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Education reform proposals promise great improvement

Some of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s announced education initiatives smack so much of common sense one wonders why they haven’t been done before (or were discontinued decades ago). Others portend potential contentious policy battles. Either way, from the broad outlines he presented yesterday, they seem bound to improve elementary and secondary education in Louisiana.

Jindal’s education legislative agenda addresses four areas. The first deals with charter school regulation. So far, the move to allow these institutions which operate much like state-run schools except with fewer regulations has turned out to be a success, with outcomes improvement outpacing that of government schools especially in the cases where charters took over academically unacceptable institutions. Jindal wants to increase regulation at the low end of these kinds of schools by having them vetted by the national professional association of them and hopefully at the high end making them perform even better by allowing faith-based organizations to organize and run charter schools.

The last matter will draw opposition from the usual anti-religion zealots but these political or constitutional matters should not stand in the way of this proposal’s passage. So long as religion is not advocated mandatorily in the classroom, it should not matter who runs the school. Another issue, allowing simple majorities rather than two-thirds votes of teachers to request a move of their school into charter status should prove even more controversial, as the education establishment and teachers’ unions historically have fought charter schools because they take resources and power out of the hands of the former and the latter cannot protect mediocre performers in exchange for their support in unions’ quest to redistribute resources from taxpayers to their members.

A second is in minor tweaking to teacher assessment. While competency testing and additional forms of accountability measuring for teachers are badly needed in Louisiana education and would do more than any other reform to improve schooling, this very small step to improve the manner of assessment is positive.

Third, Jindal will stump for broader authority to remove disruptive students from the classroom. The tolerated presence of such students is a major problem in low-performing schools in that acting up interferes with learning by students who want education. Less coddling may draw opposition from the education establishment which fears obnoxious parents berating them for acting firmly against their overindulged and/or unsupervised children, but at least they would have the law on their side now.

In addition, the plan sensibly argues for alternative instruction of these suspended students. Rather than have them sit out with most neglecting studies, they would be put into after-school or Saturday learning situations in order to allow them to keep up with their studies but in an environment where they can’t hold others’ learning hostage. The hangup here will be this likely will cost more money and the annual automatic Minimum Foundation Program funding is not designed to incorpoarte something like this. Additional appropriation for these kinds of programs may be necessary, but these are tight budgetary times. Yet if implemented, these ideas could make a dent in the dropout rates that plague state education.

Finally, another big part of the dropout tendency, truancy, Jindal addresses also. Laws would be strengthened to put more of the onus for discouraging this activity on parents. They would be notified immediately of absences, extant fines that can be levied on parents for repeated truancy would be increased, and alternative penalties are proposed to be added. Sensibly, in the case of minors society holds parents responsible for many of their actions and truancy should be no exception. If parents face sanctions for their children’s bad behavior, it should prompt them to put greater effort into better parenting to prevent it; one suggestion is that mandatory parenting classes be an option for remediation.

Jindal smartly recognizes that mindless dispersal of more money to administrators and teachers to improve education has diminishing returns, a point probably largely reached in Louisiana. The focus must be on the philosophy and procedures to produce superior learning which means wringing out of the system the attitude that self-actualization means more than learning facts and how to reason, or the difference between gearing the system towards a lowest common denominator and challenging all to rise up – even if that means in the case of some to use an iron fist in a velvet glove to motivate them. If the legislation that accompanies this broad outline adheres to this thinking and passes, in the coming years Louisiana will reap significant benefits.


Jindal travel critiques need to show its harm to LA

Where in the world is Gov. Bobby Jindal? Learning that you just can’t win as governor on the issue of travel.

When former Gov. Mike Foster spent perhaps a couple of days of his entire eight years in office outside of Louisiana, critics said he should be out “selling” the state. When former Gov. Kathleen Blanco tried, almost totally unsuccessfully, to do just that, critics rightly pointed out such quixotic travel did taxpayers a disservice. Now Jindal is coming under fire not because he goes nowhere, not because his travels on state expense yield next to nothing in return, but because he goes everywhere on his own (campaign’s) dime.

Jindal just isn’t taking off on a whim, at least he’s getting invited to deliver speeches that often only tangentially address state issues. This is why his organization or others pay for his peripatetic lifestyle. The main focus of these is Republican party-building and refreshing his own campaign coffers, and to date he has been doing it in a way that has gotten him noticed on the national scene to the point he has been selected as the counterpoint to Pres. Barack Obama’s state of the union lite speech in 13 days.

The question is, does this schedule help or harm the state? On the balance, from current evidence, the answer is the former. These speaking trips don’t cost the state’s taxpayer’s a dime, they do at least present Louisiana in a positive light, and they don’t preclude Jindal from taking “homework” along. In fact, when Jindal let a legislative pay raise controversy get out of hand last year while firmly ensconced at the Capitol this showed he didn’t have to be out of state to let inattention play havoc with his agenda.

Some argue against the extensive travel because it somehow detracts from his ability to do the job as governor, although they never explain exactly how that occurs and/or how the state would be better off if he stuck around Baton Rouge more. That’s probably an assertion that won’t fully be answered until it comes time for the 2011 contest for governor, when a comprehensive comparison of what Jindal said he would do against what he actually has done can happen.

So far, Jindal has initiated meaningful (despite some lame protestations otherwise) ethics reform, backed a few business tax cuts early, did not stand in the way of individual income tax cuts late, restructured workforce development, and curbed some low-priority government spending. Still on the agenda are health care reform to increase efficiency, realigning higher education spending on the basis of outcomes, eliminating even more dubious government spending, and (for a grand slam) the elimination of individual income taxation.

If Jindal can accomplish all of this in the next almost three years, such a record of achievement would demonstrate that travel didn’t seem to impede it. But if he lacks the political will and/or capital to do much more than he has, then the travel issue becomes legitimate. But until then, unless somebody can demonstrate exactly how Jindal is putting too much time into talking and not enough into doing, this criticism seems pointless.


Higher exemption fails to address real problem of taxes

The mistake being made by those who support an increase in the homestead exemption is that it won’t reduce their overall taxes by much if at all, it will merely change the way in which they pay it.

For years, now-state Sen. John Alario has introduced legislation to raise the level from the nation-high $75,000 to $100,000. A New Orleans real estate agent (who no doubt believes a higher exemption will make housing more attractive, bringing more sales and him more commissions) has upped the ante in an online petition to $170,000. The proposal has an inflation-adjusted mechanism that he says if present when the last change was made in 1982 would have put the level at $160,000 today.

Rightfully, he notes that the state Constitution can foist automatic increases in property taxes when reassessment occurs quadrennially if local taxing bodies vote to roll forward millages to their present levels. The thinking of this proposal is that an increased homestead exemption, which prevents parish governments from taxing on that amount of value, will help mitigate higher taxes forced upon homeowners in that way.

But this is entirely the wrong approach because it addresses exceptions to taxation, not the actual level of taxation itself, an approach that won’t do much to reduce its overall level. Raising the exemption will prompt governments subject to it simply roll forward millages. Worse, it could tempt the state which constitutionally can levy its own property tax but which presently defers to do that. If these things are done, high-valued homeowners could find their overall amounts going up, making the burden already more inequitable. This means many with homes valued between $75,000 and $170,000 may see little or no decrease, while those owners of abodes above $170,000 may see an increase. And the inflation trigger will only goad governments into taking these steps.

One of the great mistaken assumptions concerning the exemption is those who fall under it thinking they don’t pay for the exemption. This is faulty. If, for example, as a response to a higher exemption government prevents rolling back, this becomes a tax increase to businesses and owners of rental property. They will then raise their prices or rents to compensate, passing this cost in part onto those who don’t directly pay property taxes. Because the burden is being shifted, the overall level of taxation, the real problem, does not get addressed.

If you want to address the question of property taxes being too high, the answer lies in the procedure for dealing with reassessment. Currently, it takes a two-thirds vote by a taxing authority to roll forward. If people are upset with an increase in taxes, they should take it out on their elected representatives who did it to them. However, some bodies that have this power have appointed members, so mechanisms should be put in place to control their ability to do this, perhaps by amending the Constitution (as has been tried) to also bring rolling forward to a vote of the people. In addition, people simply could exercise the franchise by voting down new proposals or renewals of property taxes, instead of fiddling with the exemption.

The trick is not to make somebody else pay, which only imperfectly avoids you paying, but to make sure everybody pays less. That comes through mechanisms to promote overall reduction, not redistribution of tax burden as this flawed proposal


Ending costly subsidies encourages moving forward

It’s too bad that Hurricane Katrina had to strike the New Orleans area about 42 months ago, displacing hundreds of thousands who had to find new places to live and means to finance them. But enough is enough: the federal program that subsidizes rent for those who are verified as having lived in an area hit by Katrina needs to end on schedule at the end of this month.

For some, the elderly and disabled, slack should be given and a federal program to do so is starting operations. If processing applications is too slow, extensions should be given to ensure all who are eligible and care to sign up have the chance.

But as for able-bodied others, consider that it has been three-and-a-half years since the disaster. The vast majority of the 17,000 households receiving the subsidy in Louisiana had lived in Federal Emergency Management Administration manufactured housing parks until they were closed at the end of May of last year, so they have known about this deadline for the past nine months and had plenty of time to make preparations. Regardless of prior living arrangements, the deadline has been known by all for months and years.


Dire charity hospital scenario may work in reform's favor

In response to requests from the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration, the Louisiana State University system which runs the state’s charity hospitals prepared reports of the impact of impending budget cuts, including the worst case scenario. Despite a small percentage loss, that scenario predicted a major impact. But would that be so bad?

The operation of these hospitals consumes only $90 million of the general fund out of $971 million spent by the unit, of which the largest projected cut is $31 million. However, that portion that does come from the general fund mostly covers medical direct-care personnel and prisoner care, the latter of which the Jindal Administration said not to cut. The system argues that having to do without some of that personnel would require closing some services that would have, at its most extensive, a ripple effect that would close three unnamed hospitals. Even the best-case scenario would turn two into out-patient-only facilities.

Yet when contemplating this outcome and putting in the context of grander plans that Jindal has for the restructuring of indigent care in Louisiana, these might not be bad alternatives. This plan would provide incentives to move indigents out of the inefficient current system that promotes the ill to troop to a government hospital regardless of the nature of the malady, to one that uses the private sector for more efficient utilization of services that likely would shift usage away from charity hospitals towards non-government facilities, with lower per-patient costs to the taxpayer.

Cuts in the charity system could speed the process along. In fact, one aspect of Jindal’s plan coincides with an outcome identified by the LSU system, making Lake Charles’ W.O. Moss Medical Center into an out-patient-only facility. This might argue making them in the larger urban areas (although paying attention to the medical education missions in New Orleans and Shreveport) where there is more slack for the private sector to pick up.

If Jindal is smart, as mentioned elsewhere he can use budgetary problems to accelerate and more comprehensively introduce government spending reforms as flush coffers would allow opponents who believe big government should provide all more cover to obstruct reform. Using this tool of necessity, Jindal could save not just the relatively small projected amount, but leverage that to drive down expenses in covering the indigent while have care provided as good or even better to more people.

Even if the “no government spending left behind” debt-inducing spending package championed by national Democrats gets rammed into law, Jindal would be wise to follow his reformist instincts and not let that interfere with this opportunity. The Legislature may thwart him in the end, but as the health care spending crisis of the state continues to eat away at state resources, he at least must try.