The Rural horseshoe

This map shows what the Virginia Community College System calls “the rural horseshoe.” If rural Virginia were a separate state, it would be tied for last place in the nation for educational attainment, while the rest of Virginia would rank second. In the rural horseshoe, 19 percent of adults have failed to graduate from high school, while in the rest of Virginia the figure is only 10 percent. In the rural horseshoe, only 27 percent of adults have an associate’s degree or higher. In the rest of Virginia, the figure is 47 percent. The numbers indicate the location of Virginia’s community colleges within the rural horseshoe.

By Gerald Baliles

Baliles is a former governor of Virginia. This is excerpted from a recent speech he delivered to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Several years ago, with SCHEV’s leadership, the Commonwealth adopted a strategic plan that calls for Virginia to be the best educated state by 2030, less than 12 years from now.

Yet, I am puzzled, for I cannot find anything in the Plan that is evident that the “Best Educated State” goal can be achieved without solving or significantly reducing the “two Virginias” problem. This is where, as it must, hard, cold reality enters the picture.

Let me show you a map developed by Virginia’s community college officials.

What we call the Golden Crescent began to emerge in the 1950s and accelerated with the urban, suburban growth of Northern Virginia, the Richmond Metropolitan area and Hampton Roads.

Today it is the beating heart of Virginia’s economy. But, then, there is the rest of the Commonwealth. There is, broadly speaking, a rural geographic band around the outer perimeter of much of Virginia, starting at the top of the Eastern Shore and sweeping down to its Southern tip, across Southside and Southwest Virginia, turning north and going up much of the western edge of the Commonwealth.

It is something of a stylized “rural horseshoe,” embracing some 2.1 million people, more than 70 percent of the state’s geography.

Many of the small towns and villages in this so-called “rural horseshoe,” especially the areas of Southside and Southwest Virginia, have lost much of their commercial and manufacturing bases.

Revenues are a pale shadow of the past. Education suffers, unemployment and opioids abound, the quality of life is diminished. The economic future of many of those communities, simply put, is questionable.

If you were to take the “rural horseshoe” and hold it up against the Golden Crescent, the contrasts are stunning. Two Virginias! Moreover, according to our community college system officials, if the “rural horseshoe” region were considered a separate state, it would be tied for dead last with Mississippi and West Virginia for educational attainment levels—dead last for citizens with high school diplomas; dead last for citizens with college degrees. Think about that.

What’s the impact on Virginia’s reaching the Best Educated State objective?

The future of economic growth of that region, indeed anywhere, is dependent upon an educated citizenry and a trained workforce.

So, where do we go from here?

My own preference: It is the old answer. It is the truest source of democratic strength and the most reliable path to a better future: Education and plenty of it; especially higher education in all its forms. Concern has grown and things are happening.

For example, Virginia’s Community College System has been conducting a “pilot program” in four of its rural based community college service areas, the 10-year goal being to double the number of adults with a high school diploma or GED equivalent; and triple the number of students going to college. The University of Virginia, UVa-Wise, and Virginia Tech have initiatives in the rural region under way.

All of this is to the good, but it is incremental in scope and uncoordinated in efforts. What is required, I submit, is something larger in scope and scale, a more comprehensive and coordinated program to “lift up the people” of an area “down on their luck.”

Education is the ticket to their future; for in today’s world, education and training must precede economic growth, not the other way around.

In fact, failing some concerted effort at intervention — where we face up to this reality and do something big — the situation probably gets worse and will continue to vex Virginia’s overall future. So, something must move. Let me pose a few ideas. You know, just ask some questions.

Why not consider a “Marshall Plan for rural Virginia?” George Marshall wouldn’t mind. The distinguished former Secretary of State was a Virginian, after all.

Why not undertake a bold, comprehensive and coordinated educational effort for the region that actively recruits students and older adults to the classrooms and workshops? If we can actively recruit athletes, why not students and older adults? Why not provide in every county and community throughout the region academic courses and workforce training that engages the mind, lifts the spirits, sharpens skills and demonstrates the power of education and hope for a better future?

Why not establish shared responsibility among our public colleges and universities for providing life-long education programs, online instruction and financial incentives to enroll and complete educational programs throughout the counties, cities and towns of the “rural horseshoe?”

After all, shouldn’t all of Virginia’s public colleges and universities be a vital part of such an intensive educational revitalization of the rural region? And why not invite the independent colleges of the rural horseshoe to join in this enterprise?

And who should take the lead in such a bold endeavor?

How about this agency? SCHEV, in its role of coordinating higher educational efforts in the Commonwealth, could be the ‘lead dog” in this hunt for the region’s better future of economic growth through education.

How should such a Marshall Plan be developed, organized and administered? SCHEV, in its coordinating and advocacy roles, could provide the “convening power” to work with the higher education community, business and civic leaders across the Commonwealth to provide a “working draft” of such a Plan for the Governor and the General Assembly to consider in building the Commonwealth’s FY’20-‘22 biennial budget, a document that will begin to be shaped next year, 2019.

Yes, the program would cost money. It will not be in the category of “pocket change.” But, the words of the 1989 Commission on the University of the 21st Century bear repeating: “the state can aspire to excellent education only if it is willing to pay for it.”

Today’s cold hard demographics of Virginia’s “rural horseshoe,” especially Southside and Southwest Virginia, are hard for anyone of conscience to ignore.

Yes, the decision regarding costs and funding sources, ultimately, lies with the Governor and General Assembly after consideration of plans, metrics and timing.

So, we need the plans, the metrics, the projected costs and revenues—and a calendar. SCHEV, in coordination with the rest of higher education, could get “the ball rolling.” For starters, let me mention one potential funding source for the initial expansion of educational opportunities in part of the rural horseshoe: The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. A little history is helpful here. The Tobacco Commission was established almost 20 years ago, in 1999, to administer Virginia’s share of the Master Settlement of federal litigation proceeds between 46 states and the tobacco manufacturers.

Virginia’s share was $4.2 billion, of which the Commonwealth dedicated $2.1 billion to the Tobacco Commission with two goals:

1. To indemnify growers for the loss of federal quota rights to grow tobacco.

2. To “revitalize the tobacco communities” with the remaining amount (later estimated at $1.5 billion dollars).

As I understand it, indemnification payments of $309 million were completed or suspended sometime ago, while the larger amount of more than $1.3 billion in assets have been dispensed by a 28-member board to 2,132 grants and loans to a variety of projects and initiatives across Southside and Southwest Virginia.

According to the Commission’s annual report, approximately a half billion dollars ($466,647) remains.

Arguably, with some exceptions, such as Danville, the rural region of Southside and Southwest Virginia is in worse shape today than 20 years ago when the Tobacco Commission had more than $2 billion to “transform” the region as the legislation required. Look at the educational attainment levels.

Perhaps a better use of the remaining Virginia Tobacco Commission funds would be to consider how to turn them into a “trust fund” for education, including expanded funding of community college education for the citizens of the region, especially since Virginia’s community college costs for tuition and total mandatory fees are the eighth highest in the nation. To date, the region is a long way from the transformation that was anticipated.

The subject of education and workforce training must be part and parcel of every public policy discussion and decision throughout the region.

That subject must permeate the consciousness of the citizenry at large.

As we know, there is “in the air” these days talk of tax windfalls and tax reform, due to last year’s changes in the federal tax code. Something similar happened when I was in office.

In the months ahead, the “talk” will turn to proposals, then debates and decisions.

This might be the moment when the question should be posed: given its value in an uncertain world, whether in good times or bad, should there be a sustainable funding source for education?

If there is a non-general trust fund for transportation in the biennial budget, funded from gasoline taxes and related sources, why not a dedicated source of funding for higher education, indeed all of education?

The design of such a funding model, understandably, would generate much debate, but that is not without merit. For the occasion would provide an opportunity for a robust engagement on this irrefutable point: that education has value that should not be “turned on and off” like a faucet.

Interestingly, a sustained funding source for higher education could be of immense value in the Commonwealth’s reaching its proclaimed goal of the Best Educated State in the nation in less than a dozen years.

Remember this: the cold, hard demographics are evident; the challenges are constant and evolving, but “nothing happens until something moves”.

In my judgment, it’s time to move. Just look at the map.

For the full version of Baliles’ speech, see roanoke.com/opinion.

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