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...

1 comment:

Cameron said...

"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."

I think the risk of losing all the CSR money is small simply because districts will find a way to meet the k-3 class size caps no matter what if for you other reason than to just keep the money. My problem with it is that without additional funding it necessarily means other classroom sizes will have to rise.

Ironically, this was one of my ideas when I first read the audit and wrote about it a few years ago. I figured that since the CSR program hadn't really lowered class sizes (because of growth, not malfeasance) it should be redirected to k-3 classes where research says it can have the most lasting impact. I even went a little further and proposed directing the money to low income and/or minority schools, again because those are the most at risk students and research shows much more bang for the buck there from CSR efforts.

However, clearly the CSR program we have isn't really a CSR program in practice. It has simply become a KUG (Keep Up with Growth) program. Simply taking that program's money away to use elsewhere will necessarily result in larger class sizes.

So, lacking other significant funding or reforms, I just can't support the bill.