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Remarks show reform must address teacher competency

Perhaps the reason why little progress has been seen in educational improvement in Louisiana’s elementary and secondary schools over the past couple of years is that the area of potential positive change that now must be addressed is the quality of the teachers themselves. At least that’s what one is forced to conclude when reviewing the stubbornness and stupidity of the remarks of a union leader of Louisiana teachers.

In conjunction with a meeting of the Louisiana Charter Schools Conference, Tom Tate, lobbyist for the Louisiana Association of Educators, opined “Their success is yet to be determined,” then really stepped out on the limb by adding, “By and large they have not been successful.” Teachers unions oppose charter schools because they allow for reduced union interference in delivering education, are less likely to protect low-performing or incompetent teachers, and encourage and reward greater efficiency in delivering education.

Sawing off the limb is accomplished upon referencing a Stanford University study of Louisiana charter schools that revealed charter school students, after four years and beyond, showed gains in math and reading compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. The study also said black students who attend charter schools, as well as students classified as living in poverty, did significantly better in math and reading than did their counterparts in traditional public schools.

You would think this would be enough for an opponent to concede on the issue, but apparently not. Additionally, it must be kept in mind that schools made into charters represented the worst performers. Therefore, when comparing charter results to those of regular schools, they are two distinct populations so gains in the black sub-population of charter students are even more impressive because they likely have socioeconomic characteristics that create more roadblocks for success than the students from other public schools.

This makes a lie of the frequent teacher union excuse that there’s little teachers can do with underperforming students given what they have to work with. Statistics continue to show that charter schools simply do a better job, likely because they attract better teachers given personnel policies that aren’t afraid to award merit and discourage the slackers or incompetent – despite (or perhaps because) not many of them are unionized – and they provide a better administrative structure for the purposes of educating.

Continued obstinacy in the face of these facts proves teachers’ union would rather sacrifice quality education in favor of excising the greatest amount of resources from taxpayers for the least amount of quality work. It also lays bare that their representatives can’t think critically well about education issues. This and the fact they have opposed consistently the idea of regular subject area merit testing of teachers leads one to believe that shielding intellectually incompetent teachers from termination has become the main impact that unions have on the quality of education.


Real health reform more than shedding charity hospitals

Perhaps its members have been reading this space regularly, or maybe they actually derived it independently, but Louisiana’s Commission on Streamlining Government looks set to recommend that there be a radical overhaul of indigent health care delivery that will encourage and challenge both the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration and the Pres. Barack Obama Administration. But whether it’s enough to constitute true reform is another matter.

At the end of last year Jindal said plans were being made to fundamentally remake the indigent care system by removing government from the provider of care to managing that provision. Testimony in front of the committee reaffirmed that directional change, which would broaden Medicaid eligibility to families at 130 percent of poverty, essentially insuring everybody who wished to be in the state, and giving them their choice of what hospital to attend. It is believed that market forces then would push existing charity hospitals out of business.

Apparently unmentioned, however, was the exact funding mechanism of the insurance provision. The testimony sounded like it was a simple expansion of Medicaid coverage. If so, this is a mistake and represents backing away from the idea of instead of employing the current fee-for-service arrangement rather that funds dedicated to indigent care be given as vouchers to eligible recipients that then may be used to purchase health care insurance in the open market (similar to Republican plans at the national level). The present arrangement is what contributes to the leakage of money from it, so nothing would be done to improve efficiency by only an expansion. Further, because government sets Medicaid reimbursement rates but cannot compel providers to accept them, there’s no guarantee there would be enough quality provision, whereas insurers can negotiate better rates (because of their greater efficiency) with providers to ensure enough of it.

It’s possible that the greater privatization part quietly has been dropped as a bow to national politics where Democrats seem determined to ram through legislation that does not reform but merely expands in coverage and in costs the present inefficient system with increased regulation. Such a structuring makes it almost impossible for the federal government to deny the state the request essentially to fund the expansion, since it so closely tracks the goals of Democrats.

While this may look politically good for Jindal – provision of more of a good by government to more people without any extra direct cost to the Louisiana taxpayer – it is not true reform and is not a real solution to spiraling costs paid by government and thereby must be avoided like the plague. However, given the current hostile climate in Washington to genuine health care reform, whether the Obama Administration would fund what would be changeover costs (because much would be saved within a few years) to a plan ideologically opposed to his in a tough state budget environment is another matter.

Regardless, either would threaten the existing charity system which brings other challenges to Jindal. Political opponents who invest political careers, power, and privilege in the billion-dollar system will fight anything that threatens these. Also, Jindal himself has backed the building of a large new charity hospital in New Orleans that, while more realistic in size than its initial conceptualization prior to his taking office, still is too big for its intended purpose. And if it becomes primarily a teaching hospital rather than having its main mission as providing care as a result of this new direction, it becomes more outsized than ever and provides better argumentation for the opposing replacement plan to Jindal’s, rebuilding the existing facility damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – something duly noted here and by the Commission.

Of course, the Commission must approve of this recommendation followed by the Legislature, so there’s a long ways to go. Still, since a budget crisis is upon the state, Jindal never will have a better opportunity to make fundamental, not just marginal, reform. He needs to go for the homer – his original idea of vouchers – rather than let it get washed away by Democrats whose power far exceeds their legitimacy within the public at present. As doctors are instructed, first do no harm, and to make bigger the existing system without real reform will do more harm than by doing nothing at all.


LA must find will to follow through with privatization

Louisiana’s temporary Commission on Streamlining Government has fomented some good ideas about privatization of state government functions. The next step is to make sure that political considerations do not sabotage the savings that could result.

In its most recent meeting, state departments offered to it assessments about areas in which privatization may save money. At least several million dollars a year were identified, and a more vigorous effort might reveal much more. Encouraging also was the stated realization that the reform did not apply universally as a panacea to bloated state expenditures, that some areas simply could or would not produce savings by its application.

But the state must avoid the political problem of using privatization as a substitute for creating priorities and funding on the basis of necessity of function. Institution of privatization cannot occur then followed by a declaration that the process of saving had run its course. This only makes government operation more efficient; it doesn’t eliminate expenditures tied to activities that government really has no need to be performing in the first place. The latter must be dealt with in addition to the former.

Also critical, the state must not let anti-privatization bias short-circuit this effort. Often within government there arises a prejudice against privatization because it is assumed that only government can perform a certain task because it may have been the first entity to do so and/or it has been doing it for a long time. Government well may be the first to do something because, at the time, the activity cost more than it would produce in benefits and/or it required large start-up costs the private sector was unwilling to absorb.

However, times change and as the economy has a whole continues to differentiate and technology advances, what functions in the past seemed like money-losers and/or too costly to get off the ground today attract competition within the private sector. Thus, the Commission must review every function of government and simply not assume that just because government does it and/or has been doing it for a long time, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done more efficiently by the private sector.

Another political challenge comes from an approach which often is a red herring, assertion that the mission-critical nature of an activity means that only government can do it to ensure that it gets done in a quality way. Certainly, there are some functions in government where this is true, such as in the more intense activities of public safety. However, most of what government does simply is not so critical that the search for profits by a private contractor would interfere in making sure the job got done right, but instead would add efficiency to make the function be performed better. For example, does anybody seriously think that if the contract-letting and monitoring functions of Shreveport’s Department of Community Development had themselves been contracted out that a private concern, knowing slackness would expose it to losing the contract and criminal charges, would have been so lax as to allow the corruption rife in that agency to have existed?

Finally, politicians who believe government is there primarily to redistribute wealth and parasitical organizations that agree with this, such as labor unions, will resist it. It means lesser amounts of money can be taken from the people for redistribution from the perspective of the politicians, and from the union view less money transferred to workers because the rate of unionization is much higher in government than in the private sector. For the latter, privatization eliminates unionized jobs and replaces them with fewer non-unionized positions, weakening unions power. Overcoming the resistance of these parochial interests that have no desire to save money for all at their particular expenses might prove problematic.

Nevertheless, it is quite refreshing to see privatization taken more seriously than it ever has been by state leaders. Yet that’s the easy part; the difficult part will be to overcome special interest objections and whether the political will exists too see it all through will be the ultimate test of the seriousness of state government on this issue


History, dynamics confirm Vitter's favored position

Befitting its name, this space seeks to go beyond what the media reports to give readers additional insights, clarifications, and corrections into what is reported as news. A recent article about the burgeoning U.S. Senate race in Louisiana provides grist for the mill of purpose on this account.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune published a piece in which the author asserts Republican incumbent Sen. David Vitter has a good advantage in his reelection bid over Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon in part because 2010 will not feature a presidential election and historically the party that held the White House would lose seats in midterm elections. While this particularly is true in the House (violated only 3 times since the beginning of the Civil War although twice in the last decade of midterm elections), it is not particularly the case with Senate seats where in the post-World War II period it has been little more than a crapshoot barely favoring the out-party (for a simple discussion of the theory behind it all, see here). So this factor only slightly favors Vitter, if at all.

A colleague of mine also joins the consensus surrounding the likelihood of Vitter’s reelection, but adds a disclaimer that working against Vitter was that, historically, the Louisiana electorate has favored “conservative” Democrats for the Senate and Republicans for the presidency. That statement might have been true a decade ago, but it was Vitter himself with his 2004 election that broke the mold and has signaled that era likely is finished.

Perhaps more historically relevant is that Louisiana has a penchant for reelecting its incumbent senators who want another term. The last time is did not happen was in Huey Long’s election in 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression. Finally, it is doubtful whether Melancon can be called “conservative.” Certainly his American Conservative Union voting scorecard does not support that label: at an average of 46.22 (where 100 means a perfect conservative voting record) for his lifetime, and 12 for 2008, means at best he can call himself moderate or, more accurately, leaning liberal. Therefore, this factor works decisively in the favor of Vitter.

The only way Melancon has a chance to win by his own doing is by conning enough voters into thinking he leans more to the right than he does, that he shows some independence from the liberal Democrat leadership, and he is more trustworthy than Vitter. But he largely already has disarmed himself in trying to make himself appear more conservative than he really is. At present, the two biggest issues of the upcoming contest nationwide are government spending and health care. On the former, Melancon already has sunk himself with slavish support for any request made by Democrats – even as he claims to be a fiscal conservative. On the latter, Melancon to date has tried to walk a tightrope, so far voting in the main against current Democrat proposals – but even there left himself exposed by casting a procedural vote that allowed a Democrat proposal that would in effect publicly fund abortion to advance. If Vitter hammers home these actions, Melancon has no defense.

Nor does Melancon have a convincing argument concerning putative independence. Since 2008, he has voted with Democrat House leaders about 90 percent of the time, and with Democrat Pres. Barack Obama 84 percent of the time. And, given the actions listed above, reminding voters of them can effectively counteract any of the few deviations Melancon could try to cherry-pick as examples of his presumed “independence.”

In fact Melancon essentially surrendered the trust issue as well. He will try to capitalize on references to Vitter’s involvement in a prostitution ring almost a decade ago, although Vitter never has been charged with or proven to have committed any improprieties, nor did any of that have any connection to doing his job as an elected official. However, Vitter can point out Melancon cannot be trusted on something that does relate to his job, that he says one thing (that he’s a fiscal conservative) but does another (votes for the biggest budget-busting, most redistributive supplemental spending bill in the country’s history, among other things) – plus that the Democrat plays fast and loose with taxpayer dollars by taking junkets. Simply, there’s no opening for Melancon to make any inroads given the dynamics of this contest.

With over a year to go, plenty can happen that could produce situations for Melancon to exploit and thus make the election closer – or conversely that Vitter could use to really blow it open. Unless something unusual happens, or unless Vitter draws a competitive opponent for the Republican nomination who campaigns with reckless abandon (not likely), it is still Vitter’s race to lose.


Study shows why megafund needs no replenishment

Louisiana has allowed itself to be fooled again and again over acquiescence to industrial policy, and taxpayers may be asked again to throw away more good money after bad on corporate welfare that costs more than the benefits it brings the state as a whole.

In the past few years under previous gubernatorial administrations, funds were created to bribe companies to locate operations in Louisiana. These funds, instead of tackling the diseases that discourage capital formation, entrepreneurship, and commerce in the state such as higher taxation, over-regulation, unwillingness to do what is needed to enhance improvement of education, etc., masking the diseases as a form of compensation to firms to deal with these shortcomings.

Tax credits for movie making marked the first substantial foray into this dangerous territory but now unfortunately the state has bought whole hog into this ideology which is the outstanding weakness of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure by his failure to prevent it. This past year saw major expenditures to salve several concerns entering the state. Combining those expenditures from film tax credits, the Rapid Response Fund, and the Mega-Project Development Fund (which was altered this year to make it easier for petitioners to qualify for it to justify its existence) are likely to go over $400 million of the people’s money for this past fiscal year, transferred to a small group of mostly large corporations.