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.

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