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13.8.09

B.R. quasi-quota plan empowers few, wastes resources

Baton Rouge Metropolitan government seems intent on making the same mistakes as has Shreveport and Alexandria with the imposition of its “Fair Share” program. We must recognize that its primary goal is to serve the needs of politicians and their cronies, not the people.

The concept rests upon the unsustainable notion that businesses not owned by white males without disability somehow are “disadvantaged” when it comes to doing business with a government. Therefore, numerical “goals” are put into place when contracting out that stipulate government should grant a certain proportion of business to firms that are majority owned by non-whites, females, the disabled, and the like. In this case, 25 percent of city-parish projects would have to go to these kinds of firms.

Proponents claim because it’s not a quota system, it has no deleterious effects. However, this not only is a mistaken notion, but this also tries to simulate a quota system without actually having to prove discrimination. (Legally, a “disparity study” must be performed that demonstrates unambiguous discrimination going on – and not even that unambiguous if its implementers get away with using only outcomes rather than investigation of procedures and intents – in order to impose a quota system, which are seldom done precisely as they so often show no discrimination.) Political pressure by backers of the concept make it clear that numbers must come in around that figure or else heads will roll meaning the “goal” is far less optional than would be implied.

The experience of Shreveport should point out the deleterious effects that make this a bad idea. Several problems to the detriment of the city have arisen as a result of its similar program over the near-decade it has been in place:

Increases costs needlessly to the citizenry. Especially on larger projects where there are disproportionately fewer such qualifying businesses, those entities know they can bid higher with this artificial constraint against competition and pass this on to consumers. General contractors know they must factor this into their bids as well relative to subcontractors. Local governments also must create bureaucracies to administer all of this, wasting taxpayers’ dollars.
Causes administrative problems for contractors. Those general contractors have to spend more resources searching out these kinds of subcontractors to hit the mythical number, again increasing costs to the citizenry. They also know that politicians will grill them and threaten them with reductions in business if they do not hit these goals, so considerable attention must be paid to this to the detriment of actually providing the good or service they are in business for.
Often provides little advantage to local firms. Because often these designated firms comprise a disproportionately small part of the local market, contractors outside the area, even across the country, have to be hired to hit the target. This means local taxpayers’ money that could stimulate local business and probably at reduced cost to the citizenry ends up leaving the area.
Becomes an exercise in gamesmanship. Many firms to win certification as “disadvantaged” will employ chicanery, such as certain people put up as a front claiming ownership since the actual backers would not qualify. Or, general contractors will take as many liberties as possible in claiming presence of qualifying subcontractors. In both cases, the program’s intent is not being fulfilled.

In the end, only a small number of people benefit from these contrived interferences into the market. A select few contractors – often politically affiliated with certain politicians who back the program – may get increased business. Other politicians claim they are doing something and thus are “sensitive” to the needs of the “disadvantaged” as a result. Almost everybody else pays more, in higher taxes, reduced services, or both.

The city-parish is working on implementation standards but they will not salvage the essential inferiority of this idea. Even if he wanted to veto it but instead has voiced support for it, any veto by Mayor-President Kip Holden appears it would be overridden. Therefore, the Metropolitan Council and Holden needs to rethink this bad idea and get rid of it before it can do damage to Baton Rouge as it has to Shreveport and Alexandria.

12.8.09

N.O. meeting to have major impact on dissident group

Today begins meeting in New Orleans the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in what could be its last annual gathering that continues its straying from Catholicism as an organization affiliated with the Church.

The group lists itself as an organization composed of leaders from various U.S. Catholic religious orders, but one throughout the majority of its history that has placed the social gospel ahead of the Gospels. Examples abound: just recently, one president proclaimed with apparent approval about religious congregations “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.” Saying some congregations have “grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion,” she described them as “post-Christian” in most respects. Some years before, another defended the actions of a nun who headed an agency that funded abortions, and of another who ran a homosexual ministry in conflict with church teachings. Almost 30 years ago, the president then chided Pope John Paul II on the occasion of his visit to America for not allowing ordination of women as priests.

In 2001, these kinds of activities and statements triggered an inquiry by the body in charge of overseeing propagation of the faith, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Earlier this year, an American administrator was appointed to lead a more formal investigation of the organization. At the same time, a parallel study of all women’s religious organizations is being undertaken out of concerns that fidelity is lacking, i.e. practice and propagation of the faith is being performed improperly by organizations such as the LCWR.

11.8.09

Commission must ignore more availability, money advice

Louisiana’s Postsecondary Education Review Committee got off to a start, but using a very erroneous assumption that may poison the entire enterprise.

Its initial meeting, for a body designed to find more efficient ways of delivering higher education in the state, had some helpful information dispersed. Louisiana has one of the lowest graduation rates and one of the highest baccalaureate and above to community college ratios in the country. It also has low enrollment rates comparatively.

Yet a major mistake was made when a representative of a higher education research body stated, “Participation in higher education rises dramatically with availability,” and then asserted Louisiana lacked in this regard. Not only is the statement theoretically untrue, in fact regarding Louisiana is it untrue.

Dealing with the latter, if anything, Louisiana is overbuilt when it comes to postsecondary educational institutions. It ranks sixth in the country with 58 community and technical colleges dispersed across the state in the nation, and eighth with 17 baccalaureate and above institutions, even as in terms of population it ranks only 23rd. The real problem is not enough students graduate from these institutions.

Two factors cause this to be the case. One is that they are not prepared well enough at the secondary level to succeed past that. This has been a problem for years but as school accountability measures of the past dozen years’ implementation begin to take hold, perhaps in another dozen years (absent steps backwards such as potential dummy diplomas) that should be much reduced as a problem (although older potential students disserved by public education in Louisiana two decades or more ago attempting college will continue to be disadvantaged).

The other factor is within the grasp of higher education now: raise standards so that ill-prepared and/or not capable students don’t attempt certain collegiate levels in the first place. This means making entrance into baccalaureate and above universities much more demanding, with some increase also to standards at community colleges. This will have a beneficial domino effect, in that less capable students will filter down to a more appropriate level of instruction given their abilities, boosting graduation rates at all levels.

Of course, this strategy runs afoul of the so-called “common wisdom” touted by those in the educational establishment, that more resources pumped into higher education can be justified by trying to produce more graduates as this presumably stimulates economic growth. But this fails not just practically, but empirically. Regarding the former, one (but not the only) reason why graduation rates are lower than they should be is that too many incapable students are being shuffled into college (encouraged by the low standards of TOPS in Louisiana) because standards are set too low. Once there, they fail to make the cut. Regarding the latter, research shows that an increase of resources going to higher education does not automatically create better outcomes. In fact, after a certain point, increased higher education expenditures create less economic growth because resources that are taken from the private sector are then used less efficiently by government in funding higher education.

So what should Louisiana do? First, there must be recognition that more than enough institutions exist; availability is no problem and no more money need be spent in accomplishing that. Second, it must be understood that existing resources are sufficient but are not used efficiently and/or are misallocated. Third, understanding must occur that tinkering at the margins, such as dealing with program duplication, realigning programs, obvious realignments (some four-year schools existing within miles of each others being combined, for example), etc., by themselves cannot make the dramatic improvements desired. Fourth, the increased demands of secondary education’s escalated standards cannot be watered down in any way.

If the last is achieved, what must happen at the postsecondary level over the next few years is that, first, standards are increased across the board, sometimes dramatically. At LSU Baton Rouge, for example, there’s no reason admission standards, which at present are significantly below that of presumably peer institutions, cannot be raised to their levels. Other four-year institutions in the state can have theirs raised as well by a comparable amount (but starting from a lower base), and few with really no standards at all can be brought into the 21st century by adding them. Basic minimum standards can be put in place at all community colleges, leaving technical school open to those who can’t even meet these.

Of course, this means a drop in enrollments in all four-year schools and will mean some minor retrenchment is in order. But not major retrenchment, because a better education and more emphasis can be made on retention with the additional resources left available not having to be allocated to students likely to fail. So if LSUBR enrollment fell 25 percent as a result of higher standards, a budget cut of only 10 percent may be in order, with the retained resources going to improved instruction (such as with smaller class sizes) and retention efforts, all of which should boost graduation rates significantly.

Tuition dollars (and some state dollars) would follow those now not eligible to go to a four-year place to community colleges, where they are more likely to succeed. The same would occur as more students now ineligible for community colleges make their way to technical schools. In other words, this would realign the same pool of existing dollars in a way that produces better outcomes, the second prong of the strategy.

This can be done over the next decade. Standards gradually can be increased. Hiring freezes can be put in place at baccalaureate and higher institutions, and perhaps if needed at the lower levels as well, to accommodate the new reality. State money can remain consistent overall but not really needing to be increased. What will happen over time is lower total enrollments at the top but consistently higher graduation rates there, while enrollments at the lower levels will increase, as will graduation rates, with the net overall effect being more Louisianans better educated with little in the way of increased funding necessary.

This is bold, challenges the unverified assertions of many, and will gore some sacred oxen in the educational establishment. But it is the optimal path to take so that by 2020 Louisiana will make marked strides in this area without unnecessary expenses. This kind of paradigm shift is what the commission needs to investigate. Accepting uncritically the assertions of those with a vested interest in chanting that more money solves every problem in this area of policy will produce little beneficial change.

10.8.09

Raising participation standards only helps students

Maybe some common sense has begun infiltrating a place in Louisiana that often lacks it, school boards, where at least somebody recognizes higher standards do a better job of preparing children for society than does sports participation.

This past legislative session, state Rep. Rickey Hardy introduced a bill that would increase the standard for which students could participate in extracurricular activities from a 1.5 – that is, alternating C’s and D’s or average and below average – to a 2.0 grade point average. Under some pressure especially from prep athletic interests, the bill did not make it. Hardy has said unless the body that governs Louisiana high school athletics voluntarily imposes the standard before next session, he’ll introduce it again.

He should if needed, but this also doesn’t mean school districts can’t do this on their own such as is being talked about in the Monroe City district by a school board member, Vickie Krutzer. Unfortunately, there is much incentive against a single district doing this because then some interests in it will fear this will shrink the athlete pool and create a disadvantage in competitions with other districts’ schools.

Those against the higher standards usually push a fraudulent argument at best, that the lower standard helps to keep in school marginal scholars attracted by athletic competitions. They claim that otherwise these kids would be lost through dropping out. Further, they also argue that grading scales may be different across schools.

But there are several fallacies to these arguments. First, they make the same mistake as do the proponents of recently-enacted legislation to create a less-demanding curriculum track in the schools, that graduation with a diploma in hand is the end-all and be-all of education. While that might pad statistics and soothe consciences of educators and politicians who now can believe they’ve succeeded, in reality it makes a diploma only a worthless piece of paper and graduation meaningless. If your standards are so low that you really haven’t prepared students to be more productive in the world, it doesn’t matter how grandiose the piece of paper and ceremony are. And it seems that allowing graduation with a slew of D’s, without challenging the student to do better even if it means forfeiting extracurricular participation, creates only one difference between those kinds of students and those who drop out: one has a worthless piece of paper, and the other doesn’t.

However, another consideration also moots the argument of those against raising standards: all Louisiana students in order to graduate must pass the Graduate Exit Exam, meaning three of four sections. It would appear chances are that if you are racking up D’s in school, you aren’t going to pass the GEE (in fact, in some particularly undemanding schools – some notable for their athletic successes – there are students with A averages who can’t pass the GEE). So by increasing the GPA standard, this motivates students to prepare themselves better for the GEE. Again, what good is it to string a child along by allowing below a 2.0 and thereby rewarded with extracurricular activity participation knowing the relaxed standards are increasing the risk of failure to graduate? There is, after all, a difference in “keeping kinds in school” as they opponents articulate they want and “preparing kids for life after school” as supporters want.

Finally, the difference in grading scales as a deterrent factor makes no sense. Regardless whether the floor is 1.5 or 2.0, it is the weaker students who would be relegated, the ones who need the most motivation to do better academically.

It helps to remember that participation in extracurricular activities is a privilege, one that should be enjoyed only when the basic job of the student, academic success, is achieved. Having such a low current standard mitigates most of the motivational import these privileges can bring to spur student success – which is measured not by keeping a child in school, but by having him graduate with a meaningful degree. Increasing the standard to at least a 2.0 only will better serve children in the long run, even if it means them spending Friday nights studying instead of under the lights.

9.8.09

Money matters sublimate N.O. mayoral jockeying

There appears to be pondering over a presumed slow start to the race to succeed Ray Nagin as Mayor of New Orleans. Understanding past and present contexts removes much of the mystery.
To start, the past two election cycles have made later starts more customary. In 2001, many potential candidates waited whether a referendum to allow former Mayor Marc Morial to serve a third term would pass before ramping up efforts (it failed). In 2005, when matters might have been expected to get kicked off in the fall, the hurricane disasters muted all electoral action until the end of the year. These may have conditioned participants in the political scene to wait awhile longer before going public.

The reason why one must launch efforts early regardless of visibility of them if there can be any chance of winning forms the second reason: running seriously for the position has become absurdly expensive. One has to make an early start just to collect enough money it takes to win – but the amount has become so high it drives the initial phase of the campaign underground.

In 2006, Nagin spent $2.2 million in getting reelected. But this made him a piker compared to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, whom was vanquished in the general election runoff despite spending $3.6 million in 2006. He barely outspent one of his primary opponents dispatched early, Ron Forman who shelled out $2 million that year, while the other major candidate, Rob Couhig, could only muster up around $600,000 in spending then. If you’re keeping score, that’s $8.4 million and if you throw in previous year spending and the minor candidates, it creeps close to $9 million. (These costs were somewhat inflated by some attempts at national campaigning by major candidates due to a believed Diaspora of voters, but it would not be surprising for multiple candidates to hit the $2 million level this time out.)

This reality creates a subterranean campaign. Potential candidates sound out potential donors and other individuals who can round up donors, all behind the scenes. No longer can you (if you can) find a few core backers and announce. Now, entire infrastructures must be initiated and without as much ready-made help from the alphabet soup and other political organizations that only now are coming back from the disruptions of the disasters (if they survived other hazards, which at least one has not). Only until these things seem possible does it behoove a candidate to formally announce, and it takes time to put these things together.

Part of this involves a game of chicken. Certain individuals will be involved in political staring contests as they vie for the promise of money and endorsements. The goal for each is to convince would-be opponents not to enter by making them think you would be stronger, or at least significantly undercut their presumed bases of support so as to make a run by them futile – even as the reverse is true. But you can’t let your opponent know that and if you triumph in the war of wills, you will strengthen your own position without spending anything. As the dollar stakes get higher, this process becomes longer precisely because it does not involve spending. Rumors about who might be running come largely from reports of these activities.

Speaking to this point of winning stare-downs, strategy certainly also plays a part, seeing who might be in or out, but one aspect of that which may confuse is demographics. With city-wide victories for an at-large City Council slots and for Orleans District Attorney in 2008 by white candidates, a misperception has grown that a white candidate can win the mayor’s job. It could happen, but only in the unlikely event that a major black candidate does not run.

The fact is if there is one office where race matters most, it is for the mayor’s office. When 63 percent of the registered voters are black and they double up the white electorate, there is a perception among the large majority of the black community that there should be a black in the city’s highest office. As long as at least one quality black candidate runs, one will win given these numbers as conditions for a white candidate winning aren’t even as good as they were four years ago.

Frankly, any white candidate will have to get fairly lucky to win, and that’s a lot to gamble a couple of million dollars on. Within a month expect any potentially serious white candidate to pass, as did Landrieu this time, and this also will prompt announcements by black candidates that they will run. The only exception to this, because he is so wealthy that dropping a few million won’t faze him, is former gubernatorial candidate John Georges.

For those who already have announced, either they will not be competitive or they are gambling that they can steal a march on those who are engaging in staring at this time. If the latter goes long enough, they may be able to build sufficient momentum to carry themselves to victory. But any other major candidate who enters after having built up the infrastructure can make these others’ entrances seem premature, if she doesn’t dally.

The contest goes on, it’s just harder to see given the dynamics especially concerning money have changed. As most if not all major white candidates bow out and the realities of population changes threaten certain politicians with losing their current districts (the 2010 census being less than eight months away) so a move to mayor may seem appealing, the formal field will swell by the end of the year. Even as the stress of recovery from both disasters and economic conditions seems daunting, that condition precisely allows the opportunity for the next mayor to hold more power than ever.