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27.9.07

Dull LA guberantorial debate provided no surprises

As I have noted elsewhere, and this has been particularly true since political campaigns became largely controllable by candidates through their electronic advertising and direct mail strategies, candidate “debates” are consumed by only a small portion of the electorate and, unless some tremendous blunder occurs, will influence few voters’ choices. (They aren’t really debates because there’s little give-and-take among candidates, and they are given impossibly short windows in which to provide anything more than the most simplistic or superficial answers.)

The format of this encounter, arranged by the Louisiana Public Broadcasting network, did not deviate from this sound-bite extravaganza. Nonetheless, perhaps to make themselves seem more relevant to an election season, the media love to have them and so to perform my civic duty to readers I watched the first of the live television debates among the considered top candidates for Louisiana’s governorship. There’s no reason to give a summary of what was asked and how who answered, because that can be done elsewhere. Instead, I will neatly summarize the candidates’ gestalten:

26.9.07

Attitude shift needed for LA education to rise from abysmal

The “Nation’s Report Card” is out, and Louisiana schools and students as a whole flunked yet again. The nationally-applied test covers reading and mathematics for 4th and 8th graders. Overall for each, the state finished no higher than 45th and as a whole only about 20 percent of students were graded as proficient or better, meaning about 80 percent of Louisiana’s 4th and 8th graders are non-proficient in reading and math.

This is miserable, and the educational establishment and its defenders no doubt will offer a combination of excuses or “silver lining” statements to deflect from its failures. Typical of the latter is the comment of the former head of one of the bigger underperforming school districts in the state:

Assistant Education Superintendent Ollie Tyler, a former Caddo schools superintendent, said Louisiana students have steadily led the nation in improvements on [the] NAEP [test]. Although that did not happen this year, the number of students excluded from NAEP testing “significantly dropped, and that makes these results a reliable base from which we can continue to improve.”

Translation: the assumed progress of recent years was an artifact of an unrepresentative sample, and the no progress situation of the present most accurately describes how little education has progressed in Louisiana – but, hey, maybe it can get better.

The excuses will be something on the order of Louisiana has more minority students (of whom blacks and Hispanics typically perform worse although Asians typically perform better than average), that it has more poor students (who also typically perform worse) and teachers’ salaries are too low to get better teaching. But an investigation of the report and a little ancillary material, and a comparison with a neighbor, shows these are all bogus as explanations.

Very interestingly, in a relative sense, both minority students and poorer students (indicated by those on the free school lunch program) in Louisiana performed relatively better than the state’s students as a whole. In some categories of these, Louisiana actually was almost near the national average. If we excluded white students and “non-poor” students, Louisiana would rank much higher relatively (even as the proportions of those deemed at least proficient would go down somewhat.)

But checking next door, we find that a state similar in ethnic composition, Texas, had students doing not only far better than Louisiana students, but were among the top in the nation in most categories (and thus in the aggregate) for both grades and both subjects. Their proportion of students achieving proficient status was about double that of Louisiana’s. And it’s not teachers’ salaries causing this: Texas’ average salary was only about $1,500 more than Louisiana’s last year, ranking only 9th among the Southern Regional Education Board states, well behind states which were well behind Texas in student achievement.

The truth, long resisted by the Louisiana educational establishment, is that it is change in attitudes about education delivery that will allow the state to scale the same heights as Texas. It begins in the universities where more emphasis in attaining education degrees must be placed on learning subject content, not instruction method (including expansion of alternative certification options). It must be reinforced by schools where teaching excellence is encouraged by regular rigorous testing and application of other accountability measures to teachers, and by reward structures that emphasis quality, like merit pay, instead of just showing up for work and collecting a yearly COLA. It must be encouraged by shifting existing funding out of central offices and into the classroom. It must be strengthened by increasing discipline in schools.

Throwing more money at teachers, whining about demographics, and trying to avoid addressing the structural problems born of suboptimal attitudes about education delivery isn’t going to make it. There’s no reason Louisiana can’t do better in education with what it has if only new attitudes take root.

25.9.07

Candidate Boasso says one thing, Sen. Boasso did another

The politically-inspired transfiguration of state Sen. Walter Boasso, gubernatorial candidate has created a polyglot candidate – former Republican who voted liberal on the question of government power and economic intervention, now Democrat who sounds like a conservative on that same issue.

Boasso the contestant for the state’s top job tries to sound conservative when he goes around saying he’s for scaling government back, that state government already has enough money and doesn't need new taxes. But Boasso the legislator did exactly the opposite. He supported increasingly larger budgets during his term. He voted for a new “sick” tax in 2005 on hospitals that would have raised health care prices, and continues to argue that Louisiana must continue to operate its inefficient, government-provided indigent health care system rather than allow more private sector involvement.

Boasso the applicant for being the state’s chief executive talks of how he is an outsider to government, successful in the business world, who can bring change because he is the “Big Guy” representing the “little guy.” Yet Boasso the senator voted for a sweetheart retirement deal for legislators that would have cost taxpayers, a deal the typical “little guy” citizen could only dream of getting.

And, for good measure, the contradictions inherent between Boasso the candidate and the senator extend to a battle waged within the candidate himself. Boasso talks of how the state needs to attract out-of-state companies, yet proposes to force car insurers to write home insurance policies – a deal unlikely to lower insurance prices precisely because it would drive insurers away and perhaps jack up the prices of both kinds of insurance, providing yet another disincentive for business to exist in Louisiana.

Boasso’s current rhetoric seems to echo a theme at odds with his past record. Which only fuels speculation, which began with his party switch when it became clear he was not the favored candidate of the GOP, that Boasso is nothing more than an unprincipled politician willing to say or do anything to get elected. Or, as he put it in regards to his campaign, “We'll do whatever it takes” – apparently including saying one thing while having done another.

24.9.07

Why does paper leave out important story information?

Is it that the Shreveport Times doesn’t like to use available academic research to use as information in their stories? Or maybe it’s just information that doesn’t fit a pre-determined story template? Or even as simple as it exhibits poor news judgment?

Last week a reporter contacted a Bossier Parish resident about a story dealing with term limits. After some discussion, the reporter sent the following note to her:

I appreciate you seeing if anyone else will talk to me, even if it’s just a voter.
Right now I’ve got a bunch of elected officials and the parish attorney telling me why they don’t need term limits. I’d like to balance it out with a few people that say they do. I agree with you, it would present and interesting perspective.

This story is being held to run Monday, so I’ve got a couple of days if you come across anyone that wants to comment.

Knowing what I do for a living, that resident contacted me, not knowing that I am working on some research to be presented dealing with the effect of term limits on this year’s state legislative contests and therefore I had a amassed a good bit of previous research on the issue. Thus, I was able to contact the reporter with the following message, received last Tuesday night at The Times:

From a political science perspective on the matter, term limits provide an alteration to the typical "incumbency advantage" enjoyed by current officeholders. We have long established that candidates running for reelection enjoy a resource advantage typically over challengers. This is because (1) they usually are more visible than challengers because of their positions (which usually works to their benefits), (2) because of their positions they find it easier to raise resources for reelection because a connection between them and benefits bestowed by government is more easily seen, and (3) they can deploy resources of their offices in performing their duties simultaneously to assist their campaigns. This resource advantage increases the chances of election relative to those of the typical challenger.

We also know that this "buffer" thus created can make for reduced accountability or, in our parlance, allows more distance between the issue preferences of an officeholder compared to those of the median voter without electoral punishment, i.e. defeat. What researchers have found is that term limits tend to produce candidates who are closer to the median voter. This is because when term limited incumbents are forced out, they are typically replaced by winners who are closer to the median voter. In other words, term limits produce more accountable officials.

Further, we know that the incumbency effect becomes magnified in smaller constituencies, i.e. an incumbent on the Bossier Parish Police Jury, all other things equal, enjoys a bigger incumbency advantage than say a Louisiana senator. This is because the larger the constituency, the less able an incumbent is able to make a personal connection with a voter. Therefore, term limits would make for a sharper "correction" in this case.

Thus, instituting term limits for the Police Jury likely would increase the Jury's accountability to the public.

I sent along my phone number as well but never heard from this person. None of this appeared in the story. In it were reactions from elected officials (who predictably said there shouldn’t be term limits), from residents who said there should be, and a “political analyst” untrained in this area who also offered nothing more than anecdotal, impressionistic accounts. Yet perhaps the most enlightening information, the latest research with definitive empirical answers rather than normative guesses which any decent reporter could summarize into a sentence or two, was not included.

Was it because The Times disdains academic work? Or maybe The Times either is against term limits and it did not want to run information showing that they create more accountability or it thought that would reduce the “controversy” aspect of the article and thus make it less compelling to read? Or perhaps it was a matter of poor decisions made by the reporter and/or her editor, thinking somehow supposition about an issue would better serve readers than verifiable research?

Whatever the motivation, The Times disserved readers when readily-available, important information about an issue got left out.

23.9.07

Boasso desperate attack may move spotlight onto himself

In 2003’s close governor’s race, the margin of defeat for Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal may have come from a television ad run by his opponent and now Gov. Kathleen Blanco in the final days of the campaign where a bitter old man who had worked in health care accused Jindal while he headed the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals of making the state’ health care worse. This was despite loads of evidence that Jindal’s leadership had produced a more efficient, better system of care in Louisiana – but given the last-minute appearance of the ad and Jindal’s inability or unwillingness to set the record straight, the ad proved effective.

In 2007, about a month before the election, an opponent of Jindal’s this time, Democrat state Sen. Walter Boasso, wants to see if lightning somehow can strike twice as Jindal threatens to leave Boasso and all other gubernatorial candidates in the dust. This time it’s a bitter woman complaining about how she held Jindal responsible for her brother being ejected from state care. But, four years later, the commercial may end up hurting its progenitor more than its intended target.

As inane as the 2003 commercial was, to the untutored it at least seemed plausible as the angry old doctor spewed vague, generalized, unverified venom. Coming so close to the general election runoff date it gave Jindal little time to set the record straight, and Blanco was running neck-to-neck with Jindal. But in 2007’s version, Boasso decided he had to strike a month before the primary election given Jindal’s huge lead, leaving Jindal plenty of time to respond (he already has, pointing out his accomplishments as DHH head and the praise heaped on him by the media for his performance), and the specific circumstances of the case leaves all but the most dense viewers wondering about its credibility.

Essentially, the old woman makes it sound like Jindal was a meanie who just up and decided personally to throw her retarded brother out on the street just because. In fact, the court case cited in the ad, John B. McNiece v. Bobby P. Jindal, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (docket number Civ.A. 97-2421, decided by the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District, Louisiana on Aug. 26, 1998), shows it was an intra-agency dispute between parts of the department, one part making a ruling on McNiece’s condition that said he had a right to reside in a state institution, the other overruling it which the court said broke federal law. That’s all there was to it.

As titular head of the department, Jindal’s was the name on the case, likely his only connection to it. In fact, Jindal probably never even knew of the incident until the suit was filed; the secretary of the department by its own documented processes (at least at present) is not involved in the disposition of any of these cases at all. But the inflammatory rhetoric and distorted tone of the ad makes it sound Jindal actively intervened in order to get his kicks.

That is, the commercial is so over the top that only the most brain-dead people (who are not likely to vote for Jindal anyway) even would believe it – as well they shouldn’t, the record shows. It’s the second such attack ad against Jindal after the anti-Catholic ad run by the state’s Democrats last month.

Which means by now that Louisiana’s voters are being taught by Jindal’s political opponents that Democrats are going to make the wildest accusations possible in the hopes of defeating Jindal, reducing every time the credibility and thus effectiveness of these attack ads. The difference between the August and Septemeber tries, however, is that this time there is an object for retribution; not a faceless organization but a real candidate, Boasso.

The first ad may have worked to create sympathy for Jindal, but the second may serve to hurt Boasso, and not only in that some may be disgusted at the desperation of Boasso. For no doubt there are circumstances in Boasso’s career heading a large organization, his marine firm, where things he barely knew or didn’t know about at the time later turned into contentious legal actions that went against his company. For example, did any employees ever sue successfully for wrongful termination? Or did any government environmental agencies fine it for violations? Using Boasso’s attack ad logic, Boasso would be the one illegally firing people or unlawfully polluting.

Jindal has been running ads calling Boasso a hypocrite on insurance issues. Maybe the hypocrisy extends to casting the first stone when, for all we know, Boasso’s own enterprise ended up doing things far worse than Jindal’s former agency mistakenly denying health care to one person.