Legislative Graveyard

Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic.  Stacey Campfield’s widely-ridiculed bill to reduce public assistance payments to parents whose children make bad grades isn’t really dead and buried, just relegated to Summer study.  Sort of like a kid who failed a class, but gets another chance.  Except that Campfield isn’t going to miss a meal or have his phone cut off for this failed effort.

Statistically, children from lower income households are more likely to have difficulty with academics.  Solving the problem though, requires understanding why — and there are multiple reasons, not all of which apply to every child.

1) Many children from economically disadvantaged homes don’t have access to the same resources — books in the home, a computer with internet service, travel and experiences, parents who have the time or ability to help with homework, etc.

2) The number of families on public assistance are disproportionally single-parent households, where the parent-in-residence may be working multiple minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet.

3) Families on public assistance are much more likely to have lower levels of education themselves; in some cases, this results in education not being valued, but in others, a simple inability to help.  Sometimes, it means that the vocabulary used in the home is much more limited than what the more-advantaged peers are exposed to; sometimes, it means that a child didn’t get enough sleep because he has to work to help support the family.  All of those things impact school performance.

4) Like it or not, genetics usually does play a role in academic performance.   While children from the deep end of the gene pool may go through hard times, it’s not likely to be long-term.  In the case of generational welfare recipients, the kids are much more likely to be from the shallow end.

Lastly, grades are not the ultimate measure of learning.   We, as a society, tend to equate good grades with mastery and poor grades with failure, but I don’t buy into the fact that poor grades are necessarily a failure to learn — perhaps a failure to comply with expectations.  Longtime readers will recall some of my frustrations with Beta, whose geometry teacher once approached me with the concern that she “has a 110 test average and a 14 homework average.”  Unfortunately, homework counted for a significant part of the grade, so in spite of the fact that she clearly knew the material, her grade wasn’t very good.

I know exactly what the problem was: if she understood the material, she spent her time on homework that she needed to do in order to learn it.  Stuff that she already understood, she didn’t waste time on.  In four weeks, Beta will receive her BS in Physics.   In spite of her unapproved homework methodology, it worked for her.

We need to ensure that children from all socioeconomic backgrounds learn, and reach their fullest potential.  That’s hard, because it’s tough to know exactly what that potential is.  We need to be looking for ways to help, not ways to punish.

Want to ensure that children from families on public assistance can succeed in school, and break the cycle of dependency?  Expand preschool.  Provide computers and internet service that they can take home.  Ensure that they interact with people who expose them to a larger vocabulary, new ideas, and encouragement to succeed.  Challenge them, but respect them as children with potential they don’t even know they have.

There has to be a better way.



Vouchers and random thoughts on education reform

In Tennessee, we are experiencing renewed discussion on school vouchers.  Essentially, that’s taking State education dollars and allowing parents to use those dollars toward private school tuition instead.   The initial bill would apply only in the state’s four largest cities (Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville), and only to economically disadvantaged students.

At first blush, why not?  Shouldn’t poor parents have the same opportunity for their children’s success as well-to-do parents?

The heart of the matter is, that ‘s the problem that public education seeks to address in the first place.  Vouchers wouldn’t level that playing field, because the dollars they’re offering (about $5k/year) wouldn’t cover the tuition at most, if any, private or parochial schools.  If the parents are poor to begin with, it’s unlikely that they could come up with the difference.

Secondly, private schools don’t play by the same rules as public schools.  Getting in is not just a matter of paying the tuition, but being accepted in the first place.  Academic and behavioral records are a strong factor, as are things like the ability to pass an admissions test.  Of course, a strong athlete might be granted a waiver on those types of things if the private school was looking to beef up the football team.  However, since private schools aren’t held to the same accountability standards as public schools, who’s to say that little Johnny Quarterback is going to be any better educated when he gets out?

If you believe the generalization that public schools are failing and private schools are not, why not level the playing field and make the rules the same for both?  Require all to take (or not take) the same tests; require the same (or no) certification and evaluation of teachers.  Allow both (or neither) to use selective admissions criteria.

But if we did that, then what would be the distinction between the two?

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This morning, I read in the Commercial Appeal that some schools are now offering supper (in addition to breakfast and lunch) to students enrolled in their after-school programs.  Granted, I understand that the only nutritious meals some children receive are those served at school, but at the same time, one of the key factors in a child’s well-being is the consistency of meals taken with the family.

If that’s not happening, what’s the value of going home at all?

One of the commenters noted that perhaps the school should simply become a boarding school, and just send the kiddos home on weekends for a visit.  Perhaps that comment was in jest or sarcasm, but… why not?  For kids in the worst inner-city schools, with the worst home conditions, that might very well be the best thing that could happen.

If the state and/or federal dollars that currently go to support those families (WIC, food stamps, welfare, housing subsidy) instead followed the children to boarding school, I’d bet that the kids could improve academically and socially a whole lot faster.   They would be in a stable environment where study and proper behavior was the norm.  They would be properly nourished, with adequate sleep and supervision.  They would not be subjected to the criminal environment that pervades their parents’ neighborhoods.

It sounds like a drastic change, but not unlike the drastic changes sweeping public education in Tennessee today.  We’ve added high standards and testing for students, as well as high standards and evaluations for teachers.  To truly succeed in reform, however, we need to address the quality of parenting.


Mixed Messages

Mixed messages abound in the education world these days.  We want to graduate more students, but we want to make it harder to graduate; we want to add math, science, and foreign language requirements (read: add teachers), but we don’t want to increase funding for education.  And those are just a couple of examples from high school.

Higher Ed is in a similar predicament.  The goals are noble and good, but the means to achieve them are dwindling.  To wit:

Anyone who has recently been a college student, or any parent of a college student, knows that one of the biggest challenges to graduating on time is to get into the classes one needs, when one needs them.  Offering more sections, more frequently, would undoubtedly improve the college graduation rate.  Offering fewer sections (with more students in each) less frequently cannot possibly yield improvement in the graduation rate — it will have the opposite effect.

But to keep it simple, the analogy is thus:  jump as high as you can.  Next, you must jump 50% higher… so dig a hole, stand in it, and try again.

Let me know if this works for you.  Like my physics major and rugby player daughter tells me, “gravity sucks.”

Stimulus and Schools

State Rep. Harry Brooks, Chairman of the House Education Committee, has opined via WSMV in Nashville that school systems should not use the federal stimulus funding for personnel.

That money can only be used for certain things, and lawmakers said since the money disappears in two years, it shouldn’t be used for personnel.
"If you were to use the money for a staff person, that staff person goes away in two years or you have to find the money to continue it," Brooks said.


That falls into the usual philosophy — with which I wholeheartedly agree — that it’s bad practice to use non-recurring funds for recurring expenses, as it just delays the problem — or creates a bigger problem in the future.   

But in this case, the stimulus is needed because tax revenues for the schools are down, due to the economic recession.  In Tennessee, schools are funded in large part by sales taxes, which are the first to fall in a recession.  What if the stimulus funds were used not to create new jobs (for which we would have to find a supporting funding source two years from now), but to avoid job losses among existing staff?

That, it seems, would fit with the intent of the stimulus — to keep people employed, so that they continue buying groceries, appliances, cars, and houses, which in turn strengthens the economy.

Most of the federal stimulus funds are designated for economically-disadvantaged students, or those in special education.  Thus, it seems to me that the most appropriate use would be to use those funds to continue programs like extended contracts, where teachers are paid a small stipend to do extra things like before- or after-school tutoring (of particular benefit to special ed or economically disadvantaged students).

This year, the State has already advised that 100% of extended contracted funding will be cut.  If the stimulus funds would allow us to continue these programs through two years until the state and local economies begin to recover, would that not be an acceptable use?

The Republican Glass:

Is it half-empty, or half-full?

Outrage abounds following yesterday’s election of Kent Wiliams, R-Elizabethton, as Speaker of the House in the Tennessee Legislature.  Williams is described as a moderate, and claims to have the best interest of the State at heart:

“Today is not about Kent Williams or Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, and it’s not about Jason Mumpower,” Williams said. “It’s not about Democrats and Republicans. Today is about change. … We need to utilize the talents of all the members of this General Assembly, not just the Democratic Party and not just the Republican Party. … For too many years, we’ve had talented representatives sit on the sidelines without any input into legislation. A lot of legislation we want to vote on we don’t get the chance. That’s going to change.”

There are plenty of places to get the spilled milk version, but consider for a moment whether there may be an upside:  under Mumpower’s leadership, might there be a possibility that the House would have operated in much the same manner as under Naifeh’s iron fist, but with favoritism of different individuals and issues?  Might such partisanship, coupled with too much change, too fast, have resulted in a backlash loss of majority two years from now?

In my view, it’s important to have some balance, because it’s going to matter much more that Republicans have a majority two years from now when redistricting occurs, and when we elect the next governor.  I’m willing to live with more gradual change, to prevent catastrophic losses in 2010.

Therefore, I reserve judgment on Williams’ speakership until I see what he does.  He is a Republican, elected by the people of his district with a substantial victory.  While his method may have been deplorable, it’s the same playbook used by John Wilder in the 1990s, which benefited Republicans in the Senate.


To the new majority

So-called pro-life Republicans took the balance of power in Tennessee this year, but I’m left wondering, are you really pro-life?

Or are you just anti-abortion?  Being anti-abortion is much easier.  With the push of a button and the stroke of a pen, you simply criminalize an option you don’t like.  Just be sure, in the fiscal note, to build in some additional prison space, along with some serious emergency-room costs for women driven by desperation to the unsafe and illegal.

The difference is simple: to be truly pro-life, one has to devote at least as much effort toward saving the babies already outside the womb.  As Aunt B. so eloquently notes,

One in five babies in that neighborhood did not live to see their first birthdays.  You have a better chance of celebrating your child’s first birthday in Afghanistan than you do on the south side of Nashville.  In Memphis, an infant dies every 43 hours (yes, those are tiny coffins).  Every other day a family loses their baby.


That’s not going to be an easy challenge.  It would mean funding access to birth control for people you think should simply abstain, putting aside the values you think they should have, in deference to the realities they actually live.

It would mean putting more resources into prenatal care for girls and women you don’t think should be procreating to begin with, whose children you will have to pay to feed, clothe, doctor, and educate for the next 18 years.

Are you really pro-life?  Your actions will serve as your answers. 

* * * * *
If you’re serious about success, Say Uncle sums it up nicely.

Elected vs. Appointed Superintendents (again)

The Education Improvement Act of 1992 brought Tennessee’s change from mostly elected superintendents of schools, to a system of Directors of Schools appointed by the local school board. Although only three states still have any elected superintendents, bills to revert to such have been filed every year since 1992.

I wrote about this a couple of years ago, and every word still applies.

Why does it merit a second look? Because last Thursday, Rep. Frank Nicely (R-Knox and Jefferson Counties) tacked on an amendment to HB3857 that would have allowed elected superintendents in his two counties. That bill was tabled, so Nicely then tried to amend HB3455, only this time, a bunch more counties were included: Knox, Jefferson, Cumberland, Bledsoe, Roane, Union, Campbell, Washington, Meigs, Polk, Fentress, Morgan and Overton.

Rep. Ulysses Jones’ motion to table the amendment failed, and it was only because the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Gerald McCormick, had previously agreed to refer the bill back to committee if any amendments were added that it didn’t pass on Thursday.

There are still a few more days left in this year’s legislative session, and there are plenty more bills out there that could be amended. After all, HB3455 was about utility districts having the ability to form public building authorities, and HB3857 provides for contracts between local education agencies for use of one another’s facilities in the event of a disaster.

I do wish they’d implement a rule to disallow tacking on unrelated amendments. This is the time of year, with only a few days of voting left in the Legislature, that serious mischief happens.

The News-Sentinel has taken a stand against elected superintendents, as has the Tennessee School Boards Association. The only way to keep professionalism above politics in our schools is to call your state legislator and ask that they vote against any bill or amendment to allow elected superintendents.

A little more professionalism in the Legislature wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.

*  *  *

postscript:  SchoolMatters is covering this as well.

Storms Forecast

The Oak Ridge Schools budget was approved three weeks ago, with presentation to City Council delayed until Monday so that we could get bids in for bus service beforehand — just to make sure that one or more of the bids would come in close enough to our budgeted amount to make it work.  It looks like it will.

Unless, of course, there’s a significant change in projected revenue from the State (BEP funds).

The State Funding Board met this week to revise revenue forecasts, and the news was not good.  From the Tennessean:

The State Funding Board delivered grim economic forecasts on Thursday indicating that the state could have to cut up to $384 million in spending this year and shed up to $585 million from next year’s budget.

The board met to approve final revenue estimates that will be central to budget revisions in coming weeks. The board, which provides a range of estimates, said taxes will increase between a low of 0.25 percent and 1 percent this year, and between 1.25 percent and 1.75 percent next year.

State Finance and Administration Commissioner Dave Goetz said that translates into $315 million to $384 million in cuts to this year’s budget. Next year’s budget, which was introduced in January, will have to be reduced between $468 million and $585 million.

"A budget gap of that size will require us to look at everything," he said.

Preliminary indications are that the Governor and our local legislators will try to protect K-12 funding, although the teacher pay raises may not survive the cuts at the State level.

In a related cloudburst, some folks are upset that some graphs presented in the Funding Board’s meeting were not handed over to the press.  We do have an open records law, but it’s not immediately obvious if these particular pictorals fall under that category.  In any case, the same information is probably found in this report.

I think we’ll all feel a sense of relief when the Legislature passes a budget and goes home.   Unless, of course, they deviate substantially from the funding estimates provided to school systems last month, which could be the budgetary equivalent of a tree falling on the house in the midst of a late-Spring storm.

Sales Tax Holiday

This weekend is the other sales tax holiday — purchases of clothing, school supplies, and computers (up to $1,500) are exempt from state and local sales taxes.

Around here, it’s roughly a 10% discount.  Unfortunately, what I found in the previous iterations of this event is that retailers — local as well as online — tend to back off from their normal sales and discounts on the tax-free weekend, so the end result was a higher net cost for the items I needed.

Dell Computer is a prime example.  Last August, I had planned to buy a new desktop computer for Alpha, and had been watching prices for several weeks.  Dell changes prices every Thursday at midnight (as in the beginning of Thursday, not the end).  On the day before the tax holiday began, the $1200 system I’d been watching mysteriously went up to about $1500, meaning that I’d pay $183 MORE than it would have cost with tax added onto the sale price.

So, I just waited a couple more weeks, and paid the tax once it went on sale again.  Same thing for Levi’s jeans, notebook paper (which I usually buy on sale for 10 cents/pkg during the back-to-school sale), and several other items.

I’ll probably shop a little bit anyway, since I’d already promised Alpha to help her acquire some business apparel that she’ll need for her summer internship.  However, I’m not optimistic that I’ll end up saving much.

Anyone else have a different experience?

Free Commerce

The effort to allow grocery stores to sell wine, as is legal in all but 15 states, has likely stalled for this year.  It was only after three requests that Bill Ketron’s bill even got a grudging second from Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

Just out of curiosity this morning, I poked around the Registry of Election Finance to see if there might be some correlation between dollars donated by the liquor lobby; not surprisingly, the only member of the committee who hadn’t received triple-digit contributions last year is Steve Roller, who wasn’t appointed until Dec. 18, 2007.   I didn’t comb through all the reports, but the select few that I read through told me enough.

Committee Vice-Chair Lowe Finney (D-Jackson) collected $4,000 from the WSWT PAC (Wine and Spirits Wholesalers) from December ’06 to December ’07.  I’m not sure if it’s the money, or the fact that he’s a Deacon at the Jackson Baptist Church, but he surely wasn’t looking out for Tennessee Wineries or consumers this week.

The only consolation is that one of the lobbying outfits for the liquor wholesalers has gotten into a spot of trouble over their "astroturf" (fake grassroots) website to oppose online sales of wine in Tennessee.  Astroturf — that’s a new term to me, but fitting.

Sooner or later, it will happen.  It’s just a question of how much longer we put up with the higher cost and inconvenience of a system designed to benefit the network of distributors who funnel huge sums to the legislature every year.