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4.6.09

Whiners might win pay raise battle, but lose layoff war

When around 500 Louisiana state employees showed up at the State Civil Service Commission meeting to protest the possible excising of their “merit” raises and the Commission responded by taking no action on a recommendation to do this, they may not want what they wished to get.

Every year, evaluation of most state civil service (comprising about 70 percent of state employees) is supposed to produce “merit” raises. Because of budgetary difficulties this year, Commission staff had proposed forgoing this. (While the Legislature can control money going to agencies, only the SCSC can determine whether merit pay will be distributed.) But the siege of whiners may have changed their minds for the next fiscal year, without another regularly-scheduled meeting until then – which may have unforeseen consequences some won’t particularly like.

The whole “merit” process has been a sham for decades. As explained elsewhere (and depending on how you define the pool of eligibles) anywhere from 96 to 99 percent of classified employees “earn” this added pay every year, turning the concept in the minds of many into a cost-of-living entitlement. And this is on top of the generous situation they already have. If we look at 2006 state staffing levels and 2007 average earnings, Louisiana state public employees, despite being in a state in the bottom five of family incomes, are 36th in average monthly earnings.

(This doesn’t include a benefits package adjudged one of the most generous of all states including for many retiring as early as 60 at full pay averaged over the last three years of work. And maybe you’re wondering why 500 of them could get off work to attend the meeting? Because most state civil service employees get two days off a month, no questions asked. Throw in state holidays and the minimum vacation most get, a week but it can go up to three, do the math, and you’ll see a great many state employees get the equivalent of a minimum of eight weeks of vacation a year. That’s something for all you in the private sector who might get two week’s worth a year, and especially you small business owners who might get next to none, to think about.)

This is why they were so up in arms over what they view as their birthright. And certainly one thing the Commission could do is rewrite the rules not to make a standard 4 percent increase for all who qualify (scoring in any of the top three categories). Instead, it could, like most states, graduate increases by giving out, say, 5 percent increases to those at the highest level, 3 percent to the second-highest, and 1 percent to the third-highest (lowest acceptable) level. Better, the Commission could also institute rules that ensure agencies actually realistically appraise performance so you don’t get the ridiculous and obviously on face unrealistic outcomes of the present where as many as 99 percent of all employees fall in the top three categories.

However, it’s too late for such changes to be made to affect this upcoming fiscal year. But there is an area in which the Commission has acted that may signal a sensible step that will make many of the protesters rue this recent non-decision. It made a change to promote the use of performance (even if it is biased upwards) in layoff decisions, where previously in a layoff plan an agency could have gone basically on seniority only for those with acceptable ratings (in other words, about 99 percent of non-probationary classified employees). It’s a tepid change, forcing out people in the two lowest performance categories and then allowing as many as 20 percent of layoffs to occur on the basis of performance first, but at least it’s a small step in the right direction that needs to be extended in the near future.

Yet if the money crunch will not be made up with no pay raises, it will be made up by laying off people. And few states are more in desperate need that Louisiana in cutting fat in its civil service. Among the states, in per capita state employment, Louisiana ranks 10th. But remove the states with populations under a million, whose small numbers tend to skew upwards that statistic, and Louisiana ranks behind only Hawai’i, Arkansas, New Mexico, and West Virginia – all of which (except Arkansas, at about two-thirds which itself is no model of efficiency) have about half of Louisiana’s population. Put Louisiana in the same category as the dozen states with populations between 3 and 6 million and it’s not even close with Louisiana far and away having the highest per capita number of state employees.

Perhaps what will happen is with the new rules in effect, the state’s response will be a healthy round of layoffs that can much better than in the past get rid of underperforming deadwood that has survived for so long because of seniority that will create a more reasonable staffing levels. (There’s also a small amount of wiggle room that may allow for raises not to be given if they would come at the expense of layoffs.) That’s not a bad tradeoff, raises for many but more pink slips that would have occurred otherwise, and pink slips based more on actual quality than ever before.

Then to keep up the momentum, the SCSC should adopt the merit raise and additional layoff procedures outlined above. And if this makes mad those in the civil service who have slouched along for decades doing just enough and/or knowing enough of the right people to get an annual raise, there’s a whole big private sector economy out there just waiting to properly price your actual abilities if you’d like to leave the cozy confines of state employment.

3.6.09

Indoor smoking ban rejection sacrifices liberty for money

Courage never has been a long suit of politicians, and members of the Louisiana House yesterday showed they are no different when they caved in to protect – maybe – dollars over the rights of individuals by rejecting HB 844 by state Rep. Gary Smith that would have prevented smoking in every indoor establishment in Louisiana that served alcohol except Indian casinos.

At present, smoking indoors in public establishments that serve food can occur only at bars where less than half of their revenue comes from food service. Extending that ban to all bars and to commercial casinos, which like restaurants could continue to allow smoking and drinking in an outdoor setting, was argued against for two reasons, one that is illogical, and the other that is banal.

The illogical reason concerns the question of individual freedom. Many have been duped into believing that the law’s restrictions would somehow take away the “right” of people to smoke in bars, when it proposes no such thing. Smoking in outdoor settings at bars still would be permitted, so while the collection of venues at which to drink and smoke may be more limited, the activity still could be pursued.

There may be those who say they don’t want to do this in outdoor settings. Then they have another option, and that is not to smoke in an indoor setting. Nobody is putting a gun to their heads to make them smoke, and they still can enjoy the outing. Where the argument becomes absurd is when you get whiners, much like those who say they need more government services because they chose to have more children out of wedlock or to drop out of school, etc., who say they have to smoke and have others put up with it (if not subsidize the behavior).

And the ones “putting up” with the placing of the rights of those who choose to smoke indoors in bars ahead of their own are individuals who have no choice: people who because of illness are forced to use mechanical ventilation, and/or who have conditions like cystic fibrosis, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and others, or even just allergies to tobacco smoke. These individuals (ironically, some having been heavy smokers in the past) cannot even go to bars now because an irritant like smoke can cause them immediate respiratory distress if not threaten their lives. This law would have allowed them access that those who promote smoking in bars selfishly currently deny them.

In other words, under HB 844, smokers would still have the choice to smoke in some bars, or to go to but not smoke in others; their ability to choose is unaffected. But individuals with pulmonary conditions under present law have no choice at all; they cannot go to bars at all because the “rights” or smokers, who can choose where to go or whether to smoke, are given priority over theirs when they cannot choose whether to have a pernicious disease.

Some might argue bars could voluntarily choose not to have smoking (in my entire life I have found exactly one place like this among the 50 countries I have been in) to attract these customers, but that is akin to the situation with the disabled prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act – almost no business voluntarily instituted accessible features or practices even at little or no cost, so to allow the disabled to lead even a partially normal existence in this facet of their lives the law was passed. The same applies here: bars think with an indoor smoking ban they may lose revenue (studies suggest it goes either way) so they won’t make the modification. Since rights now are in conflict – smoking indoors in a bar vs. granting access to a minority – government must adjudicate whose take precedence and the compassionate thing to do, which representatives choked on yesterday, would have been to assist those who cannot choose and thereby must suffer over those who are free to choose.

But lack of recognition that a ban would increase individual liberty (since smokers’ liberty would not be curtailed while that of those harmed by smoking would be increased, and there would be no burden placed on bar owners as a result of the ban) appeared not to be the only driving force behind rejection. With casinos serving drinks in gaming areas they would be covered under the proposal, some lawmakers feared with the ban less gambling would occur (addictions tend to go together) meaning reduced revenues to the state in a time of falling state collections. In other words, representatives shamefully sold out the rights of a vulnerable minority for money (and this is a particularly egregious offense for those who claim to be conservatives who argue government should promote equal opportunity).

Fortunately, SB 186 by state Sen. Rob Marionneaux remains alive in a House committee which does substantially the same thing as HB 844, with the added benefit that the Senate already wisely passed it. Let’s hope that many House members come to the proper understanding that a vote for SB 186 represents a net expansion of individual liberty, and to allow the current situation to continue unchanged lends support to tyranny over the freedoms over a minority that doesn’t deserve the situations they are in – which becomes a deplorable, gutless dereliction of responsibility if lack of support is because of fear of falling revenues.

2.6.09

Opponents' arguments show why board reform must come

Today the Louisiana House of Representatives takes up HB 851, designed to place some limitations on discretion of school board members, with the best advertisement for bill passage being the intellect displayed on this matter by self-proclaimed representatives of the boards.

Essentially, the bill would address two areas. First, it would make the formal hiring and firing of a superintendant a two-thirds rather than simple majority vote. Second, after 2010, personnel hiring decisions will be transferred solely into the hands of the superintendant, although tenure and salary matters would be left to the boards.

These have stirred up incredible opposition from consultants employed by and officers past and present of the Louisiana School Board Association, even though the state’s head of education Paul Pastorek and some other past and current school board members and superintendants have said this measure would reduce individual board member meddling in personnel matters and gives superintendants more protection in pursuing these matters without boards threatening to can them. Proponents very reasonably argue that political interference can create performance problems that plague Louisiana education.

But the opponents react as if the world is going to end with these changes and, worse, they condone illogic if not outright idiocy in their arguments against them. The latest involve, first, the claim that the two-thirds requirement violates the “one man, one vote” concept, called a cherished concept of democracy. To assert such betrays an ignorance of what the entire concept is. This refers to efforts to ensure that artificial boundaries, such as non-compelling reasons to prevent eligible citizens to vote or that districts are formed to favor certain populations over others in their abilities to influence elections, do not exist in the electoral process. In fact, supermajoritarian requirements are not uncommon in government on the issue of officeholders, the best known example perhaps being the two-thirds vote required to remove any civil officer of the United States by the Senate after House impeachment.

A better argument about this requirement would be that it permits minority interests to prevent hirings and firings of superintendants. One could say a simple majority should be enough to accomplish these things. However, another ignored passage of the bill moots this concern in its entirety: that contracts offered to superintendants are subject to simple majority decisions. In other words, let’s say there is a situation where a 12-member board has seven who want to fire a superintendant which under the proposed law could not be done. The solution then would be to wait until contract renegotiation comes around, and the seven could offer such an unfavorable contract to the incumbent that he will resign.

Opponents of the bill never bring this up because it destroys their argument that the bill would remove “checks and balances” in the system. All a simple majority of the board has to do is give contracts that last a couple of years or so, and they have all the flexibility they need to get rid of superintendants they sour on without a lengthy period elapsing. At the same time, it means that a superintendant has greater protection to do necessary but unpopular things if he wants to risk his job by displeasing a simple majority.

The opposition also claims that the changes are not needed because of improving performance of schools statewide. There are two fallacies in this thinking, one being that because the whole improves does not mean that improvement is occurring in all of the parts, and it may be the issue of meddling which is preventing better performance in these places. It also runs afoul of the fallacy of monism, that all change in an observable phenomenon is attributed to one single cause. Performance is affected by many things, and it could be that it would have improved even more without meddling permitted in current law.

It’s little wonder Louisiana education is relatively abysmal compared to other states’ and some countries when this is the quality of critical thinking of those elected to oversee it at the local level. Which perhaps is the best reason why HB 851 should pass.

1.6.09

Review of dedicated funds bringing certain uses to light

One silver lining to the budgetary problems facing Louisiana at this time is it is forcing consideration of fiscal matters often forgotten or ignored that likely will lead to better future priorities. A case in point is the disposition of nearly 650 funds tucked away in state government mainly sequestered and largely unavailable for anything but often very narrow purposes.

The state’s laws and Constitution locks away the majority of state funds to dedicated purposes, which legally can be transferred to other purposes only in times of declared deficit, with agreement by both majoritarian branches of government, and, unless there is a huge crisis, only five percent of each may be transferred once in a two-year cycle. Legislation is before the Legislature to double the takings and to make them eligible for such annually (as well as to review them every four years to determine whether they really serve a needed purpose). The additional flexibility afforded by passage of these measures is paramount to more efficient and effective future budgeting.

But some are complaining that some of the money going into the funds – these can be as small as a few thousand dollars in balances while others carry multiple millions – are assessments on private, quasi-public, or local government entities . Therefore, it is “unfair” for the state to take what should have been set aside and used exclusively on behalf of, or at least in comportment with the wishes of, the assessed, it is argued.

There is a certain logic to that argument, but to implement it now would be struggle. Legislators would have to decide which of the 648 would qualify as being mostly designed to benefit the entities paying in, and then write in legal exemptions for them. That wouldn’t happen this session.

But whether it would be correct and desirable to follow this philosophy is another matter. One reason why this has become a point of contention is that the balances carried in all of these funds total nearly $13.5 billion – almost two years worth of state general fund revenues. It must be questioned why in many instances money keeps flowing into these with little going out. If they serve a certain purpose, they need to pursue that instead of turning into savings accounts with the state being the banker.

That’s a role state government should not be playing. If money is to be excised from these sources by government because of a promise to then use that money on their behalf, that needs to be done expeditiously. Letting it pile up leads to nefarious activities, a famous example being former Agriculture Secretary Bob Odom realizing a growing pot of money coming into a fund for boll weevil eradication could be siphoned off to build sugar mills at taxpayer expense. Now the state is left with mills that produce little and having to find extra money to stave off pests because the revenues into the fund have been encumbered to pay off the money-losing mills.

Therefore, ever-growing balances in these funds signal that they really aren’t necessary, that it would be better off to leave those funds in the hands of the private sector or other governments to do with as its members or governing authorities wish. And if one of those things is a collective activity, why must government be the one to coordinate it? Aren’t there voluntary associations that could accomplish the same outside of government, or can’t local governments do it themselves?

Thus, if entities insist upon having state government coerce money out of them for some purpose, they will have to reconcile themselves to the fact that takings of it may occur. Perhaps that will make them reevaluate the desirability of the current arrangement, and they may find subsequent to this analysis that maybe they ought to end it. Or, they should get the money spent on the activity presumed so crucial that state government must get involved in it. Otherwise, they have no room to complain because the State of Louisiana isn’t their private bank.

31.5.09

Scores show charter schools vastly superior in Orleans

In the debate about the future of New Orleans’ elementary and secondary education, as various arguments are bandied about as to how the presence of the Recovery School District existing beside the Orleans Parish School District and utilization of charter schools by both is affecting educational quality, something very basic is being missed, something that answers definitively the future strategy of education there and elsewhere in Louisiana.

With state testing results out, this debate has intensified because of the present success of the RSD compared to the Orleans past, and because of the success of charter schools, leading supporters of the present path to point to these successes. They are challenged by opponents who argue a variety of mitigating factors explains the progress, not the presence of the state nor having charter schools. Yet these questions, whether state presence and charter school functioning in the main explain the progress, are not very difficult to try to answer using quantitative data which neither supporters nor opponents seem to have done.

So I did. Theoretically, if these things are making a difference, then taking substantially equal populations among them (a pretty solid assumption within the RSD and Orleans categories, but obviously not the case between those two) and reviewing their outcomes – scores on the 4th grade and 8th grade LEAP exams and on the Graduate Exit Exam for high schools – assuming they have equivalent resources (more about that below), then differences observed in scores must be as a result of the qualities of education being delivered varying by the governance structures. I segregated the data into five school categories – RSD regular schools, RSD charter schools, Orleans regular schools, Orleans charter schools, and Orleans magnet schools – and computed means for each of the three levels in each of the four tested areas (English and Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies) for each of the five levels of achievement reported by percentage of students in those categories for each school (Advanced, Mastery, Basic, Approaching Basic, and Unacceptable). In addition, I created a mean of the four areas for each kinf od school where 100 scored as everybody scoring in the highest category and 0 meant everybody scored in the lowest, and then a grand mean of the four categories.

Reported here will be the grand means, after some minor adjustments (for example, a few schools don’t test in all areas, and alternative schools were excluded). They include comparisons between the same kinds of schools in different districts, and different schools within the same district, to demonstrate whether the RSD outperformed Orleans, and whether charter schools outperformed regular schools, for each grade level.

The results were unambiguous (rounding up to tenths). Among 4th graders, RSD regular schools averaged on the 0-100 scale 27.2, RSD charter schools averaged 34.9, Orleans charter schools averaged 54.8, and Orleans magnet schools averaged 52.9 (there being no Orleans 4th graders left in regular schools, all being in charters or the RSD). Among 8th graders, RSD regular schools averaged 20.2, RSD charter schools averaged 28.4, Orleans regular schools averaged 37.6, and Orleans charter schools averaged 53.7. Among 11th graders, RSD regular schools averaged 17.3, RSD charter schools averaged 39 (but this being partial scores from just one school), Orleans regular schools averaged 33.1, Orleans charter schools averaged 50.5, and Orleans magnet schools (being Benjamin Franklin High School) averaged 81.1.

Naturally, the RSD schools which are there because they were troubled in performance in the past lag their Orleans counterparts, so the argument there turns more on would they have been better off staying under local control. Trends of the past are just that, trends of the past that very unreliably can be extrapolated to the present, so it’s hard to judge, as well as the RSD schools are getting substantially more resources than the Orleans schools (because they supposedly need more to turn things around). So this question remains much in debate.

But the effect of charter schools cannot be. Simply, their students are doing substantially better than their peers in districts (most astoundingly, the typical 4th grader in Orleans charter schools scores better than the typical 4th grader in Orleans magnet schools). A few more years of these results, and the debate is over: charter schools simply do a much better job of educating than the old, on-sixe-fits-all bureaucratic, union-centric model of public education – and usually at a lower cost per pupil.

Therefore, going forward it does not seem to be a bad idea to usher low-performing schools in Orleans into the RSD, as there is no evidence that it does a worse job than such schools governed by Orleans. However, any school that is designated as unacceptable for several years regardless of who governs it should be converted into a charter schools as their deceased centralization brings superior results. And it’s a model that should be extended to failing schools across the state.