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Choice concept sound, but needs implementation fix

Spurred by events across north Louisiana, state education Superintendent John White wisely reduced to scope of an innovative education program for the upcoming year. But failure to understand why that had to become necessary risks cheating children and families in the future.

Last year, the Legislature as part of its bold reforms of public education introduced the Course Choice program that would allow students to take courses online instead of being limited to offerings in their schools. The state approved 42 providers, including from universities and other school districts, which would be allowed to solicit students; 23 received business. Once families had given permission to enroll their children in one or more of these, rules from the state Department of Education would allow their local districts to approve of the arrangements; if they did not act within a four-day window to do so, the registration would proceed.

However, controversy arose when in parishes across north Louisiana a number of families alleged their children had been signed up for courses without their consent, that signups were occurring from students not even in a district, and that districts were refusing to approve almost all to, in Bossier Parish, none of the enrollees. As a result of the confused state of affairs, White announced for the next school year the program would take on more a pilot status, with provider enrollment caps, than full-blown rollout, and the enrollment process would be rebooted. Also pertinent to this decision was the recent court ruling that the Minimum Foundation Program could not be used to fund this, so the cutback also responds to the short time frame to find dollars in a tight budgetary environment.


Legislature must curtail unfair cell provider advantage

Although Sen. David Vitter is a bit of a latecomer to the argument over government paying for people to use cell phones, his actions have revealed the extent of reform needs beyond what he and others have recommended that can be addressed by Louisiana.

Vitter has made headlines recently through criticizing the freewheeling subsidization of cell phone operation for individuals that qualify under a variety of government programs. The Lifeline program was started in 1984 to subsidize landline phone service for the purposes of ensuring contact was available for emergency purposes, contact with family and friends, and for assisting in contact for employment purposes. Modest in size until 2008, it has grown 15 times in since.

One reason was because the program was changed late in the Pres. George W. Bush Administration to allow for cell phones. This means the government pays basically for 250 minutes a month and 1,000 text messages, but the cell phone providers authorized in the program offer low priced-to-free phones and add-on options at very low rates that grant users access to the same features non-qualifiers may pay hundreds of dollars a month to get the same. And while the program prohibits households having more than one, many apparently use it as an additional phone to others they already contract for out of pocket.


Schools can help more despite parental payment neglect

School's out for the academic year, but there's a bit of homework still for the Caddo Parish School District and parents of school children everywhere. In a culture, reinforced by the prevailing ethos coming from the White House over the past four years, that keeps telling us others are to blame so that the poor choices we make that absolve us from responsibility for them, comes a specific example in controversy over the Caddo’s quasi-policy over responsibility for paying for schools meals that also suggests improvement on the part of the district.

This spring, a child at University Elementary found he had come up short in money for lunch, which costs $1.60. In response, his mother said the cafeteria “did not give him anything but two pieces of bread and a slice of cheese.” She then became further perturbed when she discovered there was no explicit policy for schools to give away food on credit, and found a sympathetic media outlet to publicize her grievance.

As it turns out, nine points of this episode dictates it ever got any attention only because of the fashionability of failure to take responsibility and thrusting onto something else. Even the parent admits it was her responsibility to keep the card, a program in which parents may enroll their children to pay for meals for any Caddo school, with sufficient funds, but then complained the school’s response wasn’t enough given the situation.


Memorial Day. 2013

This column publishes every Sunday through Thursday around noon U.S. Central Time (maybe even after sundown on busy days, or maybe before noon if things work out, or even sometimes on the weekend if there's big news) except whenever a significant national holiday falls on the Monday through Friday associated with the otherwise-usual publication on the previous day (unless it is Independence Day, Christmas, or New Year's Day when it is the day on which the holiday is observed by the U.S. government). In my opinion, there are six of these: Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans' Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

With Monday, May 27 being Memorial Day, I invite you to explore this link.


Subterfuge amendments likely to cost LA taxpayers

While already noted has been the potentially noxious impact of HB 532, a companion measure HB 533 also would create problems that would rob Peter to pay Paul, fleece taxpayers, and leave the state vulnerable to legal penalties.

HB 532 would lay the groundwork to recreate a “sick tax” levied on those admitted into hospitals that indirectly would be passed on to consumers. But it also would eliminate flexibility in reimbursement rates paid by the state to hospitals by locking them and guaranteeing adjustment upwards by inflation rate, removing completely the idea of payment on the basis of market conditions. HB 533 would extend this to other providers where payment is made for nursing homes, pharmacies, intermediate care facilities, medical transporters, and managed care organizations with Medicaid contracts. Exceptions to the automatic adjustments could be made in times of budget deficit as long as all other providers are cut similarly.

Were these constitutional amendments offered by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley to pass, this could commit the state to paying excess taxpayer dollars to fund these special interests, if the market rate went below the rate being paid. Worse, it leaves out one set of providers that is different from all of these: those for home- and community-based waiver services. This means in times of budgetary stress only these rates could be cut, or they could be cut at least as much as the other shielded providers’. In essence, this also would decouple the rates being paid from market considerations, as these rates now would be held hostage to external factors created by the inability to cut other rates or would have to be cut in concert with the others regardless of the market conditions affecting them.