Thursday, October 30, 2008

More omnibus fun: SB 35 -- High quality smoke and mirrors brought to you by Howard Stephenson and Greg Hughes

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Howard Stephenson still surprises me with his relentless drive to attack public education so that his secret big business clients (Click on About Us and read the history and the 5th bullet under Association Purpose and Objectives) who bankroll the Utah Taxpayers Association can pay fewer taxes, regardless of the effectiveness or truth of the measure. I knew there were problematic aspects with SB 35, but I hadn’t realized exactly how much this bill had deceptively morphed into something much different than originally proposed, even when I briefly wrote about the timeline of its votes. I also listened to Greg Hughes interview Senator Hillyard last Saturday on Red Meat Radio (Senator Stephenson is the driving force and most frequent host of the show) and forcefully claim that the legislature is already ethical and transparent, and it’s just the unethical media who misportray the truth. Talk is cheap my legislative overlords, and stuff like I’m about to document is why people don’t trust you. I belatedly caught one more instance of ideological, secret agenda pushing here 8 months after the many more go unseen among the wheels within wheeled amendments at the legislature?

SB 35 was another bill logrolled into the omnibus education bill, SB 2. Unlike the million dollar laptop program, this bill had seemingly passed the Senate. Its path was a tortured one however and the bill that passed the Senate was NOT the same one that got illicitly passed in the omnibus.

First, the original SB 35 passed a vote in the Senate Education Committee on Jan. 22nd and then the first of two required floor votes in the Senate on the 30th. The bill was relatively short. If you read the Highlighted Provisions summary and the actual bill language, it directed the State School Board to annually survey the schools for difficult-to-fill science and math positions, create a “criticality index” to rank which positions were the most difficult to fill, and give $5,000 more dollars to a math or science teacher who accepted one of those positions. This rankled some teachers, but I thought it was a relatively good idea. If you need to pay teachers more at schools where fewer people want to work, that may be necessary in order to help kids. I had an acquaintance who moved to Dugway for a year to teach. I bumped into him the next summer and he was ecstatic about leaving. I personally think it’s noble, but there’s no way I would take my family to a rural school in the state.

A second thing that bothered teachers only emerged gradually: it wasn’t all math and science teachers who would qualify, only those teaching selected advanced classes, excluding other sciences such as Biology and implicitly the vast majority of jr. high math and science teachers.
70 (2) The money appropriated in Subsection (1) shall be used to provide a $5,000 salary
71 supplement for a full-time-equivalent position as a teacher of:
72 (a) mathematics level 3;
73 (b) mathematics level 4;
74 (c) chemistry;
75 (d) physics; or
76 (e) integrated science.

I’m not specifically clued in on the hiring difficulties of districts, but I was still mostly OK with this if it would help get some teachers to less desired areas. It was a relatively straight forward “market incentive” geared towards filling areas of need. There was nothing about teacher qualifications since the bill specifically addressed “teachers,” and all teachers already need a teaching certificate which requires a bachelor’s degree.

Senator Stephenson then amended his own bill on Feb. 5th, just before it passed the 2nd floor vote in the Senate. The new amended text now required that in order to get the $5,000 bonus, teachers that filled these positions of critical need had to have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent through later class work in the content area specifically, not the teaching specific degree that the vast majority of teachers get. So a Physics Teaching major who went to work on the Indian reservation school wouldn’t get the bonus because she didn’t get her bachelors in plain old Physics, and then pay the much more expensive post-graduate rates to earn the teaching certification. She would instead be punished for earning the certification as part of her undergraduate degree and moving quickly into the teaching area of greatest need. This angered a lot of teachers. Many debated if a Math major who later certified as a teacher was necessarily better than a teacher who entered teaching directly via a Math Teaching degree. And philosophically, this seemed to go against the supposed main thrust of the bill which was to find good certified teachers for hard-to-fill positions. It reduced the potential pool of qualified applicants by over 90% as very few secondary teachers have taken this route to certification. The change wasn’t consistent with the stated objective of the bill.

The bill passed the 2nd Senate floor vote, but I would be very interested in what debate took place and whether the legislators, with no time to study as the bill was passed soon after the amendment, fully realized the rather large shift in emphasis.

The amended SB 35 was then sent to the House and introduced on February 5th. It was sent to the House Education Committee on the 7th. This next sidenote worries me. I had thought that the bill records kept online were accurate and independent of politics. The official status log has no record of an Education Committee vote, but just shows the bill sitting in committee, not voted on, until the 27th. I took that information at face value when I was making my timelines and wondered why the bill got stuck.

I was recently fishing through old material and came across an update the UEA sent out on March 4th about the omnibus bill. It was talking about the defeated bills tacked on and specifically mentioned Senator Stephenson’s SB 35 as having been defeated in the House Education Committee on a tie vote. Hmmmm. Fishy. I checked back and the status still does not show that vote as having occurred. However, a new section has recently appeared on each bill’s information page titled Audio Recordings of Debates. (Did I miss an announcement of this at the Senate site?) This is great news! It absolutely was not there in early June when I previously wrote about this bill. This section contains a link to a House Education Committee debate on Feb. 27th, while the status still says no vote happened. Was it really debated and not voted on? Or is the UEA claim correct and there is something wrong with the record? And regardless, what discussions and negotiations happened in the 3 weeks from Feb, 7th until the bill was debated on Feb. 27th? An important factor was apparently the discovery by Greg Hughes that Margaret Bird, an employee of the State Board of Education, was going to exercise her constitutional right to run against him that Spring in a bid to win the Republican nomination to his House seat. I remember reading about Hughes angrily saying he couldn’t trust the state board back in February over this, but I didn’t save the articles. Bird and Carol Lear recently testified to the House Ethics Committee about the incident during an ethics hearing on charges against Rep. Hughes. Senator Stephenson apparently got in on the attacks as well.

I haven’t had time to listen to the debate yet, but I want to so I can gain some insight into the vote as well as the next transformation of SB 35. That same day, Feb. 27th, voted on or not I do not know, the bill was sent back to the House Rules Committee. That committee’s vice-chair happens to be Greg Hughes and it is chaired by voucher sponsor, Steve Urquhart. The bill was then substituted by Rep. Hughes on Feb. 29th and that is the end of the status of the original SB 35. Another strange inconsistency emerges at this point in the bill timelines. The original SB 35 status shows the bill being sent to rules on Feb. 27th and substituted on the 29th. The new 1st substitute inherited the voting history of the original bill, but now showed something different for those last days in February. There are two new entries, one on Feb. 27th and one on the 28th, both apparently sending the bill to the Legislative Fiscal Analyst (LFA) for fiscal analysis. Both timelines then agree that the substitute bill was put forth on the 29th. So what gives? Which bill was evaluated by the LFA, the original or the substitute, and why the discrepancy between the two status reports?

A substituted bill is in effect a new bill and must pass both houses in its new form to become a law. So SB 35, 1st Substitute now needed to pass both committee and floor votes in both chambers in order to become a law in the face of stiff opposition from teachers and legislative education supporters…except that Senator Stephenson was actively planning his SB 2 omnibus at this point and just decided to pass the bill the easy way—attach it to teacher raises and hold them hostage. He waited for the fiscal note, apparently for the correct version of the bill, from the LFA on March 3rd and immediately inserted the bill into the omnibus, SB 2, which was created that same day.

The new bill bore little resemblance to the original SB 35. The original bill called for 7 million Uniform School Fund dollars to the State Board of Education to be distributed through the districts as $5,000 bonuses to those teachers in critical need positions. The substitute was now over twice as long and featured an utterly bizarre set of new expenses.

First, it created a new “restricted” sub-account called the Teacher Salary Supplement Restricted Account, within the existing Uniform School Fund.

Second, it allocated $127,000 this year and an ongoing $190,000 every year hereafter from the General Fund to the Department of Human Resource Management to create an online application system to determine teacher eligibility for the bonuses, which then forwards the information to the Division of Finance, which then distributes that money to the districts, who then include the bonus in the teacher’s check. In other words, in order to do the same work the State Board of Education was prepared to do as just part of their duties, Hughes and Stephenson, the supposed “small-government” advocates, created a special account of education money specifically not accessible to the State Board of Education, and then inserted not one, but two additional bureaucracies as middlemen between the state and the teachers, all at an annual cost of $190,000. Stephenson regularly claims that public schools waste too much money in spite of class sizes consistently approaching 35 students, yet these two jokers can afford to spend $190,000 a year to redundantly sidestep the State Board of Education in order to teach some Board employee an important lesson about not running against incumbent Republicans because it hurts their feelings. And then Stephenson, co-chair of the committee that sets the board’s budget and the person who had just called Bird specifically to pressure her to drop out of the race, righteously claims that “he was careful not to pressure her.”

Third, the allocation for bonuses was also increased by $646,100, despite the fact that the bill’s provisions substantially reduced the pool of possible recipients. Finding 1400 spots to be defined as “critical shortages” in order to distribute the original $7 million was going to be a stretch anyway, depending on how you defined “critical.” Now in the substitute bill, I don’t believe for a second that Sen. Stephenson and Rep. Hughes thought they would find 1529 teachers holding one of that very limited range of degrees in order to distribute the $7,646,100 of annual bonus money available from the Uniform School Fund. I would be surprised if more than 5% of secondary science or math teachers held those degrees. It forces me to speculate that they are purposely withholding more Uniform School Fund money in that special “restricted” account than is strictly necessary to administer the bill in order to punish schools for opposing it.

Additionally, HB 35 1st Sub completely gutted the original purpose of the bill and revealed what appears to have been Stephenson’s intention all along, to delegitimize teachers as professionals and frame them as inferior to “real” mathematicians and scientists. The bill sneakily includes language about filling critical shortage in its Highlighted Provisions summary (Lines 20-22), despite there being absolutely no mention of that in the bill itself. I guess this would satisfy those legislators who only read the summary. The actual portions of the bill that are concerned with teacher salaries rather than four-bureaucracy-deep payment protocols decree that any teacher can now receive the $5,000, whether teaching in Parowan or the Wasatch Front, as long as he/she received a bachelor’s degree in a selected “hard” science and later became a teacher. “Critical shortages” are not addressed at all, and biology teachers and jr. high teachers are once again found less worthy than the high school teachers. The bill’s implicit purpose now apparently became to remake the teacher ranks by persuading scientists and mathematicians to become teachers by paying them $5,000 more than their colleagues. This was confirmed in the press conference introducing the omnibus on the afternoon of March 3rd when Senator Margaret Dayton rambled for a few minutes about how differentiated pay was going to make Utah "the feeder state for NASA.” (You can click through to the video and watch her speak if you wish.)

It seems to just be common sense that $5,000 won’t change much. I don’t believe there’s this huge pool of higher quality people than our current math and science teachers, just waiting to switch careers if only they could make an extra $5,000 a year.

More to the point of this post, Senator Stephenson and Representative Hughes surreptitiously changed the purpose of SB 35 to something completely different than originally voted for and what its own Highlighted Provisions purported it to be, added $190,000 of completely unnecessary duplication of services to grind a personal ax, and then dishonestly avoided debate by sticking it all into an enormous omnibus bill two days before the close of the session.

Dishonest. Unethical. Sneaky. Power hungry. Irrationally ideological. Take your pick. Trust is not won in an ethics hearing; it is won through transparent actions in the best interest of those citizens whom you represent.


Tom said...

You may be interested to know, as part of the omnibus lawsuit, this bill's constitutionality is being challenged (as one of several counts) partly because of the grant of authority to Dept Human Resources instead of the agency constitutionally designated to have general control and supervision of the state system of public education, viz. the State Board of Education. The language formerly part of SB 35 is specifically challenged.

Mark E. Towner said...

Interesting Comments. I'm a ARL 8th grade Integrated Science teacher in the Granite School District. My undergraduate degree is in Biology, however I have nearly 30 years of practical and professional science life experience. I'm teaching in a title 1 middle school with a 70% ESL student population. I plan on spending my remaining work years providing life and practical science experience that many of these kids may otherwise never experience. The salary I receive as a teacher is 1/3 what I was receiving in the private sector, however having weekends and holidays and summers to spend with my grandchildren is a fair trade off. The $5000 however would come in handy in paying for the additional education required by USOE and the content specific PRAXIS tests I will have to complete before I receive my permanent teaching license.

UtahTeacher said...

That's great Mark! I think everyone feels the $5,000 is personally helpful. The question is whether it will persuade a large number of your private sector colleagues to become teachers and go through all of the hoops, especially the wretched PRAXIS? If not, is it still justified?

(The PRAXIS is the lazy way many states are meeting the NCLB mandates that every teacher be "highly qualified." Of course, it is just a coincidence that PRAXIS is run by the GRE/SAT, closely aligned with ABCTE, big money, legislative lobbying crowd.)