community service, such as tutoring (more about this below), or earning transferable (and probably less expensive) college credits at an area postsecondary school (e.g. Northern Virginia Community College, George Mason University). Richmond should make this financially viable for the next several years, even though it’s expensive, because the long-term costs will be even greater than neglecting the learning losses.
The state, the Arlington County Board, or both should provide funding for APS to hold at least part-time summer school on a larger scale. Students who received D or lower grades, or who received low scores on key assessments, such as the highly predictive Math Inventory (a progress test that students take several times each school year), should be required to take summer make-up classes to achieve at grade-level. If we temporarily need additional teaching staff, hire some qualified, limited-term teachers. Indeed, Martin West at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that teachers who join the profession during a recession are at least as effective as those who start during boom times.
Additionally, limited mathematics and English language arts options (such as APS classes, Virtual Virginia, or postsecondary classes) should be available for students who perform at grade level but still need the deeper instructional engagements, such as deeper math work or more complex writing assignments and feedback, that were possibly sacrificed this year.
Summer school alone, however, will not suffice. APS must also offer supplements during the school year. APS could partner with local postsecondary schools to establish a Community Tutoring Corps. This group could be teachers’ “force multiplier” for high-intensity tutoring of small groups of students who have fallen far behind. Qualified college students and high school students could earn some kind of experiential learning course credit or perhaps tuition assistance for assisting with the tutoring.
The need to narrow the learning gap is urgent. I am certain that a community as creative and resourceful as Arlington can come up with even more ideas, which the superintendent and School Board can assess. Delay will only multiply the learning loss damage that is measured in financial costs, mental health problems, dropout rates and diminished prospects in life. Let’s begin that urgent conversation now.
Wesley Joe is a current APS parent, a member of the APS Math Advisory Committee, and a former member of the APS Advisory Council on Instruction. He has lived in Arlington for more than 20 years and teaches at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
By Rosaelena A. O’Neil
My daughter finally convinced me to upgrade my cell phone. I had been operating with a device that was about seven generations behind the times. She said, “Mom, it’s an investment worth making. What are you waiting for?”
When I fired up the new phone I couldn’t believe what I had been missing. I have a new appreciation for a “cell phone” – turns out it is a super computer!
In a similar vein, when we talk about higher education – and community colleges in particular – some people maintain an outdated, limited world view. Some believe community colleges like NOVA are “grade 13” or the higher education alternative for those less fortunate.
While the mission has always been to promote economic and social mobility, NOVA (Northern Virginia Community College) has seen an enormous “upgrade” in recent years. NOVA embodies equity and excellence in higher education.
Joel Vargas, a 2011 Wakefield alumnus, went to NOVA and earned his Associates degree in engineering. “My NOVA education gave me skills and perspective that positioned me to be successful leading diverse teams,” says Vargas. Today he is an established business owner and project manager and notes, “In my business we like to groom and grow talent. I see a bright future and long-term career in construction management.”
In education, NOVA has enabled equity through cost (less than half of the tuition and fees of other institutions); access (easy enrollment, flexible schedules, targeted advising and nearby campuses on public transit); responsiveness and agility (wrap-around services that meet students where they are and a key partner to the business community). A few examples:
- NOVA is urgently deploying the Reemploy Virginia Initiative launched by Gov. Ralph Northam in October. NOVA already distributed nearly $1.8MM for tuition and fees to re-skill northern Virginians jobs in high-demand fields who are unemployed or underemployed due to the pandemic.
- NOVA was awarded the Greater Washington Innovation Award for Jump Start, a tuition-free summer online course program for graduating high school seniors to earn college credit – a pandemic rapid-response program.
- NOVA and Arlington Public Schools are partners. Arlington graduates pursue technical and baccalaureate pathways or launch into ADVANCE – a co-enrollment pathway with George Mason University concluding in a four-year degree at a fraction of the cost. Our high school students benefit from increasingly diverse dual enrollment opportunities – college credit-bearing freshman and sophomore courses in English, social sciences, math and specialized science labs.
Kate Bates, President and CEO of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, notes, “Businesses in Arlington need a well-educated and skilled talent pipeline. NOVA is essential to achieving the goal of an educated regional workforce.” Looking at its range of students, NOVA is a living example of equity, serving high school graduates, adult learners, career switchers, veterans, and individuals wanting to upskill to maintain a competitive edge.
Arlingtonian Kallan Moore, who says she “wandered” after finishing a liberal arts degree, notes, “I’m more confident today in my ability to gain new skills. I credit NOVA for helping me see that I was capable of working in a field that I had perceived as inaccessible and intimidating.” Moore says that “NOVA took the mystery and jargon out of tech. I can see building a career that connects tech with my current work in the law.”
By Sen. Barbara Favola
Affordable healthcare is essential to the vibrancy of Arlington. It’s essential to giving everyone a fair shot at a decent living, along with other key elements such as education, jobs and housing.
Yet not all Arlingtonians have access to high quality, affordable health care. Today, 6.7% of Arlingtonians under 65 do not have health insurance, generally because they cannot afford it. By making healthcare more affordable and more focused on wellness, families would have more income to pay for housing and other necessities.
That is why in the General Assembly, I have been working toward a public option insurance plan. Under a public option plan, state lawmakers could require that essential health benefits such as primary and preventive care and mental health services be covered. Hospitalization and rehabilitation benefits would also be included. In short, we could create a required benefits package that promotes health.
A public option health insurance plan would expand insurance opportunities using private-sector insurance partners rather than replacing existing sources of coverage (e.g., employer-sponsored plans, the marketplaces, Medicare and Medicaid). There are also cost savings opportunities with public option plans. For example, a public option insurance plan could negotiate reasonable (not excessive) provider payment rates because providers would want to avail themselves of such a large share of the patient market.
It would also be possible to tie reimbursement rates to health outcomes, providing an incentive to keep individuals healthy rather than rewarding multiple visits to a provider. Such leverage would help lower premiums in the private market and encourage healthy behaviors.
If Virginia implemented a public option insurance plan and used federal and state funds to subsidize the premiums for those between 138% and 500% of poverty, I believe that the 6.7% of Arlingtonians who do not have health insurance could afford coverage.
Why Do Some Families Have Trouble Paying for Health Care Insurance Now?
Families with incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level ($36,156 for family of 4) qualify for Medicaid or Medicaid expansion, so they are covered now. However it is households with incomes between 138% and 500% of the federal poverty level ($131,000 for a family of 4) that face difficulty purchasing health insurance. In Arlington, approximately 40% of households are earning between $35,000 and $125,000 annually.
With the removal of an enforceable mandate under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), younger and healthier individuals are not buying insurance. This has created an environment where the cost of care is being distributed among a smaller and sicker pool of insured individuals. The result is a continual increase in health insurance premiums. For many who want to put in place a plan to pay for their health care, the expense of paying increasingly high health insurance from their disposable income is too burdensome.
Other Tools to Rein in Health Care Costs
Last year, my bill to end what’s known as “surprise medical billing” in Virginia passed. No longer will patients who receive out-of-network care in an emergency room or from a specialist during a planned procedure, be responsible for more than their usual co-pay or deductible. This new law sets up a process for insurance companies and providers to negotiate a fair reimbursement without the involvement of the patient.
For the 2021 session, I am submitting a bill to require the state to cover the costs of certain excessive insurance claims in an effort to slow the rate of increases in insurance premiums. This is called a reinsurance program. Several states have implemented such a program and have seen success in stabilizing the insurance market and premium costs. Gov. Ralph Northam’s team is evaluating this proposal and various ways of paying for the reinsurance fund.
Virginians Want and Need Affordable Healthcare
While much of the opportunity to make healthcare affordable requires federal policy reform, I
am working diligently to ensure that the laws of the Commonwealth are helping as much as possible to provide every Virginian with access to quality, affordable healthcare. I think we can all agree that access to healthcare is one of the building blocks for achieving a fair shot at a decent life. Together, we can make this a reality.
Sen. Barbara A. Favola represents Virginia’s 31st Senate district, which includes parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties, and a portion of Loudoun County. She is the Chair of the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee. Favola has championed many health, education and childcare improvements, such as the expansion of subsidies to improve access to quality early childhood education.