Monday, February 28, 2011

Louisiana supports Wisconsin workers, takes a swipe at Jindal

LFT President Steve Monaghan addresses Saturday's rally in support of Wisconsin public employees.
LFT President Steve Monaghan joined more than 200 activists on Saturday in support of Wisconsin teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees who are in danger of losing their collective bargaining rights.

As Advocate bureau chief Mark Ballard points out in this article, the rally "morphed into a protest of Gov. Bobby Jindal and his handling of state government's budget crisis."

Monaghan told the reporter that in Wisconsin, like in Louisiana, the budget crisis was largely caused by an avalanche of tax exemptions that state leaders approved in recent years.

This You Tube video by Leonard Joseph conveys the passion of the crowd at the capitol on Saturday:

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Monaghan: Place sunsets on tax exemptions

This week, Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a press release announcing a legislative plan that would, among other things, impose a sunset on fund dedications adopted by the legislature.

In a letter to the editor that is now appearing around the state, LFT President Steve Monaghan gives a nod of approval to the concept, saying that the idea should be applied to the state's 441 tax exemptions as well.

After all, if it is a good idea to periodically review fund dedications to see if they are serving their purpose, isn't the same true of tax exemptions?

Here's the text of Steve's letter:

In a press release issued this week, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced he will propose a package of bills including, among other things, a sunset provision for nearly all of the state's dedicated funds. These are the areas of the budget that are protected by either Constitution or legislation, which reportedly cannot be easily reduced.

And, as in all legislation, the devil sleeps comfortably in the detail, the governor's call for sunsets and reviews of statutorily protected funds speaks to common sense and good government.

The governor makes a strong point when he says these dedicated funds should be inspected by lawmakers on a regular basis to make sure their dedications serve a legitimate purpose, and are working as intended and that the intention satisfies a need and serves the public's interest.

This concept connotes transparency and accountability and it should also be applied to the 441 separate tax exemptions offered by the state that now cost taxpayers more than
$7.1 billion per year in lost revenue.

Is it really necessary to grant exemptions for drilling in the Haynesville gas find at a cost of more than $100 million to the state? Or to exempt sales taxes on purchases of gold bullion or Mardi Gras beads?

Perhaps these and the many other tax exemptions do serve the public well, but we don't know because once adopted, most tax exemptions are never revisited. Two-thirds have no sunset. So, while they can be passed by a simple majority in the legislature, it takes a two-thirds vote to repeal them.

We urge the governor to apply this standard to the tax exemption budget. Put a sunset clause on them, and give lawmakers the information they need to decide whether or not the exemptions should stay on the books.

Steve Monaghan, President
Louisiana Federation of Teachers

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Getting it wrong on LFT and tax breaks

This report from the Associated Press is cropping up in newspapers and on TV stations all around the state. It boldly states that LFT and others "are opposing Gov. Bobby Jindal's plans to seek extensions of several business tax breaks."

The article helpfully explains that Gov. Jindal says the tax breaks "help Louisiana compete for jobs."

To be clear, as was stated in the LFT press release and on our Web page explaining why we believe in Better Choices for a Better Louisiana, we simply want balance and transparency when these tax breaks are considered.

The governor can claim that his tax incentives are luring jobs to the state and are good for the economy. But while Louisiana faces a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, the 441 tax breaks now in existence cost the state $7.1 billion a year in lost revenue.

And who is checking to make sure the tax breaks do indeed bring jobs and enhance our economy? No one. Most tax incentives for businesses have no sunset clause, and are never reexamined once they are created. That's why the legislature passed bills last year requiring hearings to determine how effective these tax incentives are.

Thus far, no hearings have been held. And until they are, we stick to our main point: no further tax exemptions should be granted until we know whether they serve their purpose, or if they are in fact hurting the state's economic development.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Still no "Red Tape" takers

As Will Sentell from The Advocate points out here, no school boards have yet taken Gov. Jindal and Supt. Pastorek up on the Red Tape Act's offer to waive laws and policies.

Even though Pastorek has touted the act as a way to relieve budget stress, there have been no takers.

There are a couple of possible reasons for this hesitancy. As the article notes, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers has filed a suit challenging the act's constitutionality. Perhaps school boards are leery of gearing up for a program that may get snuffed by the courts.

But here's another one: maybe the school boards just don't trust Pastorek and Jindal. As DeSoto Superintendent of Schools Walter Lee observes, a careful reading of the law reveals that it might make it easier for the state to seize control of local schools.

That hasn't worked too well for local systems.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Radio show to feature Better Choices for a Better Louisiana

LFT President Steve Monaghan and Louisiana Budget Project Director Eddie Ashworth will be guests on the Jim Engster Show on WRKF-FM, 89.3 on the dial, on Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 9:00 A.M. Steve and Eddie will be talking about the Better Choices for a Better Louisiana Coalition, and Louisiana’s need for a fairer, more transparent fiscal base.

If you’re not in WRKF’s range, you can listen online at and click on “Listen Live.” If you’re busy in the classroom at 9:00 A.M., you can listen whenever you wish to a WRKF podcast. On their Web site, scroll down to “programs” and click on “podcasts.”

While you’re on the WRKF Web site, please click on “Save Your Station” and send a message to Congress, asking members to fund public radio – the new Republican majority has plans to defund public radio, and we could lose valuable news sources like the Jim Engster show.

Exigency and financial crisis: What does it mean to you?

For the third year in a row, Governor Jindal and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have agreed to write a Minimum Foundation Program formula without increased funding for schools.

Because of that, school boards around the state are considering a declaration of exigency or financial crisis. Some have already done so.

Teachers and school employees want to know what kind of threat these declarations pose to their schools and their jobs. These FAQs will help answer those questions.

To read more, please click here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

North LA districts oppose letter grades for schools

School boards in Caddo, Bossier, Webster and DeSoto Parishes are united in an effort to ask lawmakers to repeal a state law requiring the assignment of letter grades to public schools, according to this report from KTBS-TV in Shreveport.

Opponents fear the letter grades, required under a law adopted last year, will unfairly label schools as failing.

Perhaps the best understanding of the controversy was expressed in this comment posted under the KTBS story:

This is the state's way of pushing for charter schools. Under this system,
charter schools (as well as private schools) are exempt from accountability. As
we all know, the charter system is a joke. With this scoring system, Only magnet
schools will score a "B" or above. The best neighborhood schools would receive a
"C." Most schools would earn a "D" or "F" based on their current scores. Once
all the schools appear to be failing, the state is going to scream for charter
schools. I'm not an outsider saying this, I really do know what's going on and
we should be outraged.

BESE freezes MFP, crisis declared in school districts

With the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education bowing to Gov. Bobby Jindal's demand for a third frozen year of school funding, districts around the state may be starting to fall into crisis like a line of dominoes.

As Advocate reporter Will Sentell wrote here, BESE agreed to forgo the traditional 2.75% growth factor in the Minimum Foundation Program, which funnels most state funds to local school boards.

BESE member Walter Lee, who is also superintendent of schools in DeSoto Parish, grimly predicted, "It is really going to be difficult for school systems."

The next day, the Livingston Parish School Board declared a "financial exigency" exists in the district, as a direct result of the BESE decision.

Advocate reporter Faimon Roberts put it this way: "The unanimous vote came after Superintendent Bill Spear told the board that by removing a 'growth factor' in its funding formula, the state had cut more than $7 million from Livingston Parish schools for the next three years, including the coming school year."

Teacher and staff layoffs are predicted, and a ripple effect from the cuts is feared. Board member Buddy Mincey Jr. said that the school system has been a driving factor in Livingston Parish's growth. "Strangling" education in Livingston could jeopardize the parish's future growth.

Just over the parish line in Tangipahoa, Superintendent of Schools Mark Kolwe told his board that their system, too, is in a state of exigency, and the board declared a financial crisis.

Hammond Daily Star reporter Bridgette Bonner wrote that layoffs are under consideration there, as well as the elimination of art and music programs, employee step raises, substitute teachers and other important education programs.

And as previously reported in EdLog, Gov. Jindal is recommending even more tax breaks for big business.

Jindal’s tax breaks another example of bad choices

This Louisiana Federation of Teachers press release is featured in Bayou Buzz.

(Baton Rouge – February 17, 2011) Governor Bobby Jindal’s announcement that he will seek even more tax breaks, adding to the more than 440 already in place, is an example of the poor choices that have contributed to Louisiana's current fiscal crisis, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said today.

“Just one day after announcing that education funding will be frozen for another year, the governor now says that he wants to add to the more than $7 billion in tax loopholes that are starving the services Louisiana families depend on,” said Monaghan.

“We understand that leadership involves making choices,” Monaghan said. “However, we do not understand the wisdom governing the choice to freeze education funding one day and to choose to expand tax breaks the next.”

The LFT president said the governor and legislature should refrain from extending tax incentives or starting new ones until their effect on the economy and Louisiana communities is understood.

“Last year, the legislature passed bills asking for a thorough review of the 441 tax incentives currently offered by the State of Louisiana,” Monaghan said. “Lawmakers said they want to know how effective the incentives are. Do they attract jobs and grow the economy, or do they add to the bottom line of giant corporations at the expense of health care, education and the quality of life in our state?

“So far, there have been no hearings, and no reports filed on the effect these tax breaks have on our economy,” Monaghan said. “In his statement yesterday, the governor stated that he does not know how much this new round of tax loopholes will cost the state.

“But we already know some of the cost of the current policy. A number of school districts have already declared fiscal exigency, and school districts around the state have announced or are discussing layoffs of teachers and school employees. Access to health care is shrinking. Whole disciplines are being eliminated from our colleges and universities.”

More cuts to vital services and programs are anticipated this year. Lawmakers will enter the legislative session on April 25 facing a $1.6 billion shortfall.

“At the very least, if our teachers, our schools, and our children are asked by our Governor to do more with less, our governor should say ‘no’ to tax breaks are until we know if these breaks or helping or hurting the state.”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Connecting the tax loophole dots

On Tuesday, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that he will freeze spending for K-12 education for a third straight year.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jindal announced yet more tax breaks for big business in the state.

Also this week, it was reported that teacher layoffs are "imminent" in Livingston Parish. They're not alone. School districts around the state considering layoffs reportedly include Jefferson, Tangipahoa, East Baton Rouge, Webster, St. Martin and others.

Connecting the dots, it's easy to see where our leaders' priorities lie and where their choices are taking us.

Better choices can be made. We don't have to provide even more tax loopholes without, as the governor admits, even knowing how much they will cost the state.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Federal government could also make some better choices

Louisiana apparently is not the only place suffering from the bad choices politicians can make.

According to this Education Week article by Alyson Klein, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is poised to adopt a budget that would strip $5 billion from education in the current fiscal year.

That's billion with a "B." Fortunately, President Obama is prepared to veto the bill.

Looks like we need to expand the Better Choices for a Better Louisiana campaign to Better Choices for a Better USA.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Is TAP a magic education bullet?

This article in Sunday's Advocate by reporter C.J. Futch ought to open a dialog about the value of TAP, a school improvement program created by disgraced financier Michael Milken's family foundation.

There's little doubt that scores have risen at the Ascension Parish schools spotlighted by the article. But are those improvements due solely to Milken's proprietary program, or are there elements of it that can be successfully implemented at any school?

As LFT President Steve Monaghan’ points out in the article, TAP is only as good as its administration. The program was a failure in Calcasieu Parish, for example, where it was ousted from schools because of complaints from educators.

What does TAP get right? Its system of imbedded professional development is spot on, and teachers work collaboratively to reinforce learning school wide. The program's use of master teachers and mentor teachers is also a positive. Teachers can assume more responsibility and earn higher salaries without leaving the classroom to become administrators.

It all comes at a cost, however. As the article points out, it costs an extra $350 to $400 per student to implement TAP. Thus far, the money has come from federal grants, but as those are phased out, it is expected that other funds - competitive grants or donations from local businesses - will take up the slack.

There is only so much corporate largesse, so the question is begged: is this a model that can truly be sustained and applied to all schools? Or will the first ones into the program siphon the available funds, leaving the rest at the bottom of a Ponzi-style pyramid?

While the embedded professional development has solid, research-based foundations, the aspect of the program earning the most attention is the system of bonuses paid to teachers whose students show improvement.

Research linking school improvement to financial incentives is scant to nonexistent, but the idea of bonuses appeals to free marketers and earns publicity for the program. Notice that he Advocate headline focuses on the bonuses, not on the professional development or collaboration.

Under the Milken plan, teachers don't start winning bonuses until the third year of TAP implementation. But scores at the Ascension schools started improving immediately, which seems to indicate that the bonuses alone can't account for the improvement.

In Ascension Parish, the article says, teachers have earned bonuses ranging from $350 to $5,000. How is the amount given to each teacher determined?

You can't find that out. The evaluation used to apportion bonuses is considered a TAP proprietary trade secret. Teachers in the program are not even allowed to discuss their bonuses with each other. If you want transparency, TAP is not for you.

Do we really want the evaluation of our schools and teachers to depend on a trade secret?

TAP supporters say their evaluation plan is so well designed that it is virtually impossible for a teacher to be unfairly evaluated, and that there is little need for due process protections that allow challenges to the awards.

In the real world, that seems hard to swallow.

In survey after survey, teachers say that bonus pay is not what is needed to improve student achievement. Better professional development, improved discipline, more parental involvement and less stress on standardized testing all rank higher when teachers are asked their preferences.

There is little doubt that some high-ranking state education officials hope that TAP will be the model chosen by Louisiana schools to boost student performance. That is a decision that needs thorough discussion and debate. All the information about TAP needs to be on the table before it is adopted wholesale in the state.

Friday, February 11, 2011

LFT President promotes Better Choices in Advocate letter

This has been a great week for the Better Choices for a Better Louisiana campaign. Check out Steve Monaghan’s letter to the editor in The Advocate.

Monaghan's letter cites two articles recently mentioned in EdLog, one by Marsha Shuler and one by Ted Griggs:

Reporter Marsha Shuler’s interview with House Speaker Jim Tucker revealed
this fact: The amount we allow as tax exemptions is almost equal to our general
fund revenue.

Speaker Tucker’s acknowledgement that lawmakers may have to look at tax
loopholes as part of the solution was a welcome, honest contribution to a very
necessary public dialogue.

On Saturday, Ted Griggs’ report on the absence of severance taxes from
the Haynesville shale wells reinforced our strong belief that Louisiana’s tax
exemption policies must be more thoroughly examined.

The Advocate articles addressed issues that Better Choices has been discussing for months.

This week, the Better Choices coalition began a series of round table discussions with community leaders. Wednesday in New Orleans, and Tuesday in Baton Rouge. Coming in the next few weeks are meetings in Alexandria, Lake Charles, Lafayette, Shreveport and Monroe.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

RSD failing to improve Baton Rouge schools

Yet more evidence is emerging that state bureaucrats can't do any better - and in some cases are worse - than locally elected public school boards at improving our schools.

This story by Advocate reporter Will Sentell includes whines from Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek about how long it takes to effect changes in a school.

Also whining is a spokesperson for Advance Baton Rouge, an organization that runs two schools on behalf of the state, schools in which scores have significantly declined since the takeover.

Those schools, the flack says, ought to improve because of a $13.2 million grant coming their way to improve teacher quality.

Remember when they used to say you can't solve a problem by throwing money at it?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Haynesville shale: Louisiana can make better choices!

It's a story that was predicted by the Better Choices for a Better Louisiana Coalition: our state is missing out on many millions of dollars because of ill-conceived tax breaks granted to drillers profiting from the Haynesville shale bonanza.

In today's Advocate, reporter Ted Griggs exposes the near-scandalous fact that one of the richest gas finds in history will contribute almost nothing to a state that is facing a $1.6 billion shortfall in the coming legislative session.

Health care is going to suffer. Higher education will continue to lose professors, degree programs and research facilities. Roads and bridges will keep on crumbling. K-12 funding will suffer, and teachers will be fired (St. Martin Parish just announced that it is losing one teacher in each of its schools).

As Griggs reports, there are more than 800 wells in production in North Louisiana's Haynesville find, and most of them will contribute not one penny of severance taxes to the state.

Why? Because they are subject to a tax exemption for two years, and most of these short-lived wells play out within 18 months. There are huge profits for energy companies, but nothing for the state which is surrendering its mineral wealth.

Haynesville is just one example of hundreds of tax loopholes that cost the state more than $7 billion a year - almost as much as is collected for the state's general fund. While some tax breaks may benefit the people of Louisiana, others, like Haynesville, cost us dearly.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers has been involved in this issue for months. In November, we participated with other Better Choices Coalition members in a press conference on the steps of the capitol, asking lawmakers to take a hard look at tax exemptions.

Later that month, at a convention themed Better Choices for a Better Louisiana, experts from the Louisiana Budget Project and LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication explained how Louisiana got into this mess, and what can be done about it.

We know we can do better. We know we can make better choices. Please visit the Better Choices for a Better Louisiana Coalition Web site to learn more.

Friday, February 4, 2011

RSD loses 180 computers

After three years in office, the Jindal administration admits that more than $23 million worth of state property has gone missing.

As this report from FOX8 investigative reporter Lee Zurik reveals, one chunk of that total was ripped from the state Recovery School District in New Orleans:
State records show on September 10, 2009, the Recovery School District
purchased 180 computers worth $746 each. About one year later, those same
records show all 180 computers are missing. They were purchased for $134,000.

Maybe the loss can help explain why the per-pupil expenditure in the RSD is nearly twice that of the state's other public schools.

Red tape act and class size

When advocates of Gov. Jindal's so-called Red Tape Reduction act say that larger class sizes are part of their school improvement agenda, they are plugging into a new national theme. These people share their bad ideas.

The latest to jump on the bigger-can-be-better bandwagon is the new Washington, D.C. school chancellor, Kaya Henderson. In an interview with the Washington Post, she admitted that increasing class size is on the table:
At the same time I know for sure when you have an excellent teacher in a
classroom -- and I've seen this -- that principals will put additional kids in a
classroom, up to 40. And if the teacher can handle those 40 kids they are better
served by that one highly effective teacher than splitting that class into two
classes of 20 [where] you can't guarantee are both are highly effective

You'll hear the same twaddle in Louisiana, when those who want to educate our children on the cheap say that class size doesn't really matter if you have a highly effective teacher in the room. So let's load it up with 40 children.

The better solution is to have two classes of 20 children with highly effective teachers.

Louisiana has a state law that mandates smaller class sizes. The Red Tape Reduction and Local Waiver Empowerment Act was written to help get around laws that govern public education in our state. It has very little to do with improving education, and it is in sync with a national agenda that is not necessarily in the best interests of our children, our schools or our professional educators.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

House speaker considering better choices

The message of the Better Choices for a Better Louisiana campaign seems to be sinking in. Speaker of the House Jim Tucker is acknowledging that the $7.1 billion the state surrenders in the form of various tax breaks will be looked at in the upcoming legislative session.

According to this story by Advocate reporter Marsha Shuler, Tucker told the Louisiana Hospital Association that the state grants nearly as much in various exemptions as is actually collected for the general fund.

Unless the list of more than 440 exemptions is put into play, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to fill the expected $1.6 billion budget hole this spring.

That's old news to followers of the Better Choices campaign - it was last November 18 when the coalition held its press conference on the capitol steps. At that time, the coalition asked lawmakers to declare a moratorium on new tax exemptions and to take a close look at existing loopholes.

A lot more information about Better Choices is available. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers has set up a Better Choices for a Better Louisiana resource page, and the coalition has established its own Web site.

For true believers, facts don't matter

If you've ever tried to convince horoscope-believing friends that the alignment of stars and planets stars doesn't really determine the course of their lives, you can understand why it is so frustratingly difficult to have a meaningful conversation about charter schools.

Many well-meaning people have developed an almost religious faith that charter schools are just better than traditional public schools. No matter what the evidence says, it's hard to convince them otherwise.

So a new study from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado probably won't change many minds, but it still bears a close look.

The study, conducted by Bruce D. Baker and Richard Ferris of Rutgers University, has some surprising conclusions about charter schools in New York City, one of the nation's largest charter school laboratories. The results challenge the conventional wisdom bandied by popular documentaries like "Waiting for Superman" and "The Lottery."

Most significantly, the study shows that charter schools on average do not out-perform traditional public schools in the city.

Beyond that, the study reveals that there is a wide disparity of resources provided to charter schools in New York. While some get almost no funds other than the base school allotment, some receive private donations that amount to $10,000 per pupil more than traditional public schools.

And yet, "there is little or no relationship between spending and test score outcomes after including appropriate controls. Some high-spending and some low-spending charters perform well, while others perform quite poorly."

The city in the United States with the most charter school experience is New Orleans. Wouldn't it be nice to see a similar study made of the Big Easy's charter schools?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fifty-six schools earn High-Performing, High-Poverty distinction

The State Department of Education has announced that 56 schools in 30 Louisiana school districts have earned the High-Performing, High-Poverty distinction. Click here for the department's press release.