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3.8.06

Suit likely portends challenge to education improvement

The latest attempt by the American Civil Liberties Union to ram its agenda (which, we should never forget, has little to do with what the Constitution actually means or says) down the American peoples’ throat comes in Louisiana with its suit to try to prevent the Livingston Parish School Board from implementing single-sex classes at two of its junior highs.

Having found a pliant family with a female student ready to enunciate the script, a couple of years ago this suit might have succeeded. But the U.S. Department of Education is on the cusp of issuing new regulations that clearly would permit the activities pursued by the Board.

Actually, none of this is new – over 200 such programs exist nationwide, so it seems odd that the state ACLU would challenge this. The basis of the suit they claim is that the Livingston Parish plan is mandatory, which is not authorized by the new regulations. They claim so on the basis that the student allegedly was told she could not transfer from her school, one of the two designated as single-sex, which has been denied by the district.

This seems to indicate the real motive of the ACLU here; if there wasn’t some larger legal point here, perhaps to try to invalidate the new regulations, why doesn’t the student simply make the request and then get transferred? Add to this the fact that there is no way a trial will come before the start of the school year, now less than a week away, so it seems like the ACLU is waiting for a program to operate under the new regulations and having its client deliberately avoiding the remedy as part of a larger challenge. That is indicated by the ACLU’s bringing into the debate wholly unrelated writings to the achievement issue by supporters of single-sex education.

Single-sex classes are a good option. The Department of Education has compiled an exhaustive list of research which indicates there are academic benefits from it. It is regrettable that the ACLU may end up costing taxpayer dollars in Livingston Parish in pursuit of its intolerant, uninformed agenda (for example), but it will be money well spent if it improves the quality of education there and across the country.

2.8.06

Market, not government, will solve insurance woes

At least some questions were answered when the Legislature’s insurance committees met to investigate the possibilities that a major insurer in Louisiana meant to break the law or to leave the state:

  • The threat of Allstate leaving was not wholly conjured up by present Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon as a campaign stunt to may him look like the champion of insurance coverage for Louisianans. Apparently, there’s been talk about it for months, although he may have overemphasized and exaggerated it in a fit of electioneering zeal.
  • What does the Department of Insurance do with its time? Apparently, not much when it comes to something like this. Donelon’s deputy Chad Brown said this issue of Allstate’s wanting to remove wind and hail coverage from south Louisiana policies that also did not have auto coverage attached was first broached at the beginning of the year, although he maintained it was more hypothetical than anything else until the past couple of months. One would think in those past couple of months, before Donelon corralled the media and went public that much greater progress could have been made in trying to find a solution that did not include Allstate’s exit option.
  • The committee meetings themselves were not entirely a campaign stunt. The head of the Senate version, state Sen. James David Cain, is opposing Donelon in the fall and having plenty of good media coverage and an opportunity to look like the champion of insurance coverage for Louisianans probably did not discourage him from this between-session endeavor. Frankly, little new information came out of the three-hour exercise, but what small amount there was may have been worth the couple of thousand bucks in legislator per diems and travel expenses coughed up by taxpayers as a result.
  • Legislators remain weaklings and lack control over their own fates and actions. At least that’s what one may gather from Cain’s House chairman counterpart, state Rep. Karen Carter, who argued against Cain’s call for a special session devoted to insurance matters because “[f]or us to come into a special session for two to three weeks … and get wined and dined without an agenda is not wise.” In other words, she fears that lobbyists would exercise Svengali-like powers over her and other legislators, to the state’s extreme detriment.
  • At least one member of the committee is a hypocrite when it comes to the impact of large entities’ actions on the people. State Sen. Don Cravins bitterly complained that Allstate’s decision-making in regards to claim financing that as a result “the citizens of Louisiana have to pay for your mistake?” Cravins, resigning his seat at the end of the year, better hope nobody decides to tally up the millions, even billions of dollars Louisianans have had to pay as a result of his and his colleagues’ mistakes made in Louisiana’s spending priorities that they happily authorize year after year.

    The question remaining, however, is the big one ostensibly why the meetings were called, whether Louisiana is going to want to keep boxing itself in and creating its own crisis. There are two reasons this “crisis” has happened: (1) the true risk-return ratio for insurance in the state has been underestimated on the risk side and (2) there is an inflexible law on the books, which no other state has, which fundamentally distorts the ratio by forcing insurers to offer coverage without an easy exit option for removing that kind of coverage while being able to write other kids of policies in the state.

    Casting aside more dramatic and long-term scenarios, the state should, and can right now, do this: invite Allstate to jack up its rates as high as it would like to cover the risk its sees added that is making it want to drop wind and hail coverage. As part of its job, the Insurance Rating Commission will make sure the request represents a reasonable predicted profit level and that it doesn’t engage in collusion with other companies (who also may be invited to raise rates) to create the opposite problem, artificially high rates. If so, then competition will keep a lid on rates.

    The lid, however, will be higher, perhaps significantly, than in the past. That’s good. This will have the effect of increasing rates paid by the state insurer, Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corporation (it must price its insurance at least 10 percent higher than a basket of the rates of the largest private insurers) which will mean its policyholders will pay for more of their own claims and state ratepayers and taxpayers will have to pay less (because Citizens must pass on excess costs either to private insurer policyholders or to taxpayers to pay interest on bonds sold to cover costs of claims). That’s only fair, and will shore up Citizens much faster than anticipated.

    Some people will whine about this as a result, about how they now can’t afford to insure or buy a certain property. That’s unfortunate to them, but entirely fair because they should expect to pay for the preponderance of the costs of their insurance and not try to shift the burden to those who choose to live in less-risky areas, or who don’t have to pay for any insurance.

    The thing not to do is what Allstate proposes, subsidize their business by creating a state-run risk pool where taxpayers would bail out insurers who do make mistakes. Instead, let the insurer try to make up for the mistake by raising rates – which of course will cause it some harm by losing business to smarter, lower-cost providers, but that’s what it deserves for making poor decisions, instead of forcing the consequences on taxpayers.

    You don’t need special sessions, or summits, or anything fancy to address the insurance “crisis” described here, which is neither an emergency nor difficult to manage, if Louisiana (rather against its historical populism) lets the free market (as best it can in a regulated industry) reign. Most public policies’ optimal solutions come from government getting out of the way as much as it should, and this certainly is one such instance.
  • 1.8.06

    Bossier City must just say no to kick its spendaholicism

    A few years ago, when it was learned that Bossier City not only would spend some $20 million on infrastructure for the nascent Louisiana Boardwalk (then “Riverwalk”) but even more on a parking garage the developers easily could have built with their own resources, no doubt this encouraged a number of private interests to see the city as a slot machine ready to pay off. The city called the tune, and now it’s paying the fiddler.

    The fiddler would be Linc Coleman of U.L. Coleman Properties, who is trying not one but two tactics to get Bossier City to grace his firm’s project, a 50-townhome, 266-apartment development in a plot basically caddy-corner to the CenturyTel Center. This some city officials desperately want to provide political cover for another huge monetary mistake they made years ago, the Center itself.

    The money-losing arena cost $56.5 million (almost double the amount the public initially was told) and was supposed to set off an economic development boom around it, according to some selling the project in the late 1990s. The whimper that resulted only has produced one new restaurant which has since closed, and one new watersports retailer which relocated from elsewhere. Having a residential project in the area might help save face a little bit for Bossier City politicians who favored the arena, much less provide some economic development.

    31.7.06

    Unions spread propaganda, not facts, concerning study

    Is it any wonder that Louisiana’s system of public education is so dismal when representatives of the state's teachers unions continue to demonstrate that they are more interested in fattening their members' own wallets without any improvement in performance than they are in educating children?

    That was the impression left by the leaders of the state’s two largest unions, Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, and Carol Davis, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, in comments about a U.S. Department of Education study that when scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are adjusted for socioeconomics, race, and other characteristics, public school students do as well or better in some categories as students in private schools.

    In the context of this study, both criticized the recently-announced Opportunity Scholarships for Kids, a $100 million voucher program for low-income students. But, in striving for maximal propaganda points against bringing accountability to teachers, they are their own worst advertisements for the deficiencies in education that unions sponsor, by their own demonstrated ignorance of their criticisms.

    (Increased accountability is important because education has artificially high labor costs because of teacher unions. A voucher program would bring these costs into line as it would increase competition, necessitating that teachers make greater efforts to increase knowledge in their own disciplines, as well as in their abilities to communicate properly with students and to spur them to think critically – all of which means an increased workload but better achievement for the same or lower labor costs.)

    One error they make is in content, as these critiques show they do not understand the limitations of the study. It has two problems that limit the ability to draw the conclusion that there’s little difference between public and private school performance, holding some characteristics constant. First, the sample studied was not chosen randomly and its sizes for various private schools lead to questionable validity. Second, construct validity also is called into question by the fact that the study used potentially unreliable measures in the varying demographic categories, because schools self-reported their perceptions rather than collected the data directly from the student populations. Indeed, the head of the agency that produced the report warns that it is more informational than investigatory.

    The other is a conceptual error (should we be surprised; we already know one critic has trouble using proper English?) by saying the study and the new voucher program means the federal government is not on the same “page.” They discount entirely that, even if the new program is intended mainly to provide opportunities at private schools, that it is the very presence of increased choice that increases competition that increases quality at public schools – but that’s the very things these union flacks wish to avoid.

    Instead, we get from them the same old, tired and failed “solution” – throw more money at public schools. But here’s the dirty little secret these dissemblers don’t want you to know – private school tuitions typically are considerably below the per-pupil cost the government pays to educate a child. From the same source as the previous report, one in 2003 shows the typical private school tuition to be less than $7,000 a year while it in the U.S. for that year the average per-pupil expenditure was close to $9,000 a year – meaning government will actually save taxpayer dollars with vouchers.

    What these mouthpieces will try to argue (to explain away what they don’t state about the tuition advantage to private schools) is that private schools “cherry-pick” students, etc. This and related claims are myths, as a little research shows.

    Their response was typical, because one must recall three things about teachers unions:

  • They have no interest in educating children
  • They wish to transfer as much of the taxpayers’ money as possible into their members’ pockets
  • They want teachers to face as little accountability as possible

    Which is why when Monaghan states “Americans aren't going to be fooled” by a voucher program, what he desperately hopes for is that Louisiana will continue to be fooled by his ilk’s misinformation and illogical argumentation.
  • 30.7.06

    On budget, Blanco talks one game, plays another

    Does it ever stop with the Gov. Kathleen Blanco Administration, this trying to explain away its obvious love of big government and politics as usual? The day after state Treasurer John Kennedy criticized in a speech her spending priorities, Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc felt compelled and/or ordered to respond – weakly and ineffectually.

    “When the revenue picture wasn't as bad as predicted, we didn't go back to the way things were in terms of spending,” LeBlanc claimed, directly contradicting reality as observed by the biggest source of revenue for the state’s biggest area of expenditure, the federal government in health care. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt sternly warned that Louisiana was going to have to change its ways of doing health care, hinting federal dollars might not be forthcoming unless it happened, and as a result a chastened Blanco announced yet another panel to address the system as a result.

    Leavitt probably said that because the 2006 budget showed little real changes at all in terms of health care spending priorities. To use just one example, an incredibly easy fix that could have happened, the state spends about $100 million more per year than it has to simply because it over-allocates Medicaid money to nursing homes instead of using resources to fund less expensive and probably more effective community-based care. In fact, the state went backwards in the Legislature by making it harder to change the formula that sends too much money to nursing homes by enshrining it into law this session. Blanco was MIA in shaping this policy.

    LeBlanc also tries to buttress this claim by giving his version of where “new” revenues were spent. He chose some revealing categories. One was a pay raise to teachers that did not ask for any accountability and, given typical performance in the state, was undeserved. (The proper way to do it would be to institute teacher testing throughout the state, and then apportion raises based upon performance on this test and in the classroom.) Another was to “rescue” the higher education system when in fact its problems are not monetary, but structural; simply, the state has too many senior colleges and in the wrong places, especially in light of the hurricane disasters (why rebuild duplicative Southern University – New Orleans at all)?

    But what LeBlanc failed to explain is that so much of the budget was built upon-one time federal money, based upon questionable assumptions. Certain revenues booms in the state have occurred precisely because of all the one-time money being pumped into the state economy, yet indefinite spending has been authorized such as the raises. Blanco simply shut her eyes to this, knowing her reelection opportunity was next year while the consequences of her actions may not become obvious until afterwards.

    LeBlanc also tried to defend against the most cutting argument of Kennedy’s, that the budget contained much too much pork-barrel spending. His clever response: “one person's pork may be critical to someone else,” and cited as an example a program that provides hunting events for the disabled. Personally, I’m certainly glad the organization wants to provide an event.

    But why does the state have to help pay for it? And if LeBlanc really were serious about helping the disabled in the state, that money would have been allocated, for example, to the New Opportunities Waiver program, designed to provide basic care for the severely disabled, which still has over 11,000 slots still unfunded. If this is an example of how Blanco and LeBlanc create “priorities” in the budget process, it demonstrates that politics and publicity are their main criteria, not actual need.

    However, “pork” is not a problem anyway, LeBlanc claims, since the governor has instituted procedures “that ensure accountability for the people's money.” Of course, LeBlanc and Blanco have missed the entire point. I’d love it if next year I could con a state legislator into slipping into the budget the state giving me some money, and I’d be happy to fill out all the reports it wants telling it what I did with it. But, that does nothing at all to gauge how necessary the purpose of spending that money was to the welfare of the state.

    The point is, LeBlanc and his employer Blanco have done nothing to institute any system of intelligent priority creation in the spending of this money. While that is something the appropriating authority the Legislature ought to do itself, as governor Blanco has the authority and responsibility to rid the budget of items simply not worthy of being there. She has utterly failed to do anything of the sort (in fact, using political criteria there as well), and now LeBlanc is desperately trying to obscure this fact.

    LeBlanc can talk until he’s blue in the face but nothing he has said to date changes the salient facts: the Blanco Administration is not serious about fiscal policy change in this state, it sanctions the use of taxpayers dollars for political purposes far removed from the real needs of the state, what priorities it has are geared more towards satisfying certain political constituencies and enhancing Blanco’s reelection chances than these real needs, and it has no intentions, save federal or electoral pressures, of altering this behavior. LeBlanc needs to understand that the people of this state expect actions, not words, if this administration genuinely is to bring real fiscal benefits to Louisiana.