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On standards, timid describes education policy-makers

When it comes to education political leadership in Louisiana, these appointed and elected officials seem to expend more effort to putting brakes on trying to solve problems than to deal decisively enough with the underlying problem itself.

At the highest level of education in the state, for months political forces have put big pressure on the university system to come up with ways of increasing degree completion rates, with some politicians even claiming the institutions were dragging their heels on this. Finally, in its last meeting, the Board of Regents did make changes to baccalaureate schools – although they hardly could be described as bold ones. Open admissions largely would cease with the exception rate to standards also being reduced, less essential classes no longer would qualify for consideration in the admission decision, and some places would marginally increase their standards – in two years. There was no real reason these GPA standards and exceptions cutbacks could not have been implemented for this fall, if not for January, 2011, nor that standards could not be raised further; after all, a 2.0 is the minimum required to graduate in high school and open-admissions community colleges are available.

As tepid as this was, at least it was some action. More shamefully, legislators of the House Education Committee at the behest of local politicians from the elementary and secondary level roundly rejected state Rep. Rickey Hardy’s HB 186 which would have set a minimum 2.0 grade point average standard for participation in any extracurricular school activity. Hardy pointed out this already was law in neighboring states.

After years of prodding, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association finally passed a regulation raising it from 1.5 to 2.0, but only for grades 9-12 (some junior high students participate in varsity activities), where Hardy’s bill would apply down the sixth grade, and obviously does not cover all activities. And it could change the standard at any time, so the bill is needed.

Yet opposition was led the by the group that should endorse that academics come first, the Louisiana School Board Association. Worse, the arguments made by its president, East Baton Rouge board member Nolton Senegal, reveal a puerile mindset that would leave doubt that these arguments would come from somebody who actually has a job overseeing education.

Senegal criticized Hardy for not including emphasis or money in his bill for tutoring to help students raise their GPAs. In other words, Senegal was saying it should be the job of education governance to assist student-athletes to reach the 2.0 standard – which is one requirement to advance a grade level or to graduate – but not to help students not expected to participate in athletics? Otherwise, why would he have levied this criticism? If all students are expected to reach that level, why must only those in athletics be given special help?

Senegal also asserted that students below the 2.0 standard were not joining up to participate in other extracurricular activities. Even if this is currently the case, why not establish the standard for the same reason as athletics – academics should be the primary concern of any student, and extracurricular activities only are privileges to be enjoyed after fulfilling the basic mission of adequate academic progress? And, as Hardy pointed out, if not a problem then why was the bill worth opposing on these grounds?

Yet as bad as the logic was behind this, 11 of 15 panel members voted for this reasoning. I’ll resist commenting on this in light of in what schools the majority of them were educated and what standards they faced in their prep days.


Politics defeats savings by keeping powers with lt. gov

Where you stand depends on where you sit turned out reaffirmed by deliberations in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee over the issue of abolishing the office of lieutenant governor and farming out its function.

As state Rep. Cameron Henry’s HB 812 originally proposed, several million dollars a year would be saved by getting rid of an office the only duties of which are to oversee culture recreation, and tourism – which already has a department head to do the significant stuff so the lieutenant governor’s role is really little more than being a salesman – and waiting around in case he needs to assume temporarily or permanently the governorship. The bill was backed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and had a companion constitutional amendment which would require two-thirds of legislators to approve and then a majority of the voters.

However, it was recognized as a tough sell because it also is a chance for somebody to get a political job at $115,000 annual salary, especially desired by legislators facing term limits with a desire to continue political careers and ambitious others. In recognition of this, Henry got the bill amended to keep the office but kept the parceling of functions – just as it had been prior to 1986.

True, that’s not a very efficient use of dollars, but even in this form the bill was better that the current situation. As Jindal representative Stephen Waguespack and Henry argued, the savings from reduction of duplication of services simply were there which should override trepidations about changing practices now 24 years old. Henry also read out a laundry list of $25 million of slush fund money that the office distributed in the name of tourism that, if not under control of the lieutenant governor, could be scrutinized more carefully by the Legislature.

This reality did not deter opponents. While some committee members fretted over transition costs (which cannot be close to the realized savings) or wondered whether culture and tourism activities should be separated as the bill indicates (which is a procedural matter unrelated to the conceptual idea of removing the lieutenant governor’s control over them) or other minutiae, the main defense was hammered out by Republican Sec. of State Jay Dardenne, who long ago announced his desire to run for the office that would exist with nothing to do if the bill passed.

Dardenne claimed the office was vital and necessary in overseeing it present functions, arguing an effective lieutenant governor could exploit what he said was a return of $17 for every $1 spent – which only illuminates the absurdity of such a claim because, if that were true, if the state would just spend $20 million more on tourism, it would wipe out next year’s forecasted $319 million deficit without resorting to other measures. He said efficiencies could be obtained without moving the functions out – but for a politician intent on reelection the temptation to dole out money on the basis of politics rather than efficiency in use surely must be greater than for one not facing the electorate.

When it came time for voting on the bill itself, committee Chairman state Rep. Rick Gallot, who also has been linked to running for the office, objected, and it was defeated 9-8. All votes in favor were Republican, but Republican state Reps. Brett Geymann, Nancy Landry, Erich Ponti, and Wayne Waddell voted against it along with independent state Rep. Dee Richard and all Democrats present. As a result, Henry deferred the constitutional amendment version of the bill; both could return before the session is over.

One could argue some of the votes against it were because the position was retained – except they unanimously voted for that amendment. So, in the end, the vote reflected political ambition over common sense, and Louisiana’s citizens are the worse off for that.


Melancon attack campaign continues despite slipping

Memo to the Senate campaign of Rep. Charlie Melancon and to the detractors of Gov. Bobby Jindal: it ain’t working yet, and it ain’t likely to work this election cycle.

Another independent poll, this by Southern Media Opinion and Research on behalf of a businessman with Republican sympathies, confirms what other independent polls this year have shown: incumbent Republican Sen. David Vitter continues to hold a nearly 20-point lead on his Democrat challenger Melancon. With a gap at 18 points, Vitter in fact is gaining ground on Melancon compared to the last poll done by the firm six months ago.

Perhaps the only non-dark spot for Melancon in these results is that around 20 percent of the 600 respondents randomly interviewed via telephone say they are undecided so with Vitter just below 50 percent of the intended vote, although a bit closer to it than in the October poll, if he sweeps all of that up he can win. But dampening even that small enthusiasm is that Melancon is actually polling worse than six months ago and the undecided number has grown around 3 percent – meaning if anything Melancon is losing support even as Vitter gains it. That Vitter also has a 55 percent approval rating indicates that Melancon will have a difficult time eating into existing supporters of Vitter. In short, somebody with Vitter’s numbers at this stage of the contest almost never loses.

Not that Melancon hasn’t stopped trying. His entire campaign theme, assisted by Democrat fellow-traveler organizations, has been to try to paint Vitter as dishonest, with the latest attack being advertisements about Vitter’s alleged “Forgotten Crimes.” The irony has been lost entirely on the Melancon campaign that this accusation of Vitter dishonesty is itself dishonest, because not only has Vitter not been convicted of any crimes involving any activities described in the ad, he hasn’t even been charged with any so how can these be “crimes” that are “forgotten?”

The polls results show that this theme isn’t working. Nor can critics of Republican Jindal take heart in results that show his approval rating has slipped all the way down to 61 percent. While almost 20 points lower than in the euphoric days not long after his inauguration, it’s a small drop of about 3 percent from last fall and remarkably stable after all the money woes the state has been wrung through recently.

Now 17 months from a shot a reelection, Jindal still has plenty of cushioning with only 37 percent disapproval. He looks ready to cruise to it absent a long and vicious string of bad news and disappointments for which he has to get blamed, especially with no obvious quality opponent waiting in the wings.


LA still not doing enough to stop wasteful health costs

While the Louisiana Legislature is making some progress on getting control of costs in its single biggest area of expenditure outside of education, it still may not be enough as potentially far larger expenditures and deficits loom.

Last week, the House Health and Welfare Committee heard HB 959 which as originally filed would have had the practical effect of removing the state’s tool in trying to control costs, the Resource Allocation Model employed currently to evaluate clients receiving Medicaid waiver services. These allow disabled individuals to receive services from the state in home- and community-based settings rather than be shunted into nursing homes. In many cases, this would provide superior care at a lower cost to taxpayers.

Unfortunately, the waiver program grew in an uncoordinated fashion so that for some costs exceeded what would be paid in a nursing home, where federal regulation dictates that the average waiver cost cannot exceed the average nursing home cost. Thus, the state implemented the RAM, but in a problematic fashion.


Jindal proactive approach adds to his political capital

While fate intertwined the fortunes of former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former Pres. George W. Bush to the downside attendant to Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in 2005, in 2010 Gov. Bobby Jindal may find an inverse relationship with Pres. Barack Obama relative to their handling of the burgeoning oil spill disaster offshore the state, to Jindal’s benefit.

Both Bush and Blanco, often from the opposite sides of the political spectrum, were pilloried by public opinion for their handlings of the disaster, eroding Bush’s political capital and becoming perhaps the main factor in making Blanco unelectable for another term. This latest Louisiana-based crisis began almost two weeks ago when a blowout from failed equipment collapsed a platform oil rig that has send thousands of barrels a day into the Gulf. It now has begun to lap into the coastline, with Louisiana the most affected.

While federal law puts the cleanup responsibility in the hands of the operator, BP, Obama seemed little interested in addressing the matter for more than a week as BP struggled unsuccessfully to bring matters under control. Rather than offer federal help immediately and bill BP later, Obama for days, in his actions and words, seemed more interested in scoring partisan political points on unrelated matters.

Naturally, a sympathetic media in combination with the pass they are willing to give Obama because they see him as an environmentalist even as his inaction does not mitigate the ecological threat about to manifest means little that identifies Obama’s lack of reaction as a major culpable element has been disseminated by the media. This especially is derelict because Obama campaigned on making government work better, yet on a number of unanticipated problems his response shows a high degree of detrimental delay.

While this brought speculation about whether Obama’s handling of the situation would impair him politically, Jindal appears ready to put another notch in his decisive leadership belt. Hailed for his proactive approach to mitigating the impact of Hurricane Gustav his first year in office, Jindal a week ago began to insert himself and his administration into the crisis, joined by various parish leaders. With the oil still on the loose, Jindal has escalated efforts and become increasingly (if delicately) critical of both BP and Obama.

Of course, this is just doing his job but, in contrast to Obama and others, he comes off well and appears to be building a reputation as somebody who deals with immediately and (hopefully this time also) effectively crises. This is entirely consistent with his emphasis on making government work better and more efficiently. When Obama visits the area this afternoon, perhaps he can take some lessons from Jindal.