Friday, March 28, 2008

Are vouchers the litmus test for “good” Republicans? Are teachers liberal? Is Craig Frank trying to eliminate teachers from precinct positions?

I didn’t get to pasting in the comments from a fellow teacher that I discussed in my last post. Here they are and it looks like I made a minor error in my previous summarization. Dan Early interrupted the delegate nominee who was responding to a question from the teacher, not the teacher herself.

Last night, at our Republican caucus meeting, when I asked for clarification about the platform, I had a disturbing experience. I was asking about this specific clause of the Utah Republican platform, " Parents have the primary right and responsibility to educate their children, and we support their right to choose public, private, or home education. We support incentives to promote competitive excellence."

I wanted to know if Parents' Choice = vouchers. I support the ideals of parents choosing the best educational experience for their children. I don't think vouchers would be as fiscally sound nor the best way to bring that about. I just don't agree with the means (vouchers) and wanted to be assured that our delegates would continuously be open to other ways to accomplish the end. There was a wonderful delegate that politely and considerately stated her stance and was very accepting of my questions.

However, in the middle of her explanation, another man, who had just walked into our meeting, raised his hand. He introduced himself as a Mr. Early and informed us that he had helped write the voucher bill. Then he proceeded to tell me that I was to agree with vouchers because they embody "Parents' Choice for Education," (the ideals of which I support, just not the voucher means). If I don't agree with vouchers, I should just support delegates that do, for the good of the party. If I won't, then I'm just as bad as a liberal Democrat and should register as one. This came from the mouth of an "observer" of our precinct caucus, not even a resident. He's not even supposed to say a word at our meeting.

When I attempted to speak up to clarify my thinking, he interrupted me (a true member of the precinct) and continued to rant about how the Republicans are the last hold out for vouchers. The ACLU and the teachers' unions are trying to destroy Parents' Choice. Unfortunately, the precinct chair saw it was getting heated and tried to move forward. I was cut off, interrupted, and told off by a person who wasn't even a precinct member! That is unacceptable!

I think that debate and dialogue are healthy and necessary to be an educated and informed citizen. Instead of questioning being perceived as an enemy tactic, it should be possible to disagree with aspects of the platform and still maintain good standing in the party.

Among all of the silly things that happened, the last statement is what I want to focus on. This goes along with the last paragraph of my previous post. Does disagreement with a plank of the party platform equate to treason, heresy, or being a “liberal Democrat?” The faction of the Republican party—and yes, it is a faction—that calls Governor Huntsman a liberal is the most active and dominates the leadership much more than their proportional demographics within the party. As I said, much of that is the reward for showing up and being willing to serve, like what happened in my precinct. Political participation is good and that disconnect is something that needs to be remedied by more of the silent, moderate majority stepping up. But it seems like this over-represented right wing of the party is trying to impose their views as the “doctrinal purity” of the party. Those who disagree, from Senator McCain to Governor Huntsman to delegates who dare speak against vouchers, are being labeled “liberals” or RINO’s (Republicans in name only) and told they shouldn’t be members of the party. Why does the Eagle Forum get to decide what a “true Republican” really is? The party is a willing association of individuals who broadly agree on some or many principles, not a clone factory or a church. And the committees that devised the official county platform are certainly not prophets. If a large percentage of people who self-identify with the Republican Party have more moderate views than you, than why would they or delegates who represent them be RINO’s? I believe that moderate voters who generally vote Republican outnumber the right wing.

Besides the comments to others at the caucus meetings, a commenter here yesterday automatically labeled my blog as “liberal.” Why? A discussion of education issues is a “liberal” thing if it doesn’t advocate vouchers? Support of public education DOES NOT equate to support of the “homosexual agenda,” anti-family values, the U.N., universal healthcare, or any other “liberal” cause. That assumption is offensive to a lot of good people beyond just teachers. Teachers are generally representative of the area they live in. In Salt Lake, you will have a higher percentage of teachers with more liberal views as reflected in the general population. In Alpine District, teachers voted for Romney in the same huge percentages as the rest of the valley and they will probably support McCain and Huntsman in November just like the majority of the people in the valley. About 30% probably vote Democratic, as most elections featuring a Republican and a Democrat in the valley end with a Republican victory 60 something % to 30 something %. The difference I see is that teachers are generally not a confrontational bunch. That’s saying nothing of individuals, but in direct contrast to the common portrayal of the evil UEA, most teachers in my experience don’t like to argue and feel a little uncomfortable in political squabbles. Another teacher I spoke with on Wednesday, from the opposite end of the valley in Nebo District, went home from her caucus nearly in tears after she was attacked and told to join the Democratic Party in response to her opinions on vouchers.

In Pleasant Grove, Rep. Craig Frank stopped by the various precincts to shake hands and leave campaign material for distribution. The materials consisted of a stapled packet with a little card about his record on education (basically voting for increased funding in years of surplus--no mention of vouchers), a copy of the Utah County Party Platform with two sentences highlighted, and a sheet of questions to ask candidates for precinct office. The two highlighted sections in the platform were: On the first page, "To promote excellence, consumer choice in education should be encouraged," and at the end of the second page, "All Republican elected officials, candidates and party officers are expected to endorse these principles and agree to be held accountable to the people and the party."

His questionnaire for candidates included a few basic questions such as asking your position on various issues and who you support for State Representative, Congressional Representative, and Governor. But the first few questions, in the context of being stapled to Rep. Frank’s "Record on Education" and a party platform with highlighted sections emphasizing loyalty to vouchers really bother me, especially coming after the refusal to deal with any ethics reform or conflicts of interest in the past legislative session.

Have you ever been affiliated with another Political Party? If yes, which one and how long ago did you become a Republican?

Do you support the Utah County Party Platform? When is the last time you read the Utah County Party Platform? Are there planks of the Platform you don’t support? Which planks?

What is your occupation? Do you believe your occupation is in any way a conflict of interest to your running for Precinct Leadership or as a County or State Delegate?
What or who do you think is on Rep. Frank’s mind? He claims on his blog that the questions are meant to eliminate "one-issue" candidates and ironically that "The caucus system is designed to “flush out” factionists." Hmmmm... Most would argue that the caucus system enables well-organized factions.

Is he really worried about lawyers or municipal garbagemen or Intel employees becoming delegates? (Although the garbagemen may not appreciate his attempted HB 76…) What if someone supports the plank on the first page that says local governments are most aware of the needs of the people, and therefore opposes his push to privatize municipal garbage service and rec. centers approved by local government and voters? Are they “unclean” too? What jobs would represent a “conflict of interest” and which others would be acceptable to Rep. Frank? I think a realtor or property developer as a politician or delegate can do a lot more to directly benefit themselves than any educator trying to influence education policy. I submit that a teacher who has previously remained unaffiliated like myself, or even recently switched over from the “liberal Democrats,” and opposes vouchers is just as representative of the population as Craig Frank or any other Utah County politician.

What do you think? Do the actions of Rep. Frank look like good government and respect for the will of the people? Or do they more closely resemble cheap jury stacking tactics used by an unethical lawyer in order to avoid legitimate, but uncomfortable questions? Are teachers allowed in the Republican Party?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

I’m not kidding about those teachers…plus an anti-climactic and slightly disappointing caucus experience

Crucial preliminary notes before talking about the caucus: computers hate me, night classes are exhausting, and my bracket is not looking so good. I went a little upset crazy this year and only predicted 9 of the Sweet 16. (I did pick both the Davidson and Villanova first round upsets.) Redemption possibly lies in the fact that 7 of my Elite 8 are still in the tournament.

My first ever caucus experience was similar to a lot of the others—it wasn’t extremely well attended and featured a limited number of candidates. I wish I had known to do a couple things differently, but at least I’m armed with a lot more knowledge for next time. I am a little frustrated with some of the results, but happy that everyone seemed to be accepting of divergent views. The chair made a point of explaining that accepting a position did not dictate a straight party vote. There were 13 people in attendance when apparently there had been only 4 or 5 at the last couple caucus meetings. The precinct chair and his wife, the secretary, were very welcoming and friendly. I found out that my neighbor two doors down was the vice-chair. I personally knew 7 of the other 12 people in attendance and that for sure, 5 of the 13, counting me, were pro-education. I also knew that 4 people were pro-voucher including the chair and his wife. I wasn’t sure of the rest, but I’m fairly sure one other couple was also there for pro-education issues.

I had come prepared to be elected delegate with a few remarks on my pro-ethics-reform, pro-education platform of moderation, but we only had one nominally contested race and no debate. From what they told us, having so many people was a new thing and they were a little lax on formal nominating procedure and votes. Upon talking to others today, I could have suggested a point of order that everyone explain their views or answer questions, even if they were running unopposed.

No one was volunteering to run for chair—maybe next time—until someone finally nominated my neighbor, the vice-chair. He accepted and was quickly elected. He didn’t make a little speech or explain his views. The current chair was nominated for vice-chair along with another staunchly pro-voucher neighbor. My wife and I get along well with him and his wife; we just avoid that topic. The chair was going to immediately vote, but I asked if they could explain their views. Their brief remarks centered on the fact that they love politics, and the current chair understandably said he’d like to see someone else have a chance after 8 years in the position. We had just enough other willing candidates to fill the remaining spots: the current chair and I as county delegates and another man for state delegate. None of us spoke of our positions on any issues. We were just nominated and unanimously voted in after accepting.

The meeting was about to end when a long-time caucus participant who had planned with me to vote for pro-education delegates asked that I share what I had prepared. I spoke for 3 or 4 minutes about the bi-partisan ethics reforms I wished to see, against vouchers, for class room size reduction and honest discussion of those funds, local autonomy, the role of public and private entities, and transportation issues here in Utah County. From the reactions of those in the room, I think my comments were well received, even by those who I know hold views to the right of mine. They asked the state delegate to speak, and he quickly agreed with my stance on moderation and promised to work hard. I am certain moderate delegates would have been voted in had there been a chance to compete for election. We ended in well under an hour and I was happy about everyone respecting each other.

Afterwards I pinned down my extremely nice neighbor who was elected precinct chair and asked him his opinion on education and vouchers. I hadn’t expected to hear that he thought vouchers were a good idea and that the teachers union had distorted the facts. He is a kind, good man and was a little uncomfortable telling me because he knew my views. We politely agreed to disagree and I gave him my blog address. (Then we peeked in on a couple other precincts together and saw a few mostly boring remarks from delegate candidates. I heard two specific positions in about 15 minutes worth of “I love America” and “I love politics.” Loving America is a given in meetings like this I hope, and “loving” politics shouldn’t necessarily be a qualification in my view. What if politics often angers you, but you still feel the need to get involved to fight for principles you believe in? What of too many politicians who in my opinion love the power that comes with politics more than any service they render?)

My frustration and disappointment come from the fact that we had 5 people there to vote pro-education and I almost certain another couple would have joined us, making 7 pro-education votes. The pro-education people with me were either first-time attendees and intimidated by the prospect of accepting a position, or older and wary of the commitment after many past positions. End results: At least 5 of 13 caucus meeting attendees were anti-vouchers in my precinct, probably more, but 3 of 4 county delegates are pro-voucher, an issue which was not discussed at the meeting. We don’t even know our state delegate’s views. The current chair and vice-chair were very gracious and demonstrated their willingness to vote for any new face wanting to serve; there just weren’t any other candidates.

But my experience was very bland compared to those of some other teachers I spoke with. The point was made in one caucus that opposition to vouchers is actually promotion of the “liberal, gay agenda.” Seriously…Huh? I’d just laugh about it, but this sadly represents a certain portion of public opinion in Utah as seen in my post before the caucus. What’s more insulting is that this comes from people who have teachers as neighbors and acquaintances. “Well, of course it’s not that teacher we know and trust from the neighborhood. It’s other unspecified evil, liberal teachers infiltrating Utah Valley and corrupting our children.”

Another teacher was interrupted mid-sentence in her American Fork meeting by a man named Dan Early who claimed to have helped draft the voucher legislation. First, he was not even a member of that precinct and should not have been allowed to interrupt. Second, he initiated some contentious remarks, attacking the teacher who had been speaking. She had not been strident and the audience was not upset that she was representing a differing viewpoint. Mr. Early badgered the teacher as she attempted to ask him questions and take back her time. He eventually told her that she “should accept vouchers for the good of the party,” and that she should join the Democratic Party if she disagreed…before thanking the chair for allowing him to interrupt and walking out to assumably pester other precincts. That is the arrogant attitude that has driven off many long-time Republicans this election year.

I will edit my post and include the actual words of that teacher tomorrow morning when I can get my email to work. I also expect a couple others to email me about some troublesome experiences. But I want to think about one last point. The teacher in American Fork noticed her conservative, Mormon neighbors get visibly uncomfortable as she and Dan Early argued a little bit. The chair hurriedly moved on afterwards, not allowing the teacher to finish her comments, but 3 or 4 people in the immediate vicinity of her seat leaned over and whispered that they felt the same way.

In this area, contention is commonly viewed as coming from the devil and often avoided or ignored in public arenas. I can understand that, but to what extreme and at what price? I enjoyed my peaceful caucus meeting, but is avoiding controversy or discussion of potentially emotional issues worth dishonesty or the stifling of vigorous debate? I would submit that some disagreement is inevitable at a public forum, even among friends and neighbors. Being humans, that means that some emotion or contention is also nearly inevitable at meetings discussing political issues. It’s worth it. The contention and any permanent hurt feelings are a result of our own weaknesses, not inherent in the discussion of important issues. I get along well with various neighbors who felt differently about vouchers than I do and we had some great discussions about the topic. It is beneficial to individuals and our Republic for everyone to be exposed to and critically evaluate opposing viewpoints. You can monitor your own behavior to keep your temper and tongue in line and also not take offense when your position is attacked. Just let people speak…

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

As you head to the caucus meeting tonight, remember that teachers are anti-family Communists who must be stopped!!

I'm heading to my first caucus meeting tonight. I'm a teacher. I have cast many votes for both Republicans and Democrats. I have a family and children whom I love.

I believe our legislators should not give extra time to lobbyists rather than constituents, not accept gifts (Senator Bramble's concerns about not receiving paid trips to "investigate" important issues are self-serving and far outweighed by the appearance of impropriety, whether real or only perceived) or at the least disclose every gift over five dollars in value, should not push through tax breaks for lobbyists (Delta, Anderson Corporation, Skoal, etc.), should not use omnibus bills to dishonestly shield defeated legislation from discussion and public scrutiny, and should not be able to LIE about their employment with a multi-billion dollar nuclear consortium and then testify on behalf of that corporation in front of a committee that they chair!

I believe vouchers were an ingenuous attack on public education that fooled many people through their false claims of "cookies" to redistribute. The legislators constantly attack and belittle teachers and school districts, even when their own legislative audits and public information budgets prove their findings wrong. It doesn't have to be business vs. schools, but there is a virulent anti-public-education movement that is vastly over-represented in our legislature.

Teachers are not covertly teaching abortion, sex, or anti-American values. Discussion of our history--good and bad--and moral dilemmas is not a threat to America. A lack of critical thinking and blind acceptance of what politicians tell us IS.

It's not like the blog I read today is known for critical analysis of both sides, but this post makes me simultaneously mad and sad. This is the extreme right-wing that does not represent the large center of public opinion in Utah.

If you want to protect our conservative, pro-family values in Utah, please do not stay home Tuesday night. Our opponents are organized and are launching an all-out war against conservatives, and it's won or lost in that little neighborhood caucus meeting of only about 20 people. Not only is parental choice in education at stake -- but everything we cherish as conservatives.

Teachers are not the enemy! To oppose vouchers is to support one of the primary means of creating the largest, most prosperous middle class in the history of the world. On the otherhand, vouchers benefit very few families at the expense of the majority of middle-class families.

And in a totally non-surprising show of hypocrisy, here is an excerpt from an email sent out from Parent's for Choice in Education last Friday:

Special interest groups opposed to meaningful education reforms are well aware of this, and in a bold attempt to protect the education status quo, they've recruited candidates across the state to run as Republicans against school reform incumbents. They're even running anti-voucher candidates in districts where a majority of voters voted for Referendum 1.

Translation: In a bold attempt to hijack democracy in favor of an unpopular ideological agenda, Parent's for Choice in Education has spent over half a million dollars in the last two campaign cycles ('04 and '06) to unseat pro-education Republicans--even in the majority of districts that oppose vouchers--and ramrod vouchers (among various anti-education measures) through the legislature by one vote. We are upset that people are calling us on our dishonesty and getting involved in the political process.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What do you think of registering as a Republican just for the caucus?

While waiting for an hour to vote in the primary, just about everyone around me was filling out the Republican registration form in order to vote for Mitt Romney. The people we talked to mostly intended to vote and then remove their name from Republican rolls in the following weeks. They joked about not wanting all of the fundraising junkmail. I hadn’t thought of before, being unaffiliated.

Then a comment on a post over at Green Jello got me thinking about a decision I’m struggling with—whether to register as a Republican in order to participate in what would be my first neighborhood caucus. Cameron asked what good you can do outside of the two main parties…and he has a point. Is avoiding both parties because of their warts a beneficial, effective decision?

I haven’t struggled with my political identity—I’m independent. I voted for both Republicans and Democrats in my first election at age 18, and wrote my dad’s name in for a position where I disliked all of the candidates. I am not a member of either party and get frustrated with party politics. Locally, I am especially frustrated with state Republican leadership over a variety of issues and county leadership over the float scandal last year. So in one way, I would feel a little dishonest registering as a member of an organization I largely disagree with.

But…local participation is the shot in the arm that politics, and especially the local Republican party needs right now. Both parties have huge disagreements within their ranks and people who vote differently. There are a few Republican representatives that actually care about public education, and my representative is at least more engaged and willing to negotiate than some of the hacks out there. Maybe my opinions could honestly be a part of the party.

And even if I’m too far from whatever a good Republican is, does the principle of public participation trump Republican clannishness when the Republican caucuses often serve as de facto elections? Many believe the whole reason Republicans close their caucuses and primaries is to assure that the smaller right wing faction of the party dominates the more moderate Republican voters who aren’t officially registered with the party (possibly unregistered to avoid constant fundraising requests like those voters I spoke with at the primary…I don’t know how bad it is, never having been registered with a party. My father gets a lot of stuff, but he’s a caucus-going party loyalist).

I know that I could attend the Democratic caucuses, but I don’t really identify with that party either. I’m fairly sure I would support the Democratic candidate in any race in Utah Valley, but I’m unaware of any Democratic races featuring more than one candidate. They did a good job to get so many excellent candidates (But can’t anyone, please, unseat Senator Valentine?!), and I already know they’re 300% better on education than Utah Valley Republicans…so I’m not sure exactly what they’re going to do in their local caucus meeting. Do a cheer, confirm their choice of the only Democrat running for each office, and ask for money?

I would be giddily joyful if a bunch of Democrats won in Utah County in November…but realistically, I’ll be ecstatic if one or two win. Maybe Sandstrom is the most vulnerable after lying through his teeth about education to get elected and sponsoring a few pointless bills? It seems like representing a moderate voice at the Republican caucus could present a greater opportunity to make a difference. (Though Bob beat me to blogging about Green Jello’s post and argues that “One blade of grass is much more significant in a field of five than a field of 50.”) And Stan Lockheart says I am irresponsible if I don't attend a caucus meeting.

So…what do you think? If you’re registered with a party, are you planning to attend a caucus? Any planning on registering Republican just to attend? Any thoughts on whether that is an ethical choice?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Those whiny teachers…Does legitimate criticism depend purely on the eye of the beholder?

I was angry after watching that omnibus bill go through the non-process last week and had (well, still have) more pointed things to say about Speaker Curtis, Senator Stephenson, and others. I decided to let it go for a few days and get other things done. In the last week, I have seen legislators express their frustration with educator criticism and many comments calling teachers “whiny” and “ungrateful.”

After stepping back for a few days, I could see why that perception exists. Teachers got a much-appreciated raise for the second year in a row as well as an increase in WPU. (Sidenote: WPU is the traditional funding mechanism where the state distributes so much per student to each district. It is NOT a measure of how much or little it actually takes to educate each student; the funds are pooled and shared hyper-efficiently in our crowded schools. Distributing money by number of students is just the fairest way the state has come up with to share state funds among districts with vastly different amounts of students and different needs—big/small districts, urban/rural districts, etc.)

Why are they so mad when the legislature gave them substantial raises two years in a row? Why did some educators argue against the raises?

I think the answers have to do with a common assumption about the legislature’s role and the perceived antipathy for teachers and public education from the legislators.

First, the charge of ingratitude relies on the common language I used in the question above—that the legislature “gives” public educators, and other public employees for that matter, their funding. The language bears some resemblance to common practice both nationally and locally, but I don’t think the arrangement should be viewed that way. We are not children, “ungrateful” for the reward doled out by our legislative parents. Public education for all is a morally just innovation of the 20th century, as well as part of the Constitution of the State of Utah. The legislators are constitutionally charged to effectively fund public education. Funding for the basic needs of education should be viewed as a baseline duty for legislators, just above that of showing up for the session.

Legislators are also elected to represent their constituency. This is a moral duty as well as a pragmatic one for those wishing to be re-elected. Polls at the beginning of the last legislative session and for the last few years have consistently shown immense support for increased funding for education, even when the alternative is a tax cut. Wouldn’t further underfunding public education be breaking the public trust?

So I view legislators who increased education funding during the years with the largest (2007) and 3rd largest (2008) budget surpluses ever in the history of the state as doing their duty and enacting the will of the electorate. A solid, admirable job, but not spectacular. That is not the same as fighting for real improvement in education.

The legislature often tacitly defines “gratitude” as unquestioning acceptance of their will, which educators view as insulting and paternalistic. “Look. We “gave” you these raises, so just quit griping about vouchers, top-down merit pay schemes, false accusations, unproven corporate programs, message bills aimed at non-existent educational problems (i.e. flag and Constitution in every classroom), and our removal of local control. You wouldn’t want to make us mad after all we’ve done would you?” That’s not good or “generous” government; that’s ham-handed manipulation.

That line of reasoning frustrates almost all involved with education. And on top of that general condescending attitude, legislators are constantly misrepresenting information and sending negative messages about educators, directly and indirectly. That doesn’t engender trust or gratitude.

Legislators pressured State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to sign off on legislation attacking their right to donate personal funds to the UEA in 2001, which was over-turned in an expensive court battle, just as outside observers and Shurtleff himself originally predicted. [h/t to The Sidetrack for the link to the Trib blog]

They constantly maligned teachers and education officials as being dishonest during and after the voucher debate.

A week before the referendum vote, Rep. Dougall even photo-shopped an image of State School Board Chairman and voucher foe Kim Burningham and the Borg from Star Trek and wrote an insulting little poem on his blog. Here’s a couple lines:
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, But a hideous creature -- your absolute worst nightmare, With a little old chairman, so lively and slick, I knew in a moment I'd probably be sick

This was the single most childish thing I saw from a non-anonymous figure during the voucher debate, and you know the legislators would throw a self-righteous fit about disrespect for the office if Burningham were to write a similar caricature of one of them. The attack also includes the vast majority of public educators whose views Burningham represented as their state chair and voice in state government.

Senator Stephenson has made repeated comments on the Senate floor and in meetings with education officials that he believes technology (i.e. teaching software from well-connected development companies) is a substitute for class size reduction as well as accusing teachers of not being willing to use technology. He views us as replaceable by programs and disagreeable because we don’t turn all of our lessons over to computers and become skill drill facilitators. He works against the one issue I view as the most pressing need in education, class size reduction, because his business lobby group (Utah Taxpayer’s Association) doesn’t like education taxes. I would bet a higher percentage of teachers can design their own websites and Powerpoint presentations than of legislators.

I heard claims that teachers and school districts waste money in both of the town meetings I have attended in recent months. Teachers were portrayed as obstacles to progress and the legislators tried to pit us against each other by claiming veteran teachers don’t care about new teachers. (I discussed the real differences between teacher views here.) Senator Madsen made similar claims about district funds and then tried to backpedal when proved wrong by actual numbers.

These are my own views, but many teachers feel the same way. We are glad when our salary and other education funding is increased, but feel betrayed when those important improvements desired by the public are then condescendingly used as justification for attacks on public education by our elected representatives. Is that whiny? I view it as principled intellectual honesty.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What else can I say? Brief comments on the omnibus fiasco, positive developments, and some live-blogging of the final 1:15 of the Senate floor debate

As I said last post, I'm just sad. I was talking to some people earlier when I was mad, but I just don't have the energy to express my anger adequately right now after 12 hours of teaching and attending my own class. So I'm copying two comments I made on other blogs and some wonderfully sarcastic comments from a UEA observer of the Senate debate on SB 2 and SB 281 yesterday.

The comments are on a couple of Republican blogs that are pretty open to constructive criticism if you keep the ranting to a decent tone. Here's my comment on the Senate Site, minus the name of another commenter I was responding to:

[T]he legislature does not practice what it preaches in terms of local management. The recent audit of class size reduction money specifically found that the districts were using the money correctly, but that the money just hadn't kept up with growth.

The point is, the Republican leadership is playing games and pushing a corporate agenda rather than responsibly legislating. Senator Valentine calls the American Board program "tried and proven" in the press conference when their own website explains that it is a pilot program. It's a fly-by-night outfit that sells online courses. What lobbyist even put this organization on the radar? Maybe all the pro-voucher people on the board? It's just weird. That million dollars could go towards WPU which had been appropriately and efficiently used by districts.

Senator Stephenson pushes software as an alternative for class size reduction and family reading--the originally rejected HB 200 bill that gives laptops to preschoolers!--because he uncritically accepts what industry lobbyists tell him. Pushing these bills in a conglomerate is an attempt to avoid public and legislative scrutiny. Claiming that we or they can adequately evaluate all of the pieces of SB 2 in two days is a self-serving lie.

The Senators complain about "media bias" at town meetings and tell themselves that is why the public mistrusts them. Can't they see that it is their determination to push their corporate priorities over sound education funding that alienates us?

The next comment is from Representative Steve Urquhart's blog. I'm hoping he'll be blogging more after he recovers from tonight. My comment was on a post where Rep. Urquhart explained his democratic method of running the House Rules Committee, which was changed, apparently at Speaker Curtis' command, halfway through the session.

Wow. In my opinion, your amendment to HB 473 was one of the few sane things done by a Republican in the last week of the session. I saw you acting as Speaker for awhile today.

I'm still interested in anything you can say about the rules changes.

I'm even more interested in your opinion of the omnibus bill, especially the inclusion of three bills that had been voted down in committee. As a "process guy," why did you vote for the bill?

I am disillusioned and angry. I feel like the talk about moving on from vouchers was just talk and that the legislative leadership is pushing their agenda over good government. Even someone who supported all 12 of those bills should be angered by the lack of respect shown to the process and to public input.

The following description comes from a UEA staffer attending the Tuesday, Mar. 5 Senate debate on the omnibus bills. I'm underlining some more interesting bits and adding a comment or two in brackets. A lot of villains and good guys here:

SB 2, “Omnibus” Bill # 1, (Stephenson)

Sen. Stephenson introduced the bill as the “much heralded” omnibus bill which contains twelve separate education bills. He acknowledged that is it “unusual” for this many bills to be packaged together like this, but claims the purpose is to “reduce the confusion” that would result from the “coordinating clauses” that would be required were the bills to be run separately. (One has to wonder how it has been done in past years).

Sen. Jones pointed out that she has worked on her bill, (SB 61, Financial Literacy), for nine months, marshalling it through the entire legislative process, only to see it now sitting next to other bills that were rolled out late in the game, some not even having passed out of committees. “Next year, should I just wait until the last few days and hope that the ‘powers that be’ put my bill in an omnibus bill?”

Sen. McCoy offered an amendment that would eliminate the $3.5 million for HB 200, Early Childhood Learning (Last), because it failed in a House vote 31-37-7, saying, “I don’t think it’s right to ‘bootstrap’ bills that have been killed with other good bills”. Sen. Stephenson argued against the amendment, saying that it was a “close vote” in the House, and that if we can approve funding for Head Start, we can approve this bill”. (Never mind that he voted against Lou Shurtliff’s $100,000 appropriation bill for Head Start, as Sen Romero pointed out). The amendment failed along party lines. [What?! It was a close vote? So we shouldn't have had to waste all that time and money defeating the voucher bill because it only passed by one arm-twisted vote?]

Sen. McCoy then spoke out against going down the “omnibus bill road”, much like the federal government does, and expressed the “utmost confidence” in the ability of legislative staff to “coordinate” the different bills as they have successfully done for years.

Sen. Romero then offered an amendment to take the $5 million from SB 35 (Differentiated Pay for Teachers), and use it to fund Rep. Morgan’s HB 194 (Class Size Reduction). “We already have $6.9 million for math and science teachers . (HB 270), but my constituents overwhelmingly want smaller class sizes. This way we can do both, and this is a better policy decision”. Unfortunately, the amendment failed, but Sen. Romero requested a “call of the Senate” so that all senators had to vote to support class size reduction, …or not. Only Senators Greiner and Van Tassell joined the Democrats and voted to support the class size amendment.

The bill ultimately passed, with Senators Davis, Dmitrich, Fife, Goodfellow, Greiner, McCoy and Romero voting “No” in protest. Sen. Romero explained his vote by saying, “Yesterday we patted ourselves on the back for how well our state is managed, and today we pass an omnibus bill that contains seven bills we haven’t even discussed. I’m disappointed”. [Over half of the twelve bills stuck into the omnibus weren't even debated on the Senate floor. That is disgusting. Way to go Republican leadership!]

(Note: If you are the local contacts for the senators listed above, please thank them for their efforts to bring some common sense to this omnibus mess.”)

SB 281, “Omnibus” Bill #2, (Stephenson)

Sen. Stephenson introduced this bill by saying, “We’re asking school districts to develop ways to distribute money based on merit”. The bill also provides $5 million for “signing bonuses”, as well as $1 million for teachers who pursue American Board Certification of Teacher Excellence, or ABCTE. (Not to be confused with National Board Certification, or NBC)

Sen. Jones offered an amendment that would make those gaining NBC eligible for financial rewards as well, pointing out that there are 64,000 NBC teachers across the country compared to only 100 ABCTE “pilot program” teachers, and that NBC is recognized in all 50 states where ABCTE is not yet recognized by any state. (Perhaps the reason they came to Utah)

Sen. Stephenson argued against the amendment, claiming that ABCTE is focused on “student performance gains”, where NBC is “too focused on teacher training”. Sen. Madsen chimed in, saying that the ABCTE bill was “completely vetted”, and that, “I wouldn’t want this program watered down”. [Vetted by who? How do you "water down" a pilot program from a shady online teacher course provider? See my posts below.]

Even Sen. Hillyard asked, “Why not open the bill up to both NBC and ABC teachers?” Sen. Stephenson argued that, “NBC doesn’t look at student test scores. Only the ABC program does”. [So screw the taskforce and poor schools. We'll just push through payments for test scores with that determination made by out-of-state, voucher-supporting corporate donors.]

Positive Developments

I was not a big fan of Rep. Daw, but he showed some grit today in the SB 2 debate. He's a charter school supporter, but he called BS on the state's attempt to unethically resurrect another defeated bill, HB 278, via the omnibus bill and to pawn off the cost of charter schools on local school districts. The bill in effect said "We want to require charter schools, but we want the school districts to be the bad guys and raise taxes to actually pay for charter schools." Rep. Daw wasn't able to completely get rid of the bill, but he cut the impacts down to 1/4 of the original cost to districts.

I was listening to the live Senate session and lo and behold, Sen. Stephenson stood at 10:45 and announced that the house had substituted SB 281 and gotten rid of the million bucks for the ABCTE funding. Sen. Stephenson expressed an eagerness to secure the 20 million dollars in top-down merit pay, so he was willing to let go of the ABCTE for now. The bill eventually passed. I looked at the substitute and it was Representative Dougall who proposed it. The $20 million was still a surprise insult to teachers and Rep. Last's taskforce, but at least they will work with/lean on the districts in conjunction with how that money will be spent. The elimination of ABCTE is a victory against corporate crap disguised as "merit."

At 11:25, Senator Hickman inadvertently revealed the utter hypocrisy of the education omnibus bill when he commented how "disturbing" it was to see a bill that his committee had designated as a low priority, HB 3, pop up at the last minute. Where was his anger about Stephenson ramrodding three defeated bills into the omnibus bill? Senator Hickman was so mad that he really surprised me with a reference to the "black baby" controversy. He said something like "I won't quote Senator Buttars, but, uhhh, this is an ugly bill." Huh? As I type this, he is announcing that he won't run for re-election, so maybe he doesn't give a hang what people think.

An example of bad government:
The Senators were rushing through bills in the last few minutes when they received an amended SB 327 from the house. Sen. Neiderhauser requested an immediate vote concurring with the amendments. Another senator asked for clarification on the fiscal note because he had heard it had increased by millions. (Was this the millions for the bid by Speaker Curtis' client?) Sen. Neiderhauser had no idea... no idea, but he wanted it passed anyway. The second senator froze the process when he demanded the fiscal note. Ten minutes later, he waived his request, apparently in a concession to time, and then voted for the bill having no idea how many millions it cost. That's disappointing.

And the final bill that passed, literally at 11:59, was...dang, I think it was SB 41. The amended version... It was something about education from Senator Stephenson. Well there's what I think was maybe the last bill.

Deseret News and Tribune articles on legislative gifts and misuse of campaign funds,5143,695246085,00.html,5143,695243022,00.html,5143,695243482,00.html,5143,695244998,00.html,5143,695250519,00.html

Little desire found among Utah lawmakers to strengthen conflict-of-interest law
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 01/26/2008 10:36:29 PM MST

Posted: 10:21 PM- When Utah's 104 lawmakers descended on Capitol Hill last week, they brought with them at least that many potential conflicts of interest.
That's not unusual. Most states have part-time legislatures, with members taking time out from their day jobs as real-estate developers, lawyers, school teachers, bankers, and energy prospectors to don their public-servant hats.
But one thing is different - Utah has one of the nation's weakest conflict of interest laws. And it's something that few legislators, if any, have a desire to change.
"We all have conflicts, don't we?" says Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville. "As long as you're dealing with a citizen Legislature, people have to make a living, and it's not easy to regulate."
Peggy Kearns, a former Colorado lawmaker and director of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Center for Ethics in Government, says citizens expect their elected officials to bring their real-world experience to government.
"The challenge for lawmakers is to separate the public interest from their personal interest," she said. "It's not a black and white issue. There is not a clear line and that's why no state defines conflict of interest in a very exact and clear way."
But there are several recent examples where Utah legislators have, at the very least, wandered deep into
those gray areas, prompting some to say more needs to be done to ratchet down Utah's conflicts laws.
Jordan Tanner, a former Republican lawmaker who crusaded for years for ethics reform, says conflicts of interest is "an issue that has been festering and boiling on Utah's Capitol Hill for many years."
"I'm not only frustrated, I'm disappointed, and I think the apathy of the citizens . . . is letting things happen that shouldn't happen," he said.
Utah has one of the weakest conflict of interest laws in the country. Thirty-five states require members in one or both of their bodies to abstain from voting if they have a conflict of interest, according to NCSL. Others leave the option to the member.
In Utah, the members are required to vote if they are on the floor, regardless of any conflict. They are, however, required to declare a conflict, either orally or in writing.
Enforcement is lax at best.
In October, Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, updated his conflict of interest statement to list his company that is seeking to get approval to build up to four nuclear power plants in Utah.
The disclosure came months after a committee he served on began discussion of nuclear power development proposals.
Five days after he filed the conflict notice, Tilton moved from his seat on a legislative committee considering a bill on nuclear power development to testify before the committee on his company's plans.
To get the water for the project, Tilton signed a deal with a Kane County water district led by fellow Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.
As a member of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s energy advisory panel, Tilton had cajoled fellow members to support nuclear power, but told The Tribune later that he had no interest in nuclear development.
"I considered that one of the most blatant examples of conflict of interest that we've had at Utah's Capitol Hill in any Legislature's history," said Tanner.
Tilton maintains there was no conflict, because he never took any official action that would benefit him. He opposed the bill the committee was considering and points out it would only have helped utility companies, not his private project.
Not long after the Tilton uproar, Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble began working on potential changes to Utah's conflict of interest law, looking at potentially letting legislators abstain from voting if they have a conflict.
But after months of work, Bramble's plan has run aground because he has been unable to define what a conflict of interest is.
He uses teachers as an example: Should teachers vote on education issues, like pay raises? And if they can vote, why shouldn't the roughly half-dozen legislators with interests in charter schools do the same?
"What we're trying to deal with on conflicts of interest is creating a quantifiable bright line for recusal," Bramble said. "The bills aren't abandoned, but they aren't moving forward at this time."
Bramble has had his own brushes with conflicts.
Last summer, he was hired by Allied Waste to run cost projections on a waste transfer station near Orem, and approached the Orem mayor about selling the city's station.
Bramble said he was clear with the mayor that he wasn't acting as a senator and he no longer works for Allied, so there is no longer any conflict.
Bramble also was under scrutiny for arranging to have the a technical college build a parade float for the Utah County Republican Party. His wife is an official in the party and the party paid his son to drive the float.
Bramble said he made a passing suggestion that the school build the float and the college was paid for the work. Talk of a legislative ethics probe never resulted in any action. But the president of the state's technology colleges lost his job, in part because of the float incident, and also because he took an unjustified compensation package.
If nothing else, the incidents show the problems that arise for a legislator, particularly one in a leadership position, who represents a number of clients.
Similar questions have been raised about legal work that House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, has done, representing clients like Anderson Development in planning meetings.
"More people know where I work than any other legislator because it's been covered more times," he said. "You deal with it by being completely up-front with your colleagues and completely up-front with the issues before you. . . . I don't do a quid pro quo. I never have."
Two Utah lawmakers have peculiar conflicts - both Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, were registered lobbyists in 2007.
Stephenson is registered to lobby on behalf of the Utah Taxpayers Association, a business-backed group that advocates for lower taxes, but he says he only lobbies the governor's office, Utah Tax Commission and executive agencies, not the Legislature.
Until the middle of last year, Seelig was registered to lobby for 1-800 Contacts, although she is now listed as inactive.
Kearns says if Utah lawmakers are holding out for a clear definition of conflicts, they could have a long wait.
"I think conflicts of interest is the biggest ethical issue in any legislative body," she said. "I think elected officials in all levels of government constantly struggle with this. But the bottom line is the elected official must represent the public interest not his own interest."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Education Omnibus Bill is even worse than I thought. Basically, the legislative leadership thinks you are an idiot.

I'm sad, mad, and feeling kind of powerless at the moment. The Republican leadership is again blatantly pursuing their own agenda for education during the last two days of the legislative session after claiming to want to work with educators. And they apparently really think everyone will believe that an omnibus bill revealed in the last two days of the session by powerful leaders discouraging amendments is a good process that encourages public comment.

A few legislative leaders have selected their own pet education bills for inclusion in a giant omnibus bill that caught even most legislators off-guard when it was announced in a surprise news conference yesterday, two days before the session ends.

President Valentine and Senator Stephenson spent a lot of breath at the news conference trying to convince us that the omnibus bill will better allow us to consider each part and that the previously defeated bills were just "misunderstood." They of course claim they aren't trying to sneak anything through and that this was a "compromise." It was apparently a compromise between the various right-wing Republican leaders of the caucus of just how much they could get away with, but a compromise nonetheless.
"Do you think we could include a bill eliminating whiny teachers in favor of robots?" "No, Senator Stephenson. But we could revive the bill allocating 3.5 million dollars this year and 2.5 million each year afterwards to buy software and laptop computers for pre-schoolers... and 70% of those can go to rich kids!" "Ooooh! Deal! My lobbyists will love this!"
This new omnibus bill, SB 2, contains parts of over 12 other bills (Here is an incomplete list. It is missing at least SB 91 for the $1,000,000 allocated to the American Board program.) and was rushed through the Senate in one day, apparently unamended. The House gets a crack at it tomorrow, the last day of the legislative session. (Edit: It's actually a complete list of the 12 bills in SB2. The ABCTE funding ended up in the SB281 funding, but was cut in an amendment at the last minute. See Mar.5 post.)

And you are supposed to believe that they care what you, the average voter, thinks.

My only reason for optimism is that my House representative sent me back an email saying he didn't like the idea of omnibus bills either and that he didn't believe the previously-defeated HB 278 was fair to Alpine District. But the fact that the bill sailed through the Senate today with no amendments makes me worry.

Listen to the last 30 seconds of the news conference, starting at about 18:00, for Senator Valentine's persuasive powers: "Any one component part may have difficulty passing, but when you look at the total, it says "This is a good plan.""

Both the principle of honesty involved in omnibus bills in general, and several individual bills within the omnibus, say to me "This is a plan to benefit special interests and assert legislative power." Jesse summed it up pretty well over in a comment over at Jeremy's Jeremiad:

It seems that any omnibus bill, state or federal, is a Frankenstein-like monster of competing interests hoping to ride the coattails to passage instead of being forced to stand on their own. It’s legislative laziness to even propose these bills.

Comment by Jesse Harris — March 4, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

Monday, March 3, 2008

Clearing up "potential misconceptions" and one bald-faced lie about the education omnibus bill

Over the last week and a half, every member of the family has taken repeated turns being extremely sick. (I don't know if JM Bell and Jeremy were contagious through the internet or what....) So I haven't posted in nine or ten days and the session ends in two days. Luckily, President Valentine has wrapped up all of the remaining education bills into one omnibus bill that he claims has a little something for everyone.

I often disagree with the Senate Site, but they post a lot of good information and acknowledge criticism fairly well. Earlier tonight, my wife and I listened to the audio of the "Education Press Conference" featuring Senators Valentine, Stephenson, and Dayton. It's a little over 18 minutes long and the Senate Site states that the purpose was "to clear up potential misconceptions about education funding that seemed to be swimming around." Let me give you a quick summary:

We have put a lot of money in public education this year.
We are including a lot of the Republican "reform bills," including the American Board program because of its "track record" (see below), in one, gigantic omnibus bill.
We love merit pay and we are going to "experiment" with lots of merit pay proposals. Of course we're not interfering with Rep. Last's merit pay taskforce.
We're putting it all together into an omnibus bill. Of course this is not a plan to ram through unpopular, right-wing, Senate-Caucus-devised-and-Eagle-Forum-approved legislation sprinkled with token Democrat bills so we can accuse no votes of being "obstructionist." The fact that some of these proposals were already voted down individually just shows how diverse and "experimental" the education omnibus package of fun will be this year.
Senator Dayton briefly speaks for no apparent reason, answers no questions, thanks the governor, and tells us that she hopes Utah will become known as "the feeder state for NASA" through differential pay.
Omnibus is good. Omnibus is good. Omnibus is good.
Individually considering the bills isn't actually as good as throwing them all together. If you don't like it, make an amendment.
Omnibus is good. Omnibus is good. Omnibus is good.

My comments on "potential misconceptions":

At about 1:10 in, President Valentine estimates that funding is up 50% from last year. He's serious too. Take off the 0 and I believe a 5% increase would be closer to the mark. But I will grant him, it's a good increase overall. I understand why it's less than originally proposed.

BLATANT LIE COMING... At about 2:35 and again at about 3:50ish, Senator Valentine specifically praises the American Board program as having been "tried and tested" and having a "track record." Did he even read the original bill? It's like Senators Dayton and Peterson on the IB program all over again. Except a simple web search here would give you the openly acknowledged fact that the "Distinguished Teacher" award from American Board is a less-than-a-year-old "pilot" program. You can become "one of the first teachers in the nation to earn this prestigious certification" and they are so desperate that you do so that they will pay you $1000 dollars to earn their award. I honestly wonder how the legislature grabbed onto this random program from a profit-seeking headhunting company that claims they can turn you into a teacher with "a classroom of your own in less than a year!" all for $850 bucks. My earlier post on the subject reveals the organization is tied to national voucher advocacy groups and testing companies. I've been too lazy to hunt down the campaign contributions, but I can't figure out another way this random program gained traction to be funded with one million taxpayer dollars. Maybe they Googled " corporate teacher award" and threw a dart at the results? Why not put money towards teachers who earn the truly proven and well-known National Board certification? This is the organization whose name American Board is trying to copy and for which Rep. Moss has already written a bill, HB 84.

At about 7:10 into the audio, Senator Stephenson defends the proposals as "research based" right after he and President Valentine talk about how they're all experimental too.

It is hard to hear the reporters, but around 9:45 a reporter asks a long question about why so many bills that have already been voted down in committee or on the floor are included in the omnibus bill. Senator Stephenson assures him around 10:20 that many of these bills were going to be revoted on anyway because they had just been "misunderstood" during their initial defeats. Just like vouchers, right?

At 12:15ish, Senator Stephenson apparently reveals that they are taking out the original "critical shortage" criteria (lines 12, 17, 40-41, 45-49) for the extra $5000 bucks for math and science teachers. So instead of paying teachers extra to teach in Dugway or Juab, which I could support, all math and science teachers will make more money.

And to finish off, President Valentine assures us at about 18:05 that despite the fact that many of these proposals wouldn't pass by themselves, "we can look at the total and say that this is a good plan."

Does any of that sound suspicious to you too? I want to see the text of this omnibus bill immediately. I wonder if it will be available online at all before it is debated or passes...