Monday, March 29, 2010

Didn't see that coming...

News that Louisiana's bid for federal Race to the Top funding has been denied (reported here by Leslie Turk of The Independent) startled Baton Rouge today, adding another layer of uncertainty to an already chaotic legislative session.

It was shortly before Gov. Bobby Jindal gave his opening address of the 2010 session, during which he described the budget woes facing the state, that education officials learned Louisiana will not be getting money from the federal program. Supporters were hoping to get as much as $300 million.

Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek put on a brave face and congratulated Tennessee and Delaware, the two states selected to get R2T funds. They will get at total of $600 million, leaving the bulk of the $4.35 billion program up for grabs in the next round of announcements, which comes in June.

In a press release, Pastorek said that Louisiana will be a competitor in June: "We believe our success and commitment to these reforms will help us secure funding in the next round of grants. In the meantime, we will take this opportunity to consider feedback from the reviewers, and we will work to amend our application so that we more clearly articulate Louisiana’s progress, promise and plan. "

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Another explosive issue

Here's another bill to add to the list of incendiary devices being hurled at the capitol this spring. Rep. Steve Carter of Baton Rouge wants to take away the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's authority to approve charter schools and give it to a panel mostly appointed by the governor.

As Advocate reporter Will Sentell writes here, the governor's appointees will come from lists provided by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the Council for a Better Louisiana.

A LABI spokesperson says, with what can only be assumed to be a straight face, “This is an effort to somewhat depoliticize the process.”

The budget: An exercise in bad choices

Watch LFT President Steve Monaghan briefly describe the budget crisis facing public education in Louisiana. Then click here to learn more about the issue, and to see what you can do to help solve the problem!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Picking scabs

Reporter John Maginnis reiterates the mistakes that contributed so heavily to our current fiscal dilemma.

Explosive issues face legislature

The legislative session opens in less than a week, and from the looks of this article by Advocate reporter Will Sentell, things could get very hot very fast.

Here's the short list: Sen. Ben Nevers of Bogalusa, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, will ask his colleagues to demand that the state, not local school boards, pay stipends for educators with national certification. That puts him at loggerheads with the Jindal administration.

Now comes another poke at the governor's agenda, by a member of his own Republican party. A bill by Rep. Rogers Pope of Denham Springs would negate Gov. Jindal's proposal to force local school boards to pay for transporting private and religious school students.

Rep. Steve Carter of Baton Rouge wants to submit a term-limits bill for school board members. That's a declaration of war against the same group Carter fought last year, with bills that would have curbed most school board authority.

Carter is also planning to introduce a bill that would "compress the time for teachers to undergo remediation before any hearings on their job security, which is called tenure."

Tenure is a third rail of education politics. Even though Carter has not said his that plan is to dilute tenure laws, the very mention of the word sends a potent signal. Tenure rights were hard to win. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers and others will watch carefully, and won't tolerate efforts to water down teachers' due process rights.

Yet another incendiary bill, HB 489 by Rep. Joe Harrison, would abolish the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The proposed constitutional amendment would transfer BESE's authority to the Superintendent of Education, who would be appointed by the governor.

Trenches are being dug in Baton Rouge. This could be a long siege.

Monday, March 22, 2010

School districts defend reserve funds

Better late than never. School boards are finally responding to the Jindal administration's claim that they have enough money in reserve to take on some expenses that the state can no longer afford.

The administration says that school boards have accumulated a total balance of some $1.1 billion. If that's true, they reason, the boards are in better shape than the state. Earlier this month, EdLog explained that school boards have brought some of this on themselves: "boards have not been transparent in explaining why (the surplus funds) were accumulated in the first place."

But Advocate reporter Charles Lussiere writes here that school boards have now come up with a number of reasons why their reserve funds might not be ripe for picking by the state.

Last year, the big fight in the legislature was over school board authority. This year, it will be over money. It remains to be seen which is more vicious.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Follow the logic

The Advocate has some really bad news for higher education. As reporter Jordan Blum writes, the Jindal administration has announced another $85 million in budget cuts that must be implemented this year.

And Jindal's commissioner of administration, Angelle Davis, predicts that there may be even more cuts coming because of declining tax revenues.

And why are tax revenues in decline?

One reason, of course, is the national economic crisis. The recession, which economists say is slowly ending, certainly dragged our economy down. But it's not the only reason.

Another reason for our situation is the orgy of tax breaks that two governors and successive legislatures indulged in over the past few years.

Not to sound like a broken record, but the unfortunate decision by lawmakers to curtail the Stelly plan's tax reforms have cost our state hundreds of millions of dollars that could be shoring up higher education right now.

The Stelly plan was done in by demagogues who falsely claimed that it broke a promise by raising taxes on higher income citizens. In actuality, Stelly worked exactly as it was supposed to. By cutting tax rates for the lowest income citizens, abolishing some regressive sales axes and increasing rates on higher-income earners, Stelly gave Louisiana a fairer, more progressive and more sustainable tax system. One, by the way, that significantly reduced our dependence on income from the volatile oil patch.

The best defense of the Stelly plan we've yet heard comes from the author himself, retired Republican Representative Vic Stelly of Lake Charles.

As Stelly wrote in this letter to The Advocate, his plan "provided a slowly growing revenue stream to cover inflation. That’s why the plan would be bringing in more today, eight years after passage, than it did in 2002."

So while Louisiana would certainly be feeling the pinch had we not so foolishly abandoned the most reasonable tax plan to come down the pike in many years, we might not be talking about such breathtaking cuts to our colleges and universities.

Which brings us to the final stop on this logic trail. Even in the face of massive cuts to education, Jindal is adamant about his "no taxes" pledge.

As this article in the Alexandria Town Talk confirms, Jindal will not seek more revenue, "No matter how much sacrifice is involved."

And it looks like higher education will be the sacrificial offering demanded by the gods of fiscal conservatism.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Major unions oppose ESEA reauthorization

Both major teacher unions are giving President Obama's plan to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known during the Bush administration as No Child Left Behind) a big "thumbs down."

According to this article by Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk, both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have problems with the bill under consideration in Washington.

AFT President Randi Weingarten issued a harsh assessment of the proposal, saying that it "places 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers and gives them zero percent authority."

Weingarten said the proposal, which converts federal programs such as Title I funding into competitive grants, will make school funding too dependent on political issues in the states and "how well a district can write a grant.”

Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, who chairs an appropriations subcommittee, said that he believes the aim should be "keeping local school district and taxpayers’ heads above water until the economy is more fully recovered,” instead of radically redesigning the federal act.

Schools to get construction stimulus

Louisiana schools are in for a $244 million face lift, according to this article in New Orleans CitiBusiness.

The article cites U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu as a source for the news that the state will get over $244 million worth of construction bonds to finance new schools or rehabilitate old ones.

The bonds, which can also be used to purchase land for new schools, are part of the much-maligned federal stimulus act.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reporter outs BESE skulduggery

Leave it to reporter John Maginnis to cut through the smoke and fog of government and lay out the unvarnished facts. In this column, Maginnis explains why the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Civil Service Commission are the real drivers of the state budget.

Which also explains the skulduggery at the last BESE meeting, in which New Orleans area member James Garvey introduced, and quickly deferred, a motion to depose Board President Keith Guice and the rest of the executive committee.

Members of the board who are not closely aligned with Governor Bobby Jindal prevailed in a vote to reinstate a 2.75% growth factor in public education's budget, even though the governor was hoping to continue a freeze on education spending without a fight.

"To keep this free thinking from getting out of hand," writes Maginnis, "the governor's team has decided it needs new leadership on BESE, which means dumping current chairman Keith Guice of Monroe, who heads the opposition faction."

Garvey refused to discuss his motives for introducing the motion, but said he will explain himself when he resurrects the issue from the table. He will be able to do that whenever he believes the time is right for a vote.

USA Today asks the college question

The USA Today headline says it all: What if a college education just isn't for everyone?

It's an issue that EdLog has followed over the past year. A controversial piece of legislation, passed over the objections of the State Department of Education, created a career diploma for Louisiana last year. If it works as it should, we noted, career education can save kids in danger of dropping out and put them on the path toward rewarding and fulfilling occupations.

The USA Today article by reporter Mary Beth Marklein concedes that a college degree is "widely seen as the ticket to personal economic security and to global competitiveness."

But it also notes that "fewer than 60% of new students graduate from four-year colleges in six years, and just one in three community college students earn a degree."

Which begs the question: are we using our educational resources wisely?

It's a vital debate to have. Hopefully, the results of Louisiana's experiment with a career diploma will provide some answers.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hypocrisy: Big salaries in Jindal administration

There's not enough money for the state to continue paying stipends to nationally certified educators. Not enough money to give public education's Minimum Foundation Program the 2.75% growth factor it needs.

But there's enough money to increase salaries in Gov. Bobby Jindal's Division of Administration by nearly $7 million over what former gov. Kathleen Blanco was paying, writes Gannett reporter Stephen Largent in this article.

Largent says that under Gov. Blanco, the Division of Administration had 108 employees making $80,000 or more, for a total of $10,816,484. Under Jindal, that has risen to 177 employees making at least $80,000, at a total of $17,667,456.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

BESE votes for 2.75% school funding increase...

...But President Keith Guice is slapped for his defiance

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education confirmed its finance committee's decision to include a 2.75% growth factor in public education's Minimum Foundation Program, as reported here by Will Sentell of The Advocate.

As Gannett's Mike Hasten reports here, reprisals were quickly launched against those who defied Gov. Bobby Jindal's request for a frozen Minimum Foundation Program.

BESE member James Garvey of Metairie, an ally of the governor, introduced a motion to replace BESE President Keith Guice and other officers after just two months in office.

Guice and his fellow officers narrowly escaped being deposed, but their ordeal might not be over. The board voted 6-5 to defer action on Garvey's motion, not to defeat it. That means the motion can be brought back for a vote whenever Garvey feels that he can get it passed, according to Hasten's article.

Friday, March 12, 2010

St. James board guarantees teacher stipends

Responding to Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposed budget - which leaves out funding for nationally certified teachers' supplements - the St. James parish School Board has decided to cover the loss with local funds.

This story by Advocate reporter Ryan Lamy says the vote to continue the $5,000 annual supplement with local funds was unanimous. The vote was largely symbolic, because state law requires local boards to continue the teacher supplement without state funding.

The report does not state whether or not St. James Parish will continue to pay supplements for other nationally certified professionals, such as speech therapists and school psychologists. They are also entitled to a stipend by state law but, unlike the teacher stipend, there is no guarantee in law that they will receive the money.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What's on the chopping block?

Retirement, sick leave and sabbaticals targeted

As the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education argued about increasing public education's Minimum Foundation Program this morning, a disturbing sidebar conversation set off alarms about benefits now offered to Louisiana's teachers and school employees.

The vote centered on about $60 million tacked on to the MFP as a growth factor (see the story below). But as local school superintendents made their cases for the funds, they kept mentioning the cost of three benefits: the retirement system, extended sick leave and sabbatical leave.

BESE member Penny Dastuge, who chaired the hearing, noted that even if the $60 million growth factor is included in the budget adopted by the legislature, it won't be enough to cover those costs.

During the discussion, Central Community Superintendent of Schools Michael Faulk wondered aloud if there could be a "trade" that would allow local districts to make extended sick leave and sabbaticals optional instead of mandatory.

Then BESE member Chas Roemer rhetorically asked "is the current teacher retirement system feasible?"

LFT President Steve Monaghan said that the solution is more revenue to meet the needs of public education, not the reduction or elimination of benefits that educators have earned and deserve.

Look for these issues to play out during the legislative session that opens on March 29.

Legislative battle line drawn over MFP growth factor

LFT President Steve Monaghan
urges the Board of Elementary
and Secondary Education to
a 2.75% "growth factor"
in public education's Minimum
Foundation Program.

By a close, six-to-five majority, the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education today set the stage for a showdown that will include Governor Bobby Jindal, state lawmakers, local school boards and various public education interests.

It's a fight that Jindal doesn't want, and worked hard in the background to keep from happening.

The fight will be over the 2.75% "growth factor" in public education's Minimum Foundation Program. It amounts to about $60 million and, for more than a decade, has virtually been an automatic add-on to the money that the state funnels down to local school boards every year.

Until last year, when the governor said that the state's budget woes made it impossible to provide the growth factor. BESE members swallowed hard and went along, but promised that this year's budget would include the increase.

But promises mean nothing unless they are kept, and one of the big background struggles in Baton Rouge has been over whether or not BESE would include the growth factor in this year's MFP request. The governor squeezed as hard as he could to keep members from voting for the growth factor.

At a hearing this morning, local superintendents made the case that rising costs for retirement, health insurance and accountability mandates just can't be met without an increase in state funds. LFT President Steve Monaghan joined them in urging BESE to include the growth factor in the MFP request.

Today's vote settled BESE's position, but that's not the end of the story.

The legislature has to approve BESE's funding request, and that means there will be a fight over the $60 million in a year when most state agencies are facing big cuts. The big questions now concern just how bloody that fight will become in the legislature, and what retribution Jindal will take against BESE members who voted against his wishes.

Common standards draft released

Education Week has a breakdown of the new draft release of the national common core standards, issued today by the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The draft, EdWeek reporter Catherine Gewertz writes, "is being greeted with a mix of praise and skepticism." On one hand, many people understand that it is desirable to have high expectations of students and that there should truly be a body of knowledge common to all American students. On the other, many are concerned about increased federal intrusion into curricula, which they believe should be state initiatives.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is a fan of the new draft. In a press release, she states that, "These standards represent the best effort so far to transform today’s patchwork quilt of 50 sets of state standards into one set of strong, consistent expectations for what all students should know and learn."

The draft document is posted on the CCSSI Web site, and is open for public comment through April 2.

Ravitch tackles fads, movements and reforms

Diane Ravitch started out as a supporter of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. But she, like most teachers who have encountered the beast, now lumps it with the other "fads, movements and reforms" that distract us from real educational improvement.

In a USA Today article, education reporter Greg Toppo writes about Ravitch's conversion from a NCLB supporter to an extreme skeptic. And it's not just NCLB that raises Ravitch's hackles - the charter school movement, she says, is a "far cry" from the vision of the late AFT President Al Shanker, who saw the potential of charters as "laboratories of innovation within existing public schools."

As reported by Toppo, Ravitch says that charter schools "cherry-pick a neighborhood's best students and kick out under-performers, forcing surrounding public schools to teach a depleted talent pool."

Ravitch, whose blog is on EdLog's list of interesting links, has a new book on the market, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. It promises to be a great read.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Watering down the teaching degree?

Try to follow this logic: in a state which is constantly ratcheting up requirements for teachers and demanding more rigorous evaluations, one important group suggests lowering the requirements to earn a teaching degree.

Advocate reporter Will Sentell writes here that the Blue Ribbon Commission for Educational Excellence was asked by the Board of Regents to consider reducing the number of hours required for a teaching degree to 120. Currently, the requirement ranges from 124 to 128 or higher.

LFT President Steve Monaghan is right to question whether the real intent is to cut costs for colleges, and whether the action might devalue the teaching degree.

Friday, March 5, 2010

LFT on Race to the Top: Now the work begins

Louisiana made the first cut in the competition for nearly $4.4 billion in new federal education funds. Now, as LFT President Steve Monaghan says in this press release, the real work will begin.

That's because the work done thus far has largely been theoretical or, as Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek likes to put it, "at the 10,000 foot level."

Not that the deliberations that went into the state's application were easy or uncomplicated, or without controversy. But that was the level at which philosophical differences were explored, and agreements reached that promise great flexibility to educators at the "ground level." The success of Race to the Top will now be determined by those local educators.

As Monaghan puts it, "The work to be done must occur in an arena of mutual respect and with a strong commitment to do what is good for children, is effective, and is fair to educators and staff.”

Gannett reporter Mike Hasten covered the story for this report.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Senator praises LFT efforts in Race to the Top

While acknowledging the Louisiana Federation of Teachers' concerns about the federal Race to the Top program, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu has praised the union for "supporting the state's efforts to secure as much of this grant money as possible."

In a letter to Federation President Steve Monaghan, the senator wrote "This historic $4.3 billion competitive grant program...represents an unprecedented investment in innovation and reform in education."

"An investment in reform that can transform our state's education system would be the greatest legacy we could leave our children," Senator Landrieu wrote. "Moreover, the economic viability of our state depends on training a well-educated workforce capable of excelling in 21st century jobs."

"I understand that LFT does not agree with all of the details of the state's plan," the senator continued. "However, it is admirable that your organization is supporting the state's efforts to secure as much of this grant money as possible despite your differences. I am confident that any concerns you may have with the plan can be ironed out as we move forward."

Click here to read the full letter.

Pastorek apologizes, and school boards have some 'splainin to do

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek has apologized for his intemperate language regarding national board certification for teachers. In this article by Times-Picayune capitol bureau chief Robert Travis Scott, Pastorek says, "I regret that recent comments I made may have failed to communicate the high regard I hold for our nationally board certified teachers. I fully recognize and appreciate that these teachers are experienced and valued educators who go through a difficult and costly process to earn the NBCT designation."

Pastorek's original statement - that national certification may not make teachers more effective in the classroom - was a clumsy effort to give Governor Bobby Jindal cover for his plan to shift state budget obligations to local school boards. With the Pastorek sideshow out of the way, it's time to concentrate on that very real issue.

The stipends for national certification are unquestionably a state obligation. So is the other main budget shift proposed by the governor, the cost of transporting private and religious school students.

The governor's argument is that in a time of budget crisis, everyone needs to do what they can to help. His point is made in this article by Advocate reporter Will Sentell. Five school systems in the state have a combined total of $278 million in financial reserves, which the governor says should be tapped for costs the state can't afford.

According to the State Department of Education, the state's 70 school systems have a combined $1.1 billion in fund balances.

If that looks bad for the school boards, it's their own fault. The reserve funds exist, and boards have not been transparent in explaining why they were accumulated in the first place. But that does not mean all the money in those reserves is available to help shoulder state obligations.

Years ago, financial experts at the Department of Education were critical of local school boards because they did not have adequate reserve funds. They recommended that districts keep as much as 10% of their operating budget in reserve.

There are several potential uses for those funds that may explain why they shouldn't be used to offset state obligations. They may be saved for capital projects like new buildings. They may be held in anticipation of rising costs for insurance, retirement and other employee benefits. In systems which have a large number of schools that have been chartered or taken over by the state, there will be legacy costs for providing retiree benefits out of a shrunken pool of employees.

Those are legitimate reasons for telling the governor "no." But school boards have been reluctant to explain their reserve funds to the public. Unless they do, they can expect to be targeted. That has already begun. In a Baton Rouge Business Report online survey, 58% of respondents say that local school boards should "pick up the tab" for nationally certified teacher stipends. Only 24% say the state should continue to pay, and 10% say certified teachers shouldn't be paid a a stipend at all.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The truth about teacher tenure

There is obviously a broad misunderstanding, shared by some in the business community and even in the Department of Education, that teachers are "automatically" granted tenure after working in a school for three years.

As Advocate reporter Will Sentell writes here, they believe that tenure is "passive and routinely granted" after "just the lapse of three years."

That, of course, is simply not true. As LFT President Steve Monaghan points out in this letter to the editor, "in order to become tenured, a teacher must first have an academic degree, pass the relevant sections of the PRAXIS examination, and meet all other requirements to be certified. In addition, the teacher must then undergo a three-year probationary period. During that time, the teacher must be mentored, observed and evaluated by school administrators."

Administrators, Monaghan notes, have an obligation to ensure that teachers are effective before tenure is granted.

The LFT president says that tenure "should be a mark of excellence, and connote to the general public that the teacher who has earned tenure is a highly qualified, professional educator."

The Federation's goal, says Monaghan is to ensure that tenure is "an active and meaningful process, one that honors the teaching profession, enhances the teacher's professional credentials, and provides the general public with an assurance of quality."

Simply put, the Federation will support initiatives that aim for that goal, and oppose any that seek to diminish teachers or to devalue teacher tenure.