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Blowing smoke to obscure the nonsmoking argument

(This one’s for my SaveShreveport readers. Mayor Keith Hightower needs to start worrying about it, because their linking of one of my columns on its front page drove hundreds of referrals to this blog yesterday, setting a new [well, how old can it be, since this is only about 3 months old] record for daily hits. Its daily traffic must be several times what referrals I got from it.)

Earlier this week the Shreveport City Council postponed District E’s Jeff Hogan’s proposed ordinance that would have outlawed smoking in practically every public venue save those licensed for liquor. (By the way, since Gov. Kathleen Blanco has proposed hiking cigarette taxes, does this mean Hogan and the ordinance’s supporters are being anti-Louisianan by trying to snuff out this potential source of revenue for the state? Just asking ….) It may well come back for a vote, and perhaps even in its same form, in a couple of weeks at the next Council session.

According to published reports, arguments against the ban ranged from the amusing to the uninformed. In the former category came District A Councilman Calvin Lester: “What level of government intrusion are we willing to make? At what point do we stop, or say we've gone too far?” Lester said. (Lester, of course, often has had issues with government intrusion, such as telling him where he has to park, and how he can raise money in his campaigns and lobby the state.)

Less comedic and even less knowledgeable were remarks by one Paige Ham:

"Smokers believe we are personally responsible for our own lives. Isn't that our choice?" she said. "Why does the council feel they are responsible for pushing their values upon the citizens of Shreveport? Smokers can be considerate and not smoke around people. It's OK the way it is. Turn on the news: Everything causes cancer."

Ham seems to have a limited view on exactly who suffers as a result of smoking. Thousands die every year from asthma attacks, one prominent trigger of which is cigarette smoke. With nearly 12 million Americans (1 in 25) suffering from an asthma attack yearly, chances are she’s blown smoke into the face of at least one of these people. And if she’s so confident that smokers will be considerate, the next time she sees a ventilator-dependent person (on or off the vent) come into a restaurant, I invite her to stand up and announce to the assembled smokers, “Hey, everybody, we have to put them out because otherwise this person may go into respiratory distress,” and see the reaction she would get.

Of course, the most ignorant part of her statement is the “pushing values” part. I guess she would agree that government shouldn’t “push” its “values” on the “citizens” when it enacts laws against murder, theft, assault, etc.? That's what the law is, a rendition of a set of values that the majority (in a representative democracy) believes to be the moral code by which life should be led, with government there to enforce it.

You don’t have to rely upon the spotty evidence that secondhand smoke causes cancer to justify banning smoking. Anywhere a breathing-compromised person (some in that condition because they smoked) could be expected to go as part of employment and any public institution (and especially any building containing any health-care providers) should be made smoke free (with the exception of those places indicated under state law). Arguing against this condones selfish behavior of those who would spread the costs of their lack of discipline to other, innocent people.


Amato quits long after Orleans Parish School District did

Orleans Parish School Superintendent Tony Amato dropped out to end a once-promising tenure to turn around the parish’s schools. “Promising,” because Amato had achieved great academic results at another declining urban school system, and because Amato himself had expressed such optimism when he took the job 26 months ago.

But one thing that Amato apparently had not understood was the problems in Orleans schools extend far beyond academic performance. Simply, he got overwhelmed by the financial and managerial aspects of the job at hand, which are part of the dysfunctional culture that has become inbred in the school system.

Some comparative statistics show just how miserable the Orleans system is:

  • On the state’s accountability tests in the areas of English, mathematics, science, and social studies, given in grades 4, 8, and 12, respectively, 23%, 22%, 29%, and 25% fewer Orleans students score in the top three categories (Advanced, Mastery, and Basic) than do students statewide, meaning that proportion more falls into the lowest two categories (Approaching Basic and Unsatisfactory) than do students statewide. (Spring, 2004)
  • On the Iowa Basic Test, in grades 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9, Orleans students’ percentile rankings are, respectively, 22%, 17%, 18%, 18% and 15% lower than the state average. (Spring, 2004)
  • In Orleans, 11% in high school drop out, compared to only 7% statewide. (2003-2004)
  • In terms of ranking schools, 8.6% of Orleans’ rank as five-, four-, or three-star schools compared to 23% statewide; 18% compared to 60.4% rank as two- or one-star schools, and 73.5% compared to 16.7% fall into the “academic warning” or “academically unacceptable” categories.(2003-2004)
  • In progress towards satisfactory school accountability, Orleans had 45.8% of its school show no progress compared to 35.1% in the state; 46.6% make incomplete progress compared to 41.7%, and only 7.6% met their growth progress compared to 23.2% statewide (and over three-quarters of Orleans high schools made no progress while none met their target). (Spring, 2003)
  • Such miserable performance occurs without any great lack of relative financial resources. Revenues per pupil are only $53 less than the statewide average (although expenditures per pupil are $335 less), and the average teacher salary there, at $37,133, is only $33 below the statewide average. (2003-2004)
  • In terms of Orleans’ fiscal impact on the state, with about 9.33% of the state’s students, it gets about 9.77% of state education dollars for public schools. It does differ significantly in proportion of federal dollars received, about 3 percent higher than the stat average. (2002-2003)
  • In student population terms, over the past five years Orleans enrollment has dropped a stunning 21% (while the state’s has declined 5%), while over the past three years Orleans’ population as a whole dropped 3.2%. This means the public school student population makes up only 14% of the parish’s total, whereas statewide it is 16% (although its number of employees has barely budged). (2003-04)
  • While over 97% of Orleans’ students are racial minorities, only about two-thirds of the parish residents are. But of the around 25,000 students in nonpublic schools (meaning 37 percent of all Orleans students are in nonpublic schools in the parish), almost half are racial minorities. The public school system here may well be the most segregated in America. (2002-2003)

    Worse, the statewide figures given here include Orleans. The achievement gaps would be even larger if it were excluded from the state average.

    We must also understand that the failure in Orleans has been system-wide in all phases. It’s not just been in education, but in the administration of education, reflective of a broken, irreparable culture whose impact damages the whole state. Even with a mostly-new school board to hire the new superintendent, it’s probably too late for any substantial change to come any time soon.

    In fact, even though within a couple of years many of Orleans’ schools may be taken over by the state, perhaps even more drastic action should occur given failures are both academic and administrative. Maybe it’s time for the state simply to take over the entire school district. As badly run as Louisiana state government can be, the Orlaans Parish School District has shown it can be done worse.
  • 12.4.05

    Blanco wants to raise taxes without demanding much greater government efficiency

    It’s official, Gov. Kathleen Blanco followed through with her election eve “no-no-new taxes pledge” by saying she’ll ask the Legislature to raise them $120 million. She’ll use the argument that they are acceptable because they’re “sin” taxes and for teacher’s raises, but even giving them this moniker and purpose doesn’t delete the underlying point that such raises may be unnecessary or are counterproductive without demanding more meaningful accountability out of teachers.

    Republican legislators are moving closer to opposing these because they feel more efficiency can be wrung out of government before raising any taxes. Some points they should make to bolster this argument should begin with the fact that, by 2003, Louisiana was 43rd of the states and the District of Columbia in personal per capita income. Therefore, would it not be logical to expect that government spending to be in that neighborhood? Should not government spend what it can relative to the resources it can draw upon, its people’s economic activity?

    Not according to the following statistics (from 2000):

  • In terms of overall per capita spending in government, Louisiana ranks 30th
  • Several things explain this higher level of spending that resources typically would bear, one being that it ranks 24th in government administration costs per capita
  • Another is its bloated retirement system (in desperate need of reform of which some may be on the way) which ranks the state 13th per capita
  • Finally, perhaps the worst offender is our misutilized health care system which ranks 4th among the states per capita (which the governor does seem to be getting a clue on)

    And how is it that Louisiana government can live so high off the hog? Because it taxes its citizenry way above their relative ability to pay; the latest 2005 figures (are you reading this, Vic Stelly?) placing Louisiana 16th in state and local tax burden.

    GOP lawmakers need to run with these figures and show they are the party of efficient government by using their numbers to block these tax increases and force Blanco to look for even greater efficiencies in government. If she’s done it for health care, why not elsewhere?
  • 11.4.05

    Lincoln Parish lake interests growing more desperate

    Slowly but surely, the media seems to be catching up to the lake-building frenzy story. Perhaps that’s what’s prompting either second thoughts or covering activity by state Rep. Hollis Downs in his request for public opinion surveys about spending tens of millions of dollars to build a lake in Lincoln Parish. (This isn’t the only thing he’s doing to shore up lake support – he’s introduced HB 123 to create a government body with powers to start building the thing, joining state Sen. Robert Barham’s SB 47 that inflicts a similar fate onto Morehouse Parish.)

    But it all seems very (please pardon the expression) fishy. While Downs and others, most notably freelance hit consultant Michael Thompson keep (again, my apologies) afloat this story that the lakes are needed for “economic development,” the main concern in this case would seem to be the lake providing a water supply for the dwindling Sparta Aquifer. In fact, there seems to be little evidence that much potable water could come from such a development, and now these policy-makers are accused of trying to promote the lake’s building using this faulty rationale.

    Thus, the need for a public opinion survey to back up the policy-makers in light of growing criticism from the local and statewide (new) media. Their case would be stronger if they could produce objective, unbiased evidence that the public supported them on the basis of economic development.

    But apparently their pollster isn’t on the same page as they. Louisiana Tech Associate Professor of Sociology Gary Stokley let slip that its purpose was to poll the public as well as “educate” them of the facts, those being that “[n]inety percent of this is for economic development, and not saving the Sparta. If we get that clear, that's really important," he said. Further,

    Although he admitted there can sometimes be a fine line between "education and propaganda," he denied that the motivation for the survey is to promote the reservoir. He said some people will assume it is propaganda, but it is not the case when conducted by professionals.

    Having been a research associate in a university polling operation and having conducted them myself, I can tell you one thing, that a “professional” never would have described the purpose of his polling as educating. Especially on this issue when he’s already been quoting saying “[w]e are using too much water, and if we don't do something we are going to be in trouble,” in reference to the Sparta Aquifer. And particularly because the survey is being paid for by proponents of the lake plan.

    In short, there’s very little surface credibility to this survey from the start, even if performed in an unbiased way, given the politics surrounding this exercise. What Downs needs to do to have any hope of having anybody accept any results showing support of building a lake for economic development purposes is to release the question wordings of the instrument used and the raw data collected for independent analysis. Otherwise, we cannot be sure that it won’t be “propaganda” and yet another tool to serve special interests trying to rake off resources from the state's taxpayers.


    Stop throwing money at teachers, start demanding they perform

    So not only is Gov. Kathleen Blanco trying to find ways to give $1,000 raises to teachers (and others working for schools), she’s being told it’s not enough. "Throwing a few bucks at it has only gotten us to the problem we're in," says the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the learned Steve Monaghan.

    Oh, really? A review of some vital statistics is in order, ranking the state along with the other 49 plus the District of Columbia:

    Louisiana rank on 4th grade reading scores: 48th (tied)
    Louisiana rank on 8th grade reading scores: 47th (tied)
    Louisiana rank on 4th grade mathematics scores: 47th
    Louisiana rank on 8th grade mathematics scores: 47th (tied)
    Louisiana rank on per-pupil spending for current operations of schools: 42nd
    Louisiana rank on per-pupil spending for instruction in schools: 41st
    Louisiana rank on per-teacher spending for salaries in schools: 46th

    Seems to me there’s a little underperforming going on here expenditures relative to performance (and this with the new accountability programs in place). So before teachers’ unions go shooting off their mouths about how so much more money is needed, shouldn’t we expect to see some improvement in educational achievement by state students at least up to the same level at which it is financially supported, relatively speaking?

    What the governor should do is make a deal. Tell the teachers’ unions that she will, in fact, boost every teacher’s pay at least $1,000 – in exchange for instituting a performance pay plan for teachers. It’s not like it’s a totally alien concept; several states already have them or are adopting them. Teachers should be tested to see that they actually know what they are talking about in the classroom.

    It’s not pay increases that will really improve educational performance in this state, it’s making sure teachers are exerting themselves to perform at a higher level. Indirectly, school accountability as a whole does this, but a more direct approach will make education in this state even more efficient.

    Of course, these very same teachers’ unions spiked this idea 15 years ago. No union ever educated a child; they’re there only to preserve teaching jobs and to transfer as much wealth from taxpayers to teachers as possible. And the only people who have to fear a system which rewards teachers for their mastery of what they teach are those who aren’t very competent in the first place.