Ken Plum: Old dogs and new tricks

ken plumRegardless of the old adage, it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks. In fact, if old dogs are to survive in a modern world characterized by rapid change they must adopt many new tricks of survival and adaptation. Those who do not are headed to the scrap pile of history to serve as examples for those who follow.

As I have mentioned in this column many times, the forerunner of the Virginia General Assembly met first in 1619 making it the oldest continuous legislative body in this hemisphere. Sometimes our current General Assembly meets serious challenges as the leader in change for the good, but too often it acts as a barrier to change that was needed. I was reminded of this in my recent attendance at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). NCSL describes the states as the laboratories of democracy where different histories, culture, and geography define each of the 50 states with similar challenges for which various approaches to governance are tried. As I explained last week, we can learn a great deal from each other as we meet together. I will share several examples that I think make my point.

All states are struggling with making higher education more accessible, affordable and relevant. Most state higher education systems are based on models that date back centuries. Most agree that those models are not meeting the needs of the students of today. I attended a session at NCSL where the president of the University of Arizona spoke on the changes he has brought about at his school in increasing enrollment, raising the graduation rate, reducing student debt, and increasing research dollars all while decreasing the per student costs. His story is a very impressive one that can be most easily explained by his setting aside the usual model of university organization and operation and the adoption of an enterprise model that combines good educational policies with successful business practices. We need to take a hard look at adopting some of these successful practices in Virginia.

The conference was in California that is suffering through historically high temperatures, a very serious drought and wild fires that are devouring thousands of acres. My cell phone was set to alert me of happenings back home in Virginia. I got regular alerts of heavy rains, lightening, flash flooding and road closures. It is obvious that the federal government is not going to provide leadership on climate change that is at the root of these issues, and the states must take on the responsibility.

A final example of the need for the old dogs of state legislatures to step up and provide leadership is in juvenile justice reform. We must reduce the classroom to prison pipeline by intervening early with young people in need of services and assistance to keep kids out of prisons that increase rather than resolve their problems. It is less expensive and more humane. Virginia is doing a much better job in this area, but I was also impressed with what I heard is going on in Kentucky and California.

Old and new legislative leaders must learn new solutions!

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