Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Merit pay a well-intentioned bad idea

Here is one great rejoinder when the subject of merit pay for teachers comes up: just call it a "hardy perennial in the overgrown garden of well-intentioned bad ideas. "

That jewel comes from the keyboard of Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith, whose essay questions the logic behind President Barack Obama's belief that merit pay should be a key element of education reform.

Smith is not opposed to any type of performance-based supplements. He notes that teachers in some places -specifically mentioning Denver and Cincinnati - are experimenting with contractual incentives. There are two very important distinctions between these examples and the common understanding of merit pay.

First, those examples are proceeding under the mutual understanding of collective bargaining agreements. Teachers are defining the incentives in partnership with their school boards.

Second, those incentives are not based purely on student achievement. As Smith puts it, "Fact is, nobody has ever devised a fair and equitable way to base teacher pay on student performance. Nobody. Ever."

Smith recounts several reasons why basing teacher pay on student performance is a bad idea. But the most compelling may be the unintended consequence to challenged schools.

"Even more troubling," Smith writes, "is the likelihood that teachers will opt out of the schools with the hardest-to-teach student populations."

Smith concludes his column with the observations of a teacher union president:

How do you attract good teachers to hard-to-staff schools if their pay is
based on getting the best results from the most-challenging students?

"It won't happen,'' said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President
Jerry Jordan. "The equitable distribution of qualified teachers would get a lot

I'd raise teacher pay across the board. But I'd do it in a way that would
not discourage the best teachers from taking on the toughest challenges.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Charter schools as profit centers

Progressive States Network has posted a thought-provoking article about the charter school movement which questions the motives behind some charter school providers. The theme is similar to a previous EdLog post that characterized the modern charter school movement as a substitute for unpopular voucher schemes.

The Progressive States article frames its argument like this:

Even as the right wing has been losing in the polls on promoting school
vouchers, privatization has still been penetrating school systems through
charter programs and support services. However, both teachers and
governments have increasingly spotlighted problems and the failed promises of
many school privatization contractors.
The article mentions Louisiana as a state where public schools are being taken over almost wholesale and converted to charters.

Louisiana law specifically prohibits for-profit education companies from holding charters, but non-profits who apply for charters are free to subcontract their operations to one of those same companies.

It is worth repeating what writer Jonathan Kozol uncovered in his research on charter schools. He found a report by financial analysts who recommended investment in education companies as a new profit center:

“The education industry,” according to these analysts, “represents, in our
opinion, the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control”
that have either voluntarily opened or, they note in pointed terms, have “been
forced” to open up to private enterprise. Indeed, they write, “the education
industry represents the largest market opportunity” since health-care services
were privatized during the 1970’s.... From the point of view of private profit,
one of these analysts enthusiastically observes, “The K–12 market is the Big

Science wins Texas shootout

Just a week ago, EdLog reported on the Texas evolution controversy. Not the one about whether or not Texans ever evolved at all; the one eerily similar to our own legislative battle last year over the teaching of creationism.

Well, the fight in Texas is over, and science won. The stakes were much bigger for the nation than Louisiana's own Science Education Act. Had the Texas Board of Education approved Chairman Don McLeroy's plan, most of the science textbooks sold in the U.S. would have had to give equal time to non-darwinian (religious) theories about the origin of species. That's because Texas buys so many textbooks that publishers don't print other editions for other states.

As San Antonio Express-News reporter Gary Scharrer writes here:

Board Chairman Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, and six other social conservatives
lost several narrow votes designed to cast specific doubt on evolution.
The new standards no longer contain a provision allowing educators to teach the
“weaknesses” of evolutionary theory, part of the current standards.
By 8-7 votes, the board removed specific references to insufficiencies of evidence for
common ancestry and natural selection and to “the arguments for and against
universal common descent in light of fossil evidence.” All are key parts of
evolutionary theory.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Jindal budget slashes funding for the arts

As reported by Mary Tutwiler of The Independent:

Arts officials gathering in Baton Rouge yesterday for a meeting of the Louisiana
Partnership for the Arts got the grim news. Gov. Bobby Jindal is proposing to
cut nearly $2.5 million, an 83 percent reduction, from Decentralized Arts
Funding. The sweeping cut would leave little more than $500,000 for DAF funding
statewide. Jindal also proposed cutting statewide arts grants by 31 percent,
slicing regional folklife funding in half and eliminating funding for artist

Read the full article here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dems say Jindal cheats education

The Louisiana Democratic Party has posted a succinct overview of Gov. Bobby Jindal's education budget.

The same guy who told a crowd at one of his numerous out-of-state fundraisers that, "The left hasn’t had a new idea on education since the invention of the chalkboard,” has a bold idea that shortchanges higher education:

And what is Gov. Jindal’s new idea for Louisiana education? Cutting $219
million from Louisiana’s colleges and universities. While Governors Mike Foster
and Kathleen Blanco made higher education a priority for moving Louisiana
forward, Gov. Jindal will be the first Louisiana governor in more than a decade
to make severe cuts to education. University presidents and faculty across
Louisiana have warned that Gov. Jindal’s budget cuts would have a crippling
effect on higher education.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What do they do in Singapore?

From time to time, an exasperated education reformer will bemoan that Singapore is ahead of the United States in student achievement.

The image of a third-world country outperforming our students is supposed to outrage us and spur us on to even greater rigor. If Singapore can make students learn, why can't we? The implication is that there is something wrong with our schools, our teachers and maybe our society.

And, as it turns out, there is something wrong. But it's not that we lack rigor. Louisiana has some of the toughest requirements for students in the nation - we are one of just seven states with a high-stakes test required for graduation. Yet we have not seen great leaps forward in student achievement.

So what's the difference between Louisiana and Singapore? In that bustling Asian tiger, teaching is an honored profession, and teachers are respected as professionals. Teachers are paid on par with engineers and scientists.

As Christian Science Monitor reporter Stacy Teicher Khadaroo writes here, it's not easy to become a teacher in Singapore:

Only the top third of secondary-school graduates in Singapore can apply for
teacher training. The National Institute of Education winnows that field down
more and pays a living stipend while they learn to teach. Each year, teachers
take an additional 100 hours of paid professional development.

Singapore teachers are highly paid, honored professionals. They even earn a living wage while they are learning to teach.

Naturally, one of the American school administrators interviewed for the story comes away with the wrong lesson: "...we can control university preparation programs [and] some licensure systems."

So when Singapore says, "teachers are highly paid, honored professionals," American administrators hear: "make it harder to be a teacher."

The change we need is bolder and broader than forcing teachers through smaller hoops and over higher hurdles. We don't want our society to look like Singapore's - it is in many ways repressive and authoritarian - but their attitude toward education is impressive.

Are our teachers honored professionals? We like to think so, but we don't pay them very well, and our tightly structured curriculum and reliance on standardized testing reduces them to robots, eliminating the art and sucking the joy out of teaching.

Too many of our schools are crumbling, with broken windows, leaking pipes and poor lighting. Where's the honor in those surroundings?

Our schools should be sources of pride and centers of community activity, but all too often they are bunkers surrounded with razor wire, their entrances bottlenecked by metal detectors and armed guards.

When we really get serious about education, we will shift our emphasis from making life tougher for teachers and students and focus instead on lifting entire communities from the grinding poverty that lies at the bottom of Louisiana's troubles.

Lawmakers will tackle college transfer "nightmare"

The chairman of the Senate Education Committee wants the state's higher education boards to resolve the turf wars that make it difficult for students to transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions.

Sen. Ben Nevers (D-Bogalusa) says he wants a resolution within two years, and will introduce legislation to that effect when lawmakers return to Baton Rouge in April.

In this article by Advocate reporter Jordan Blum, students describe the "nightmare" that comes when they try to transfer credits from community colleges to the traditional four-year schools.

Right now there is no standard set of guidelines that lets students know which courses will count toward a bachelor's degree when they transfer. One of the goals is "common course numbering." Identical courses would have the same numbers in all colleges. Another goal would guarantee that community college students could transfer to a four-year college as long as they follow the correct track.

Finalists named in Student of the Year competition

Congratulations to the 18 finalists in the Department of Education's search for the Louisiana Student of the Year.

Students in fifth, eighth and 12th grade from six regions around the state comprise the competition. Every school in the state - including charters and approved non-public schools - was asked to nominate a student for the honor. Students progressed through district and regional competitions. Winners will be named at the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge on April 15.

Finalists were named in this press release from the State Department.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Texas board chief wants creationist science books

If there is one single person who can influence the contents of every science textbook in America, it is the chairman of the Texas Board of Education. Because Texas buys so many books, the publishers are always anxious to please the Lone Star State. And because they won't publish different texts for every state, schools all over the U.S. wind up learning what Texas says belongs in the book.

The chairman of the Texas Board of Education believes that God created the Earth less than 10,000 years ago, and he wants the science books in his state to be friendly to his creationist bent.

The opening paragraph of this story by Wall Street Journal reporter Stephanie Simon gives us a glimpse of what is in store for our students:

The Texas Board of Education will vote this week on a new science
curriculum designed to challenge the guiding principle of evolution, a step that
could influence what is taught in biology classes across the nation.

Wall Street Journal admission: Employee Free Choice Act doesn't eliminate secret ballots

It must have hurt, but the Wall Street Journal finally admitted that the Employee Free Choice Act now before Congress does not eliminate secret ballot votes in elections for union representation.

Friday, March 20, 2009

PAR commentary short on data, long on opinion

The Public Affairs Research Council has weighed in to support the package of school board reforms proposed by Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek.

As LFT President Steve Monaghan points out in this article by Times-Picayune reporter Ed Anderson, the PAR commentary is uncharacteristically short on data, but long on opinion. Says Steve, it "oversimplifies complex issues and dismisses honest debate as simply turf battles. Usually one can count on PAR to back their recommendations with research."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tough times at LSU

This is the word from LSU Chancellor Michael Martin, as reported here by Jordan Blum of The Advocate.

Total loss to the flagship Baton Rouge campus: as much as $50 million.

The university's response: furloughs of faculty and staff, perhaps layoffs. Tuition may rise by 5%, along with additional student fees


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lawmaker suggests that we pay for public services

A Republican state representative from St. Tammany Parish has mentioned the unmentionable: perhaps we need some kind of realistic tax base to pay for the services we expect from government.

Other lawmakers are fighting to see who can bring the biggest tax cuts to the legislature, and Gov. Bobby Jindal swears that he will veto any new taxes. But Rep. Kevin Pearson (R-Slidell) is swimming against that current. He believes we have to pay for what we want government to provide.

Under Pearson's proposal, homeowners would still have a generous tax exemption. He'd like the first $10,000 of a home's assessed value to be taxed, and the next $75,000 to be exempt.

The problem, Pearson told New Orleans CityBusiness for this article, is that the actual tax burden in Louisiana is not spread around enough. Fifty percent of the property in the state is untaxed, piling the cost of state services on a relatively small population:

"The homestead exemption, while attractive to potential homebuyers, has
drastically cut necessary funding for our local taxing bodies," he said.
“This bill is not about taxes. It’s about education. It’s about
fire protection. It’s about law enforcement. And it’s about economic
development. Every community will benefit from this measure.”

Pearson's proposal would require a constitutional amendment. That means he will have to get two-thirds of the House and Senate to agree, and then win a vote of the people. As he told CityBusiness, “I have no illusions that this will be an easy bill to sell.”

Pearson will talk about his plan at a public forum on April 6 at 6:00 P.M. in the Slidell Municipal Auditorium

Sudy shows that music education creates better readers

Here is empirical evidence that we cheat our children when we cut enrichment electives from the curriculum. A major study reported in the journal Psychology of Music, via ScienceDaily, reveals that students who have music education "display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with their non-musically trained peers..."

The tragedy in Louisiana - and across the nation - is that we dedicate the bulk of our resources to narrowly focused curricula aimed at passing standardized tests. We've suspected that a relentless drive toward a statistical goal sucks the joy out of learning. Now we have evidence that it also impedes learning.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

LSU students go online to protest budget cuts

It looks like Bob Mann, of the Manship School of Communications at LSU, is introducing his political communications students to the real world.

Mann, a veteran of many political battles, inspired the students to apply what they've learned in class to the budget crisis facing the state's flagship university.

As Advocate reporter Jordan Blum writes here, the students have formed an ad hoc organization named "SOS - Save Our Schools." The group held a press conference on Monday to protest Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposed $219 million cut to the LSU system.

Mann's students are on the cutting edge of information technology - here is the blog they started to fight the budget cuts.

Superintendent ready for school board reform fight

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek pretty much stuck to his guns when he spoke to the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday. Despite the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's refusal to endorse his plan to rein in school boards, Pastorek is ready for the legislative battle ahead.

As Times-Picayune reporter Ed Anderson writes here, Pastorek is adamant about the need he sees to limit school board authority. Boards should make education policy, and leave personnel decisions to local superintendents, Pastorek believes.

(It is in this area that LFT has a problem with the agenda. Part of the change would eviscerate the state's teacher tenure laws.)

Pastorek gave his general approval to a package of bills that Rep. Steve Cater (R-Baton Rouge) plans to introduce in the coming session. Carter's bills are very similar to the package that BESE rejected last week.

There is one area in which Pastorek signals a willingness to compromise with school board members. He told the press club that a Carter bill which would reduce the salaries that school board members can collect, "has not been my issue."

Monday, March 16, 2009

CitiBusiness focuses on teacher tenure attack

Kudos to New Orleans CitiBusiness for being the first major media outlet to understand the threat posed to teacher tenure in the school board "reform" agenda pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek.

As reporter Stephen Maloney writes here, the LFT believes one of the changes "will effectively eviscerate teacher tenure and leave them vulnerable to unfair persecution. "

So far, most of the attention paid to the school board proposals has centered on eliminating members' pay, imposing term limits and limiting their authority. It is when you dig into the meaning of "limiting their authority" that the threat to teachers emerges.

Right now, tenured teachers accused of wrongdoing may appeal to the school board for a hearing on the charges against them. The reforms" would give school superintendents sole authority over dismissing teachers.

But in tenure cases, it is the superintendent who recommends dismissal. The change would make superintendents the prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Which is why LFT President Steve Monaghan says the change would "gut" tenure.

To get an opposing viewpoint, Maloney quotes a spokesperson for the supposedly nonpartisan National Council on Teacher Quality. That organization thoroughly misstated Louisiana's teacher tenure law, claiming that teachers automatically and easily earn tenure after three years in the classroom. As this LFT report demonstrates, NCTQ left out all the rigor that is part of the tenure process.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Union leader: performance-based pay working in Jefferson Parish

When President Barack Obama suggested more performance-based pay for school teachers, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten gave provisional approval, saying "the devil is in the details."

Here in Louisiana, Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Joe Potts said essentially the same thing when Times-Picayune reporter Barri Bronston sought comments for this article.

The key to a successful program, Potts told the reporter, is openness by administrators:

"Otherwise, teachers start feeling like they bought into a bill of goods," he
said. "Then you start losing the enthusiasm and respect for administrators.
The whole key is in how it is presented."

Potts said the program in Jefferson Parish seems to be working well:
...partly because bonuses, which range from $1,000 to $3,300, are based on how
much students grow academically from year to year, as opposed to how high
they score on standardized tests in single year.

There is another significant factor at work. Teachers in Jefferson Parish have a mature relationship with the school board. Because of the collective bargaining agreement between the board and JFT, it is possible to try new programs in collaboration with teachers.

Similar partnership agreements in other school systems would make it much easier for teachers to embrace change, secure in the knowledge that their concerns must be taken into consideration. Currently, only Jefferson, St. Tammany and three other school systems have collective bargaining partnerships between school boards and their employees.

Northeast Louisiana weighs in on school board legislation

School boards in Northeast Louisiana seem to be lining up against State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek's plan to shake up school boards.

As Monroe News-Star reporter Stephen Largen writes here, school boards in the area aren't happy with losing their salaries, the imposition of term limits and a diminution of board authority.

Budget anticipates $1.3 billion revenue drop

Governor Bobby Jindal's proposed state budget anticipates a $1.3 billion drop in state revenues. Because the state constitution forbids an unbalanced budget, there must be significant cuts.

Much of the burden will fall on higher education and health care. Lawmakers say that is because most of the rest of the budget is dedicated and cannot be reduced. That's not entirely true - as ELog reported before, a good number of those dedications could easily be changed if the legislature had sufficient backbone.

And as Advocate reporter Michelle Millhollion reports here, the state has a big rainy day fund and a $400 million economic development fund, neither one of which the governor plans to tap to ameliorate the current crisis.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In face of budget standstill, BESE okays $250K private contract

At the request of State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a $250,000 contract to provide inservice training for teachers and administrators. The contract with Michael Fullan Enterprises Inc. will last a bit less than five months, from March 15 through August 30.

Minutes later, BESE adopted a "standstill" budget that reflected, in essence, a $64 million reduction in school spending next year. Advocate reporter Will Sentell has the full story here.

Could all higher education funding flow through Regents?

Through the years, there have been periodic efforts to merge the state's various boards of higher education. Because each has powerful political allies, however, it has never been possible to build consensus around any particular model for merger.

As Times Picayune reporter Jan Moller writes here, there may be an end-around in the works. In reference to the governor's budget plan, Moller writes

Jindal said this year's budget will propose that all higher education spending
flow through the state Board of Regents, which then would distribute it to the
different schools using a new formula that would put increased emphasis on
performance and less on enrollment.

If that plan passes, the issue of board governance may be close to moot.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

BESE asserts independence, rejects legislative agenda

The big showdown that political junkies awaited with breathless anticipation did not materialize at yesterday's meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's legislative committee.

The elements were all in place. Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek had his legislative agenda ready to roll, and it included a change in state law that would restrict teachers' due process rights and effectively end tenure. LFT was geared up to defend those rights.

School board members were lined up ready to oppose the plan because it eliminated their salaries, imposed term limits and stripped much of their authority. On the other side, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Council for a Better Louisiana prepared to weigh in on behalf of the plan.

As the meeting began, word arrived that Gov. Bobby Jindal is making the agenda his own.

Then a curious thing happened. As recorded here by Associated Press reporter Melinda DesLatte and here by Times Picayune reporter Ed Anderson, BESE members - even those appointed by the governor - gently asserted their independence.

Instead of approving the plan, they asked for a task force to compare Louisiana's school boards to those in the rest of the nation, and to suggest changes that might be beneficial. Members pointed out that BESE's proper role is to make state education policy, not to dictate the rules for school boards. The substitute motion meant here would be no debate, no fight, no blood on the floor.

BESE's decision will mean little in the long run. State Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge) is introducing the bills, with the blessing and support of Jindal and Pastorek. The fight will still be conducted in the halls of the legislature.

But there will be a big gap in the grand coalition that sponsors had hoped for. BESE will not be in the house (or the senate).

MFP suffers what amounts to a $64 million cut

Today, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a committee recommendation that, in effect, cuts public education spending by some $64 million.

That's not how board members explained the vote, which was described as a "standstill budget." But if an anticipated increase is rejected, that is a cut. The traditional 2.75% increase in public education's Minimum Foundation Program was sliced from the budget. School boards will have to adjust their budgets downward for the coming year. It is a reduction in a budget that wasn't big enough to begin with.

As LFT President Steve Monaghan explained in his comments to the board, "Everyone seems to agree that we want a ‘world class’ education system. But there also seems to be little commitment to define that dream and then align it with the necessary revenues.”

State officials are quick to point at the national economic meltdown as the reason for drastic reductions in spending, at both the K-12 and higher education levels. But as Monaghan said, our governor and legislature bear at least some of the blame.

“Last year, the legislature approved hundreds of millions of dollars in tax givebacks,” he said. “There are already a number of bills filed for the coming session that will further erode our revenue base. Our problems were not all caused by a national crisis. We partly brought them on ourselves with tax cuts.”

There was no response when Monaghan asked BESE members to help stanch the tax cut bloodletting:

“Can’t we resist those who suggest we remove more and more revenues during this crisis,” he asked. “Can we have a cooperative agreement to fight those forces working to further constrict funding for our schools?”

Associated Press reporter Melinda DesLatte filed this report after the BESE meeting.

Business Report whacks Jindal for higher ed cuts

Baton Rouge Business Report, which usually waxes ecstatic over Governor Bobby Jindal and his agenda, instead whacks the governor and economic development director Stephen Moret in this article.

The caustic column, entitled "Dumbing Down Higher Ed," points out the economic successes of states that properly fund higher education, in comparison to the grinding poverty of our own state.

The object of editor J.R. Ball's ire is the governor's proposed $219 million, 15.5% cut to higher education. Noting that our colleges and universities were already underfunded when the state was flush, Ball writes,

How can they justify proposing that the LSU System, for example, take a $101
million hit from its $646 million general fund budget? This is on top of the $29
million cut the system was handed earlier this year. Does anyone really believe
it's in the best interests of this state to cut the flagship university by
nearly $35 million?

In the past, critics of higher education cuts were greeted with a shrug and a "what else can we do? Higher education and health care are the only budgets that aren't dedicated."

Ball demolishes that hoary meme, pointing out that the vast majority of the dedicated funds in the state budget are statutory, meaning they can be un-dedicated by a simple vote of the legislature. Only a relatively few funds are protected in the constitution and can't be changed except by amendment.

Putting it another way: those "dedicated funds" are the fig leaves that leges use to cover their private agendas. They could cut them if they want to.

Of course, if that same legislature hadn't approved hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tax cuts last year, we might not be talking about cutting higher education at all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama's education plan: It's not anti-teacher or anti-union

Those who dislike teacher unions are tickled pink over what they believe is an anti-union slant to President Barack Obama's education reform speech, delivered this week to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. This example in the Politico blog says that Obama "for the first time confronted a powerful constituency in his own party: teachers’ unions. "

True, the president voiced support for performance-based pay. But that's not exactly the same as test-score based merit pay, as much as some would like to conflate the two. As American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says here, there is much that is good to say about "innovative ways to reward teaching excellence."

Note that in this Washington Post report on the president's speech, reporter Scott Wilson writes that he is proposing increases in education spending (the federal No Child Left Behind Act was never fully funded, even though its mandates were fully implemented). He also wants to explore national academic standards, an issue that Weingarten herself strongly supports.

It is true that the AFT and LFT will have policy differences with President Obama. We are not in his pocket, nor are we in his. The important difference between now and the past eight years is that this president has promised to make changes WITH teachers, not TO them.

There is one thing that we in the South need to understand about President Obama's background. He was raised in Hawaii and his public service career was nurtured in Illinois. Both of those states have collective bargaining laws for teachers and school employees. He comes from a culture of collaboration with teacher organizations.

So when the president talks about education reform, he automatically assumes that educators will be in on the discussion and policy decisions.

Early algebra: too much, too soon?

The math-challenged among us have always suspected this, but now there seems to be data: algebra is hard, and a lot of students aren't prepared for it.

According to this article by Education Week reporter Debra Viadero, the "percentages of students failing math in 9th grade" went up after the Chicago school system began requiring algebra in the math curriculum.

While the number of failures went up, there was no concurrent bump in achievement:

By the same token, the researchers say, the change did not seem to lead to
any significant test-score gains for students in math or in sizeable increases
in the percentages of students who went on to take higher-level math courses
later on in high school.

“This policy that Chicago tried in 1997 seems to be sweeping the
country now and not a lot of thought is being given to how it really affects
schools,” Elaine M. Allensworth, the lead researcher on the
, said in an interview.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Details emerging on school board overhaul

The political world was disappointed on Friday, when Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek failed to reveal the details of his plans to overhaul state school boards.

But a shortened speech doesn't stop a determined reporter. Today, Advocate reporter Will Sentell has some details about the proposals, one of the legislators who plan to introduce them, and a couple of the powerful interests backing them.

As for the details, Sentell writes,

Aside from redefining board authority, the package would also:

  • Limit board pay to a maximum of $200 per month for rank-and-file members,
    down from $800 now.
  • Limit the service of local members to 12 years. There is no cap now.
  • Toughen nepotism laws.

The author is State Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge), and the interests backing the bills are the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Council for a Better Louisiana.

Governmental ethics, Louisiana style

In the bad old days, Louisiana lawmakers could accept some gifts from lobbyists, including tickets to big events. But this is a new day of ethical reform in Louisiana, and Gov. Bobby Jindal put a stop to the free tickets thing.

Free tickets are the sort of perk that can influence the way a legislator votes,and that is unethical.

But it is not unethical for the governor of the state to somehow wind up with bunches of tickets to big, important events like the new Britney Spears concert. And it's not unethical for the governor to give those tickets to legislators, or for the lawmakers to accept them.

And we know the governor will never, ever remind lawmakers about those free tickets when the vote is close on an issue that is important to him.

That's what passes for ethics reform in Louisiana.

(From today's Politics column in The Advocate.)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Pastorek gives LSBA a shortened speech

State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek says he was supposed to speak to the Louisiana School Boards Association for 30 minutes on Friday at the LSBA's annual convention. LSBA President Noel Hammatt says Pastorek was supposed to speak for 10 minutes.

When teh difference was split at 20 minutes, Pastorek left out the part of the speech that was most eagerly anticipated: the piece of his legislative agenda that deals with school boards. People at the convention said that when his PowerPoint slide about school board reforms came up, Pastorek shut down the speech.

Which left Advocate reporter Will Sentell without much meat for this story.

The superintendent had enough time to list a few of his grievances with school boards, but details about his plans for the future were left hanging.

We know that Pastorek wants term limits for board members, that he wants to take away their $800 per month stipends, and that he wants to remake school boards as policy, rather than management, bodies.

We know that Pastorek is looking at radical changes to the state's teacher tenure laws. And we know that the Louisiana Federation of Teachers is ready to fight for the preservation of due process rights. The picture will become much clearer in the next few weeks. Lawmakers return to Baton Rouge for the legislative session at the end of April.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Speaker plans study of college systems

Does Louisiana have too many colleges and universities? Does Louisiana have too many college and university supervisory boards? How do we know the right answer?

Speaker of the House Jim Tucker (R-New Orleans) says he wants to know the answers, and told Advocate reporter Jordan Blum that he plans to create a commission to "study the state’s higher education from technical colleges all the way up to universities and graduate school."

As Tucker told Blum for this article, “It’s an issue that’s been on my mind for a long time, because I think we can do better. Nothing is off the table.”

Tangi board and union find common bond: both oppose Pastorek

In the old days, they called it Bloody Tangipaho', and it was the kind of place where you didn't pick a fight lightly. Now the Tangipahoa Parish School Board is ready for a real tussle.

Board members believe this fight was picked by State Superintendent of Schools Paul Pastorek, whose legislative agenda includes term limits and loss of salaries for school board members, as well as a diminution of board authority.

And according to this article by Advocate reporter JoAnna K. Burnett, Pastorek's agenda has forged something of an alliance between the school board and Tangipahoa Federation of Teachers President Doris Flanagan.

Why is that? Part of the legislative agenda would exclude school boards from holding tenure hearings (read more about the attack on tenure rights here). To the union leader, that represents a loss of important due process rights for educators. To board members, it is an assault on their official responsibilities.

The Tangipaghoa board was the first to hit back at Pastorek's challenge. There are 69 others in the state. Together, they wield considerable political clout.

Pastorek, who has openly stated that he believes school boards are a big obstacle to school reform, is to address the Louisiana School Boards Association at their annual convention in Lake Charles on Friday. The newspapers should have an interesting story to tell.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Is consensus growing for national academic standards?

Recently, EdLog reported on AFT President Randi Weingarten's Washington Post column about the problems faced by states which have more rigorous academic standards than others. A couple of days later, her contention was reinforced by a Fordham Institute study.

The problem: states (like Louisiana) that have really tough standards compare poorly to states that are less concerned with rigor.

The story has been verified by no less than State Superintendent of Schools Paul Pastorek. In this article, co-authored by Gannett reporter Ashley Northington and AP reporter Libby Quaid, Pastorek argues in favor of national standards.

As the reporters explain the problem from a local angle:

...the state's accountability system is considered one of the best in the
country. That could mean the 10 Shreveport and Baton Rouge schools that'll be placed in the state's Recovery School District for low student achievement on standardized tests may have been able to remain under local control if they were in Arizona or any other state with a less rigorous accountability system and standardized test.

Pastorek, who will never be accused of wanting to water down standards, seems to agree when he tells the reporters,

"People need to know exactly where they stand. I don't think it's important to
know who the best one in town is or who's the best one in the state. I think
it's important to really know how well the children are doing, and the only way
to do that is to know how well you're doing against the rest of the nation."

Do we see some sort of consensus growing here, even among people who may not agree on much else? As Weingarten said,
"Every other industrialized nation has national standards. When you start
thinking about how are we going to create a school system throughout the United
States that helps enable kids to be prepared for college, prepared for life and
prepared for work, you have to start with common standards."

And Keith Guice, president of the Louisiana School Boards Association, told the reporters,
"If anyone anywhere is going to attempt to make any type of comparison between
states, it can not be valid unless there is some type of common assessment

In Washington, there even seems to be some sort of agreement between parties. Both Democratic Rep. George Miller of California and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are edging toward a statement in favor of national, and even international, benchmarks.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bill would allow guns on college campus

State Rep. Ernest Wooton fulfilled a pledge this week and reintroduced a bill that would allow concealed weapons on college campuses in Louisiana.

The Republican lawmaker and former Plaquemines Parish sheriff brought a similar bill to the legislature last year, but had to abandon it because of overwhelming opposition from public and private colleges, police officials and people in general. He vowed to bring the proposal back every year that he serves in the legislature.

Times Picayune reporter Ed Anderson has the story here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Schools may have to pay sales taxes on cafeteria meals

When the embattled Louisiana School Boards Association holds its annual convention this week, it will have to grapple with news that school lunch programs should have been collecting sales taxes since the mid-1980s.

As Advocate reporter David J. Mitchell writes here, state revenue officials say that colleges, as well as public, private and religious schools, should have been collecting the four percent state sales tax on meals sold in school cafeterias. Local sales taxes are exempt, and taxes need not be paid for lunches consumed by students who get meals under the federal free lunch program.

Officials said there was an exemption from state sales taxes until the 1980s. Starting in July, all but one percent of the tax will again be exempt.

The state has the authority to demand payment for back sales taxes owed by the schools. Expect bills to be introduced in the coming legislative session to forgive schools for nonpayment.

Jindal wants money for BR-NO rail line

In Gov. Bobby Jindal's official Republican response to President Obama's address to Congress on Tuesday, the governor was harshly critical of an $8 billion mass transit appropriation in the stimulus package. The governor called the money pot "wasteful."

According to this article by Times-Picayune Baton Rouge Bureau Chief Robert Travis Scott, the governor will ask for money from that fund to build a passenger rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.