Sunday, August 29, 2010

U.S. Education Secretary greets Federation members

LFT President Steve Monaghan, Monroe Federation of Teachers and School Employees President Sandie Lollie and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Travelling through Louisiana on an eight-state tour to celebrate America's public school teachers, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited with members of the Monroe Federation of Teachers and School Employees at their back-to-school membership meeting.
Duncan, who was in Monroe to check out a program at the city's J.S. Clark Elementary School, accepted an invitation from MFT/SE President Sandie Lollie to meet educators at the union meeting.
Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, LFT President Steve Monaghan, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers President Carnell Washington and Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch.

As you can see from the YouTube video released by the Education Department, the secretary was impressed by the energy and dedication of teachers and school employees.

“I want to say a huge thank you for what you’re doing for the state’s children,” Duncan told the Federation members. “We’re fighting a daily battle for our children’s lives. Some form of higher education has to be the goal for all of our children.”

“Teachers are the unsung heroes in our society,” Duncan continued. “We can’t do enough to celebrate them. We need to take the focus off athletes and movie stars and put the focus on education.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Top Republican talks about tax expenditures

"Spending programs disguised as tax breaks." That's how columnist Ruth Marcus defines tax expenditures. It lines up nicely with LFT's contention, based on research by the Louisiana Budget Project, that the $7 billion worth of deductions and credits that Louisiana spends every year ought to be reconsidered in light of our budgetary mess.

It's to be expected that a writer for the Washington Post would take a progressive position on tax expenditures. What's surprising is that the source of her column is Congressman John Boehner of Ohio, Minority Leader of the House and one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress.

While tax expenditures cost Louisiana $7 billion per year, they cost the federal government $1.2 trillion per year.

And like in Louisiana, once these expenditures become enshrined in law, they are seldom reconsidered. Even if their original purpose has been satisfied, and even if they have become a net drain on the economy.

In this excerpt from Marcus' column, the voice of reason is loud and clear, and could have come straight from the Louisiana Federation of Teachers' position on tax expenditures:

“We need to take a long and hard look at the undergrowth of deductions,
credits, and special carve-outs that our tax code has become,” Boehner said in his speech
to the City Club of Cleveland. “And, yes, we need to acknowledge that what
Washington sometimes calls ‘tax cuts’ are really just poorly disguised spending
programs that expand the role of government in the lives of individuals and

Boehner cited the “tax extenders” bill now
making its way through Congress. “There’s everything in this bill: the research
and development tax credit, special expensing rules for the film industry, an
extension and modification of a tax credit for steel industry fuel, the mine
rescue team training tax credit, and tax incentives for investment in the
District of Columbia,” he said. “Are they worth it? Many are. But we just go
ahead and extend all of them temporarily -- and usually right at the last minute
-- so Washington can continue pandering to the loudest voices instead of
implementing the best ideas.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Louisiana frozen out of Race to the Top funds

Doing a passable impression of the Soup Nazi on the old Seinfeld show, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today said "No money for you" to Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek.

For the second time, our state was frozen out of the education fund known as Race to the Top. In the first round, only Tennessee and Delaware won money; this time, nine states and the District of Columbia will get a share of $3.4 billion from the competition.

Asked for a comment, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said the loss changes nothing about the Federation's commitment to student achievement.

“The Louisiana Federation of Teachers remains committed to including educator voice and involvement in any initiatives that affect our profession,” said Monaghan. “Despite this development, we will continue to partner with the state and local school districts in achieving our goal of a quality education for all children."

It did not go unnoticed that Louisiana lost its bid for funding even though Pastorek made the competition a top priority of his department, ramming through numerous controversial policies in an effort to demonstrate his passion for reform.

Associated Press writer Dorie Turner put it this way in her report: "But some education groups said 'Race to the Top' rewarded states that have weak reform efforts while leaving out those like Colorado and Louisiana that have made strides to overhaul their schools."

Could loss of the federal funds have anything to do with a governor who's spent the last few months on a beach loudly criticizing the federal government? Or who bemoaned federal spending even as he handed out oversized cardboard checks written on accounts funded by that same government?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Louisiana's Third World higher education system

This year, higher education suffered a $270 million budget cut at the hands of the Jindal administration and the legislature. Next year, we'll lose some $290 million in federal funding for colleges and universities.

On top of that, the state budget is expected to fall by more than a billion dollars next year. Heads of state departments have already been ordered to prepare budgets with 35% cuts.

No wonder the state's college leaders told the League of Women Voters that our Louisiana is well on the way to becoming more like a Third World country than a state in the most powerful, prosperous nation on earth.

Advocate reporter Jordan Blum covered the meeting for this story.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rock, meet hard place

Just a few days ago, Gov. Jindal's new interim commissioner of administration announced that he's asked all state agency heads to prepare budgets with 35% cuts. That would probably effectively shut down state government.

Today, Advocate reporter Michelle Millhollon writes that lawmakers are loathe to introduce any tax increases in the next session. The governor doesn't want tax hikes, they say, and besides, it's an election year.

Rock, meet hard place. Crushed in between are the people of Louisiana.

Higher education troubles: more than money

It's not just the money problems that plague higher education in Louisiana, although the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars can't be a good thing.

Lately, the higher education community has been riven with administrative conflicts, showdowns and SNAFUs.

Take the flap over the leadership of the new LSU teaching hospital scheduled to replace New Orleans' Charity Hospital. As reported here by Bill Barrow of The Times Picayune, LSU System President John Lombardi appointed Lafayette attorney Elaine Abell to chair the new hospital's board.

But under pressure from Gov. Bobby Jindal, the LSU board overturned Lombardi and named LSU board member Robert Yarbrough, a Baton Rouge businessman, to the post. Yarbrough had been appointed to the board by Jindal in June.

There is a long history of powerful Louisiana governors manipulating both higher education and medical services in the state. Earl Long famously reappointed an entire medical board to ensure that he would be judged sane. His brother, Huey, may have died because of inept medical care from a political appointee after he was shot in the hall of the Louisiana capitol.

But it's not just governors who meddle in the affairs of higher education. Advocate reporter Will Sentell has this report from the Press Club of Baton Rouge, in which the legislature is rapped for its micromanagement of the higher education commission.

Council for a Better Louisiana President Barry Erwin took lawmakers to task for overturning the appointment of Tom Layzell as interim commissioner, noting that they have set up a Byzantine process guaranteed to impede the search for Sally Clausen's replacement.

"Who in their right mind is going to look at Louisiana after what we've done?" asked Erwin. "We've really shot ourselves in the foot."

What legislators have done is set up a system that requires the legislature's joint budget committee to approve the pay package for potential commissioners, followed by a confirmation vote by the full Senate.

At least six other states are also seeking higher education commissioners right now, said Erwin, but Louisiana is the only state with such a convoluted hiring process. That puts us at a competitive disadvantage, making it "extremely difficult" to find a new commissioner.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Teaching literacy in all content areas

Engaging in and practicing literacy skills -- listening, speaking, writing and reading -- should be a part of lessons across all subjects, Edutopia consulting online editor Rebecca Alber writes in this blog post. Informal conversations about new material allows students to learn to communicate at a higher academic level, while informal, daily writing exercises can help students relate to the subjects they are learning, Alber writes. Classroom libraries may also encourage a love of reading, she states.

Carpetbaggers and charlatans

Knowing that our State Department of Education spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year on contracts to various individuals and other vendors, this New York Times article by reporter Sam Dillon seems pertinent.

Despite the recession, there is a gold rush on in the field of education. It is fueled in part by the billions that state and federal governments are pouring into education reform, and in part by a cabal of business-oriented think tanks and lobbyists trying to cash in.

It resembles the early days of the Iraq occupation, when billions of dollars were scooped up by novice entrepreneurs who knew nothing about policy, but were expert in bilking the government.

Or, as former New York city schools chancellor Rudy Crew put it in the article, “This is like the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers and charlatans.”

The Times article names a few of the egregious offenders in the school reform scam, but there are countless others, and they are robbing taxpayers and children of the resources that our schools desperately need.

As Jack Jennings, president of the non-partisan Center for Education Policy told the reporter, “Many of these companies clearly just smell the money.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Devastating budget news

Governor Jindal's new commissioner of administration, Paul Rainwater, dropped a bombshell today when he told AP reporter Melinda Deslatte that he's ordering all state departments to plan for a 35% budget cut next year.

Rainwater said he's anticipating a $2 billion drop in revenues. While it may not actually come to that, he said, he wants to be ready if that worst-case scenario plays out.

Not surprisingly, Rainwater is holding fast to Governor Jindal's reckless "no taxes" pledge. Apparently, this administration would rather turn out the lights and lock the doors of state government than jeopardize Jindal's credentials with the conservative budget hawks he's courting on the national political stage.

That the administration would even consider a 35% budget cut is disturbing. But doing so in the full knowledge that there are over 440 tax loopholes out there, and that trimming just some of them could avert disaster, is truly mind boggling.

Note that we're not talking about new taxes here - we're talking about collecting taxes that are on the books but have been exempted by lawmakers.

The only other alternative the governor seems willing to consider is raiding the state's statutorily protected funds. That would require the same two-thirds vote of the legislature as repealing some of the tax exemptions.

Next year's legislative session is shaping up to be perhaps the most painful on record, for the governor, for legislators and, most importantly, for the people of Louisiana.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

With friends like these...

With just over 40 months in office under his belt and an annual review right around the corner, there are questions about State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek's standing in the education community, and Advocate reporter Will Sentell is asking them

You may recall that Sentell's original interview with the superintendent didn't go all that well - instead of bragging about his accomplishments, the prickly Pastorek chose to attack education leaders instead.

So this time, Sentell asked best Pastorek's allies what they think about him. Generally, they say Pastorek's doing a good job, but...

BESE Member Chas Roemer says ,“He does step on toes sometimes, and probably at times unnecessarily.”

And Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Vice President Brigitte Nieland says, “As someone once told me, you can cut deeper and more strategically with a scalpel than a sledge hammer. Sometimes Paul uses a sledge hammer rather than a scalpel.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Another shoe drops in Filipino scandal

Another shoe has dropped in the ongoing Filipino teacher scandal. In April, an administrative law judge found that the company which recruited Filipino teachers for Louisiana schools was guilty of breaking state labor law, and fined Universal Placement International $1.8 million.

Today the Louisiana Federation of Teachers announced a federal RICO lawsuit against UPI, its sister company, PARS, and the principals of those companies.

But it goes deeper than that. Also named in the suit, filed by the American Federation of Teachers, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Covington and Burling LLP, are the East Baton Rouge School District and some of its administrators. It is charged that they actively participated in a scheme in which foreign teachers "were cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars and forced into exploitative contracts by an international trafficking ring run by labor contractors."

“For more than two years, we have been working toward this moment,” said Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan. “The practices described in this lawsuit are disgusting, unacceptable and, frankly, un-American."

It is amazing that the recruiting agency was able to do business at all in Louisiana. Its president, Lourdes "Lulu" Navarro, had served jail time in California for defrauding the state medical system, and was found guilty of fraud in New Jersey as well.

Watch for some disturbing and shocking revelations when testimony is heard in this case.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A state crisis of unprecedented severity

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has issued a sobering report entitled "Recession Continues to Batter State Budgets; State Responses Could Slow Recovery." The gist of the story is that the recession "has caused the steepest decline in state tax receipts on record...a state fiscal crisis of unprecedented severity"

There are charts and graphs that display what we in Louisiana already know: there's not enough money in state coffers to provide the services our people need.

The solution, according to the report is a mix of spending cuts and revenue measures: "At the state level, a balanced approach to closing deficits — raising taxes along with enacting budget cuts — is needed to close state budget gaps in order to maintain important services while minimizing harmful effects on the economy."

Thus far in Louisiana, all the emphasis has been on spending cuts. Governor (and wannabe President) Bobby Jindal is focused on cuts and phobic on revenues to the point of obsession.

Which brings us to today's editorial in The Advocate. In this case, the Gray Lady of Baton Rouge seems to be a lone voice of reason, with most newspapers in the state parroting the governor's anti-tax blather.

The editorial points once again to the Louisiana Budget Project's contention that many of the Louisiana's 440-some odd tax exemptions are not just unnecessary, but are harmful to development in the state.

"Repealing or suspending some of the worst offenders is the easiest way to raise revenue, and utterly defensible even to anti-tax Republicans," says the editorial. "After all, it's not 'new taxes'."

It's a good argument, but will it wash in the coming legislative fiscal session, which just happens to precede state elections? Lawmakers will be in a tough spot, faced on one hand by the decimation of services our people need, and on the other by opponents champing at the bit to paint them as "tax and spenders."

Which will prevail? Doing what's right for the people of Louisiana, or doing what seems necessary to be reelected?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

New Orleans schools aren't serving special education students well

It seemed like the wholesale takeover of New Orleans schools by the state following Hurricane Katrina was going so well, what with the Recovery School District spending twice the per-pupil amount as the state's other public schools, and all.

Then the Southern Poverty Law Center has to go and spoil it all by revealing that the city's Recovery District and charter schools are doing a lousy job of caring for special needs students.

As Times-Picayune reporter Cindy Chang puts it in this story, "Thirteen students with disabilities have filed a complaint against the Louisiana Department of Education alleging that the agency has looked the other way while New Orleans public schools commit a range of federal violations, from refusing to enroll them to failing to provide a blind third-grader with a full-time aide."

And since there are only a small handful of schools left under the jurisdiction of the much-maligned Orleans Parish School Board, there's no place left to place special needs children except the schools that were taken over by the state.

For his part, Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek is simply SHOCKED to learn that children aren't getting the services they deserve, and if only the Southern Poverty Law Center had called him instead of filing a lawsuit, this all could have been handled without any public outcry.