Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Senator Morgan's SB 31 is a "runaway bill" that doesn't help with classroom size, but we're fighting about it anyway?

Senator Karen Morgan proposed a bill, SB 31, that mandated certain small class sizes for grades K-3. The bill started out as a mandate to the legislature, to allocate the money necessary to add more teachers or paraeducators as necessary to meet these classroom size caps. The limits started out as 18 for Kindergarten, 20 for 1st grade, 22 for 2nd grade, and 24 for 3rd grade. In a very reasonable compromise, Senator Morgan later amended two of these caps to 20 for kindergarten and 22 for 1st grade.

I heard her interviewed on KSL the day I was in Salt Lake for the Utah Taxpayers Association's pre-legislative sales pitch. She explained at length about the money allocated. It would range from $12 million to $22 million if only para-educators were hired, and up to $40 something million if new teachers were hired. I believe the fiscal note on the bill originally explained this also, though it does not in its current form. Here's one article explaining this initial version of the bill and how the Utah Taxpayer's Association was against the bill.

As the article explains, the expensive bill passed the stacked Senate Education Committee, which was really the first sign that mischief was afoot. Senator Stephenson revealed his strategy in the hearing:
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he supports the bill and would like to see it integrated even if funding for it isn't available this year.

"If we're not able to get this fiscal note funded, we ought to push the bill forward anyway and begin to impose a standard for these grades that you have identified," Stephenson said. He suggested that since districts already receive state dollars for class-size reduction, there ought to be a standard in place to ensure they actually do it.

By the time the bill passed the 2nd Senate vote (it has to pass a committee vote, and then two votes in the Senate), it was gutted by Howard Stephenson's amendment. This article about the vote features Sen. Jerry Stevenson commenting that he wanted to make absolutely sure that the mandate didn't apply to the legislature or funding. The article also explains that the money allocated had been reduced to $3.6 million and delves into the legislators' false premises for Stephenson's amendment:
Before lawmakers approved the bill, Morgan amended it to raise the caps slightly, reducing its cost to $3.6 million. Lawmakers also amended the bill to specify that in order to continue to receive state money that’s long been distributed for class size reductions, schools would have to meet the new caps....

...Several said they liked the idea of holding schools accountable for the money they’re already getting to reduce class sizes.

A 2007 legislative audit showed that $460 million meant to make class sizes smaller in Utah over seven years hadn’t led to any change, though some have said class sizes would have been even larger if not for that money.
In an important sidenote, Ms. Schencker got a little lazy with her background info here. Her assertion about the 2007 classroom size reduction audit is apparently her summary of info given her by Senator Stephenson when she interviewed him about this same bill the month before. She just pasted in the exact same paragraph here with no explanation that this spin of the 2007 audit came from Howard Stephenson.

Let's look at what the report actually says. The 2007 audit is available online. (Hat tip to Cameron who first commented on this audit and sent me the link.) It explained that not all districts were accounting specifically for the classroom size reduction money before mixing it with their general funds. This was because the legislature specifically released them from tracking and reporting that to in part reduce the amount of reports to the legislative interim education committee, pg 14. Pgs 7-9 show that the districts specifically tracking the money used 100% on teachers to reduce classroom sizes and supplemented beyond that because the CSR money had not kept up with inflation. The next few pages explain other measures taken that indicate that it is a reasonable conclusion that the districts not tracking the money specifically still used 99%+ of the money on classroom size reduction.

The biggest reason that classroom sizes did not go down is detailed on pg 23. The legislature never once funded enough reduction money to match enrollment growth from 2001 to 2007, contrary to the language in their own statute allocating the money. Pgs 24 and 25 also explain that charter schools, many with charters already committing them to small class sizes, are also diluting the available CSR money for those districts with the largest classes.

So the audit concludes that 99% to 100% of the hundreds of millions allocated were spent appropriately to reduce class sizes, and that money still didn't keep up with student growth. This shows that the faulty Stephenson/Schencker summary of the audit should really be stated as "Of course class sizes would have been even larger if not for that money." Stephenson, Waddoups, and other legislators claiming that the large amount of classroom size reduction money "hadn’t led to any change," implying that the districts are diverting money to administration and other "fat," are purposefully misrepresenting the content of their own audit knowing that most people will never read the audit and find them out. It also shows the absolutely false premise of the current SB 31 as amended, that the districts have to be "held accountable" because they are misusing funds.

Stephenson's amendment made it so the school districts has to achieve these very small class sizes with $3.6 million or lose the $100+ million that had already been proven to be insufficient to keep up with growth. Meet a moving target with insufficient resources, or we'll take way those insufficient resources until you do. I've said it before--the legislature's mandates could make great Dilbert punchlines.

SB 31 was amended again before passing its 3rd Senate vote and moving to the House, taking out all of the money allocated. The only thing left in the bill is a mandate for districts to restrict K-3 class sizes to the prescriptive levels or lose the $100+ million that the audit has already proven to be insufficient to keep up with growth. Sen. Morgan's new comments about the bill are troubling and very different than her initial excitement to increase funding in order to reduce class sizes.
Morgan's bill would add penalties to the existing law, which could mean school districts losing class-size reduction funding if they don't meet state standards.

"I have no problem with that," Morgan said of the change. "I believe in fiscal responsibility."

"We can only do one piece at a time," she said.

"The districts can implement this with the money we're giving them," she said.

"The money we're giving them" refers to the fact that the legislature plans to increase the WPU (general funding for all public ed.) by $3 million rather than specifically allocating additional monies to the classroom size reduction mandates. Putting the money in the WPU is a very different thing. WPU changes almost every single year. WPU has gone down significantly over the last few years, with no new money for even new students. It is completely different than what Senator Morgan originally proposed. It just seems unlike her to put in a penalty as the first piece without the resources to meet the standard. She's parroting Senator Stephenson so much that I jokingly wonder about what incriminating pictures he has of her.

That last link also explains how the State School Board discussed the new state of the bill in one of their meetings and were concerned about the unfunded mandate. They discussed various options, took a vote, and ultimately left their official position as "supporting the bill in concept" just as they had before the changes. Senator Morgan heard of this or read the article, and reacted very strongly to the word "problematic" in a post to the Senate Democrats' Blog, saying that "Their lack of understanding of the state public education budget is what’s problematic." She roundly criticized the State School Board, implying that they don't care about kids if they don't support her bill--another Stephenson move--and herself supporting the false premise that the districts have not been "accountable" for the current classroom size reduction money.

I was flabbergasted when I saw her comments. It seems to me that she's staked so much of her pride on getting something...anything...passed with the words "classroom size" in the title, that she's compromised her principles and reverted to hostile anti-public ed. talking points about the State School Board. What next?

The evidence is clear Senator Morgan and the premise of your borrowed criticisms is demonstrably false. Read the audit again and evaluate the claims. I have a daughter in a 1st grade class of 30 and know how hard that is for her. That doesn't make these draconian mandates right. Your bill has been subverted from an intended aid to K-3 children and public education into a hostile bill with severe penalties for not reaching impossibly high standards. The consequences for not meeting the caps are enormous, and the nice, but not drastic benefits of a paraeducator in a classroom of 30 kids do not equal that risk. Howard Stephenson wants these classroom size caps as a way to spin the removal of existing classroom size reduction funds while also discrediting public education. Why pretend it's the school board's fault when the politicians and PCE spokeswoman quoted in these same articles are very open about their goals for "more dynamic reform?" Is your bill making those negative policies more likely to be enacted?

Please reconsider what you really wanted to accomplish and what SB 31 does now. Would a January 2012 Senator Morgan even recognize the bill? Your original called for $22 million in a dedicated revenue stream just to put a paraeducator in K-3 classrooms. You also openly hoped funding could be found to make the increased personnel actual teachers, which is a much superior option to just paraeducators. Now your bill punishes districts for not adding a paraeducator in every K-3 classroom with $3.6 million lumped into the general operating funds needed to meet other increased mandates from the legislature as well. You have empirical evidence from the audit that the districts will be unable to meet this mandate, despite being 100% responsible with the previous money. SB 31 will likely lead to *larger* classes as schools inevitably start losing the current, but insufficent, classroom size reduction assistance. You are on the verge of pushing through one of the most damaging bills in the session.

I'll end with my comments on the blog of another person I respect, Karen of the Utah Moms Care blog. Sen. Morgan apparently handed her the statement from the Senate Democrats Blog above and asked her to urge her readers to call their legislators about SB 31. She said the WPU funding was enough and implored parents to tell their legislators they value smaller classes. I am frustrated with her framing of this issue as any opponent of this mutated SB 31 must not want smaller classes for their children and said so. My young children will all be affected by large K-3 classes, but I have to bear their whole education in mind when evaluating policy.

My comments on this post are only slightly different from above, but I want to link the Utah Moms Care post as comments and conversation might happen at either spot:
I have to strongly disagree that what this bill has become is beneficial to schools. The WPU is a general resource with many competing needs, especially after the cuts of the last three years. They PR'ed it as "not funding growth," but the same amount of money (no increase 2 yrs, small increase last year) got spread over 30,000+ more students, the equivalent of a cut much larger than 1%. (Math help here anyone?...What would be the equivalent %?)

So we are at a huge low point in funding with class sizes increasing all over the state. The existing "classroom size reduction" money wasn't enough to keep up with growth, even in 2007 when funding and WPU were at a high point.

So increasing this current lower WPU amount by 1% is suddenly enough to achieve what we couldn't in 2007? And if we don't drastically rearrange resources to damage 3-6 grade class sizes (both you and Sen. Morgan know there's not all this budget fat lying around to be used "more effectively" as PCE, etc. claim), we agree to lose the much larger amount of previous classroom size reduction money that was never enough either?

Stephenson is laughing his way to the bank, getting Sen. Morgan to carry his water for him. I seriously don't get this. It seemed to me that Sen. Morgan agreed to the punitive trigger for failing to meet a damaging standard in an unwise attempt to preserve the bill when it had dedicated money, and is now holding on to this shell with no money and only the bad "reform" just to make it look like she's actually getting things done.

Then she flies off the handle with such a strident public statement when it is obvious she had neither listened to the actual discussion online or spoken with a State School Board member. The board members were much more diplomatic than me in their discussion, even those who who were concerned with the bill's provisions. And they deadlocked on their vote, leaving the official "supports concept" designation on the bill as Mrs. Ziegler pointed out above.

So instead of working with people she has worked with so well many times in the past, Sen. Morgan hands a note to you asking parents to email in support of her damaging bill? I constantly realize how little I know of the personal dynamics and relationships up there on the Hill, but this whole thing just seems strange. Framing the bill as the State School Board doesn't support small class sizes is something Howard Stephenson would do. The financial realities mean this bill has become only punitive.

Please help me see what I'm missing here...

Friday, February 24, 2012

The supposedly noble fight for Utah education funding by *taking* public lands from the federal government

Jesse Harris posted a short opinion about his support of the legislature's push via lawsuits and eminent domain proceedings to take ownership of the extensive federal lands in Utah. Here are two articles about the coordinated push and claim that it's the federal government's fault Utah doesn't better fund public education.

You'll have to follow the first link and read Jesse's post and two other comments to get some of what I am referring to in my following comment, since I just copied my comment on his post and pasted it here as is. Here are two more links with background on how the legislature reduced the state's public education funding effort over the last two decades.

My comment with one addition I put in italics:
I’m very dubious for all these reasons. I read the Enabling Act,1894 and I think they’re making up history. I am not an expert in “implicit” promises made upon statehood, but the legislature has demonstrated numerous times that they are not experts either and frequently massage the facts to their liking.

The bills
depend on their reading of Section 9, and I think they’re blowing smoke. They interpret it to mean the fed gov “shall” sell the lands as in must.

Read Section 3, paragraph labeled Second for this:
“Second. That the people inhabiting said proposed State do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof;”

Then read the one sentence of Section 9:
SEC. 9. That five per centum of the proceeds of the sales of public lands lying within said State, which shall be sold by the United States subsequent to the admission of said State into the Union, after deducting all the expenses incident to the same, shall be paid to the said State, to be used as a permanent fund, the interest of which only shall be expended for the support of the common schools within said State.

It looks to me in context that it means any lands the fed gov does sell, they must give 5% to Utah schools, not that they “have” to sell them. The emphasis on "which shall be sold" rather than "which shall be sold" seems obvious when viewed in light of Section 3. They're saying the feds have to share proceeds from land sales after statehood, but not before. I don’t think any precedent will support the leg’s reason.

To Ronald Hunt’s concern, I can’t find in the 4 bills I’ve looked at where the $3 million is coming from, but I’m almost sure that when I heard a few minutes of Rep.’s Barrus and Ivory presentation to the State School Board last week that they intend it to be education money with supposed increased return as a result. I find it very unlikely.

I think the concern is largely driven by rightwing ideology as you say Jesse rather than true concern for education funding, as the state’s effort has been in a documented decline since the 90′s. I think they’re trying to shift the blame in a politically popular way.

And finally, I don’t think the Eastern states lack of fed lands that was a natural process is a good analogy to what would happen if suddenly the feds had to sell all or a large percentage of all the land in Utah. There is no precedent. The leg has a record of valuing energy/industry concerns highly while dismissing environmental ones. I think “barren wasteland” is hyperbole, but I would worry about losing one of the best features of Utah–the freedom to explore so much public land, even as I would be happy about the increased education funding. It’s not worth any and all costs, and I don’t have the ideological hatred of the fed gov that is driving this.

I think they should sue for something more realistic like you suggested – sue for better regulations to make leasing quicker and cheaper while still allowing some voice for environmental concerns. The fed gov would have somewhere to compromise with that goal rather than just litigating the claim they ‘have’ to sell. That goal may make a settlement more unlikely…

(Heck, after all that, maybe I’ll just copy this as a post on my blog.)

And so I did.

Online education silver bullets: Big fights today over funding Electronic High School, but really the repeal of SB65 virtual vouchers via HB 147

I try to know everything about everything, but I just don't know a lot about the Electronic High School of Utah. This post will probably be less informative than some, but I'm hoping to get some clarification from comments and/or if I can listen this afternoon to the House Education Committee hearing on two related bills. I did learn as I wrote the post that Rep. Brad Last's HB 147 contains a final section REPEALING Howard Stephenson's SB 65 Statewide Online Education program that falsely divided and diverted education funding into online vouchers. That explanation comes after I explain some background on last year's bill and others this year.

The Electronic High School currently gets funded a lump sum and is available in a non-competitive role as a public school. Students can completely enroll there, take just a few classes, or make up classes they failed. Last year's SB 65, Howard Stephenson's "virtual voucher" bill, authorized payments of a large percentage of student funding to any public online school per class that a student enrolled in. During the committee hearing on the bill, Stephenson said he supported Electronic High School at first, but that it was time for it to transition over to competitive funding and stand on its own. I am not 100% sure what actually happened in the wording of the substituted and amended bill. Lines 79-89 address Electronic High School, and lines 182-190 show that it is eligible one year later than other entities to participate somehow...and that's all my tired brain can do right now. I'm not sure when or if Electronic High School loses its dedicated funding stream.

SB 65 diverted big chunks of per student funding to any online provider (even private as Stephenson envisioned, but he was eventually forced to amend the bill to only address public online classes) under the false paradigm that per student funding statistics are true marginal costs, when student funding is actually pooled and shared hyper-efficiently. (See my recent post on Tuition Tax Credits for a long explanation of the funding pie.) Schools cannot maintain current programs and function when too much money is diverted away to other programs.

This year, Stephenson is running SB 178, which amends his SB 65 from last year. I'm really unsure that I have my head around what this bill and the next two I will discuss actually do. There are moving pieces and multiple ripple effects as funding and enrollment of charter and traditional schools are modified. SB 178 appears to decrease the amount of funding flowing from districts and charter schools to online programs per class. The bill also deals with how much FTE a student can count for (The district subdivides its pooled funding per student further, dictating how many teachers a school can hire, which is just an arbitrary method of distributing funds evenly. This unit used on the district level is called FTE.), but I don't get how it is different than the original SB 65. I doubt it's really too hard on online providers or great for districts, but I could be wrong here. Another sign is that Parents for Choice in Education bill tracker says they "initiated" this bill. (A revealing list. who's carrying PCE's water?) SB 178 passed a Senate Education committee hearing and is on the Senate floor.

There are two additional bills dealing with Electronic High School scheduled to be debated in the House Education Committee today at 4:00 pm. (Agenda)

The first is Rep. Sandstrom's HB 336. I definitely don't understand the ramifications of this one. Its summary states:
This bill:
12 . specifies the purpose of the Electronic High School;
13 . provides that the Electronic High School may only offer courses required for high
14 school graduation or that fulfill core curriculum course requirements;
15 . removes the Electronic High School as an online course provider in the Statewide
16 Online Education Program; and
17 . makes technical amendments.

I don't know what removing Electronic High School from the SB 65 program really does to it. I'm not sure what classes are being offered currently that do not fulfill graduation requirements. I also don't know what the intent language in lines 55-64 does as it seems to just repeat the lines that were crossed out, Lines 79-91. But PCE opposes this bill with this complaint:
Allows EHS to continue to operate with line item funding, no accountability for student outcomes, and no accountability for funding with a reported 30% - 50% completion rate
So it appears that this keeps EHS open for all students to attend as it currently functions.

Brad Last's HB 147 has some identical provisions to HB 336, and also seems to share other provisions with SB 178. But PCE is spitting mad about this one and is email blasting its followers with all caps warnings that defeating this bill is its #1 priority. (Emphasis is my representation of theirs). The summary reads:
This bill:
12 . specifies the purpose of the Electronic High School;
13 . provides that the Electronic High School may only offer courses required for high
14 school graduation or that fulfill core curriculum course requirements;
15 . requires a school district or charter school to offer online courses at the grades 9
16 through 12 level and online concurrent enrollment courses to students enrolled in
17 the school district or charter school in grades 11 and 12;
18 . allows a school district or charter school to develop and teach online courses, and to
19 ensure a wide selection of high quality online courses are offered;
20 . requires a school district or charter school to contract with an entity for online
21 course content or online course instruction;
22 . allows a school district or charter school to form a consortium with other school
23 districts or charter schools for the purpose of contracting with an entity for online
24 course content or online course instruction;
25 . allows a student the option to enroll in online courses for a certain number of course
26 credits each year;
27 . provides that online course credit hours are included in daily membership, except a

28 student may not count as more than one FTE, unless the student intends to complete high
29 school graduation requirements and exit high school early;
30 . provides that a student enrolled in an online course may not take more than a full
31 course load unless:
32 . the student intends to complete high school graduation requirements and exit
33 high school early; or
34 . if allowed by local school board or charter school governing board policy;
35 . provides for the administration of statewide assessments to students enrolled in
36 online courses;
37 . repeals provisions relating to the Statewide Online Education Program; and
38 . makes technical amendments.
Which seems very similar to these lines from SB 178:
prescribes procedures for the completion of a course credit acknowledgement;
26 . prohibits a student who enrolls in an online course from being counted in
27 membership for a released-time class, if counting the student in membership for a

28 released-time class would result in the student being counted as more than one FTE;
29 . permits a student taking an online course to take more than a full course load if
30 allowed under local school board or charter school governing board policy;

Both prohibit a student from counting as more than one FTE and allow more than a full course-load to be taken with permission, but the technicalities of the other differences escape me right now. SB 178 has the language about not being able to take released time, which is the current vogue false accusation of PCE and certain charter lobbyists right now, that schools are getting overfunded when students are at seminary or ATC. I don't know if that is the whole issue, or if SB 178 totally cuts dedicated funding to EHS. There's a bunch of stuff about districts workign together to make quality online programs, and I can't see why that would be especially controversial.

2 minute later update - PCE has once again helped me better understand the bill. Their complaint reads:
Repeals the Statewide Online Education Program, strips the student's ability to choose the courses that best meet their academic needs, no longer allows funding to follow the student
Just part of their Email Alert reads:
PCE IS TARGETING HOUSE BILL 147 AS OUR #1 BILL TO DEFEAT this session! This bill would REPEAL our biggest school choice victory last year, the Statewide Online Education Program signed into law last year...PLEASE CALL AND EMAIL EVERY COMMITTEE MEMBER AND ASK THEM TO VOTE NO ON HB147. TELL THEM NOT TO SUPPORT A BILL THAT TAKES AWAY SCHOOL CHOICE!


We can't defeat this without your help!

Call and email all Representatives on the committee.
Please forward this email to friends and family.

I see now that Line 37 of the HB 147 summary is a doozy: "repeals provisions relating to the Statewide Online Education Program;..." I thought it was something just related to EHS when I first saw that, but lines 237-262 of the bill appear to repeal most of the language of SB 65.

I don't approve of the method of sticking this on the end of a bill on a very loosely related topic, despite SB 65 damaging EHS, but I fully support this concept. Wow Rep. Last! I REALLY want to hear his committee presentation now to hear his motivations. Does he get the false paradigm based on bad funding numbers that I keep explaining? Or that pitting public schools against each other damages rather than strengthens student achievement and sense of community? I guess we'll find out.

This is a great idea, therefore PCE will stack the committee hearing like always with their highly motivated folks (How many times will they quote the national school choice guy who said Utah is #1 in online ed?), and a LOT of peer legislator pressure will be brought to bear. I predict HB 147 as written fails because legislative leadership is committed to silver bullet technology both as excuse for large class sizes and as their camel's nose in the voucher tent, though I could see some sort of substitute/compromise being worked out where the EHS stays funded as in both HB 147 and HB 336.

HB 336 will be heard right before HB 147, and I don't think both of them can be law simultaneously. They would also seem to conflict with Stephenson's SB 178. If HB 147 passes by some miracle, there will be definite conflict between the bills/agendas.

Sorry for the sort of stream-of-consciousness research here. I have learned more just as I typed this up. I urge you to contact your legislators in support of HB 147, explaining the false assumptions behind SB 65 and the practical problems they are causing. Legislators of the House Education Committee, be aware of the manufactured wave of opposition coming your way. Support public education by opposing efforts to fracture its funding based on purposeful misrepresentation of how education funding works.

Monday, February 20, 2012

More on why Tuition Tax Credits may be more profitable for interested parties than simple vouchers

First, the difference between a private school tuition voucher and a Tuition Tax Credit for donating to a private school tuition scholarship fund is only when the money comes out of the General Education Fund. The money comes out of the exact same place. Do not believe any claim that the two are substantially different in how they affect available funds for public education.

The money depleted from public education funds is the same; there is, however, a major difference in who saves money on the two proposals.

Vouchers - 1. Everyone pays state income tax to the General Education Fund. This money has to be used for public education or higher education. It can be used for no other purposes. 2. The state issues vouchers from that fund to private schools to subsidize up to a certain amount of the tuition of individual students who qualify. (The 2007 voucher amount was $3300 in an attempt to make it more palatable to the public; most proposals try and make it higher.)

Tuition Tax Credits - 1. Everyone pays state income tax to the General Education Fund. This money has to be used for public education or higher education. It can be used for no other purposes. 2. During the year, individuals or corporations make donations to private school tuition scholarship organizations of up to $500 for single filers or $1000 for joint filers. 3. Those organizations issue scholarships to subsidize up to a certain amount of the tuition of individual students who qualify. (Stephenson's 2012 bill, SB 151, set the caps at $5500 for these scholarships.) The difference: 4. Those who donated receive a dollar for dollar tax credit from the General Education Fund when they file, not a tax deduction, for their donations up to those limits.

Think about that. Utah's flat tax is 5%. So the most the donor would have otherwise paid in taxes for that $1000 in income is $50 (or $25 for a $500 donation) before any other deductions. The donor not only saves the $50 they would have paid into the education fund, but gets the $1000 credit free and clear, which is equivalent to the amount of income tax (which goes exclusively into the General Education Fund) they would have paid on income of $20,000. They presumably also receive the normal tax deduction for charitable giving for any donations exceeding those limits, simply not paying taxes on that donated income.

So the money to subsidize private school tuition comes out of the education fund under either mechanism, vouchers or Tuition Tax Credits. But the Tuition Tax Credit plan also allows the relatively small pool of private school scholarship donors, who would also largely overlap with political supporters of Howard Stephenson and/or secret clients of his Utah Taxpayer's Association, to save the equivalent of paying state income tax on $20,000 of income.

My post last year on Tuition Tax Credits, when Carl Wimmer ran the same idea, included a Dilbert comic about a "Dutch Sandwich." The sandwich for the rest of us makes even more sense now as I analyze the financial impact Tuition Tax Credits would have. Stephenson claimed in the pre-legislative session I attended that Tuition Tax Credits would have a positive financial note because it would save money per student. That is a lie as I explained in detail recently. Whatever examples Stephenson cooks up in his interim study of other states, realize who is really profiting from these "reform" schemes based on dollars rather than research or concern with true education of all students.


Why do we allow Howard Stephenson to drive Utah's education agenda? 2012 Edition - "Intent Language" to circumvent public process

I asked the question a few months before the 2011 legislative session, and I ask it now again halfway through the 2012 session. Before I discuss Stephenson's claims about the Feb. 15 Public Education Appropriations Committee that spent 2 hours on a 10-minute agenda item titled "Other Business," I want to review his actions over only the last few years. He has been in office since 1992 -- imagine what else he has pulled in those 15 years before I was paying attention. (If we're getting rid of Hatch and Bennett, why not this deadwood in 2014??)

Much of what I wrote in 2010 still applies:
"Howard Stephenson thinks public education is socialism (Very end of post). He runs public education bills to benefit specific companies, hypocritically overriding local control and increasing the costs of public education when it's one of his pet projects. He constantly misrepresents his bills and abuses the legislative process in order to pass controversial provisions with little or no scrutiny: 2008 (plus an ongoing $190,000 annual expenditure of education funds just to spite an employee of the State Office of Education who ran against Greg Hughes at the county Republican convention. Seriously.), 2009, 2010. He is unabashedly conflicted as a paid corporate lobbyist--he is the only legislator whose entire livelihood depends on the issues he supports and how he votes on those issues. Combining his last two issues--he literally ran a bill in 2010 authorizing conflicts of interest for charter school board members as a sneaky provision in a larger charter school bill.

Senator Stephenson is on all public education interim and Senate committees in the state of Utah and is literally the sponsor of half of the education bills for 2011..."

It's hard to believe the stuff Stephenson gets away with. He brings that US Congress ethic to Utah. Stephenson constant refrain when others question his tactics is to claim they are just sore losers when policy they don't like passes. The links above detail a variety of legislative abuses designed to pass his agenda with little scrutiny, even as he hammers Public Ed. about "transparency."

2008 -- Lumping failed personal bills together with teacher raises and other bills about to pass in an unconstitutional "omnibus" bill modeled after the pork bills we all hate from the national congress, one of which added $190,000 in unnecessary administration costs to route around a specific employee who ran for office.

2008 and 2009 -- Presenting bills in committee as one thing, then making last minute switches harmful to public education and trying to pass them without debate. In addition, the link about specific companies details Stephenson going off about how the State Office of Education is hurting kids because they disagree with him, especially about which specific companies to give large contracts to. (Extra articles)

2009 and 2010 -- Sneaking "minor" provisions into larger funding bills and hoping no one notices. Stephenson was ultimately unsuccess in forcing districts to further help fund charter schools in the Public Education budget bill in 2009 and 2010, the same dishonest policy he only partially forced through his 2008 omnibus and the same one he is trying to sneak around legislative process with his meeting this year. He did however succeed in specifically authorizing charter school board members to have financial conflicts of interest as part of a larger charter school funding bill, as detailed above. Seriously.

2012 Let's now discuss the Public Education Appropriations Committee last Wednesday. Stephenson, who thinks Public Ed. is socialism and that the USOE and USBE "hurt kids," is of course the Chair of this crucial committee and controls the agenda. This meeting was scheduled from 5:00 to 7:00 as part of their required-by-the-Open-Meeting-Act public agenda. 99.9% of the public has no idea what this committee does, what it was doing that night, or what is the history of practice in this committee. I listened to about 45-50 min of this meeting in 3 different intervals, but I am a nerd. They were basically going through a list of requests, whether from legislators' bills or from the USOE, and prioritizing which of the long list of items should receive the limited amount of funding available. The first list of items is available publicly as a link on that agenda. There was apparently a new list available for those in attendance that differed slightly from the linked one. Tyler Slack posted pictures of the 3 pages on Twitter, @tslack, scroll back to Feb 15.

The last item on the agenda from 6:50 to 7:00 was Other Business. I came home from some other commitments after 8:00 and was shocked to find that the committee meeting was still going in the window I had open on my computer. New lists of "philosophical items" were apparently provided to the committee, but not the public attending. The committee then debated these items for almost 2 more hours. One of them was the very controversial proposal to divert local funds, specifically voted and approved for local districts, to charter schools statewide, which was rammed 25% through in the 2008 omnibus, but defeated in 2009 and 2010 when Stephenson tried to latch them onto the larger education budget bills. This plan was put in as "intent language" for how the money in the budget should be spent. I missed all this and returned to hear the committee discussing what they had done. I heard Aaron Osmond say he was "taken back" and uncomfortable that he hadn't known of these important discussion items before the meeting and thought it wrong that those affected entities (school board, etc.) could not offer input. A couple others said they hadn't known about the items either. Stephenson replied "Yea, we should have probably made the sheet available before the meeting." If the members of the committee didn't know, and I'm betting most didn't though they won't publicly speak against Stephenson, how could the public know? And how could that conceivably not be a violation of the Open Meetings Act?

I would love to know what other philosophical items were debated. The articles about the meeting all only mention the district funds proposal. I think the document should be posted online when the minutes of the meeting are posted online, which apparently will not be for another couple weeks. How about some member of the committee stepping up before then?

I listened to about 20 min of the State School Board meeting the next day during my lunch, and heard them discuss what had happened the night before. They were angry and of the opinion that the unannounced discussion of "major policy items" violated the Open Meetings Act. I specifically heard a man state for the record that he had never seen the Public Education Appropriations Committee debate major policy items at the end under "Other business." They asked State Superintendent, Larry Shumway, to write a letter to the legislature asking them to disregard the intent language as it was not advertised on the public agenda beforehand. Schenker's account from the Trib and the USBE's blog post quoting parts of the letter. I thought this was very well-stated.

Stephenson's replied in the Trib:
“I think Superintendent Shumway is playing to the crowd knowing that the Legislature, when somebody charges ethics, is always at a disadvantage in the court of public opinion and knowing that he is unfairly using this claim even though he knows very well this is the same process that has been used for decades and is currently being used by other committees this session.”

Then to KSL (buried in the middle of this longer article):
Subcommittee co-chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson called Shumway's letter a "cheap shot" at the legislative process. "He realizes that in the court of public opinion, issues tend to stick whether they have merit or not," the Draper Republican said.

Stephenson, R-Draper, said the subcommittee conducted business like it has every other year without complaint. Furthermore, he said it only makes recommendations to the Executive Appropriations Committee, which vets and screens budget priority lists.

"Nothing that was passed will be law," he said. "There must be one or two things they didn't like that elicited the complaining this year."

Senate President Waddoups echoed Stephenson in the Trib article above:
“We wrote that law,” Waddoups said, noting the committee’s actions were nothing more than recommendations. “It’s not like we don’t know it and have legal counsel to advise us on it.”

He called the school board’s request that the recommendations be set aside “totally out of line.”

“I think what they’re doing is making an argument that they are against what the committee did and because they disagree with it and the results of what came out of there, they’re looking to change it without getting the committee itself to do it,” Waddoups said.

So it's just sore losers whining about a "normal" process that the person in the state School Board meeting said he hadn't seen in years of attending and Senator Osmond had not been advised about. I know who I believe. Read the USBE link, and if you're feeling really brave, try and listen to the 3:37 audio recording of the meeting itself. With his track record and documented efforts to subvert the process on this exact issue of diverting local funds, why should we listen to Howard Stephenson?


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

SB 151 Stephenson's "anti-voucher" voucher bill. Quick education funding points to consider while listening to committee.

UPDATE: Stephenson canceled the committee meeting this morning because he wanted to work on changes to the bill. He still threw out his claim this bill is not a voucher. See my budget explanation below to see what you think. Also stay tuned for when the bill comes back up for a committee hearing in the next week or so. Will it be scheduled on a Monday morning at 8:00 to make it harder for the public to attend?

SB 151, Student Opportunity Scholarships, by Howard Stephenson, will be debated in the Senate Education Committee today, Tuesday, Feb. 4,at 4:00 pm. Click on the legislature's website, scroll down to the Upcoming Events section, and you should be able to click on the Live Now option at 4:00 to listen live to the committee hearing. (The committees often start a few minutes late--keep refreshing the page if it's not up right at 4:00. If you can't find it, post a cry for help on Twitter with the hashtag #uted, and the State School Board's account, @UTPublicEd will usually reply with a direct link. I expect both the live committee room and the online following will be packed, so I have some worries about something going wrong with the feed, but the front page links have been working for me after a bad first week of the new website.)

This is a new voucher bill "limited" to only some students. A lot of well-off families can get a $5500 school voucher if their kid scored below proficient on even one of four state tests, if their school has gotten an F grade for two years under Utah's new law (I had some info wrong about this provision in some tweets Saturday), or if a young student is behind in reading at all.

Some quick (for me) and important points to think about:

1. All voucher proposals are framed disingenuously by misrepresenting school funding. OK, this point ended up not quick. But it's the most important. I'll be posting further on this. I think many people could benefit from this hopefully easy-to-understand explanation of school funding. Consider forwarding this to others and asking questions about this to your legislators or in committee meetings.

Here is a very long and chewy document detailing the education funding for the state of Utah for last school year and the current school year. I'll refer to some specific pages shortly. The state spends most of our state income tax on K-12 public education. (A very significant portion of income tax funds is also spent on our higher ed. system) The legislature designates a "WPU" or Weighted Pupil Unit amount each year. The districts receive that amount of funding from state income taxes per student, with extra WPU's for special ed. students, administration, extra transportation money for small, rural schools, and some other programs. This is NOT some specific amount of money it takes to educate one child or a "marginal cost" per student coming and going from the school. It is a blunt, fair way to evenly distribute money to the state's districts on a per student basis. These distributed WPU's to each district are called "Above the line" funding and are summarized on page 8 of the document.

On pages 9 and 10 of the document, it summarizes further state income tax funds sent out as "below the line" funding for a variety of purposes such as transportation, ELL students, gifted students, students in custody, library books and equipment, school nurses, dual immersion language programs, classroom supplies, and the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Program. Notice these are not sent out on a per student basis. They are lump sums. That nurse, art instructor, or amount of money for classroom supplies has to stretch to cover however many students show up. (Different programs are divided differently, some to pilot schools, some proportionally. And the legislature changes the total amount of "below the line" funding every year as they debate specific programs.)

Therefore, neither type of funding, "above the line" or "below the line," represents a marginal savings for an individual school. If a student switches to a private school, the state will still send the same amount of "below the line" funding that year to the districts. The state will keep one WPU (designated as $2816 this year) in the general education fund for that student. So the total savings for a student moving out or switching to a private school = Near $0 for a local school or district. One WPU of $2816 for the state education fund from income tax. If that student is a special education student, some complicated formula will save the state some more of that money. The local school wouldn't cut concrete costs much, but would save in faculty and staff time with the various meetings and paperwork. The vast majority of students who were Below Proficient on one test or attend what will be labeled as "F" schools are not special ed. and will only save one WPU.

This is because almost every cost at a school or district is a fixed cost. If one student enrolls or moves out of a school, the only cost difference for that school is some paper. The teachers, computers, library books, copy machines, training sessions, utilities, buses, bond payments, etc. do not change. When a school loses 30-40 students, depending on the district and whether it's an elementary or secondary school, they lose a teacher. 30 * $2,816 = $84,480. 40 * $2816 = $112,640. That more than covers the cost to pay that teacher and there is no net gain to the district from these changes.

Your child's district and school get funded from various other sources as well. Local district funds via property taxes are voted on and approved by the residents of that district in LUMP SUM amounts for school programs, including maintenance and upkeep. No local district funds are collected or spent on a per student basis.The funds serve hundreds of students simultaneously in large fixed costs. Your student does not receive a pro-rated portion of the janitor's time. See Heading II Local Revenue on pg. 11 of the funding document. The state also collects some property tax and distributes it in lump sums in that orange box about leeways. (This fact is also important in understanding the claims that districts are funding "phantom students" and should give up this locally collected money to charter schools with no publicly elected governing bodies.) Federal funds largely pay for lunches at all schools and for lots of extra help in Title I schools.

Therefore, representing a $5,500 voucher as a savings to schools is fundamentally dishonest. The schools and districts basically save nothing, and the state fund saves one WPU of less than $3,000 dollars. Via the tax-credit-converted-to-scholarship-in-order-to-claim-it's-not-a-voucher, the private school actually receives substantially more public money than a public school for enrolling the same student.

1B. Many articles comparing states will lump all of that income tax money together, above the line and below the line, the property tax whether voted on and collected by the state or district, and then divide that total by the number of students in the state. That gives a number of just under $5400 the state spends per student. That raw number is semi-useful for blunt comparisons with other states when comparing funding effort, but it doesn't represent a marginal cost for educating each individual student as I've shown. And it gets worse. Senator Stephenson and his lobbying organization, the Utah Taxpayer's Association, take that larger total and add the small amount of state income tax spent as capital funds to build new facilities, the huge construction bonds voted on by constituents of local districts specifically for building new schools (such as the $200 million dollar bond approved by Alpine District voters recently), and even sometimes count the federal funds specifically earmarked to meals and specific Title I schools, and count that as total funding as well because "it's all taxes." Dividing that larger total by the number of students gives them a per student funding number of $7,000 or $8,000 per student. They then claim this shows that a $5,500 voucher actually saves the state money.

Think about what they're doing. The argument boils down to claiming that if a student in St. George leave public school and takes a $5,500 voucher to attend private school, money is incrementally saved on WPU's statewide, construction of elementary schools in Eagle Mountain, and school lunches in Logan. It willfully misrepresents that number as actual savings to schools. In this case, the state saves one $2,816 WPU from the general education fund that they don't send to Washington School District for that student, while giving out a tax credit of $5,500 from that same fund. Stephenson will use this false representation of total taxes spent on schools today in committee. Listen and understand. Post questions here if you have any, and I will do my best to answer them within a day or two.

I think most members of the public have not researched the annoying intricacies of public education funding and are largely at the mercy of the claims of others about the impacts of vouchers and other funding proposals. So save that 99-page document and study up. I don't understand much of it still and probably flubbed a detail in my explanation, but my main point about the allocation of education funds is verifiably true.

I know Senator Stephenson and other members of the legislature understand very well the reality of how these funds are collected and distributed. I feel they purposely frame their arguments with misleading statistics in order to advance their ideological goals rather than help the public make informed decisions or represent their constituents. These misrepresentations of school districts wasting thousands of dollars per student are a large part of the lack of trust most educators feel toward the legislature as they struggle with 30+ students in their classrooms.

2. The program would allow up to $5,000,000 to be taken each year out of the general education fund via credits for donations to private school scholarship organizations.

3. Senator Stephenson admitted at the Utah Taxpayer's Association's pre-legislative conference (my notes: they're tough to read sometimes. Scroll down to Stephenson's comments about 2/3 of the way down) that most private schools will not accept a student who scores below grade level or is not proficient in English. He claims that the Catholic schools are eager to take these students. I would love to hear someone from that system confirm that sentiment. He also doesn't say how much capacity remains in those schools statewide. I think I'm right in saying there is a waiting list to enroll in both Judge Memorial and Juan Diego high schools. I am not familiar with the amount of Catholic elementary and middle schools in the state. Would a generous estimate be that 200-300 additional voucher students could enroll?

Stephenson says these vouchers would create a market for private schools focused on low-achieving students, so new quality schools would quickly spring up to better serve those students. (At $5500 a pop with no mandated programs, he's right that some schools would take that money.)

4. There will be a very large number of students who qualify for the voucher-- NOT just 2 or 3 difficult students from a class. Off the top of my head, I would estimate at least 100-200 students of the 1200 at my school received at least one state test score below proficient last year. (Schools with more affluent demographics will have fewer students, some Title I schools would have over 50% with at least one score below proficient.) Each of those students who take a voucher represent up to a $2,684 loss to education funding ($5,500 - $2,816 = $2,684.)

5. The school grading bill is brand new and based on those same test scores. Many Title I schools will get F's based on those standards. No fancy program will "solve" the difficulties of educating all struggling students. Senator Stephenson is on the record as wanting to "dismantle" and privatize those schools that the school grading program sets up for F's. This voucher bill would make 100% of the students at those schools eligible for vouchers, thus thousands of potential $2,684 losses. Stephenson is pursuing his stated goal through indirect means.

There's more to say, but it will have to wait.


Monday, February 6, 2012

USOE details huge list of 35 education related "Boxcar" bills

"Boxcar" bills are potential bills that are named and numbered by a certain deadline (Feb. 4 this year by the looks of it), but have no content publicly available besides that name and number. The actual text and effects of the bill remain secret until the legislator decides to make them available to the public. Once they are available to the public for 24 hours, they can be started in the bill process normally--being assigned to a committee and progressing through committee and floor votes in both houses of the legislature. OR...a bill can be passed "under suspension of the rules," thus skipping committee hearings with pesky questions from the public and rushing to the front of the line to be considered on the floor. for example, HB477, the GRAMA bill, controversially rushed from unveiling of text through two easy votes in the Senate and House to the governor's office in only a few days.

Bob Bernick wrote an excellent commentary on the subject at the end of November. At that time, 60% of the proposed legislation was still secret. On Feb. 4, as near as I can tell, about 200 House bills, resolutions, and rules changes dropped into the system along with over 110 Senate bills, concurrent resolutions, and joint resolutions. All but one or two of the House bills numbered from HB 330 to HB 510 read "2/4/2012 Bill Numbered by Title Without any Substance" as of late tonight, February 6. The Senate, which is about 1/3 the size of the House, reads the same for all but one or two bills from about SB 173 to SB 279, plus a bunch of the resolutions. The list of bills by number is here. You can check the Bill Status links on each bill, and see that designation on Feb. 4, 2012, even later when the text of the bill gets added.

Why would a transparency loving legislature maintain at least 30% of its proposed legislation secret two full weeks into the session? Bernick said in the article above that "sources inside the Legislature tell UtahPolicy that the percent of “protected” bills is increasing, as legislators learn, from experience and talking to colleagues, that one way to avoid unnecessary attention in this day of emails, texts, and other instant communications, is to keep what could end up as a controversial bill under wraps."

As Joe Pyrah commented about boxcar bills a couple of years ago when he was still a reporter: "They know DAMN well what will go into those bills."

I posted a list of ominous sounding Boxcar bills with commentary last year, and I am thankful the USOE blog beat me to it this year with a long list of education-related Boxcar bills with very uncontroversial sounding names such as: HB371 Tuition Reimbursement for Private Education — Rep. Keith Grover, HB375 Improving Student Academic Learning in Schools — Rep. Merlynn Newbold, SB67 Teacher Effectiveness and Outcomes Based Compensation — Sen. Stuart Adams, SB73 Extended School Calendar Incentives — Sen. Howard Stephenson, and SB223 Pledge of Allegiance Reinforcement Act — Sen. Aaron Osmond. (I've loved your rational tone on education so far Sen. Osmond...but really?!)

At least those boxcars are honest and descriptive. The vague bill titles are even scarier, like: HB331 School Board Election Provisions — Rep. Jim Nielson, HB392 Charter School Funding Revisions — Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, HB430 Education Program Funding Amendments — Rep. Bradley Last, SB175 School Grading Amendments — Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, SB178 Statewide Online Education Program Amendments — Sen. Howard Stephenson, and SB213 Charter School Enrollment — Sen. Howard Stephenson. they could possibly be minor technical alterations, but they are more likely crucial changes disguised in bland language. As I documented in my Boxcar bill post last year, Senator Stephenson especially has repeatedly sprung large changes in the waning days of the legislature.

Sign up for updates of status changes on any bills you want at the bottom of the webpage for each individual bill. Let others know what is happening. It's probably not good.