A common lament of governors: ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’

July 18, 2023 12:04 am

Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks to reporters after a Veteran’s Day event in Richmond (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

Who could begrudge giving grants to families of children whose schooling was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to help those students catch up on learning lost in those dark days of shuttered classrooms and instruction via Zoom?

Gov. Glenn Youngkin sensed the need and he ultimately put $60 million that was allocated to Virginia as part of the federal pandemic relief package into “learning acceleration grants.”

A win-win proposition, right? It wasn’t state tax money in play but a federal windfall. And its need was clear after a national assessment done post-pandemic showed Virginia had the sharpest drop of any state in reading scores among fourth graders.

Also, giving moms and dads money to help the kids jump-start their interrupted educations is a savvy follow-up for a Republican governor who came out of political oblivion and leveraged the issue of parental involvement in their children’s schools to upset a well-funded Democratic former governor. Besides, it’s good campaign fodder should Youngkin seek higher office sometime soon.

All went swimmingly for a few months after Youngkin announced the program in March. Virginia parents found out about the grants and applied. Then, in the span of just a few news cycles this month, it all slouched southward.

A journalist at Richmond’s WTVR-TV caught wind of parents distressed that their repeated efforts to secure the grants to underwrite tutoring for their kids were being repeatedly rejected. Then the station followed up with an educator who explained why she bailed on the program after signing on as a tutor, calling it “a disaster” and “a hot mess.”

No one asked for lesson plans, the tutor  told WTVR. There was no  agreement on her compensation.

“I could teach a ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ drawing class,” the educator said, noting that she twice emailed the Virginia Department of Education asking if her class plans met expectations necessary to receive reimbursement and got no reply.

As it turns out, the program the administration rushed into place didn’t comply with state and federal laws that require payments to be made on a reimbursement basis, something the state superintendent of education didn’t notify grant recipients of until June 28. In other words, to draw down the grants, parents had to pay for the tutoring up front and then submit receipts to get reimbursed.

Last week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that low-income households whose students suffered most from pandemic learning loss comprised fewer than one-fourth of the applicants. Of the nearly 35,000 students approved for the grants, the newspaper reported,  just under 8,250 were from families with incomes below the threshold of three times the federal poverty limit, each of whom qualify for $3,000 grants. But almost 26,500 exceeded the economic means metric, making them eligible for grants of $1,500 each.

When asked about the program’s varied dysfunctions last week, Youngkin rightly stressed the need for the grants, noted that changes had been put in place to make the program compliant, but then dismissed the problems as affecting only “a handful.”

Let’s not impugn Youngkin’s motives; I suspect they were good. I think he saw a real need, and believed he had an easy solution with the means and opportunity to make it happen. But this is government, where nothing’s ever as easy or straightforward as it might appear.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time” is a common benediction that gubernatorial administrations apply — always after the fact — to well-intended initiatives that become punch lines.

There was that time Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine closed rest areas along Virginia interstate highways when he was upset at Republican lawmakers’ budget cuts to human services in the depths of a brutal recession in 2009. It did nothing to restore the lost funding, but it irked motorists and earned him unflattering national press coverage.

Every governor has had bad-idea days. Youngkin’s predecessor, Democrat Ralph Northam, had several: one was when his administration seemed asleep at the switch as the Parole Board released convicted killers without notifying members of a victim’s family; another featured his inaction as the Virginia Employment Commission froze when it was flooded with pandemic-related claims for unemployment benefits.

The system in Virginia is not kind to governors, who have a tight and rushed learning curve because ours is the only state that denies chief executives the opportunity for reelection. By the time they figure it out, moving vans are backing up to the Executive Mansion.

That’s particularly true of governors with zero public-sector experience who arrive with too much hubris and too little knowledge, like Youngkin, or another one of his predecessors from the world of venture capital, Mark Warner.

Warner had enough involvement in Democratic politics — he managed L. Douglas Wilder’s successful 1989 gubernatorial campaign — to appreciate his limitations. So he made Bill Leighty, a wily Capitol Square yeoman who has forgotten more intricate detail about how state government works than most people will ever know, his chief of staff.

Not that Warner didn’t stumble. For two years, he salved welts a Republican General Assembly dealt him before learning how to play their cutthroat game and push his signature tax reform bill through an overwhelmingly Republican legislature in 2004.

Warner’s inherent cautiousness yoked to Leighty’s encyclopedic knowledge and meticulous preparation averted many avoidable migraines that afflict governors who shoot from the hip.

I had a front-row seat to watch Leighty deftly navigate through Rube Goldberg regulations, obscure statutes and bureaucratic tripwires like those Youngkin’s staff triggered in the learning recovery grants rollout. He unpacks a lot more that the press never knew about in his autobiographical “Capitol Secrets: Leadership Wisdom from a Lifetime of Public Service,” published earlier this year.

Now retired, Leighty regales friends with his war stories, but the abiding moral is that governing goes better when governors and their minions talk less and listen more, particularly to those who’ve done the work. He calls them the “gray-hairs and the no-hairs.”

He also recommends engaging mid- and low-level workers who anonymously pull the agency levers that put policy into action year-in and year-out.

“I call them the B-team,” he told me last week. “They [will] be here when governors arrive and they [will] be here when they leave.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]