Archive for May, 2015

Math and Economics Challenged KS Legislature May Raise Taxes— or End Tax Cuts

May 31, 2015 Comments off

I admit to feeling more than a little schadenfreude in reading yesterday’s NYTimes article titled “To Fill Budget Hole Kansas GOP Considers the Unthinkable: Raising Taxes“. The article could have been titled “Here’s the Proof: Trickle Down Doesn’t Work” or “KS Legislator’s need remedial math lessons” or “The Costs of Bureaucrats, Waste, Fraud and Abuse Are Negligible”.

The back story to this article, described in earlier posts and widely reported in many progressive political blogs, is that KS Governor Brownback and the Tea Party GOP members in the KS legislature decided to cut taxes in the belief that doing so would enable the “job creators” who were hamstrung by taxes and regulations to work their magic and the influx of new jobs would yield more than enough revenue to offset the “punishing” taxes that affected Kansans. It didn’t turn out that way and now, having spent all of its reserves and used every short term budget trick available, the KS Legislature needs to find $400,000,000. One legislator, though, has an explanation for this problem:

Senator Terry Bruce, the Republican majority leader, said that when the cuts were passed, the Department of Revenue gave estimates of how much the changes would cost that ended up being inaccurate.

While initial estimates, for instance, were that the small business tax exemption would affect about 191,000 entities and cost about $160 million, for the 2013 tax year, 333,000 filers took advantage of the exemption at a cost of $206.8 million, according to the Revenue Department.

The last time I looked, 206.8 million less $160 million was $40.8 million… not exactly chump change but FAR short of the $400,000,000 shortfall facing the state. In the meantime, the cuts to education have decimated the  public schools and shredded safety nets… and the $400,000,000 needed will do nothing to restore those cuts OR the various “rainy day funds” Brownback and the KS legislature used to balance recent budgets.

If this tactic were isolated to KS it would be unfortunate to a small group of individuals… but unfortunately WI, NJ, LA, and other states led by Presidential aspirants have all used this playbook and the results have never played out as promised. All of those seeking executive offices should read the inscription on the entry to the IRS office building first stated by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes are the Price We Pay for a Civilized Society”.


Frank Bruni Buys Into the Politics of USDOE… Ignores the Facts

May 31, 2015 Comments off

The Education Assassins”, Frank Bruni’s column in today’s NYTimes, reinforces the politics of public education while overlooking the real problems public schools face and completely overlooking the role USDOE has played in the student loan crisis. Bruni’s focus in this piece is the willingness of four marginal Presidential candidates— Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee,Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio— to consider closing the USDOE and the rejection of all Republican candidates save Jeb Bush to eliminate the Common Core. Bruni, who seems to unquestioningly accept the premises advanced by the “reformers”, laments this turn of events, emphasizing the need for a national curriculum and quoting a cast of neo-liberal “education leaders and advocates” to support his position. I dashed off this comment to share my perspectives on USDOE:

But the truth of the matter is that Arne Duncan (with Mr. Obama’s full support) has undercut the credibility of USDOE. The stimulus was a golden opportunity for USDOE to address the root cause of our “failing schools” which is the poor performance by children raised in poverty on the standardized tests that serve as “proof” that our schools are in distress. Instead of using stimulus funds to help school districts address this reality by expanding social services in schools, expanding preschool and after school programs for children raised in poverty, or fully funding special education, USDOE instituted a test-driven agenda that has demonized teachers, narrowed the curriculum to test-prep, and thrown open the door to privatization of public schools. At the same time Mr. Duncan has remained silent about the scandalous student loan situation because his department is a beneficiary of the usurious interest students are required to pay.

The debates over the common core are a distraction. The data gathered by USDOE reinforce what educators have known for years: students raised in affluence outperform children raised in poverty on standardized tests… and students in affluent school districts have superior opportunities compared to their peers in poverty stroked urban and rural districts. “Bad teachers” aren’t the problem: bad federal policy is!

One other comment I may leave is this: Bernie Sanders has more voter support than any one of the candidates mentioned in this article and no one on the NYTimes has outlined his views on public education. I hope that a column on the Democrat candidate’s perspectives will be forthcoming… they may have a different perspective than the Republicans and I hope they have a different perspective than Mr. Bruni.

Overcoming the Grind of Poverty on Children… and Teachers

May 31, 2015 Comments off

A recent article by Tampa Bay Times reporter Mariene Sokol summarizing the recent findings of a teacher survey done in Hillsborough County caught my eye. I hope it also caught the eye of data driven education reformers across the country because Sokol’s article provides hard evidence that teaching in schools serving children raised in poverty, particularly those with disengaged parents, is far more difficult than teaching in schools with affluent and/or actively engaged parents. The message of the findings is summarized in the first three paragraphs:

School districts offer cash bonuses. They hire teacher coaches. They appeal to the idealism of educators who want to make a difference.

But the proof is in their own data: It’s hard to teach at a high-poverty school.

There’s less buy-in from parents. Kids don’t follow the rules. There aren’t even enough computers. And staff turnover is sky high.

So the if the favored approach of the “reformers”, giving bonuses and assistance to teachers doesn’t improve morale in a school, what does? Near the end of the article is the answer:

Dunbar, a West Tampa medical and science magnet school, had some of the happiest teachers, with a composite score of 96 percent. But the percentage of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunches was relatively high at 83 percent.

It’s a small school, with only 287 students. Principal Sarah Jacobsen Capps also said she is deliberate about maintaining a culture of collaboration.

“We have constant conversations and reflections on what we’re doing,” she said. “We always talk about it all the time. Even after we saw the survey results, we asked, ‘Where else should we focus?’ “

Some reformers will read this and conclude that “choice” is the key because Dunbar is a magnet school. Others will read it an say that keeping schools small is the key. I read the article and come to the conclusion that three factors are at play here:

  • Parent engagement: I am never surprised to read that magnet schools have better learning environments because one of the de facto entry requirements to a magnet school is parent engagement. When parents are engaged in the lives of their children and interested in their current well-being and future, children thrive in school. Note that parent engagement is actionable. It is something schools can foster and support and in the article it noted that schools who made an effort to engage parents saw an increase in their teacher’s satisfaction and an increase in the percentage of students who followed the rules in school.
  • Student focus: I know from experience leading large districts that smaller schools like Dunbar do not have to focus on logistical issues nearly as much as large schools. With fewer buses, fewer mouths to feed in the cafeteria, fewer names to learn, and fewer opportunities for students to be disruptive it is easier for teachers to direct their attention to children. Indeed, in a small school with limited transience it is common for teachers to know the names and families of each and every child in the school. While size makes it easier to focus on students as opposed to logistics, it is possible for larger schools to keep the focus on teaching and learning each student with the right kind of leadership, which is the third element.
  • Teacher-centered leadership: The principal at Dunbar seeks a “culture of collaboration”, which was illustrated by the way she handled the information from the survey. Instead of using a top-down method whereby the omniscient administrator explains and interprets data to the staff, the principal engaged her staff in “constant conversations and reflections“.

Small schools and magnet schools are easy to replicate and maintain the traditional separation of school and family life and the hierarchical organizational structure that is familiar to business leaders and politicians. Engaging disengaged parents, maintaining a focus on each and every student, and nurturing teachers are soft skills that are difficult to measure and require a change in the orthodoxy in schools…. but my experience and, I would contend, these data support that direction going forward.