Monday, February 18, 2008

What do Utah state legislators say to themselves before they go to bed at night? Or legislative mixed messages…

State legislators, to put it mildly, seem to be sending some mixed messages these days. I’m not asking how do they sleep at night, just what they say to themselves. I wonder, from their perspective, what does the world look like? I seriously wonder what goes on inside of their heads. How do they internally reconcile conflicting actions or input? What is truth? These are just some of the recent education-related mixed messages:

1. As I blogged about on Jan. 21, the legislative audit of the classroom size reduction money specifically said that the school districts money were spending the money correctly…but that the legislature hadn’t allocated enough to cover smaller sizes and normal population growth. The lack of reduction was purely about not enough money for too many kids; NOT mismanagement by the districts. Cameron at Magic Valley Mormon explains the findings of the audit even better here and here.

But the Senators I heard speak at a neighborhood meeting claimed the opposite. Senator Stephenson has gone further and said that it’s not the state’s job to reduce classroom size. He wants to take away the classroom size reduction money the districts now receive unless they magically reduce classroom size.

Mixed message to districts: We didn’t assign enough money to reduce classroom sizes, but we’re mad that you didn’t reduce classroom sizes. Now as punishment for not accomplishing what we didn’t assign you enough resources to do, we’re going to take the already insufficient state money away and demand you reduce class size with local money. All of this, even as Rep. Dougall runs a bill eliminating some of the local revenue streams in favor of taxes distributed by the state legislature. (Does this sound like an educational Dilbert comic to anyone else?)

2. The legislators insisted that the voucher bill was not about privatizing the public education system. In fact, vouchers were only going to strengthen public schools.

That assertion is hard to believe when Rep. Frank and Sen. Stephenson are running HB0075 and HB0076. These bills seek to create special “Privatization Commissions” at both the state (both HB0075 and 0076) and local (HB 0076) levels with business interests representing the majority of the commissions. These commissions would have authority to disallow any government service that could be provided privately (with very few exceptions), regardless if that service would be more expensive or of it even would be provided. Local governments would have to comply with large amounts of paperwork to justify their actions to the commission. (Rep. Frank has been correctly zinged for the bills’ effects and for talking out of both sides of his mouth on his blog. He passionately claims that he is ONLY going after state government, citing HB0075, while conveniently ignoring the other bill he is sponsoring, HB0076, that would specifically disallow public pools from “competing” with private pools.)

So the legislators want to privatize public pools, recreation centers, golf courses, garbage collection, etc. but they of course have no interest in privatizing education…or financial stake.

3. Senator Bramble similarly danced around the truth. I asked him at the local meeting if the legislature was going to change what I regard as already tough referendum laws to make it even harder for citizens to vote on a controversial law. (The referendum last November was the first successful state referendum in over 30 years. Not successful as in passing—it was the first state referendum to even get enough signatures to be voted on in that time.) The senator went on for several minutes about why he thought referendums were a bad thing. I thought the arguments didn’t hold a lot of water. But he finally said that they weren’t going to change the requirements, though they might for citizen initiatives. (To the best of my understanding, voter initiatives are bills/proposals/laws written by non-legislators. If a high enough percentage of voters sign a petition, the bill is put on the public ballot, thus bypassing the legislature. Voter referendums involve laws that the legislature has already passed. Afterwards, if a high enough percentage of voters sign a petition, the passed bill is put on the public ballot, thus potentially overriding the vote of the legislature. The legislators I heard speak seem to hate both. Go figure.)

Senator Bramble was misleading. They are leaving State Referendums alone, but SB0054 attempts to change both county and municipal referendums, as well as state, county, and municipal initiatives.

If it passes, the deadlines will be moved up over two months for all of those vehicles of citizen redress, making it even harder for a group to gather the necessary signatures before the arbitrary deadline. They left state referendums out because that move would attract too much attention after the successful referendum last November. Does anyone doubt that within a year or two the requirements of state referendums will also be changed to match all of the other citizen referendum and initiative laws?

4. Last, the legislature has been hit hard in the media and by bloggers this year over the influence of lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions. Speaker Curtis, State Attorney General Shurtleff, and Senator Dmitrich have all publically claimed that these perks do not corrupt or influence the legislative process. Senator Dayton told the Cherry Hills meeting that “The voters should be offended” that the media would make such a claim. Senator Bramble gave one-sided examples where supposedly lobbyist gifts helped the legislative process and childishly asked the attendees to raise their hands if they disagreed with him.

This is where I really wonder. What are they thinking? Really. They can’t see the appearance of impropriety…even if we buy their claims of perfect integrity against all financial temptation? I wish I had been saving articles last year and knew the details of the proposal last legislative session to ban teachers from accepting Christmas gifts from students. I don’t think it ever got anywhere, but can’t they see the disconnect there?

Look at this scenario: I’m a teacher. Let’s suppose that I honestly am a longtime friend of two families. All of our families have honestly spent time as legitimate friends before now. Let’s say the other two families have children of the same age and I end up with both of them in my class at the junior high. The night before an end-of-level test, the other two families just happen to treat my family to a nice dinner followed by a Jazz game with luxury box seats. My family pays for none of this. The test is given the next day and both of those students just happen to get perfect scores.

It is course possible that their scores were legitimate and that these families always give me generous gifts in appreciation for my friendship. But would you believe that was the case? Can you not see how it appears? Would you blame other students and parents for being suspicious or angry if they found out about the situation? Would you perhaps propose rules regulating teacher/student relationships?

Can you see that the public and you are often viewing the issues from conflicting points of view? Is it at least possible that the public is right?


Jesse Harris said...

The HB75/76 combo (and the sister bill, SB45) are downright infuriating for a legislature that complains about federal interference in state affairs. Why then turn around and attempt to force a top-down approach upon the counties and cities? The inconsistency is baffling at best.

UtahTeacher said...

"Baffling" is very diplomatic, which fits right in with what I'm trying to do here. The bill I brought up last week, SB91 is another example of the same inconsistent top-down approach.

Cameron said...

Thanks for the plug. I wonder what you thought of my follow up post on what to do with further CSR money?

UtahTeacher said...

I just posted my thoughts over at your blog Cameron. I appreciate your research on the audit and somewhat agree with you about focusing on lower grade class size first.

Though, I don't agree that class size reduction is pointless if we don't immediately achieve ideal levels. That seems like an excuse to do nothing. And I definitely disagree with your comment in the D-News article I reference about Sen. Stephenson that vouchers would have helped class size in any meaningful way. Vouchers would have been primarily used by those already planning on attending private school, and even the switchers would drain resources for teachers faster than they alleviate class size.

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