Sunday, January 23, 2011

Legislative Session 2011 begins....but it's not just about immigration! Will public education be harmed while no one is paying attention?

The illegal immigration debate is important. The state budget is important. But what will affect your children the most over the next couple decades? Won't the state of our public schools have a more lasting influence on the children of Utah? I am a parent and have as vested an interest in these schools as anyone, but it's also about the investment in helping the other hundreds of thousands of kids in the state. I believe the Utah public education system is a fundamental base to our society, as well as our economy.

The debate on illegal immigration policy in Utah will generate a lot of sparks and media attention this year, nationally as well as locally. With public attention diverted, and the difficult budget as cover, there are serious proposals to damage public ed. and divert public funds in the name of "reform." Basic funding is at a quiet crisis level risking the accreditation (i.e. whether colleges will accept their credits) of every high school in the state, but legislators currently DO NOT plan on funding almost 15,000 new students entering the system next school year (and that is net after accounting for seniors leaving) after not funding the 13,000 new students that entered this year. On top of that, many have pet projects favored by anti-public ed. groups to slice away even more of that money. Then when public schools struggle with the impacts of huge classes and little resources, those legislators will claim the worsening results justify further defunding the public system in favor of their connected donors poised to profit from the changes.

A large number of influential legislators--the ones who control the money--hold views on public education far outside the mainstream of the Utah public. Three examples just in the last week:

1. House Rep John Dougall explains in the comment section of this blog post about partisan school board elections that he thinks local school boards are uninformed, his new reading of the state constitution means that the state legislature isn't responsible for funding education, and that he thinks the entire public school system should be replaced by the free market.

2. Senator Howard Stephenson -- professional lobbyist, member of every possible education committee, and the sponsor of 15 education related bills in 2011 (no one else has more than 2...correct me if I miscounted) -- spoke to students at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. I learned this from Stephenson himself on Twitter (SenatorHowardS):

Had an awesome time speaking with students at the Hinckley Institute about Utah's public education system. #utpol 1:34 PM Jan 20th via TweetDeck

Also on Twitter, someone with the Utah House Democrats (utahhousedems) tweeted some highlights of Stephenson's remarks, including:

# Sen. Stephenson says difference between old Soviet farmers & Ut teachers is teachers care about their turnips--farmers don't. #utpol #utleg 12:46 PM Jan 20th via TweetDeck

# Republic Sen. Howard Stephenson calls state education planning "Soviet style" @ Hinckley Institute. What's his solution? #utpol #utleg 12:43 PM Jan 20th via TweetDeck

Stephenson has repeatedly made this comparison--public education is the same as Soviet-style communism. It's purposefully inaccurate and not representative of Utah.

3. Senator Chris Buttars, the new chair of the Public Education Appropriations Sub Committee, spoke at the Eagle Forum convention about his beliefs that Utah's schools are literally pushing a "socialist agenda" to destroy the country. "This is an entire program to bring America down and I want to tell you right now it's well entrenched in Utah."

This Deseret News article hits the nail on the head. It details how the the micro-managing legislature yanks public education back and forth every year, often in conflicting directions. They passed 42 bills about education last year. Forty-two! Stephenson admits he thinks he knows best and will run even more:
"We watched and realized that there are some things in education that simply have to change and be addressed," Stephenson said. "We feel we have to push the envelope now because there is so little action going on in certain areas."

Stephenson is in the process of writing bills about online high school programs, math initiatives, public school curriculum, charter schools, teacher tenure and more.

"Push the envelope" means radically alter or damage public schools in favor of his pet proposals that are largely unsupported by the public which supports our schools. Rep. Jim Nielsen speaks out in the article too, stating what anyone following public education policy debate in Utah can easily attest to:
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, believes the legislature's role in education reform should be "relatively limited," as that is mainly the responsibility of the state school board and local school boards.

"I think we can do things to indicate what our priorities are and build financial incentives to reward schools that meet certain objectives, but I wouldn't go beyond that," Nielson said. "In my opinion, the legislature has overreached its authority during much of my lifetime."

Amen Representative Nielson! The legislature fights for local control...except when they disagree with you.

I can't go over the details of every bad education proposal in this post. Here's the link to the list of all the 2011 education bill, although most of them still are not available to the public to read less than 9 hours before the opening of the legislative session.

I have already commented on some of these issues in the past week. I will write more about many/most of these proposals later. They include:

Vouchers by a different name. Yes, seriously. They will only apply to online private schools (at first) and any legislator you question about it will wince and try to explain these are better approved private schools, but it redirects the state WPU per student funding to private organizations.

Hypocritically taking away local districts' ability to fund and tax, but increasing the state sales tax which is controlled by...the state legislature.

Senator Buttars' proposal in response to the secret socialism to amend the Utah State Constitution to take away the State School Board's authority over schools and curriculum and give it guessed it, the state legislature.

Two bills aimed at converting traditional public schools to charter schools.

Increasing "socialism" by hypocritically taking away arbitrary "full measures" of locally voted district funds and giving them to charter schools in addition to the state funds they already get, but with no way for those local school boards to account for or recoup the money except by raising taxes...unless that power is taken away as mentioned above, leaving local districts defunded. (Which I suspect is the plan of some.) And if that bill doesn't pass and a district does raise taxes to make up for the charter subsidy, Howard Stephenson will then criticize the increase as waste through his Taxpayers Association bullhorn while touting how much more "efficient" charter schools are. (Stephenson is actually sponsoring the bill and apparently doesn't worry about hypocrisy or irony) The euphemism for this removal of local control is "backpack funding" as used by Parents For Choice in Education. Sen. Liljenquist's "Student Based Funding" may involve the same concept.

"Grading" public schools based on test scores by assigning one letter grade to explain every aspect of a school's performance. I have a lot of interesting information on this to post this week. They are following New York's utterly failed grading system rather than Florida's semi-supportive model, despite touting Florida's recent educational successes as only due to its school grading. (Which is also untrue.) This will apparently motivate those lazy teachers to teach better.

Removing due process requirements to get rid of provisional teachers. There basically aren't any already, so this bill puzzled me. (Plus, I can't read it yet.) But there will also be a bill to put longtime teachers back on provisional status based on their test scores. I think there is actually some merit in this concept by itself, but combined with the other bill, it appears that it's a disguised two-step method to instantly fire teachers without due process. Tough schools already have a much tougher time hiring good teachers. Who would work at a school in South Salt Lake with 90%+ low income and minority kids under this proposal?

A bill using "surplus" energy taxes to create curriculum promoting Utah's coal and oil industries.

5 more curriculum bills, 4 of them sponsored by Howard Stephenson. They involve Civics education, Engineering education, Honors Math Programs, and two ominous, unrevealed bills vaguely title "Curriculum in the Public Schools" and "School Curriculum Amendments." Once again, although the federal government is an over-reaching tyrant when it usurps local control via unfunded mandates, the state legislature and specifically Senator Stephenson who is proposing all these bills are virtuous defenders of good when they act as a political school board and usurp local control via unfunded mandates. Does the hypocrisy even bother them anymore?

So please, whoever you are, whatever your political leanings, pay attention to education this session!!!! It runs from Jan. 24 through March 10. You can click on this calendar each day for the schedule of committee meetings (the majority of time is spent in committees the first couple weeks) and general House and Senate floor time. When a committee or the floor is live, there will be little icons next to the lines on the calendar. You can click on them and listen live to committee meetings and actually watch live video of floor debate. The first education related meeting is the Senate Education Committee (chaired by Howard Stephenson) at 3:15 pm today, Monday, January 24. Listen for half an hour. Hearing the legislators' words and tone from their own mouths can help you cut through spin from various sides and begin to form opinions on who actually represents your interests.

Pay attention. Get involved. Contact your state representative or senator. Defend public education as a crucial part of our community and not as a fund to be drawn down and replaced by educational programs based on ideology and campaign donations.


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