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8.10.09

District money-grubbing should not preclude education

If it’s change that can help students learn, one thing you can rely upon is that Louisiana schools districts never will support it unless it brings them more money. This explains the unreasonable opposition the Louisiana Schools Superintendents Association has with starting up online charter schools for elementary and secondary education in the state.

As an educator with vast experience in online education – I have published and presented multiple papers about teaching these kinds of classes and have taught perhaps more online sections and different courses than any other college educator in the state – I can tell you it can bring significant advantages to some students although it is not for every student. At this level of instruction, students ideally should have hands-on situations because of their wildly varying degrees of desire and aptitude. But where students have health issues or whose families live in situations where getting a child to school on a regular basis would be a big hardship, as long as they are held to the same standards on testing and homeschooling is not desired, this is something that should be pursued as those who probably would miss schooling (as long as they had the technology) could receive education they otherwise likely would forgo.

But the organization representing district superintendents objects, claiming most all of its member voice reservations. The chief one appears, naturally, to be about money: not only would state dollars that would have gone to a child being educated in a district be diverted to the charter school, so would dollars raised in the districts, potentially to out-of-state operators.

However, what is wrong with that? If the local district is not expending the resources to educate that child, why should it retain that money? Besides, the majority of the money that school districts get is from outside the district, so the impact is not that severe, especially considering that almost a third of those resources are used for capital matters, meaning only about 28 percent of expenditures for operations are from local coffers. Recall that the districts, as all local governments do, serve as agents of the state so it has the final say over the distribution of funds if legally empowered.

If it can be shown that these schools can get education to children presumably unlikely to pursue education with demonstrated quality, parochial concerns should be brushed aside. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education should approve charter operators of this kind regardless of where they officially are based.

7.10.09

New pay plan great first step, but follow-through needed

Louisiana’s Department of State Civil Service definitely is moving in the right direction with its new proposed merit pay system. But now the State Civil Service Commission must follow through and one final step must be taken to ensure that the gamesmanship of the past gives way to improved state employee performance.

Presently, the system is such where if an employee gets an evaluation in the three highest of five categories, regardless of which higher category placed in an employee gets, if a raise is authorized, a four percent increase. The new plan would give a zero to three percent pay raise to those in the middle category, four percent to those in the second-highest category, and six percent to those in the highest, making it a true merit system and not a quasi-cost-of-living compensation method. Within that middle category, agencies will have discretion in handing out raises within that range. These will be based upon criteria identified by the agency. Cost-of-living raises that would be across the board still could be authorized by the Commission, with the governor’s approval.

Noted was the biggest objection to this would be that the evaluations on which the increases would be assigned were “subjective.” However, this is no real problem because they are same as being done now, meaning the present evaluations are just as “subjective.” Therefore, if they are perceived as satisfactory now, there’s no reason they should not be satisfactory for the future under this plan.

Yet the issue of the outcome of the evaluations is the remaining hurdle to having a truly beneficial merit system that realistically captures the concept. The latest three year average of ratings show over 99 percent of classified (the ones covered under this plan) employees were ranked in the top three categories, with about a third in the middle and almost half in the second-highest category of “exceeds expectations.” Common sense tells us that it is highly unlikely in any objective sense that fewer than one in a hundred employees in any large organization are the only ones not up to snuff, and that almost half are doing noticeably better than what is expected.

This tells us two things, either than expectations are too low or evaluations are biased upwards, or both. As a rough benchmark, a “normal” distribution would estimate about 2.5 percent each would be in the lowest and highest categories (presently, 15 percent are in the latter while the former is about one in every three thousand), around 12.5 percent each in the second-lowest and second highest, and the remaining 70 percent or so in that middle. Therefore, the next step of reform is to find a method that reflects more realistically performance on evaluations, and/or to raise expectations that have been set arbitrarily low. Unless these are done, more gamesmanship (by unrealistically loading most employees into the “exceeds expectations” category) will largely moot the reform.

If done properly and in time for the 2010-11 fiscal year, it will produce two salutary effects. First, it will induce more efficiency into the system because employees will perceive a stronger link between pay and performance, and many will elevate their efforts to produce better for the same or reduced overall cost. Second, it will chase out lower performers who have floated along, perhaps for most of their careers, doing a bare minimum to get what was perceived as an entitled four percent salary raise every year, as lower amounts or even none at all will not motivate them. Those unwilling to elevate will see they face separation in the future, or will consider alternate employment, or many of the more senior ones simply will retire. This will assist the state in cost-savings measures because then more vacancies than would have occurred toherwsie to be eliminated through attrition will appear. Alone, as these duties are spread around, this may constitute the necessary elevation of expectations, meaning no formal reform of the evaluation process may have to occur (although it should be studied).

Program changes and deletions may grab headlines, but if implemented correctly this change can realize substantial savings beyond most of what is being discussed by other state government cost-cutting commissions. Credit goes primarily to the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration for the initial push, and then the Legislature (especially resolutions authored by state Rep. Mike Danahay) and its leadership for signaling that this change had to come after decades of inaction. If done right, citizens will get better service for less, and since they are footing the bill, they deserve it.

6.10.09

Unable to win on issues, Democrats try smearing Vitter

It’s no coincidence that as soon as Democrats found a standard-bearer for next year’s U.S. Senate contest, that from different places fellow-travelers would begin to sling transparent mud at Republican incumbent David Vitter in a standard playbook tactic to try to damage his candidacy through a torrent of trivial complaints.

Not long after Democrat U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon declared his candidacy, a left-leaning interest group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington complained Vitter should be disciplined under Louisiana’s professional lawyer’s code for criminal conduct. More recently, Chris Whittington, the Louisiana Democrats’ executive director, emerged from seclusion to accuse Vitter of receiving an illegal campaign donation.

Of course, these claims wholly lack substance. Vitter never has been charged with any crime and has never admitted to any crime. The CREW complaint refers to a phone number belonging to Vitter appearing in the records of a woman eventually convicted for running a prostitution ring, and that’s all the evidence there is. The Democrat whining is even more circumstantial in nature: a Mississippi congressman contributed the maximum allowed to Mississippi’s governor, and the same maximum showed up coming from the governor to Vitter days later (legally, a contribution cannot be indirect). The asserted smoking gun? There were few transactions for each of these funds, and the congressman has worked with the governors’ nephews. Vitter did nothing but have campaign operatives accept a check.

This circumstantial tripe would get laughed out of any court but the Louisiana media is more than willing to publicize anything negative about Vitter. For example, since October, 2008, about six months after the trial for the prostitution ring ended, combined the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Baton Rouge Advocate, and the Associated Press state and local news wire have run 128 stories including Vitter and one of the terms “prostitute,” “prostitution,” “escort service,” or “call girl” – more than one every three days. All reported on the CREW complaint and The Advocate and AP dutifully filed stories on the specious Democrat charge.

This highlights the Democrats’ strategy, which is to try to paint a picture of Vitter as an unethical politician because they know Melancon will lose if the campaign is conducted on the issues and Melancon’s record. Melancon also has his own ethical challenges with his exorbitant use of taxpayer dollars on a useless junket, something else from which Democrats wish to divert attention.

You can bet that this is not the last we’ll hear of such drivel, no matter how contortioned and blatantly manufactured it may be, coming in the next year from Louisiana Democrats and faithfully echoed by the media. Vitter’s challenge will be to not to let him get off message of demonstrating his past record and views on present issues are much closer to the Louisiana public’s than have been and are Melancon’s. If he does so and trusts that the voting public will reject the politics of personal destruction, he will have no problem with reelection.

5.10.09

Wide-open Third District has no individual, party favorite

With Rep. Charlie Melancon having formally abandoned the seat in a quixotic quest for higher office, it’s probably not too early to talk about the fate of Louisiana’s Third Congressional District. But it needs to be done with a real understanding of the political dynamics present.

One minor candidate already has declared for the office, but it remains fairly wide open. Many believe the strongest of those who have at least once expressed at least a minimal amount of interest in the job is current Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle, who pulled double-duty this spring as a legislative liaison for Gov. Bobby Jindal. He apparently impressed Jindal so much that the former St. Martin Parish president was held over by Jindal in the job and then given the additional duties.

But a potential Angelle candidacy should not lend itself to overstatement. While he could be a darling of the political establishment given his recent activities, it will not be easy to translate this support to voters district-wide. His political base now is five years stale that even his politically-prominent family name will have trouble resurrecting, and that base represents not even a tenth of the voting population in the district. Other elected state officials who might run have got larger population bases and more recently-imprinted name recognition, such as longtime Democrat Rep. Gary Smith from the New Orleans suburbs or new Republican Rep. Nickie Monica who prior to last year served eight years as St. John the Baptist Parish president. (It is uncertain in which party’s primary Angelle would run if he chose to.)

It’s also strange to believe, as one media analyst stated, that this district is the only seriously vulnerable open seat among the Democrats, for two reasons. First, there are at present at least six others – as with this one, all because incumbents are seeking another office – among Democrats, of which three promise to be competitive. (Of course, many more Democrats may end up retiring in the next few months, particularly as they set themselves up for a no-win situation regarding the health care issue – be part of a spectacular defeat, or win a Pyrrhic victory that will invite voters to take out frustrations on them in 2010.)

Second, while as a whole a Republican has to be considered a favorite in the district, given the lack of recent, prominent GOP figures in the district, this weaker bench strength (proportionally, more than any other majority-white district in the state, this one has more white Democrats elected at the local level) does not make a Democrat win here a long shot. This is precisely why Angelle is believed by the political class to be a strong candidate, by having crossover appeal. Its outcome will depend more on the specific candidates who win the nominations than typically is seen.

However, one thing is for sure, few if any voters will vote for a Democrat simply because, as a former simpleton governor put it, “If you put all your eggs in one basket, then you have a problem in Washington.” If they do put one in, it will be because that candidate can sufficiently distance himself from his exceptionally liberal counterparts in Washington. If the Republican nominee prevents that, he wins. Barring some eccentric issue arising or bizarre scandal erupting, it will be as simple as that.

4.10.09

Coward Blanco hypocritically addresses Jindal's plans

If former Gov. Kathleen Blanco thinks she can rehabilitate her sorry record as the state’s chief by certain criticisms of her successor, she’s only going to remind everybody of her own failings and look like a hypocrite in the process.

Delivering the keynote address to the Louisiana Women’s Conference, Blanco criticized Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plans to cut further funding to higher education. Jindal has asked a temporary commission to find ways to save $146 million in higher education as the state faces a deficit that could be as a high as $2 billion the fiscal year after next. The second-largest of the few areas that can be cut in deficit situations in higher education, and Jindal wishes to avoid this future scenario by planned, coordinated moves now.

Blanco said that this she considers “nothing short of heresy” and “it takes real leadership and real courage to do the right thing, and I don't see much leadership or courage coming out of the state Capitol right now.” How soon she forgets, or tries to make us forget, and how always she wishes to misrepresent things.

In the aftermath of the hurricane disasters of 2005 (marked by her gross incompetence in responding to them for which, predictably, she blamed others), Blanco ordered steep cuts in – you guessed it – higher education and the Legislature made that formal in the next budget. With the budgetary picture much brighter for 2007 because of the huge amounts of federal dollars being pumped in, those cuts were reversed and more added on. Now Jindal faces an even bigger projected deficit, because of a sagging economy made worse by Washington, than did Blanco, and she criticizes him for doing the same things, except he’s actually trying to do it rationally and look for efficiencies rather than take the pell-mell approach of panic she employed?

Additionally, the exercise in looking for efficiencies in higher education is completely justified when we review the familiar statistics: Louisiana is in the top ten states in number of institutions, in per capita spending on higher education, and is in the top three for per capita number of institutions. It’s hard to argue there isn’t room for improvement with these kinds of numbers, and the commission on Jindal’s orders is supposed to do it.

And Blanco rivaled Prisoner #03128-095 as Louisiana governors who showed the least leadership by ducking so many politically difficult decisions. She did nothing to curb the burgeoning health care budget through sensible reform, she allowed slush fund spending to escalate, and instead of looking to make priorities, have government prune a bloated bureaucracy, and discontinue unneeded programs, she cowardly tried to snatch more taxpayer money from the people through things like sick and tobacco taxes to keep feeding the voracious appetite of government. This stiff had less courage than the Cowardly Lion before he met the Wizard of Oz.

So just chalk this one up to extreme, but perhaps expected, hypocrisy on Blanco’s part, as it’s a familiar behavior for her. She knows what a failure she was and she thinks, as the vapid do, that by tearing down others it makes you look better. But we the Louisiana public know better than that.