Governor Glenn Youngkin came into office in Virginia at a difficult time for an aspiring politician who clearly has higher ambitions. Virginia has had a truly remarkable several years irrespective of the pandemic. How is a governor to show leadership if he leads a state that is doing well? The answer has unfolded over the past several months as the governor runs breathlessly to get ahead of where Virginia is among the states. He has had to employ some apples and oranges comparisons and some cherry picking to make himself relevant.
Cherry picking data includes picking numbers that make the Commonwealth look bad. In fact, nowhere mentioned in his use of facts and figures is the fact that Virginia has the 17th highest per capita gross domestic product at $70,000 after a steady growth from $60,282 in 2019. Virginia’s per capita personal income in 2021 was $66,305, the 12th highest in the nation. The governor proclaimed in his speech to the General Assembly earlier this year that “the people of Virginia are overtaxed.” According to Census Department numbers, however, Virginia has the 43rd lowest state and local revenue as a percentage of personal income. Since 2004 Virginia has ranked among the lowest 25% of states for its state and local revenue as a percentage of personal income.
It is in the area of education that the governor stretches the limits on believability in his use of data. He has some limited hooks on which to build an argument for improving schools with the pandemic impacts having had a negative impact on school success in every state. However, he needs to consider where Virginia schools rank among independent sources. According to WalletHub.com, a company that specializes in complex statistical analyses, Virginia had the 4th best schools in the Nation in 2022 based on 32 key metrics they considered. Only Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey had better scores on quality and safety of schools than Virginia. Intelligent.com used key metrics related to performance, safety, community, investment, class size, and attendance for all 50 states and ranked Virginia 5th in academic performance and 6th overall of the best schools in the nation. Scholaroo.com used 42 key indicators to compare school systems across the country, and in their 2022 report they ranked Virginia as the 5th best among all the factors.
Throughout his speech the governor insisted that Virginia be compared with North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas. Virginia was 29th lowest among the states in state and local funding pre-k through 12 — certainly he does not want us to aspire to be like Georgia at 30th, Texas at 36th, Florida at 43rd, Tennessee at 44th, or North Carolina at 46th. Only South Carolina among his states for comparison exceeds Virginia.
The governor ended his speech with a higher calling: “This is our own moment to eternalize in the books of history how we lived up to the Spirit of Virginia.” We must not do it, however, by comparing apples and oranges or cherry picking the story of history. Or as some would say, with smoke and mirrors!