GNC President’s Report – 2020

GNC Annual Meeting – July 9, 2020 – Charles V. McPhillips


Well, after suffering through my harangues for six long years, you have to survive only this, my final 10-minute flight of oratory.  My microphone is about to drop.

First, let me thank you.  It has been a great honor to lead one of the most consequential organizations in this region, replete with so many of our community’s finest leaders.  As our Mayor wrote recently, for 42 years GNC has been “a major catalyst in propelling [Norfolk] forward by improving the competitiveness, vitality and resilience of our City.”

I have struggled for the past six years to find my footing on the shoulders of the civic giants who have labored at GNC over the years to make Norfolk a still greater city.  I have tried to follow the lead of these giants by envisioning a city that could be more enterprising, more beautiful, more innovative, more vibrant and more inclusive.

They, like I, loved Norfolk so much that we wanted to change it.

And change it we have done over the past few years.  We were in the vanguard in challenging the old economic development model that simply wasn’t delivering for our city and our region.  It was – and is – a losing strategy to focus exclusively, or even primarily, on recruiting companies from out of town to relocate or open their next branch here – all by hawking our relatively cheap real estate and cheap labor while striving in vain to compete against the extra helpings of incentives that more cash-rich communities can spoon out.

Instead, we have argued that talent is our destiny.  And we have control of our destiny!  Developing, attracting and retaining the best innovative, entrepreneurial, diverse and creative talent are the true keys to our future success.  And one of the best ways to achieve that success is to build upon our competitive advantages stemming from a rich cluster of physical, economic and networking assets arrayed in productive density along the Elizabeth River Trail.

That’s why converting a 10.5 mile bike path into the most iconic urban riverfront trail in the country – one to which Millennials and folks of all ages are beginning to flock – is pivotal to recruiting and retaining the talent we need to diversify and power our economy.

Likewise for the Norfolk Innovation Corridor, the business overlay on that Trail.  The Corridor will attach entrepreneurs to Norfolk because it is where they will find what they need – be it talent, technology spin-offs, mentors, influencers, capital, broadband or a small dollop of incentives – in order to grow their businesses in America’s most resilient city.

The Corridor and the Trail will help us attract and retain the talent we need.  But, friends, let’s be honest.  We need to do much better in developing our homegrown talent base.  Amazon and Microsoft are not investing heavily in Northern Virginia because of its quality of life or the incentives they have been awarded.  They could do better on both fronts elsewhere.  No, they are going to Northern Virginia to find the talent they need.

So why can’t we develop that kind of talent here?  Why do they have a Thomas Jefferson Governor’s School for Science and Technology and we do not have (yet) the Governor’s School for Innovation and Entrepreneurship that we have long advocated and most of our region’s senior business and political leaders have endorsed?

And, for our students who do not necessarily aspire to four-year and graduate degrees, why don’t we have (yet) the state-of-the-art career and technical education that will inspire and prepare them for the well-paid and highly skilled positions that, pre-COVID, so many of you could not fill, and that post-COVID, we will need to rebuild our economy?

It’s too long a story to answer those questions here.  Suffice it comes down to money and political will.  But we cannot give up our long-term pursuit of either of these game changers.

In the meantime, however, here are some cold, hard facts that we at GNC simply must confront.

One-third of Norfolk’s schools are not accredited and several rank among the lowest in the state in reading and math scores.  Lindenwood, for example, a school I have visited on multiple occasions (and whose fourth grade class has visited me), has not been accredited in 12 years.  Twelve years – that’s practically an entire generation of students we have failed to prepare for a 21st Century knowledge-based economy!

You know what I am about to say is true – when your companies recruit talented new employees who bring their families here, they are told, perhaps not by you, but by just about everyone else, that they will need to live in the suburbs if they want an acceptable public school option for their families.  In Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, after all, every single school is accredited.

It doesn’t have to stay this way.  We brought David Osborne here last year to show us a proven, equitable way out of this predicament.  Here is what he told us that no one has refuted.

New Orleans:  Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans public schools were among the worst in the country.  Almost half of New Orleans’ students dropped out, and 62% of students attended schools rated failing by the state.

Now that almost all (98%) of public school students attend charter schools of their choice, New Orleans boasts the most improved educational system in the country.  Almost three-fourths of its high school students are now graduating within five years (vs about half before), and only 8% of New Orleans’ students now attend failing schools (vs 62% before).

Denver:  Not too long ago, almost 1/3 of its 98,000 school seats were empty.  Denver Public Schools lagged the state by 25 percentage points in English and math scores.  The Democratic Mayor, John Hickenlooper, brought in a new Superintendent (current U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, another Democrat), to make changes.

56 out of Denver’s 204 public schools were converted to charters, while another 47 schools were re-structured similarly as “innovation schools”.

The dropout rate has now fallen from 11% to 4%.  Pre-charters, only 39% of Denver’s students graduated from high school within four years; now, two-thirds graduate on time.  And the 25 percentage point gap in English and math has shrunk to four percentage points.

Indianapolis:  In 1960, Indianapolis Public Schools sported an enrollment of 100,000 students; by 2005, it had about half that number.  A restive business community and a Democratic mayor demanded change.  Now, charters currently educate one-third of Indianapolis’ public school students.

Although charters in Indianapolis serve a poorer population and receive $4,200 less per pupil than district-run schools, charters outperform district schools in tests of English and math proficiency by whopping margins.

The Compounding Effect in Urban School Districts:  On average nationwide, students who remain in urban charter schools for at least four years can expect their annual academic growth to be 108 days greater in math and 72 days greater in reading, compared to their demographic twins in the old-model district schools.  That’s 108 days or 72 days of more academic growth out of a 180-day school year every year!  As investment professionals would tell you, the compounding effect of these annual gains is simply off the charts.  Our students in Norfolk are therefore falling further and further behind.

Waiting Lists:  You may not remember any of these statistics.  But here is a number you will remember:  there are over one million students on waiting lists for admission to charter schools across the country!  That’s what I call a buying signal from those who should know what’s best for their kids!

Racial Disparities:  We must take note of this moment in which our nation is convulsed over racial inequities.  Rather than recycling platitudes, we need action to extend the promise of the American Dream to everyone, from all walks of life, from all races.  We know that a good education is a passport into the mainstream of the American economy.

However, significant racial disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes stubbornly persist.  If children do not become proficient in math in school, they will be locked out of many of the highest-paying careers.  Likewise, if students do not proficiently comprehend, write and speak the English language, they too will be excluded from many of the most lucrative professions in our economy.  We simply must close the racial achievement gap in our schools!

Here’s the good news.  Charters can do that!  The proof can be found in the Big Apple.

In New York City, where the waiting list for charter schools is 50,000 souls, there are 65 charter schools located in the very same building as a traditional district school.  The demographics of the two types of schools – race, family income and the like are essentially identical.  The charter students are chosen by lottery, so there is no cherry picking the best students.

Here is what you need to know:  (1) the charter students outperform their demographic twins in the same school building by a wide margin, often by multiples; and (2) the Black and Hispanic students in these and other New York City charters are outperforming white students statewide.  These results put to the lie any suggestion that minority students can’t be empowered to compete with white students.  Given the school environment of their choice, they not only compete but win!

Norfolk  No more excuses.  Unlike with the Governor’s School or CTE, money is not a valid excuse for failure to act:  nationwide, charters get, on average, 28% less funding per pupil than the old-model district schools.  It all comes down to political will.  When the business community rises up, in tandem with courageous elected officials, the pleas of our families for a better future can finally be heard.

Like many of you, I have been affiliated mostly with private schools.  Perhaps the crowning achievement of my life will prove to be the founding of Saint Patrick’s.  I confess it is tempting to write off the public schools and focus all of my attention on that excellent 400-student Catholic school in which so much of my life is invested.  But that would mean turning my back on the 30,000 students who depend on good public schools for their future.  Their future is a large part of our City’s future.  If Greater Norfolk Corporation is not willing to speak up for the change that these kids and we so desperately need, then perhaps we should pack it in as an organization.  But quitting on our City and shrinking from necessary change is not what GNC has been about for the past 42 years, so I pray and believe that we will be the agent for further changing a City we all so dearly love.