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29.4.11

Economics suggest state plan sale makes sense

Even as the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration showed little gumption to pursue privatization of prison operations, by contrast it shows fortitude on another privatization issue that exercises these good old boys in the Legislature and state government, getting the state out of the business of running its own health benefits plan for its employees. Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater provided testimony to support the effort to sell the self-administered health benefits plan of the Office of Group Benefits under his department, a hopeful sign the Administration will move forward on this compelling and necessary change.

At present, only Utah does anything similar while all other states solely contract all administration to third parties while continuing to self-insure it. And Louisiana already does more of that than run its own plan: approximately three-quarters of state employees and retirees use plans run by third parties that it also self-insures, or are enrolled in plans both run and insured by third parties.

But because the state administers that plan for roughly 62,000 employees and retirees, which is called the preferred provider organization option, at 300 employees (that it, about half of the classified employees of the entire Division of Administration) to manage it this is, compared to states with similar-sized client bases, four times the number of such employees in Alabama, six times the number in Georgia, eight times the number in Arkansas, and 13 times the number in Florida that oversee benefits administration.

28.4.11

Jindal use of scare tactic not suasion causes retreat

The Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration seems to have lost its nerve, at least temporarily, in its quest to improve in limited ways the efficiency of state government. If only it had relied more on persuasion than fear if it actually seriously wishes to reduce the size of government, suasion would triumph over special interests on this issue.

Faced with determined opposition, this week the Jindal Administration announced postponement of its strategy to privatize prisons and their operations, which promised to save $86 million this year in state expenditures and tens of millions more annually thereafter. Essentially, Jindal announced he would punt to the Revenue Estimating Conference on the desirability of the plan, saying if it determined sufficient additional revenues could be forecast, no need may exist for the plan to go through to save money.

These feet of clay illustrated the tactical error the Administration had made on the issue, and its disappointing lack of commitment to cutting state costs.

27.4.11

Roemer makes right call on suggesting ending tenure

As his latest comments show, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Chas Roemer has it completely backwards … by his musing about not running for reelection.

Rather, more than ever educational progress in Louisiana desperately needs officials like him, as demonstrated when Roemer opined in a letter to legislators that the state needs to end tenure. As it is now, after a three-year probationary period, a teacher in a traditional public school in Louisiana gains access to procedures that make it difficult to fire even for cause. Witness the samples for the latest reporting period of 2007-08 that show 97.6 percent of tenured teachers retained their job in the state, as did 98.8 percent of those in the probationary period when it is easier to fire them for cause.

Statistically, these results advance two largely contradictory conclusions. They may indicate that, with the overwhelming proportion of teachers apparently performing adequately, that the profession in Louisiana – much like that of state employment – highly disproportionately attracts quality individuals. On its face that determination seems dubious, and descends into the laughable when considering how Louisiana scrapes the bottom in student achievement both in absolute and relative terms.

Therefore, the alternative hypothesis seems much more plausible – rules regarding retention of teachers encourage poor performers to remain the system and likely are one factor that contributes to poor student performance. While other factors no doubt play a role here also and likewise beg for reforms – such as providing incentive to perform better through merit pay and regular subject area competency testing to weed out those too ignorant in the areas they teach – tenuring makes it more difficult to remove substandard teachers because of the extra resources devoted to that process to overcome the greater ability to resist by the incompetent afforded by those rules.

This assumes, of course, that administrators actually want to relieve low performers of their duties. They may well not, because they’re buddies with the person, from some kind of sympathy such as for those in the twilight of their careers, it would be a hassle to deal with a vacancy, of political pressure from elected officials such as those on the school board, etc. These attitudes would exist without tenure, but at least in clear-cut cases where removal is desired, the numbers indicate tenure must inhibit – especially since apparently those with fewer protections are less likely to be terminated, suggesting that some substantial portion of tenured teachers coast beginning some period after getting it, some so egregiously that administrators feel compelled to go to the trouble of engaging in the onerous dismissal process.

But statistics ignore the theoretical reason why tenure really is not necessary at this level of instruction. The concept gives protection to those whose work relies in part on production of ideas, to prevent discouragement of production of those ideas out of fear these producers will be evaluated politically by those with power over their employment and by elected officials. However, while that may apply to those involved in higher education, where research can be a necessary component of the job, at lower levels of education the mission solely is instruction. Without that component to the job, there’s no reason a regime like five-year contracts with failure to reappoint based upon objective measures of quality teaching cannot provide as much protection from arbitrary, non-cause-related personnel actions as does tenure.

Further, contemplated policy actions in other states show they recognize the costs of tenure at this level of education exceed its benefits. This year alone, several are opting to pursue major overhauls of it, or even wanting to eliminate it entirely. Roemer rightly suggests that Louisiana join them.

25.4.11

Jindal speech plays defense when more offense needed

That Gov. Bobby Jindal spent most of the portion of his State of the State speech concerning state matters on defense rather than offense was not how to come out of the gate to get enacted the most ambitious legislative agenda of his yet. That could indicate his reelection campaign has begun and leaves that agenda’s passage exposed to potential failure.

Jindal, the cautious reformer and slow transformer of government, has some paradigm-shifting ideas encapsulated into legislation cued up for this regular session. He’s come to the point where administrative discretion alone can’t create more efficiency in operating government but needs legislators to take the next step with him. His ideas include privatizing some prison operations and even prisons themselves, streamlining the higher education system and making users take a greater responsibility for their education in exchange for improved college performance, creating a stable funding base for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars, and beginning a more serious effort to shore up the ticking time bomb that is Louisiana’s underfunded retirement system.

These could face some tough sledding.

BESE changes promote more fragmented education policy

An interesting pair of bills proffered for the 2011 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature starting today look to present for voter approval alteration of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s composition. In this instance, it’s best to leave well alone.

Presently, 11 members sit on BESE which has its members serve four-year terms coterminous with those of other statewide elected officials. Eight come from single-member districts directly elected while three are appointed by the governor. HB 84 by state Rep. Pat Smith would reduce gubernatorial appointments to one with the state House and Senate each having one, while HB 96 by state Rep. Herbert Dixon would reduce the number of appointed members in total to one, jointly selected by the governor, House, and Senate. Each proposes to change the Constitution, and thus needs two-thirds approval in the respective chambers and majority approval by the state’s voters.

Louisiana’s present system exists as an outlier among state education governance structures.

24.4.11

If pursued, Act II for Georges probably to end like first

Ten days ago New Orleans businessman John Georges loaned his nearly defunct Louisiana campaign account $10.1 million, bringing the total he owes himself with his past 2007 governor’s and 2010 New Orleans mayor’s campaign debts to over $22.5 million. What does it mean and where will it lead, if anywhere?

Although his campaign finance paperwork indicates he could run for any statewide office, Georges is accustomed to being a chief executive officer and would not settle for anything but governor. Whether he will commit to it perhaps depends upon his chances of winning, which will be shaped by an assessment of his past campaigns and what they tell about him as a candidate, and of the blandishments of potential flatterers who will want to use his money for their purposes.

In 2007, running as an independent, despite spending over $11 million, even more than eventual winner and presumed fall opponent Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Georges finished a distant third and barely beat Jindal in his home and heavily non-Republican Orleans Parish. In 2010, running as a Democrat despite sounding more conservative than liberal, he finished third after spending about $550 a vote. In other words, his past results have been rather unimpressive, demonstrating not much electability.