Monday, August 23, 2010

Parents for Choice in Education hosts luncheon for "education stakeholders"...except for anyone who works at a school

PCE has been sending out email for the last month recruiting a crowd for a luncheon with Jeb Bush and Governor Herbert about public school accountability and Bush's "school grade" project in Florida. They have included a lot of lines like:
As Stakeholders in education, it is imperative that you participate in the discussion on how Utah can and will overcome our unique educational challenges and emerge as a strong leader in a 21st century global economy.
The luncheon would at least be interesting. Whenever Howard Stephenson is full-heartedly behind an education measure, I cast a very cynical eye on the proposal, but I would like to hear how the school grades are measured and who decided on that measurement.

Unfortunately, the luncheon was planned on August 24th, right smack in the middle of the first week of school. Granite, Canyons, and Davis Districts all started classes today; Provo and Nebo Districts start tomorrow (the 24th); and Alpine, Salt Lake, and Jordan Districts all start in the 2 days after that. That means school staff members--teachers, administration, and support staff--are already required to be working at school, often welcoming incoming secondary students a day early.

When PCE talks about inviting stakeholders, they actually mean those ideologically in line with their thinking. (Especially rich ideologues. There are sponsorships available in the emails: Event $5000 Banner $2500 Table $1000.) Teachers and public school employees are regarded as the "enemy" to actually be avoided in education policy debates. It goes along with the rhetoric from many in the legislature. I tuned in to the first hour of Red Meat Radio last Saturday, and Judi Clark from PCE was co-hosting the show with Greg Hughes. I didn't write this down word for word, but Hughes opened up the show saying something close to "We're the good guys. The ones on our side, on the parents side." Then he contrasted his show and PCE to the evil UEA, supposedly not on the parents' side.

The ultra rightwing folks in the legislature and PCE must know teachers in their neighborhoods--the normal people with families and children who far outnumber the legislature's families in their personal stake in the quality of the school system--yet to hear them talk, the union is a bunch of selfish, childless atheists who "control" education and hate students. And I think they actually believe their own false created image which is repeated back to them in their policy echo chambers. They don't comprehend that the general public trusts teachers much more than politicians, but the political apathy of society in general lets them get away with their destructive attitudes.

So to sum, I think you can still attend the luncheon with Jeb Bush tomorrow at the SLC Marriott for 20 bucks if you don't want to pony up the 1000 dollars to be a table sponsor. Check it out, evaluate the information presented, notice who is attending, and listen to the language and underlying assumptions and disdain for teachers and public education in general. These people don't represent us.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Harassment of ethics petition gatherers in Utah County and an old story from Washington County about Dave Clark abusing authority

An elderly couple from Salt Lake County has been working hard to gather signatures for the Utahns for Ethical Government initiative petition since last year. They worked many hours personally and helped organize others in their Senate District, achieving the necessary number of signatures in that district some time ago. In all that time and after speaking to hundreds of people, they had some polite disagreements, but no bad experiences with anyone.

This afternoon, they volunteered to drive to Utah County to help in the last county where the initiative needs enough signatures to qualify. The couple knocked on doors in northern Utah County very successfully for a few hours. The wife was discussing the initiative in Pleasant Grove with a man on the sidewalk who had a pen in his hand to sign the petition. Another man pulled up in his car, rolled down his window, and began loudly yelling to not sign the petition. The woman gathering signatures didn't catch everything he said, but the man was apparently repeating the unique Utah County Republican Party lie that the initiative restricts local Mormon leaders such as bishops and Relief Society presidents from serving in the legislature. The woman had not ever heard this argument in Salt Lake County and tried to tell both men it wasn't true. The man about to sign quietly told the woman that he didn't want to anger his neighbor and walked away without signing. The woman started down the street to knock on more doors, but the man in the car followed her, continuing to yell arguments about the initiative, and calling her "evil." The woman rejoined her husband and they were both shaken by the man in the car continuing to harass them. He didn't stop until they finally got in their car and drove away.

I think the incident speaks for itself.

Another interesting incident happened in Washington County back on April 15th when Utahns for Ethical Government volunteers were turning in signatures in an attempt to qualify in time for this year's ballot. Remember, the legislature had also recently passed the openly biased SB 275, allowing them to track down signature signers for an extra month and pressure them to remove their names from the petition. Carmen Snow walked into the Washington County Clerk's office that afternoon with a stack of petition booklets. Speaker of the House, Dave Clark, was behind the counter at the County Clerk's office as the employees accepted the submission of the petition booklets, just waiting to get hold of those names and start tracking them down. As I recall, the temporary injunction barring the names of the signers from being released was issued that afternoon, but UEG still does not know if Dave Clark got copies of those names before word reached Washington County.

The legislators want to us to believe they never abuse their power, but why was this non-county employee in the work space at the county office? Does anyone believe that "ordinary" citizens are allowed behind the counter at government offices when it is convenient to them?

I heard both of these stories secondhand from others who had spoken directly with the people involved.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Local educational software company gets statewide contract AFTER making $12,000 in campaign donations in 2009

There was a nice article on KSL a few weeks ago about Imagine Learning software helping non-English speaking students learn the language. It's not a rigorous piece with one school's personnel and a company representative giving a glowing review of the program. But notice the small paragraph near the bottom:
Utah lawmakers funded a statewide license for this program, so any Utah school can address this growing need without hurting its budget.
Now I am not commenting on the effectiveness of this program. I have no experience with it and hope it is truly awesome. I often work with students learning English and any effective tool would be great.

However, I am concerned with the process. Why did this software company get a "statewide license?" This generally means any school in the state can sign up for the program and the state budget will cover the individual licenses, so basically a no-limit contract. How much is each individual student license? How many schools with how many eligible students have signed up? When was this passed? If it was in the 2010 session, I didn't hear anything about it and I followed the education budget debates closely. There have been crushing debates for two years in a row as the recession has killed public education budgets. The cuts have gotten deeper, class sizes are going up while other services are getting axed, and the projections for next year are for even more cuts. Legislators, schools, and the public debated about which "pet projects" and programs to fund and which to get rid of. Music, art, busses, science programs, merit pay plans, pension cuts, etc. have all been part of the debate.

I think that debate is legitimate and necessary in the rough economic climate. I just wonder if Imagine Learning was part of that debate or just slipped in somewhere. I have searched the three base education funding bills from the 2010 session, SB 2, HB 1, and HB 4, and I can find no mention of funding for Imagine Learning or English language software.

Making the matter even more murky are the large campaign contributions made in 2009 by Imagine Learning to key legislative leaders, especially conservative leaders. The August financial disclosure for 2009 showed donations to Senate President Michael Waddoups and Merlynn Newbold, education base budget sponsor and common co-sponsor of Howard Stephenson's bills. Imagine Learning's year-end financial disclosure for 2009 revealed donations to heavyweights: Greg Hughes of the House Education committee, Ron Bigelow--Chair of the Executive Appropriations Committee, $1,000 to Howard Stephenson--member of the Senate Education Committee and 2 interim education committees (and influential lobbyist), and $5,000 to Gary Herbert.

At the very, very least, this creates the perception of "Pay to Play." Make donations to the right people--maybe conservative lawmakers who usually oppose funding to education programs they are not personally sponsoring--and get a lucrative, statewide contract. That perception is real whether Imagine Learning is a wonderful program or a sham.

The donations are large and uncommon in the industry. I scanned the entire list of corporations that filed state financial disclosures for 2009 and didn't see any other company selling educational material--correct me if I'm wrong. (And for fun, go through the list and look at the donations from your favorite or least favorite company. The nearly $300,000 spent by Energy Solutions on both parties in 2008 and 2009 is especially impressive. All these corporations are spending tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars because of their civic mindedness, not because they expect anything from the legislators. Right ethics reform opponents?)

Really, does anyone think Red Meat Radio Howard Stephenson would support funding a statewide, educational software contract in a terrible budget year if these donations were not made? The bright minds at Imagine Learning spent $12,000 in profits without expecting influence and return on investment? It's a happy coincidence that the last educational software program to heavily lobby the legislature also got a large contract directly from Howard Stephenson in 2008?