Thursday, June 25, 2009

A fair comparison

The Advocate has a compare-and-contrast editorial on today's opinion page that borrows heavily from an op-ed written by Bob Mann back in March for the New Orleans Times Picayune.

The theme of both pieces is that during the great depression, in the 1930s, Governor Huey Long wisely made LSU a top funding priority. The result was a flowering of academic excellence that included the genesis of LSU Press and The Southern Review.

How does Gov. Bobby Jindal measure up to the standard set by The Kingfish, according to historian Mann?

Today, Louisiana is governed by another young governor into whose hands
history has thrust the responsibility of balancing his state's budget during
dire economic times. Bobby Jindal's imaginative response to this crisis? Slash
by 15 percent the budgets of LSU and other state-funded colleges and

What's lacking today is what Mann - and a growing number of observers around the state - is the kind of visionary leadership that convinced Long to put education first in an economy that, by any standard, was much worse than today's economic downturn.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

So what is Plan B?

The House of Representatives turned down a last gasp effort to raise $118 million for higher education by postponing a tax break for wealthier taxpayers, Advocate reporter Michelle Millhollon writes here. Higher education still faces devastating budget cuts. What's the plan, leaders?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Another fine mess

Comic Oliver Hardy ended any number of the classic short films he made with partner Stan Laurel with the line: "This is another fine mess you've gotten us into."

The comment comes to mind after reading the last line of this Advocate editorial about how the state got into the sorry economic mess we're facing.

It was the questionable actions of our so-called "leaders" that made Louisiana's mess worse than it ought to be. By reversing the reforms embodied in the 2002 Stelly plan, they made the current situation inevitable. As the Advocate puts it:

When the Legislature was flush with money, just two short years ago, the
warning signs were already out: Record-high oil prices and hurricane-recovery
revenues would not last forever. But the temptation was too great, and lawmakers
under Govs. Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal drastically cut state income

Now, the Gray Lady of Baton Rouge says, it's time to fix the mess. If not, it will get worse because federal tax changes could cost Louisiana another $200 million per year in lost revenues.

The problem is, any fix will require our wealthier citizens to pony up a bit more, and they are the same ones who pitched such a fit over the Stelly reforms. We could see the coming of another fine mess they're getting us into.

Jindal may intervene in alternative school flap

Reported by Gannett's Mike Hasten: Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has threatened to veto a bill protecting the Ewell S. Aiken Optional School in Alexandria from state takeover, may have a compromise in the works.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Picayune: Pastorek "dressed down" by lawmaker

As was reported in the LFT's Weekly Legislative Digest (click here and scroll down), State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek had a bad day in the legislature on Thursday.

The Senate Education Committee's decision to endorse a bill protecting one Rapides Parish alternative school from state takeover was a reproof to both Pastorek and Gov. Bobby Jindal,who sent his education advisor to testify against the bill. The governor also sent lawmakers a note saying he would veto the bill if it passes.

As reported here by The Times-Picayune's Bill Barrow, the Pastorek's defeat came on the heels of a "blistering critique" by Sen. Yvonne Dorsey (D-Baton Rouge).

What has insiders puzzled is the simple fact that this train wreck didn't have to happen.

At issue is the Ewell S. Aiken Optional School, which gives over age and non-traditional students a chance to earn a high school diploma. While the school's test scores have risen over the years, it meets the current state criteria for the takeover of an academically unacceptable school.

Rep. Herbert Dixon, author of the bill in question, and the Rapides Parish School Board say it is unreasonable to apply state accountability rules to alternative schools.

The state in fact agrees, and the Department of Education is working on a different set of standards for alternative schools.

What Rep. Dixon and the Rapides Parish School Board wanted was a letter from Pastorek, agreeing that if the Aiken school complies with the new guidelines, the school will be returned to parish control.

The state superintendent refused, setting events in motion that led to his spanking in the Senate committee room last week.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Where is the leadership?

From the left and the right, there is a call going out in Baton Rouge: Where is the leadership? Lack of that most important character trait is dragging this legislative session to a most unsatisfactory close.

In this BayouBuzzcolumn, Louisiana Weekly editor Christopher Tidmore focuses on a couple of issues, including the bogus claim that little can be done about Louisiana’s budget woes because so much of the budget is off limits: “We continue to hear Bobby Jindal, the leges and the media opinion writers declare that the state constitution forces cuts to higher education and health care whenever there is a shortage of revenues because all the rest of the money is dedicated.”

That, Tidmore points out, is nonsense. “Of the $30 billion in the current state budget,” he writes, “$3.9 billion, or 13%, is constitutionally protected…the remainder of the budget, 87%, is NOT constitutionally protected. Only statutes, simple laws, prevent access to these areas.”

It is convenient to blame protected funds like public education’s Minimum Foundation Program for our leaders’ inability to adequately fund higher education and health care. But it is dishonest. As Tidmore puts it, “Willful ignorance has led to a quarter of billion dollar sledgehammer to our colleges and hospital care for the poor.”

Strong and honest leadership would scour the budget, but that would mean taking a hard look at pet projects and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on private contractors. Nobody seems to have the hueves to take that step.

Then there is an Advocate editorial critical of state “leaders” for their slavish obedience to anti-tax ideology. It’s an allegiance that frames even a reasonable and necessary levy like the tobacco tax as a rape of the Constitution and a dagger in the heart of freedom-loving citizens everywhere.

As Advocate’s editorial writer put it,

Jindal’s opposition is astonishing, given his background in health policy.
Raising taxes on tobacco is a way to deter its use and avoid the heavy treatment
costs of cancer and other smoking-caused diseases.
Still, remember 2012. That fiscal year will begin on July 1, 2011. This Legislature will have to face shortfalls of an estimated $1 billion or more that year, after significant cuts will be made this year to health care and higher education.
Members might be more reasonable when they’re up against that wall.

Even Dan Juneau of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry is getting in on the leadership act. In this column, he takes note of the gut-fight between the Senate and House over tax and spending issues, and faults Jindal for not taking command of the situation.

Writes Juneau, “Fiscal disputes such as the current one are somewhat rare. Why? Because the Legislature usually follows the governor's lead on budget matters…The outcome could be resolved fairly quickly if Governor Jindal sold the public on exactly what he thinks the solution to the problem should be–and why.”

As four former Louisiana governors recently put it: “Lead governor, we are prepared to follow.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A convergence of consequences

LFT President Steve Monaghan was pretty much wasting his breath this morning, when he warned the Senate Education Committee about the unintended consequences of unbridled charter school expansion.

The bill in question was HB 519 by Rep. Walt Leger of New Orleans, and it sailed through the committee with nary a dissenting vote. It was filed in response to new federal guidelines forbidding states that want certain grant money from imposing unreasonable caps on charter schools.

State law currently caps the number of charters at 70.

Supporters of the bill cited a new Stanford University study saying that Louisiana is one of a very few states in which some charter schools actually seem to outperform some traditional public schools. That, they said, proves that we should lift the cap and let the charters flow, even without the promise of federal grants.

Except that the Stanford study concluded that one of the virtues of Louisiana's charter school law is that it tightly controls the issuance of charters. Without what the study's author calls "quality control," that advantage is lost. It could be argued that Louisiana's charter school cap is indeed reasonable, and does not violate the federal regulation at all.

But when Monaghan spoke about unintended consequences, he was talking about more than federal guidelines. Check out this story by Advocate reporter Charles Lussiere, about the looming layoffs in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

The explosion of school takeovers in the capital city is squeezing teachers out, and not because they lack credentials or are not good at their craft. "The uncertainty, Lussiere writes, "stems from not knowing how many students will enroll in the Recovery School District (charter) schools versus those run by East Baton Rouge Parish public schools."

But couldn't the teachers about to be laid off apply for jobs in the new charter schools?

Well, yes. Except.

Except charter schools aren't required to participate in the state teachers' retirement system. Those who go to work in charter schools can be putting their retirement in jeopardy.

Except charter schools aren't required to provide health insurance for their employees. Or tenure, or any of the other academic freedom protections that most teachers enjoy.

So when Monaghan asked the committee to consider the unintended consequences of unbridled charter expansion, he had a point.

The point is this: before we radically expand the charter experiment, let's look at what happens as a result. Anticipate issues that might arise, and craft legislation to deal with them before they become serious problems.

That goes against the grain of ideologues who are bent on replacing public education with a patchwork system of semi-public, quasi-private enterprises that bring to mind the old axiom: Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

Senate tries again to fund higher education

The Senate made another run at the excess itemized deductions tax break yesterday, radically amending another bill in an attempt to force the House of Representatives to vote on the issue.

To recap: In order to fund higher education, the Senate previously adopted SB 335, which would suspend an upcoming tax break. The result would be a $118 million cash infusion for higher education.

That bill was stymied in the House when the leadership refused to let it be considered. A majority of House members signed a letter opposing the bill, and Gov. Bobby Jindal promised to veto it if it is passed.

But senators want members of the House to vote on the issue and be on record. So on Wednesday, the Senate gutted a bill that has already been adopted by the House, HB 689 (which would have established a school infrastructure fund), and filled it with the language of SB 335.

The amended bill passed on a 29-6 vote, and will be returned to the House for further action.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

PAR to Jindal: Get serious about higher education

Add the Public Affairs Research Council to the growing list of entities concerned that Gov. Bobby Jindal isn't serious about funding higher education.

In a press release, PAR says the governor and House leadership need to reverse their opposition to two measures that could bail out colleges and universities. One would tap into the state's "rainy day fund," and the other would postpone a tax break on excess itemized deductions.

Like any observer with a functioning cerebral cortex, the folks at PAR note that "the proposed budget cutbacks could severely damage the potential for the state's colleges and universities to play a meaningful role in long-term economic growth. "

PAR is critical of the governor's lack of a "clear strategy" to deal with the looming educational crisis or to mitigate the effects of the ongoing fiscal one:

Not only are student services being threatened, but also institutional capacity
for commercialization and technology transfer is at risk. Funding for research
centers, art galleries and museums is on the chopping block with little to no
public debate regarding the merits and far-reaching impacts of those cuts.

Just as four former governors advocated a few days ago, PAR says the state's leadership must shore up higher education finances temporarily, and simultaneously look for long-term fixes for the state's out-of-whack college and university systems.

PAR wants our leadership to "re-size the state's higher education enterprise in order to minimize duplication of programs, maximize opportunities for consolidation and preserve the cultural and economic benefits of higher education. "

Chief among the reforms necessary, PAR says, is shifting the predominant college enrollment from four-year to two-year institutions. The think tank says leaders need to make decisions in five areas:
  • Which degree programs at each institution are essential to continue?
  • Which are duplicated elsewhere?
  • What services can be privatized rather than terminated? (Note: PAR's privatization fetish is regrettable)
  • What economies of scale can be achieved with consolidation?
  • What can be done to ease the transition for students and faculty?

One piece of legislation working through the process, HB 794 by Speaker Jim Tucker (R-Terrytown), creates a nine-member commission to study those issues. With the exception of "privatization" (which all too often winds up costing more than the same services provided by government, needlessly enriching corporations that can afford lobbyists and big political contributions), these are ideas must be explored.

But first, higher education needs enough money to survive until those important decisions are reached.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Charter schools through rose-colored glasses

Look for Louisiana's charter school supporters to promote this new study from Stanford University in a big way.

The survey of charter schools in 16 states reveals that, overall, charters do not perform as well as regular public schools. But in Louisiana, researchers found, charter schools are outperforming their traditional counterparts in reading and math.

This article by Times-Picayune reporter Sarah Carr delves into some of the possibilities, noting especially that Louisiana has more stringent guidelines for establishing charter schools than other states.

Louisiana also has fewer charters than other states in the survey, which could prove cautionary to those who'd like to wholesale transfer our public schools to charters. Future charter school performance could depend more on what lead author Margaret Raymond termed "quality control."

As Carr's article puts it:
Louisiana officials would do well to heed that advice, several educators and
activists note, as dozens of charter schools come up for renewal over the next
couple of years. They point out that the state has yet to create an effective
oversight apparatus for charter schools or a clear rubric for evaluating their
performance, beyond test scores.

There are a couple of questions that need to be raised. For one, the cherry-picking aspect of charter schools needs to be explored more fully. Charters can be more selective than traditional public schools, and admission is often by parental choice. That means the most engaged parents - the ones who take the most interest in their children's academic careers - could be more likely to both enroll their children in charter schools and work to ensure their success.

Also, Louisiana has fewer special education students enrolled in charter schools than most of the states in the survey. The inclusion of more special education programs in charter schools will be a major issue in the future, especially as long as standardized test scores are the predominant gauge of student success.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bobby Jindal's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

As Advocate capitol bureau chief Mark Ballard describes it here, last Thursday was a "new low" for Governor Bobby Jindal.

It's already been the subject of an EdLog entry, but Ballard's Sunday column deserves its own mention. It's not a stretch to say that the governor was spanked by his predecessors in a manner that few have experienced.

The columnist echoes complaints by the Public Affairs Research Council and others to the effect that Jindal needs to do more than just cut budgets in this time of fiscal crisis. He needs to produce a plan with a road map out of this wilderness. So far, that has not happened.

As PAR put it, “Slashing revenues without presenting specific proposals for cost-cutting … merely masquerades as a way to streamline government.”

Or as former Governor Kathleen Blanco said at Thursday's press conference:

“It’s the same thing as when a family member loses a job, and the family gathers
together and looks at the available dollars and you prioritize. You say, ‘The
No. 1 thing that we have to protect is our house. We have to have a place to
live.’ And I think higher education is our house, and that’s why you have to
protect it.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Four former governors intervene in higher education budget

Lead, governor, we are prepared to follow.”

In an unprecedented intervention, four former Louisiana governors met privately with Governor Bobby Jindal today, and then publicly stated their dissatisfaction with his planned higher education budget cuts.

Times-Picayune reporters Ed Anderson and Bill Barrow covered the issue for this story.

LFT President Steve Monaghan called the turn of events “extraordinary,” saying that the statement “confirms the Federation’s frustration with this fiscal session and affirms our conviction that the session should have begun with a broader, bolder vision for our state.

“The fact that we have continued this far without such a vision explains why the former governors felt compelled to step forward,” he said. The LFT president added that funding for K-12 education, which depends heavily on one-time federal stimulus funds, should evoke the same concerns.

The four governors, including David Treen, Buddy Roemer, Kathleen Blanco and Mike Foster, issued a joint statement urging Jindal and the legislature to “fight for our young people and make it clear that education is Louisiana’s number one priority.”

In response, Jindal stubbornly clung to his no-tax mantra, vowing again to veto measures such as SB 335, which would temporarily suspend some anticipated tax deductions.

To read more of this story, please click here. To read the full statement by the four former governors, please click here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Roemer (Jr.) splits sheets with Jindal, sticks with Pastorek

BESE member Chas Roemer is attacking Gov. Bobby Jindal for playing political games with the state's education system. Roemer, a Baton Rouge Republican, says that Jindal, a Baton Rouge Republican, is unwilling to "risk some political capital" to improve schools, according to Advocate reporter Will Sentell.

The cause of the split is a pair of legislative bills aimed at creating a separate diploma track for students at risk of dropping out and who obviously have no intention of going to college. The plan by Sen. Bob Kostelka and Rep. Jim Fannin has some legs - it's been endorsed by education committees in both houses. The two lawmakers say a separate track is necessary to bring down the state's unacceptably high (as high as 50%) school dropout rate.

The issue has apparently driven a wedge between the governor and State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek. While Jindal and Pastorek have been inseparable on school issues this year, the governor is now apparently supporting the Kostelka/Fannin plan.

Could Pastorek, whose popularity with legislators is in the cellar, wind up in a political wilderness with only Chas Roemer to give him comfort?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Lawmakers say state is lowballing dropout rates

Louisiana's school dropout rate is much higher than has been reported by the State Department of Education, according to lawmakers trying to create a separate diploma track for students who don't intend to go to college.

Sen. Bob Kostelka of Monroe and Rep. Jim Fannin of Jonesboro have introduced identical bills that would allow struggling students to choose a career major for high school instead of a college prep curriculum.

The lawmakers contend that if students see a practical application for their studies - and the possibility of a job - they would be more inclined to stay in school and graduate.

Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek is sticking with an old tired argument about the necessity for rigor in our schools. The logic proceeds something like this: too many students are dropping out of school, so we need to make it harder to graduate. He's apparently forgotten that, once upon a time, relevance was considered as important as rigor in defining a curriculum.

And if Kostelka and Fannin are right, relevance is desperately needed, because the true number of dropouts has been lowballed by the State Department of Education.

DOE contends that about a third of ninth-graders never complete high school, which is pretty bad, considering that the national average is one in four.

What those figures leave out, though, is that a significant number of students struggle with the eighth grade LEAP test and drop out BEFORE ninth grade. That makes the actual dropout rate closer to 50%, say Kostelko and Fannin.

Obviously, we are dealing with a significant number of kids for whom college is not an option. But that does not mean they should be discarded (which is what happens now). They deserve an opportunity for a meaningful education that prepares them for decent jobs.

That's what the career course bills are all about. It's not watering down the curriculum - it's about making the education system work for all of our children.

Advocate reporter Will Sentell has a story about the issue here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Study: Girls are NOT naturally worse at math!

Remember those studies that purported to show that girls just don't have the same natural math ability as boys? The studies that prompted Harvard President Larry Summers (and now advisor to President Barack Obama) to say that biology explains why there are fewer female math professors than males?

Bogus. As Reuters Health and Science Editor Maggie Fox reports here, a new study shows that it is gender inequality (nurture, not nature) that propels boys into excelling at math:

"We conclude that gender inequality, not lack of innate ability or 'intrinsic
aptitude', is the primary reason fewer females than males are identified as
excelling in mathematics performance in most countries, including the United
States," Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison
wrote in their report.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

LA and 46 other states sign on to common curriculum

If we ever hope to accurately compare Louisiana's educational results with those of other states, we must have a nationwide agreement about what is being measured.

Under current No Child Left behind guidelines, each state develops its own curriculum. That's fine as long as your biggest concerns are States' Rights and keeping federal regulation to a minimum, but it makes for lousy statistical comparisons.

Right now, Louisiana has some of the most rigorous academic requirements in the nation. We suffer in comparison with states that are not quite so rigorous. That's not just an opinion. In a March EdLog post, we cited a Fordham Institute study that found "some schools deemed to be failing in one state would get passing grades in another under the No Child Left Behind law."

But there's good news. In this Washington Post article by reporter Maria Glod, we learn that Louisiana is one of 46 states working on a set of common voluntary standards for reading and math.

The key word is voluntary - what does that mean, and how much pressure can be brought to urge compliance. Beyond that, the issue will become testing, and the establishment of a common rubric.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Suspension of tax break could save higher education

Tell lawmakers to support SB 335. Please click here.

To the surprise of many, the Senate on Wednesday endorsed a bill that will suspend a tax break to provide $118 million for higher education.
SB 335 by Sen. Lydia Jackson would temporarily suspend a portion of a tax deduction for excess federal itemized personal deductions.

That sounds confusing. What it means is that the excess itemized tax deduction would stay at its current 65% level for three years, instead of increasing to 100%. The result would be a $118 million revenue stream that would offset some of the $200 million slated to be slashed from our universities, colleges and technical schools.

This is not a new tax. It is a temporary suspension of a deduction that has not yet gone into effect.
Without the revenue, our higher education institutions face drastic cuts that will erase the gains made in recent years. Governor Bobby Jindal has vowed to veto the bill if it passes, but it was adopted in the Senate by a veto-proof 29-9 vote.

It now must be approved by the House Ways and Means Committee before it can come before the full House of Representatives for a vote.

This bill may be the last, best chance to avert disastrous cuts to higher education. Please click here to send a message to members of the Ways and Means Committee.

Associated Press reporter Doug Simpson covered the Senate vote for this article.

The Times-Picayune published an editorial in favor of the bill here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Misnamed "reform" bill killed by House of Representatives

By a five vote margin, the House of Representatives on Tuesday turned down a bill that, while touted as school board reform, was widely opposed by educators because it would have eroded a system of checks-and-balances between school boards and school superintendents.

HB 851 by Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge) was heavily supported by State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, Governor Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Council for a Better Louisiana. Its main opposition came from a consortium that included the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana School Boards Association and Louisiana Association of Educators.

Despite a flurry of floor amendments aimed at making the bill more palatable, and an eleventh-hour intervention on its behalf by Senator Mary Landrieu, the bill failed by a vote of 46 “yeas” and 51 “nays.”

To read more, please click here.