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12.11.09

More stringent TOPS best idea yet from higher education

Comments made by Louisiana State University Agricultural and Mechanical University (that is, the Baton Rouge-based campus) Chancellor Michael Martin should provoke a lot of interest not only because of their sensibility in dealing with Louisiana’s looming budget crisis, but also as they open an interesting window into some of the internal politics going on with how the higher education approaches dealing with the impending fiscal difficulties of the state.

Martin, speaking at a university forum, addressed LSU’s potential responses to anticipated, potentially large, cuts coming his school’s way. Because of a revenue-generation decline and inability to curb state spending, given the constitutional and legal fiscal status of the budgeting process, in dollar terms higher education is likely to face the second-largest cut absolutely, but the highest in relative terms, in next year’s state budget.

The best thing to do about this would be to review the nearly 350 dedicated funds in state government that are constitutionally or legally prevented from being cut more than a pittance without extraordinarily maneuvers, whose dedications may bear little resemblance to actual objective needs for state spending, and make appropriate changes to reflect genuine priorities. But the Legislature whiffed on a procedure to do just this earlier this year.

It also has choked on giving more authority to universities to raise their tuition levels, although in recent years a modified proposal passed to allow school to make a series of periodic, small hikes on their own. Otherwise, any such increases ridiculously must receive two-thirds support in the Legislature. This hangover from the state’s populist past needlessly interferes with market forces, not trusting that the market will create a situation that allows universities to fund themselves at a level they feel adequate given the amount of students they would be able to attract at that level of tuition.

Recently, the justification accompanying this continued ability for the Legislature to interfere in tuition rates acquired new life through the creation of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which awards scholarships worth the highest tuition amount (LSU’s, in essence) to (mostly) Louisiana high school graduates that achieve certain benchmarks. It has been argued that, because the TOPS amount of money spent is tied into tuition, that the Legislature should have some fairly stringent control over tuition.

Martin’s comments were interesting here, because he argued the standards to qualify for TOPS, achieving certain scores on a standardized test and passing a core curriculum in high school, should be increased. Refreshingly recognizing that this is a scholarship program which implies academic excellence, this view runs counter to the current conceptualization of it as, frankly, a semi-entitlement program since, to be honest, its standards are so low. Presently, for the in-state graduate, on the American College Test only a score of 20 is necessary, well below the national average. Further, only minimal academic performance (such as a low 2.3 for the first 48 hours, 2.5 Grade Point Average – B-/C+ – from there) is required to maintain the typical award at a four-year university.

When mediocrity is being rewarded, it’s hard to argue that excellence is being encouraged. Raising standards for the program would encourage improved high school performance – sending a ripple effect throughout all of secondary and elementary education – not just better performance once in college and on TOPS. It also would discourage those not that serious about college from wasting their time and taxpayer dollars; some students lacking direction in life currently go to college because TOPS will pay for them to drift there and subsequently flunk out.

Of course, with fewer students qualifying, the state would spend less than the $130 million or so currently budgeted to TOPS, and less demand would wash over Louisiana public institutions – already overfunded and maldistributed in some ways – but the payoff might be taking the tens of millions of dollars saved and putting it back into the universities. And it’s not really that courageous of a statement by Martin, in the sense that LSU already has admission standards for incoming freshmen at an undemanding but higher level than the basic TOPS award, so it would lose few students from an increase up to its admissions levels.

However, most interestingly, Martin’s suggestion not only runs counter to the inane opinion of his boss, LSU System President John Lombardi, that TOPS become a need-based program, but also implicitly bucked the LSU System position that admission standards should not be raised. Elevating TOPS requirements would have the same effect as a rise in admissions standards across the higher education system, producing fewer enrollees because some no longer would qualify. That Martin publicly contradicts Lombardi and gets away with it can mean just one of two things, that Lombardi is on slippery ground with his employers, the LSU Board of Supervisors, or the System recognizes that Lombardi’s position and perhaps other controversial statements of his regarding the funding of higher education have become non-starters so Martin’s now becomes a fallback position.

The latter seems to be the case as state government appears to be approaching a consensus on raising admissions standards at schools that offer degrees beyond the associates’. Regardless of the motive, Martin’s suggestion is the best heard from higher education leadership to date, and coupled with a rise in admission standards and the consolidation leading to cost-saving efficiency of the several governance boards in Louisiana higher education are requisite first steps to creating more efficient higher education delivery in the state, especially vital to countering the pernicious effects of future budgetary woes.

11.11.09

Bad vote by Cao not made for electoral preservation

The problem for Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao simply was political dynamics had put him into a no-win situation, a reality becoming more apparent as time puts distance into his vote for the disastrous H.R. 3962. But he probably knew that, and that’s why he voted as he did.

This bill, which will lower the quality of health care provision in America in exchange for higher premiums, higher taxes, and with incentives to bring under direct control of the government the sixth of the American economy it represents, barely passed with Cao being the only Republican to vote for it (although his was not the crucial vote.) Indeed, that he voted at the very end indicates he wanted to make sure his would not be the decisive vote in its passage.

Some have argued that this sequence of events and result shows political calculations mainly drove Cao’s decision-making: he needed to vote for it to please enough constituents in his district with about two-thirds Democrats, and about one-half black Democrats. To date his announced opponents, both black Democrat state legislators, have been critical of his votes against the Democrat agenda, particularly concerning the spending bill that massively increased the deficit while unemployment surged after its passage. This vote could inoculate him enough against such criticism to give him a chance to win, it has been argued.

But that view disregards reality. The analytic process is easy enough to understand: it was assumed voting for it would gain more votes than would be lost, while voting against it merely would keep votes but lose others. However, the problem with the calculus of this is it probably works in reverse: the affirmative vote would attract fewer supporters that it would lose present supporters, with that difference probably still greater than votes he would lose by voting negatively.

The validity of this latter assessment already has received confirmation in canceled fundraisers on his behalf and requests for return of donations. It’s not that he will be denounced by Republicans or the party, just that any enthusiasm for his reelection will wither away. Why work for or even vote for somebody who went against you on the most important issue of this Congress? Any Democrat in the seat would have done the same, so what’s the difference if it’s Cao or somebody else in there?

Cao will need a lot of voluntary activism and funds to swim against a huge tide for reelection. Think of the typical Democrat in the district: for many, no matter how Cao voted on anything they’ll never vote for him because they have alternative candidates who will vote just as they would like and who are more “representative” of them (i.e., black Democrats) than is Cao. Only through energetic campaigning can he swing enough Democrat moderates, independents, and Republicans, who will have to turn out at significantly higher numbers than liberal Democrats behind their eventual nominee, to win.

Yet as a result of this vote, that no longer is possible. The enthusiasm necessary to create this kind of turnout evaporated with it. And Cao seems to have known this himself when he spoke of making the vote saying he recognized it would “probably be the death of my political career.” Knowing he was only slightly less unlikely to win by opposing than by supporting, and that his vote would not be crucial, he chose to support because that’s what he thought was best for people in his district – and maybe even of the whole state, if rumors that he was able to get assent to increase the federal government’s contribution to Louisiana’s Medicaid costs from Democrats are true.

So it’s doubtful that Cao’s decision was based on boosting his reelection chances. Rather, he did what he thought was best for his neck of the woods. In larger sense, isolated from the fact that his vote didn’t make any difference (and even if Democrats try to use it as a propaganda ploy the very emphasis they place on it shows they know how weak a tool it is; otherwise, why even bring it up?), it was the wrong decision for the good of the country, but that does not mean it was made in electoral self-interest.

10.11.09

Recommendation may keep education integrity intact

It appears that Louisiana is about to take the correct step in resolving the difficulties posed by the new “career” diploma, but, as is typical, resolution of the details will be the most important step.

The High School Redesign Committee overwhelmingly passed a recommendation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that students pursuing this diploma, only recently introduced which requires a less-rigorous curriculum than the “traditional” diploma, pass the same exit exam as other students. Passage of this test is required for graduation.

Rather, passage of choices from among tests is required, as the nature of the exit exam process is about to change. The state’s Department of Education recently approved moving away from the Graduate Exit Exam, which compiled questions from the areas of English, mathematics, social studies, and the sciences and of which students had to pass the first two areas and one of the other two. Now instead, what are more properly termed “end of course” exams will be administered. They will mandate passage of Algebra I or geometry, English 2 or English 3, and of biology or American History.

This makes some sense as it would allow for later taking of the exams in a student’s career (some were taking the GEE as early as their sophomore years) to allow for more time to acquire knowledge and may create better alignment of material learned and tested. However, BESE must be wary that the overall rigor present in the GEE not be decreased in the formulation of these new exams. In other words, if the GEE had math questions beyond Algebra I and geometry now these would be eliminated and the reduced rigor, if that applies overall across all subject areas tests, would produce a disservice to the students and the state.

Hopefully, this will not be the case. If so, the new diploma will become a benign development and not reduce standards as many feared its initiation would bring. While it still may handicap students that pursue it in that will not prepare them for college who then later in life may want to go to college, whatever enhanced vocational training it may provide might outweigh that cost. BESE needs to adopt this recommendation.

9.11.09

"Obama Lite" Walker reaps what he, Council sowed

The foremost question on the minds of Bossier City’s citizens is, what did Mayor Lo Walker know and when did he know it?

Drained of his usual pompous arrogance, last month the chastened Walker announced that the city heading into the end of its budget year was short $6.5 million, over 10 percent of its total spending, and would lay off immediately almost 15 percent of its workforce. The mayor, reelected unopposed in April, who once told observers that if they didn’t like this “conservative” budget they could vote against him, said now after the elections had come and gone that it was his fault alone, all due to some surprising fiscal “discovery.”

And if you believe this, give me $35 million of the city’s money and I’ll get you an office building that will attract the Air Force’s Cyber Command. None of this should have been a surprise to Walker or anybody in the city government. Every city keeps regular, usually monthly, tabs on its revenue intake, primarily on sales taxes which are remitted almost constantly. Bossier City’s finance department knew exactly what was going on from the beginning of the year. The only question is when did the trend become unmistakable?

8.11.09

Melancon keeps alive, Cao snuffs political career

When the vote was called for H.R. 3962, a monstrous bill that will lower the quality of health care provision in America in exchange for higher premiums, higher taxes, and with incentives to bring under direct control of the government the sixth of the American economy it represents, two Louisiana representatives went into the chamber with their political careers on the line. One walked back out with it intact.

Rep. Charlie Melancon managed to get a pass from his mistress in the Democrat leadership to vote against the final version. The way it worked, the leadership lined up supporters with an eye towards letting those of their party in the most vulnerable electoral positions off the hook, with a hierarchical ranking. Since Melancon is not defending a district, but trying to knock off incumbent Sen. David Vitter, he probably had low priority and would be one of the first to be told to fall on his sword to venerate liberalism. Luckily for him, because 219 Democrats pledged or were ordered to support it and voted accordingly, with 218 needed to pass with a full chamber present, apparently enough slack existed for Melancon to have the leash taken off of him.

His bid for the Senate is a longshot, but he would have had absolutely no chance at winning it had the Democrat leadership not been able to round up a few extra bodies – including the newest member just narrowly elected from New York. Take him away, and that leaves one to spare – because one Republican only voted for the measure.

That was Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, and the move effectively ended his political career, at least as a Republican. It was top priority for the GOP to keep this mess from hurdling another obstacle, and while its leadership has cut a lot of slack for Cao in the knowledge he is a Republican representing one of the most Democrat districts in the country (courtesy of some hard work and former Rep. Bill Jefferson’s legal woes), this is one thing for which they would have been unable to give him a pass.

Expect GOP assistance to Cao to wane for next year’s election. At the very least, expect many potential small donors otherwise attracted to Cao’s great American success story and social conservatism not to open their wallets as a result for his reelection. His very slim chances of achieving this will get worse as a result, and the irony is this vote really will get him no political credit in the district as there are enough other things a black Democrat majority there can fault him on where this won’t compensate. If he voted to support this disaster by conscience, so be it; if he did so because of political calculation, that’s a really bad call.

Fortune has favored Melancon his entire federal office career, and he remains politically alive because of it on this occasion. Fortunate also in the dynamics that got him elected, Cao probably cannot make the same claim of political viability after this incident.