Monday, February 28, 2011

Exploding State Health Care Costs Threaten K-12 Education

This is a great time to share ones increasing concern that our national and state leaders are failing to develop a sound strategy to prevent rising state health care costs from destroying the nation's public school system. This week the media has appropriately turned its attention upon the crisis in medical costs that is creating financial chaos in state budgets across the country. State Governors from both parties have been urging the Congress and President to do something before the growing costs in the medical assistance program forces significant shifts in state budgetary priorities. According to theWashington Post, medical assistance programs overall costs are predicted to increase by nearly 7 percent in fiscal 2010, and the states' share of Medicaid spending is projected to increase nationally by $25 billion in 2011. At the same time, in Minnesota, a group of health care providers, calling itself Minnesota's Health Care Imperative has issued a report urging the governor and legislature to address the emerging health care financial crisis.

We've been warned in Minnesota that this crisis was upon us. The bipartisan 2009 budget trends commission reported:
Growing at an average annual rate of 8.5 percent, state payments for direct health care services are the fastest growing segment of the state’s budget and consume a greater share of available resources each year. State health care programs face many of the same cost pressures that exist in the private health care market, including medical inflation and increased utilization of services spurred in large part by the development of new medical technologies, services, and pharmaceuticals to treat illnesses. In addition, because eligibility criteria for state health care programs are specified in statute, the state accommodates higher enrollment whenever the number of persons eligible for care increase (for example, when the economy weakens).
Minnesota has much to be proud of in its health care system. According to the Kaiser Family foundation that partly results from the fact that we have 13 percent living in poverty, as compared to national average of 20 percent. Whatever the cause, our rate of uninsured is 9% as compared to the 17% national average and only 6% of our children are uninsured, as opposed to 10% national average.

But we face some huge challenges as recently reported by Minnesota's Health Care Imperative, issued by Minnesota health care providers. Minnesota's average cost per medical assistance is the fourth-highest in the United States (behind NJ, NY and RI) and is 49 percent higher than the national average. "Disabled and elderly patients consume the vast majority of resources, while children require the least support both nationally and within Minnesota. The disproportion is made the more striking when we realize that children account for roughly half of Medicaid enrollment. Per-enrollee spending on the elderly and disabled can be 6 to 9 times higher than on children."
Minnesota's spending on the disabled is 77% higher than national average. Our spending rate on the elderly is 28% higher than the national average. Other adults 18% and children 27% higher than the national average. Minnesota's Health and Human Services budget is projected to grow by 28 percent from 2010 to 2012. ... Minnesotans utilize health care at a rate significantly above benchmarks. In many areas of the state, Medicaid is significantly more “generous” than in other states, particularly for certain populations such as the disabled who have more options in Minnesota than elsewhere. While Minnesota’s Medicaid-covered population rate is somewhat lower than average, our spend per covered enrollee, according to available data, is significantly higher
In addition, federal stimulus dollars have artificially and temporarily supported a higher rate of spending than we can sustain without significant new revenues. In 2010, the federal government covered 57% of medical assistance spending, but that support will drop to to 50% in 2012.

This crisis did not come upon us suddenly. In 1995, the office of Minnesota planning, in a report called "Within our Means," warned of an impending demographic crisis and budgetary crisis that would occur in 2010 when the baby boom generation reached 65. The report explained that State revenues were artificially and temporarily high as result of the high rate of growth during the then Clinton Presidency, and that the State was spending at a pace that was not sustainable over long term trends. The report warned:
“If there is a time to solve the state’s fiscal problems, it is now. The economy has been strong. The percentage of Minnesotans of working age is still growing and will reach an all-time high in 2010, before beginning a long-term decline. Over the next 15 years, the combined proportion of children and elderly — the age groups most dependent on support from others — will be less than at any time since 1950. From now to the year 2010, the state will have a maximum percentage of people in their peak earning years. After 2010, solutions will be more difficult, as the percentage of Minnesotans of working age begins to decline.”
Fourteen years later, the 2009 Budget Trends Commission page 3, reported "Unfortunately, as a consequence of the relative strength of Minnesota’s economy throughout the late 1990s, this call for action was fundamentally ignored." The legislature and governor treated Minnesota's surplus as if it were permanent. They implemented significant structural downward adjustments in taxes while permitting structural upward adjustments in spending.

The basic problem is that we now face a rising dependency ratio, the ratio of persons who are dependent on others as compared to the persons who are economically productive, and thus are capable of supporting the dependent -- children, disabled adults and retired seniors. As this dependency ratio increases, it will become more and more important for the persons in the work force to be productive. They will have to be better educated, equipped with technology that make them more productive, and capable of using their education to utilize technology. While the dependency ratio is starting to rise, the number of children is actually growing. Over the next twenty years, the number of children in schools will grow. That growth will simply be outpaced by growth in the number of dependent seniors. If we allow health care to drive down our investments in education, we will ensure emergence of a catastrophic crisis a generation hence.

The only long term strategy that makes sense, then, is to assure that investments in education remain strong, and of course, to assure that these investments are efficiently and wisely used.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Governor Dayton: Don't Ax Funding for PLAN and EXPLORE

From time to time, I've written about our school district's scorecard system that tracks progress indicators towards the goal of preparing all students for post high school excellence. One benchmark that we use is the PLAN and EXPLORE scores on tests produced by the College Boards. PLAN and EXPLORE are preliminary ACT tests that are given to students in 8th and 10th grade. If you are a parent of a 10th or 11th grade student, you know that the ACT test is the most important gateway (along with the level of course-difficulty taken by the student) into college. ACT tests (in the Midwest) determine what level of college a student is likely to be admitted to. ACT results are used by colleges and universities as a check on grade point average, to determine whether the student is ready for coursework at the level of rigor at that college. Under the Pawlenty administration the MDE sponsored a small line item in the education budget that provided support for PLAN and EXPLORE testing, and Governor Dayton's budget makes a huge mistake in cutting that support. The decision to cut that support threatens to destroy one of the most important statewide systemic initiatives to assist parents and students to get ready for post high school career and college success.

PLAN and EXPLORE testing is designed give parents, students, teachers and schools early information on whether students are on track to succeed. It is a fabulous motivational system that causes kids to confront what they need to do to prepare for rigor, before it is too late. Too often, students discover the importance of the ACT in the last months before they have to take the test. Then, there is a mad rush to study practice exams, to purchase ACT preparatory booklets that seek to cram for vocabulary and math skills needed for the ACT.

It should be obvious that if student and parents recognize the importance of the ACT years before, that the student would have a far better chance of preparing. The EXPLORE test, usually given in 8th grade, provides the student with baseline information on the academic level of coursework for junior high students. It tells them whether they are on-track to reach their academic goals. Properly used by home room teachers and counselors, and of course parents, it is used as a course correction to plan high school coursework. A high score says to the student, you are on track to meet your goals. A low score says, look, if you continue at this level, you are going to have a rough time getting admitted into the college of your choice. Moreover, the EXPLORE test comes with a rich array of materials to assist schools and parents to make the necessary academic course corrections necessary to meet the students goals.

An important part of the EXPLORE test is that it engenders dialog at home and at school on what the student must do to get prepared, before it is too late. Our district has undertaken to deliver the EXPLORE and PLAN test, to use those scores to assist parents, teachers and students in planning for their future, and to track the level of student readiness for college on our district wide scorecard (Vision) cards. Our commitment to this testing system, our decision to integrate it into our scorecard system, our decision to train teachers parents and students in how best to use it did not happen by accident. It resulted from a decision at the state level to make the tests affordable to all students, and then to provide best practices training on how to get the most for the state's money.

The PLAN test is a mid-point progress test used by student, parent and school counselor to make mid-course corrections in 10th and 11th grade. Again, our district has begun to monitor test results on the PLAN test as a way of determining if our junior high schools and high schools are achieving district goals that demand improvement in the number of students who graduate ready for post high school success.

School districts all over the state have begun to integrate PLAN and EXPLORE into their infrastructure of academic counseling, evaluation, and school improvement. Partly that is because there is a high-quality program run by the Minnesota Department of Education designed to support systemic use of PLAN and EXPLORE. (click here) The MDE website states:

Minnesota strongly supports its students preparing for postsecondary education. Toward that end it subsidizes the cost for any public school eighth grader taking the EXPLORE and any public school tenth grader taking the PLAN, two tests that are part of ACT's College and Career Readiness System.
As a result of the State's commitment to systemic utilization of PLAN and EXPLORE, as well as professional staff development provided to districts, school districts have started to make major commitments to PLAN and EXPLORE.

The Dayton budget now cuts state funding support for PLAN and EXPLORE, just as districts like ours have begun to adopt them and integrate them. The State support is a small line item in the overall education budget. The decision to cut this important initiative is symptomatic of decades of lack of focus by the Department of Education in Minnesota. Time and time again, as the State moves forward with a project, just as it begins to pay dividends, a new commissioner, or new governor, seeking to place a personal stamp on education, cancels an initiative and moves funding into a brand new one. This year, the governor found $2 million to launch a new early childhood rating system. And, he found $11.9 million to create "excellence in education awards" which evidently will create a highly politicized competition to see who can get some extra money to run a program for a time, until the funds to support it are cancelled.

One of the great problems in education, that stifles its efficiency, and frankly drives local educators nuts, is the inability to take a state initiative and stick to it until it fosters systemic permanent change. The PLAN and EXPLORE testing system, is not just a testing system. It encourages students to take stock in their future plans. It provides them with comprehensive information on the skills that they will need to succeed in occupations that interest them. It provides early warning if they are not on track. Just as important is the fact that when educators across the state begin to utilize a quality program like this, the longer they work with it the better they do. Over and over again, we hear from educators, can't you guys stay on course!? Do you have to keep starting new programs, cancelling them, and then forcing us to start all over again.

When something works, the state should ride it to the end and keep riding it. If Governor Dayton wants to reform public education, he could start by being the governor that told the MDE to keep doing what works, instead of zigging and zagging. If the state cuts its support for PLAN and EXPLORE, all of the work already done towards this initiative is going to go down the drain. Unions will pressure their district to cancel the costs of tests on the grounds that "there is too much testing already." School districts faced with monumental budget challenges will toss the program in midstream on the grounds that it lacks sufficient public support. The infrastructure at the MDE that has developed training programs will disappear as fewer districts maintain the PLAN and EXPLORE system, and another initiative will bite the dust.

We don't need excellence grants in Minnesota, we need excellence. What we need is systemic, statewide excellence integrated across the state in all schools. The PLAN and EXPLORE initiative was perhaps the most cost-effective initiative undertaken in a long time to provide tools to parents and students, along with their schools, to get them ready for college, and the decision to cut state funding for that initiative was a huge mistake.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Making English the Official Language will not Assure Universal English Proficiency

The Tribune carries a story this morning regarding a bill proposed by Representative Drazkowski proposing to make English the "official language" of the State of Minnesota. (click here). Allegedly, part of this initiative would be to prohibit government from communicating to new to country non-English speakers in their native language. Perhaps I am being unfair, but one is inclined to ask, what are we supposed to do -- use sign language. Before I write further, I'd like to make a couple of things crystal clear:
  • English is already the official language of the United States. You cannot function effectively in the United States without being fluent in English. Everybody knows that, especially immigrants. Failure to speak English at a high level is an employment impediment. It makes it difficult to navigate all aspects of our daily lives.
  • English has become the unofficial language of the world in many respects. It is the language of trade and commerce. It is spoken as the number one second language of preference across the world. English as a primary language is not under threat. In fact, only one thing could possibly threaten the dominance of English as a primary world language, and that would be nativist attempts to flaunt that primacy in ways that cause other countries to respond in kind.
  • Immigrants to the United States, whether their native language is Spanish, Somali, Chinese, or otherwise, are united in their desire to learn English, and especially to see that their children become fluent in English. The implicit suggestion that we have to force immigrants to learn English is an invention of people who seek to exploit anti-immigrant sentiment. The most common criticism that I hear from Somali parents is that they want our school district to do more to assure that Somali children learn English as fast as possible.
English-proficiency-now advocates are asking school districts to accomplish an objective never before demanded of public or private schools in American history. We have undertaken this task, but passing a law is not going to assist us in that effort. My German ancestors came to the United States to escape wars of religion, wars of nationalism, wars among the petty German states, and periodic waves of economic depression. We were Catholics, Protestants and Jews, mostly. When we arrived in the United States, most Germans strived to maintain their fluency in their native language and many maintained German as their first language for a generation or more. Wikipedia explains:
The Germans worked hard to maintain and cultivate their language, especially through newspapers and classes in elementary and high schools. There are German Americans in many cities, such as Milwaukee brought their strong support of education, establishing German-language schools and teacher training seminaries (Töchter-Institut) to prepare students and teachers in German language training. By the late 19th century, the Germania Publishing Company was established in Milwaukee, a publisher of books, magazines, and newspapers in German
This desire to take advantage of the freedom and prosperity of the new world while preserving the cultural richness of the old has characterized all immigrants to the United States. In some respects, preservation of the native language strengthened the ability of Germans to organize to make sure that their children received appropriate education.
By the late 19th century Germania published over 800 regular publications. The most prestigious daily newspapers such as the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung and the Illinois Staats-Zeitung in Chicago promoted middle-class values and encouraged German ethnic loyalty among their readership. The Germans were proud of their language, supported many German-language public and private schools, and conducted their church services in German. They published at least two-thirds of all foreign language newspapers in the U.S. The papers were owned and operated in the U.S., with no control from Germany. As Wittke emphasizes it was "essentially an American press published in a foreign tongue."
For generations, there was a degree of animosity between protestant Germans and Catholic Germans as well as animosity towards Germans from other immigrants. Nativists argued that the Catholic Germans and other Catholic immigrants would be loyal to the Pope instead of their new country. They alleged that the new immigrants didn't understand English values and that they would ultimately undermine the political and constitutional values that made this country great. It took "two or three generations, German Americans adopted mainstream American customs—some of which they heavily influenced—and switched their language to English. As one scholar concludes, 'The overwhelming evidence … indicates that the German-American school was a bilingual one much (perhaps a whole generation or more) earlier than 1917, and that the majority of the pupils may have been English-dominant bilinguals from the early 1880s on'."

Several school districts in Minnesota have experienced a rapid rise in enrollment of non-English speakers. In St. Cloud, we now have approximately 1100 students who come to us with severely limited English or no English at all. Housing policy of various neighboring communities have tended to concentrate non English speaking children and their families in our school district. By way of comparison, the most recent MDE reports so that Sartell has 22 limited English Proficiency students (LEP), or 0.77 percent as compared to our 12 percent. We have a few districts in Minnesota with more than 1/5 of their students with limited English Proficiency, and we have a host of school districts who have a tiny percentage -- under one or two percent -- of limited English proficiency. At times we are stunned, really, when we hear people from school districts with virtually no non-English speaking students claim that, well, it shouldn't cost any more to educate a child from a refugee camp in Somalia than the son or daughter of a lawyer, banker, or college teacher. You can't arrive at English proficiency for all by passing a law: it takes effective, aggressive, dedicated teaching. Nor will we achieve that objective by pretending that it can be done for free.

Its somewhat stunning to hear Americans who struggle to learn how to say "where is the bathroom" in a foreign language announce by legislative fiat that it should be a cost free project to teach English to non-English speakers in a few short years.

Those of us who have been handed the responsibility to assure that all Americans speak English effectively take that responsibility seriously. We know that it is absolutely critical to the future of American democracy and economic prosperity that immigrants learn English as rapidly as possible, and that they learn about American democratic ideals, so that they can become effective citizens. But just about the worst way to make that happen is to pass silly laws that prevent us from communicating to immigrants in their native language while stripping school districts of the resources needed to do the job. Putting us in that straightjacket makes it more difficult to make sure that kids are in school, that their parents understand disciplinary expectations, that our teachers can teach effectively and assure mastery of the English language.

Representative Drazkowski, if you are really interested in making sure that every American learns English effectively, why not sit down with leaders of school districts and learn what we are doing to make that happen. Why not ask what you can do to help. We would welcome a visit to St. Cloud to engage in a constructive dialog on how we could accomplish an objective we all share: assuring English proficiency of every American resident.

There are things the legislature can do to lend us a hand. The State has demanded that all non-English speaking students who come to our school district must become fluent in English at a college ready level. Representative Drazkowski, come visit St. Cloud and find out what we are doing to try to make that happen. The City of Mazeppa is 97.69 percent white. Of the 1071 students in the Zumbrota school district, 7 (or six tenths of a percent) are reported by that District as coming to the District with limited English proficiency. If you really want to lend us a hand in a mission that we should all care about, the best thing that you could do is to try to understand that it takes more resources to take a young person who speaks no English and educate them to proficiency in the time allowed by Minnesota law. If that is your objective, then you will fight to make sure that school districts like ours aren't stripped of funding we need to do that job effectively.

Passing a law to make English the official language won't do anything to make sure that we all speak English. There is one thing, and one thing only that will accomplish that objective, and that is to provide public schools who are charged with the task of teaching English have the resources to get the job done. How about lending us a hand!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Which Side are you On?

In the last week or so, I've been getting email and Facebook solicitations to support the demonstrators in Madison Wisconsin. Which side are you on, these emails ask, labor or the tea party? My answer has been, I'm siding with children.

I suppose it won't come as any surprise to St. Cloud folks that I grew up with liberal views. My grandfather was a steel executive in later life, and he and my mother split deeply over her strong pro-labor views. My mom was a rebellious young woman, and back during the depression, she sided against her father on the side of the AFL and the CIO. My mother taught me about what working people lived like in the 1930's when she was young. I heard stories about labor organizers and the risks that they took to raise the living standards of American workers. I was raised by my mother to believe that without the labor movement, working people would have been stuck with 6 day workweeks, poverty wages, and an arbitrary employment environment that left them helpless before management, and I still believe that to this day.

My mother told me about company towns, where American workers lived in company owned houses, bought their provisions from company owned stores, and stayed mired constantly in debt to their company creditor, so that they were never truly economically free.

When I was a college student, I hitchhiked through the eastern Kentucky coal country to witness what America could be like, without the right to organize. I spent my vacation with families in Hazard Kentucky whose breadwinners risked health and safety down in the mines, doing back-breaking work, but who could never work their way out of poverty. In Hazard, in a union hall, I learned how to sing "Amazing Grace" with that sliding Appalachian sound. The faces of those hard-working poor miners, and their families, remain in my mind to this day. If you don't understand what the American labor movement was about, you need to have look at the documentary "Harlan County." (click to view)

Company Town, Harlan Kentucky......
There's an old labor song titled "which side are you on" that was written by a union organizer's wife in Harlan County Kentucky, to give spirit to mine workers in what was then a company owned police state called "Bloody Harlan county." A lot of my Facebook friends are upper middle class professionals, who grew up liberal like me, and they think that I have, well, gone politically south on them because I won't stand up and be counted as 100 percent on either side of the battle going on in Wisconsin right now. They see this issue as the same as the issues facing poverty stricken working class miners in Harlan County.
Harlan County mine family

So before I say a few words about what's happening in Wisconsin, I think its worthwhile making it clear that I have no time for the tea party radicals who want to take American back to the 1920's. I have no time for the uneducated ideologues who slept through history class and think that our water would be safe to drink, our food would be safe to eat, and our medicines and drugs unadulterated, without a strong national government. Some of these same people defend huge salaries for corporate fat-cats who presided over the financial demise of their own companies and who nearly destroyed our country in the process. And, some of these people would be just as happy to see us go back to the days when people like the Koch brothers could rule over an energy empire that cares nothing about worker safety or worker health...that believes that corporations have only one duty, and that is to maximize profits.

But I refuse to buy into the "which side are you on" mentality that is permeating the discussion around public unions and especially public education unions.
I take it as a given that teachers are doing heroic work. I repudiate the people who feel that in order to justify their efforts to squeeze public education, that they must demean public educators and contend that they aren't doing their job.
My issue is with the liberals and democrats who believe that its all right to address the compensation demands of public educators by inflicting cuts on public schools, instead of funding those increases out of increased revenues. Let's be frank, it doesn't take any courage for we liberals to support increased compensation for our friends in public labor unions any more than it takes courage for Republicans to provide billions of dollars in subsidies to their friends and donors in big oil.

It takes no courage to fund compensation increases on the backs of children, by allowing cuts to textbooks, music and the arts, or cutting the jobs of young teachers, so that class sizes increase. We have way too many liberals who are in denial about the consequences of unrestrained labor rights when the State is refusing to fund compensation increases with increased revenues.

Over the weekend, Governor Dayton, for whom I proudly voted, is reported to have claimed that public educators all over the State have taken compensation freezes, an assertion that is patently misleading. Most districts increased teacher compensation by 3 percent to 5% over the last two years, which allowed those districts to pay step increases, lane increases and modest health insurance contribution increases. The increases were small in comparison to past years, but the increases were paid for with program cuts and layoffs in many districts.

The first duty of statesmen is to confront the truth, and the truth of the matter is that in Minnesota, we have been balancing the education budget on the backs of children. Republicans and Democrats have engineered a great compromise. The Democrats are allowed to protect labor's rights to compensation increases we cannot afford unless we change our budget priorities, and the Republicans are allowed to protect their pledge to the taxpayers league. When Democrats go down the road of helping their labor allies get pay increases on the backs of children, then I just cannot be on that side, as much as it makes me squirm to have my liberal friends accuse me of being anti-labor. Paying teachers more is a noble cause, but allowing it to happen without providing the necessary funding is a form of political cowardice.
If you believe in paying teachers more, good for you. You are right to value education professionals and you are right to recognize that we can do a better job of attracting bright hard working teachers if we reward them well.
But if you believe that, then you should step up to the plate and recognize that the only honest way to accomplish that objective is to provide money in the budget to fund those increases. Too many democrats pretend that teacher compensation can go up at 4% while school funding goes up 2 percent without consequence. Too many republicans believe that we can starve public education without consequence to future generations.

I heard a pundit on MSNBC say that the issue in Wisconsin is whether public educators are going to be forced to limit their pay increases to the rate of inflation. In short, he thinks that the dispute in Wisconsin is whether public employees should have the right to strike to take an ever increasing share out of the education budget, without corresponding funding increases from the legislature. I won't sign up for that side, any more than I choose to side with the "back to the jungle" tea party crowd brought to us by Fox TV.

If I have to choose a side, I choose the side of children. When school programs get cut, its the children of working people who lose out. When class sizes increase and new teachers are laid off to fund compensation increases, its the children of the next generation of working people who lose out. I say to Governor Dayton that if he wants teachers salaries to go up, good, but then needs he to accomplish it by providing enough money in the budget to keep existing programs and provide those increases as well. Salary increases without revenues to fund it, isn't pro-labor, its pandering.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cradle to Career Movement Gives Teachers a Boost in Fostering Student Success!

Last night, I attended the LEAF annual talent fest, a benefit for the St. Cloud school district's educational foundation. A fabulously talented group of students, sang, danced, delivered comedic routines, and wowed a packed house at the Paramount. Tech Graduate, Mark Scharenbroich, of Nice Bike fame, emceed the program, and after watching the first act, he asked teachers and coaches in the audience to stand up for a huge round of applause.

We were witnessing the results of the combined efforts of children, parents and dedicated teachers. It got me to thinking, what if the great teachers we have in St. Cloud, had a whole lot more help from the community at large to assure that all students had their talents developed as the students who performed on the stage. Just think how it would transform our community, if we all worked together to make sure that the talents of none of our children is wasted! Suppose that all of our students were prepared for a successful career. Suppose that everyone, from parents, to communities of faith, to the professional community and business, started by believing that if we work together, we can realize the talents of all of our children. Suppose we gave our great teachers a boost and said, hey, they can't do this all by themselves. Let's give them a hand!

Earlier in the week, I heard a presentation on the efforts of the Cincinnati Strive consortium to do just that. Cincinnati "Strive Together" is a regional network that strives to assure that all children in the Cincinnati region are successful "from cradle to career." The thrust of the initiative is to marshal community assets in a coordinated way. By assets, I mean families -- parents and children, faith communities, non-profits, public and parochial schools, seniors, the business community, technical colleges and universities. By cradle to grave, I do not mean that the government takes over the rearing of children, or that family responsibilities become government responsibilities. On the contrary, the idea of success "from cradle to career" is to use existing resources, public and private, more wisely, with more accountability, targeted to clear measurable objectives.

Across the country, a variety of urban regions are adopting the strive model for reviving, restoring, and preserving their most precious resource -- the next generation. Cincinnati Strive Together writes:
Education is perhaps the most important engine of economic growth and individual financial gain, and there is little doubt that our success in growing a stronger economy and lifting incomes will depend on getting better results in education, cradle to career. To achieve these results, for every child, every step of the way, from cradle to career Greater Cincinnati leaders at all levels of the education, nonprofit, community, civic, and philanthropic sectors are working together as part of the Strive Partnership to tackle some of our most pressing challenges, and to take advantage of some of our biggest opportunities.

As such, the Strive Partnership serves as a catalyst for working together, across sectors, and along the educational continuum, to drive better results in education, so that every child is Prepared for school, Supported inside and outside of school, Succeeds in school, Enrolls in some form of post-secondary education and Graduates and enters a career.

The Portland area has adopted the Strive model as well. "A broad coalition is coming together across Portland and Multnomah County to create an accountability framework known as cradle to career. Portland State University is leading the effort with the Leaders Roundtable, cabinet members of Mayor Sam Adams and County Commission Chair Jeff Cogen and others to replicate an approach first developed in Cincinnati. Portland's first Community Report was issued last November."

A community with high levels of educational attainment provides far-reaching social, cultural, and economic benefits. Evidence is clear that a better-educated population reduces unemployment, crime, welfare dependence, and the need for costly interventions and incarceration. Educational success also contributes to quality-of-life advantages such as the arts, civic engagement, and vibrant urban neighborhoods. Some of these benefits can be quantified by dollars. For example, increasing the number of individuals who earn a two-year or four-year degree by age 24 by 1 percent is estimated to boost the local economy by $1.6 billion annually.

The first Portland Community Report explained:
We have come together to develop a comprehensive and data-driven strategy to analyze both our educational and our social/community indicators so that all students can succeed. We are laying important groundwork so that decision making by parents, educators, government policy makers, business leaders, and others can be based on evidence. Data and analysis help leaders support programs and practices that work and help them reject those that don’t.
In Cincinnati, community leaders came together to form an executive leadership team, representing university, non-profits, government, business, and K-12 education. They agreed to focus on three key student success indicators and to prod all elements of the community to work to lend their efforts to improve performance in those areas.

The Catholic diocese joined with the Strive effort building on over two decades of support for improving educational results in the community. At one time, parochial schools in southern Ohio had been regarded more as an escape from school integration. But Archbishop Joseph L. Bernedin believed that Catholic education must be a part of the effort to end the cycle of poverty in Cincinnati. He argued that the cycle of poverty could only be broken through education and made it his mission to help children coming from disadvantaged households. As result the Catholic Inner-City Schools Education Fund (CISE) was created.
CISE began as a ministry to children from poor neighborhoods to help them overcome challenges using the knowledge, faith and discipline that comes with a Catholic school education. Today, the fund makes a quality education available to families in need across the Tri-State. Students are presented with an excellent faith-based education, strong curriculum and caring individual attention from staff, teachers and principals. CISE helps with tuition costs, academic enrichment programs, operating expenses, intervention professionals and capital investments in Cincinnati private schools.

Currently, CISE aids about 1,400 students in Catholic elementary schools and more than 200 CISE alumni in Catholic high schools. Most of these students are being supported through scholarships funded by targeted donations from supporters of CISE. And so Catholic education is an integral and formal part of the community initiative.

The diocese explains:
Across the greater Cincinnati area, disadvantaged students thrive in inner city Catholic schools thanks to the great commitment from principals, teachers and staff. In the past three school years, about 95 percent of CISE students graduated from private high schools and about 88 percent of students went on to higher education at institutions such as Vassar, Xavier University and the United States Military Academy at West Point. This Cincinnati-based program is the perfect case study for other Catholic schools around the nation. CISE clearly shows the importance of Christian schools’ ministry to inner city students and what can be achieved when those students are given the tools to succeed.
In St. Cloud, we have begun to look at ways that we can energize the entire community to become more actively involved in a community wide effort to assure student success. The District has developed success indicators that are more ambitious, even, that the goals established by Cincinnati's "strive together." You can find the scorecards that we use to measure our progress towards those objectives on on the web by clicking here. But what we have not yet been able to do is to build a community momentum of support behind those objectives.

Look. I know from experience that we have fabulous teachers in the St. Cloud and other area schools. But the truth of the matter is that they can't overcome today's obstacles all by themselves. How could we get everyone on board to make our schools better together? How could we create a culture of parental responsibility in this community? How could we encourage employers, seniors, governmental leaders, parochial school leaders, and the media to get on board on a community wide effort to drive up success of our children? Perhaps Cincinnati's efforts show us the way.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Does Dayton's Education Budget Attack the Growing Special Education Deficit

When the MDE issued its summary of the Dayton budget's impact, it contained no mention, even, of special education. There was new spending for all day kindergarten; new spending for some initiatives promoting improvements in education. But not a word about the special education funding crisis. Does this mean that the Dayton team ignored special education or, like Pawlenty before him, decided that the problem was so difficult to solve, that they should kick it down the road? The truth of the matter is that the budget is so complicated that its going to take a few days to figure out, but at first blush, it doesn't look like the Dayton budget is any more courageous that Pawlenty's budget in addressing the most significant financial difficulty facing public education today.

The chart below shows that from 2003 to 2013, the Minnesota Department of Education projects that total special education spending for all districts in Minnesota is expected to rise by $800 million per year from $1.2 billion per year to just over $2 billion per year, an increase of 69 percent, or nearly 7 percent per year.
During that time period, unless Dayton and the legislature fix this problem with fundamental reform, the revenues provided by State and Federal Government combined will increase by only $400 million per year from $818 million to $1.28 billion per year. Thus, in the same period where state - mandate expenses will increase by $800 million, the revenues paid to districts to reimburse these expenses will rise by only one half that amount, nearly doubling the total "special education deficit" apportioned amongst school districts.

Will the Dayton budget reverse this trend, which is driving school districts to the bring of financial ruin --- will it use his proposed new revenues to make a dent in the growing special education deficit problem, or will Dayton, like Pawlenty before him, continue the practice of funding other priorities (tax relief or new programs) on the backs of the special education deficit and on the backs of those districts that have specially high costs? That is what we are waiting to find out as we wade through the detail of the Dayton budget.

But this hemorrhaging of the special education deficit is just the beginning of the problem. Special education responsibilities are not equally divided across the state. School districts are not primarily reimbursed based on the number of students or the severity of disabilities that they serve. Rather, they are funded based on a formula that counts the number of students attending public school in that district. If the District has a small percentage of students with disability attending the district, then the district loses money, but not nearly so much. Many of these districts are the ones who claim to be "frugal districts" with large fund balances. In fact, many are districts with vastly fewer high cost students--and thus lower special education deficits to make up. If, on the other hand, the District has a very large percentage of students with disability attending the district, then the district loses lots and lots of money and it absorbs a much larger of the statewide deficit -- the difference between the blue and red lines below.

Four major factors increase the special education responsibilities of particular districts such that the revenue shortfalls are vastly different from district to district. They are (a) the percentage of families whose children attend parochial schools (increases the percentage of students receiving district provided special education significantly) (b) in smaller districts, whether there are a few students with disabilities that are tremendously expensive to address, (c) the rate of poverty amongst children, and (d) whether the district is a regional medical care center like St. Cloud, Duluth, Rochester, and so on.

Now many years ago, the legislature recognized that the state funding formula for special education was fundamentally unfair. It was so unfair, that a few districts across the state had begun to hemorrhage special education deficits that threatened to sink their regular programs, because the regular programs would have to siphon money over to pay what the state would not take care of. And so, the State added an "excess cost aid" reimbursement provision which would provide funding for districts with very high special education expenditures in comparison to state and federal reimbursement.

There was a catch, however. The State decided to appropriate a fixed fund for that purpose. If more districts sought reimbursement out of the fund, then the fund would be "pro-rated," and the reimbursement would fall year after year, until finally someone woke up and said, hey, we have to fix this.

But politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, hit upon the idea that they could evade this problem by claiming that they were holding school districts harmless by appropriating the same excess cost fund, year after year, even though the fund was falling increasingly short as more and more districts took money out of the fund. As the blue line --- total costs in the State rose, more and more districts would become eligible for the excess cost aid, and then the districts receiving it would be reimbursed less and less, even though their need was rising. The Governor and legislature would publicly claim that they were holding the special education budget constant, thereby holding districts harmless, but actually, they were sinking the higher cost districts under a mountain of deficit spending. Governor Pawlenty was a master at doing this. His Education Department actively pushed up the blue line--constantly ruling that districts had to provide more and more costly services. At the same time, his budgets would continually push down the red line, creating larger and larger special education deficits. But since nobody looks at the special education shortfalls, the media would report that the Governor was preventing cuts in education.

Now we are waiting to find out, through analysis of the Dayton budget, whether Dayton has engaged in the same shell game. If he has chosen simply to keep the special education budget constant, and especially if he has failed to provide significant increases to special education excess cost aid, then our district and many others like it are due for another financial squeeze from a Governor who is claiming to provide us with an increase.

The operation of Minnesota's special education funding system is particularly venal. In our district, even though we have tried to freeze our expenditures at 2005 levels, still, our special education deficit has been rising. It is against the law for us to cut any further, but the state keeps reducing our excess cost aid, as it shares the limited pool, with more and more districts. As a result, our deficit keeps going up, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.

Now you understand, why we are waiting to find out if the change in governors will result in an end to the special education shell game. Will Dayton's budget, at long last, recognize the fundamental bankruptcy of the way Minnesota deals with special education costs and revenues, or will his budget continue the Pawlenty approach, and inflict further deficits on districts like ours? We're pouring through the Dayton budget. I'll write more on this topic, when we get the answer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Let's take a break for the US Constitution--Federalist No 1

I thought it might be interesting, in light of recent discussions on the foundations and meaning of our Constitution to take a look at the views of key ideological authors of that Constitution. As a former high school social studies teacher, a sometime student of constitutional law, I wondered what our tea party friends would make of the federalist papers.

We live in a time, when everyone claims to know what the Constitution means, and generally, it seems, the Constitution is read to support their own vision of what ought to be, and ought not to be, good laws. And, more and more, constitutional activists--people who seek to change the current reading of the Constitution--marshal the central argument that we must look to the original intention of the founders.

And so periodically, I thought it would be stimulating to bring forward some of the key essays of Madison, Jay, and Hamilton, the great Federalists. You can find the Federalist Papers on line, and interpret them for yourself. Today, an introduction to the Federalist Papers Number 1.

Federalist 1, signed Publius, but authored by Alexander Hamilton, whose face graces the ten dollar bill, was the nations first Secretary of the Treasury after adoption of the Constitution. Hamilton represented the views of those in the nation who believed that a fractured confederation of quasi-independent states lacked the ability to manage the nation's economy. They saw the nation's commerce failing in comparison to greater national powers, such as France and England, and contended that depriving the national government of the ability to manage and foster economic growth would ultimately lead to decline and failure of the American nation. For Federalists, the economic unity was critical to the nation's survival and growth.

Federalist Number 1, then, is an introduction to the remaining federalist papers, the essays which more than any other secondary documents, assist us in understanding the ideology of the Constitutional founders. In Federalist Number 1, Hamilton recognizes that opponents of the new constitution would argue that a strong national government would be a threat to liberty and freedom. But he challenged that view: in fact, he argued that a weak national government, one that lacked the power to unify the nation and assure its economic and political strength, was actually a greater threat to liberty:

Some may challenge our efforts to create "the energy and efficiency of government" and stigmitize those efforts "as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty," he wrote. But, argued Hamilton, crippling the national government's ability to solve national problems was actually a greater threat to liberty.

An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. ....the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty....
Moreover, Hamilton urged, it is often the people who claim to be champions of individual liberty, and through those efforts, seek to cripple a strong national government and nation state, who turn out to lead their country to despotism.
History will teach us that the former [that is, "the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people" ] has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter [that is, forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government], and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
That brings us to the end of Federalist Number 1, in which Publius (Hamilton) proposed "a series of papers to discuss the following interesting particulars:-The utility of the UNION to your political prosperity-The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union-The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed to the attainment of this object-The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government-Its analogy to your own State constitution-and lastly, The additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty and to property.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

If something cannot continue forever, it must stop.

On Thursday, Ben Bernanke quoted the famous quotation of Economist Herbert Stein:
"Whenever something cannot go on forever, it will stop."
While Stein was referring to the deficit, his words apply equally to the structural deficit problems in Minnesota's public education system. Our public education finance system is structurally broken and the structural deficits are rising. The structural deficits must stop, but it is going to take courage to stop them in a way that does not harm the next generation.

I've been writing about cost-drivers in education for the last couple of weeks, and I've been writing about the arithmetic of education finance. By arithmetic of education finance, I mean to say that we need to look at the the relationship of what we receive and what we spend. By discussing the arithmetic of education finance, I want to make the point that whether you think educators are underpaid, or overpaid, or paid just right, and whether you think that education is underfunded, or overfunded, or funded just about right, there is no escaping the fact that we need to bring our costs and revenues into balance and as we do, we cannot sacrifice the education of our youngest generation.

Right now, the arithmetic of education finance is overwhelming us, because the State has created a permanent structural deficit in public education. The structural deficit involves growing state spending mandates, intentional revenue shortfalls, and structural problems in the funding and control of compensation. Our leadership in St. Paul, democrats and republicans alike, refuse to come together and restructure our education finance system so that costs and revenues are brought into balance. Educator compensation is built on a step, lane, and health benefit system that drives up costs faster than the legislature is willing to fund. State mandated special education spending is rising vastly faster than the legislature is willing to fund. State mandated educational standards are rising far faster than the legislature is willing to fund. You can argue that this is a funding and taxation problem, or that it is a spending problem, or both, but you cannot argue that we can continue down the current course forever.
"Whenever something cannot go on forever, it will stop"

We are running an educational finance system based on financial principles that cannot go on forever. If this were in a sector of our economy that wasn't all that important to our future, it would be excusable. But the education of our young is critical to the future of our nation and our state. It is inexcusable to continue the current system, which drives up costs and freezes revenues at one and the same time. The chart below, prepared by the Minnesota Department of Education, is an example of a purposeful policy implemented jointly by the Republicans and the Democrats. It shows that over the last decade, the Republicans and Democrats, governor and legislature, have jointly presided over an intentional system which has grown the state mandated special education spending from $937 million per year in 1999 to a planned $2001 million per year, (that is two billion dollars per year) in 2013. At the same time, the total funding provided to pay for this special education spending mandate has grown from $584 million to a projected $1,278 million in 2013. That's a purposeful increase in the special education deficit imposed on local districts of about a half billion dollars per year.

(click on chart for better view)

Now if there was ever a case of "something that cannot continue forever must stop", this is it. But there is not a single legislator in the Democratic dominated House and Senate who was willing in the last legislative session to fix this problem. Not on the cost side; not on the revenue side. Nor did Governor Pawlenty, for all his talk about courage lately lift a finger to address this problem. Every budget year, the Governor's administration pushed local districts to spend more on special education, and every budget year, he submitted a budget that proposed to grow the difference between spending and revenues higher. Last year, I urged local DFL legislators to support a measure that would reduce the spending mandate for special education so that it was matched to the national mandate only, and I was told that they could not do that, because "we would get too many phone calls."

So far this year, the Republican leadership has been introducing cost control measures -- which I support -- designed to freeze the pay of school employees for the biennium. That's an easy vote for Republicans, because Education Minnesota floods democrats with campaign money. But on the special education deficit problem, which is far more significant, so far nothing. So far, Governor Dayton has been silent on this issue. We've heard a lot of loose talk about unfunded mandates. But so far, from St. Paul, nickel and dime stuff from the Governor, and nickel and dime stuff from the legislature. So far, the same idea. Take some easy votes, and blow up the special education deficit. Unless we find a permanent lasting solution to the structural deficit creating problems in education finance -- including the growing special education deficit--we cannot solve the public education financial mess.

As we do this, we need to remember Stein's law: Something that cannot continue forever will stop. And the longer we wait to stop it, the harder the problem is going to be to fix. You can't fix intractable problems by attacking your political enemies only. If you want to lead and govern, if you want to fix what must be fixed, before it is too late. you have to do some things that bother your friends as well. If somebody doesn't find a bit more courage, Stein's law, and arithmetic is going to defeat us.

Arithmetic of Education Finance Series
Excess Cost-Aid proration
Lane Improvement Costs
Increased TRA Costs Imposed on Districts
Health insurance, Part I
Health insurance, Part II
Health Insurance, Part III
Unfunded Step Pay System will Destroy Education

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Unfunded Step Pay System Will Destroy Public Education

I've been running a series on cost drivers in public education. On Sunday, I finished a series of posts on health insurance costs. I argued that the skyrocketing cost of health care costs, and especially health insurance, makes it impossible for public education to stay sustainable, if school districts attempt to hold employees, or even some of them, from increased health insurance premium increases.

Today, I want to post about another cost driver that deserves careful review -- the system of step increases which reward education professionals for longevity of service. The step system is part of what is known as the "single salary schedule," which rewards all teachers the same, based upon longevity (steps) and training (lanes).

The system of step increases, and the single salary schedule system of which it is a part, permeates public education across the country. When introduced, it was designed to address some major issues with previous compensation systems. Proponents believed that it would prevent gender inequities that had previously existed in public education. In some states and some districts, there was a perception as well that without a pay schedule, raises might be distributed as a form of patronage, distributing the best pay increase to the friends or favorites of school leadership. Without a systematic pay system, there is always a danger in a politically driven system that pay will not be distributed based on merit, but rather on political support inside or outside the organization. Also, proponents of step-based pay schedules believed that a fixed schedule would attract more qualified persons to the profession. Since teacher pay had been historically low as compared to some other professions, the idea of a moral commitment to regular pay increases found in a schedule might keep teachers from leaving education.

Debate about the single salary schedule, and especially steps, has two aspects, a policy aspect and a financial aspect. The single salary schedule has been under increasing attack on many fronts, these days. For example, a report "Teacher Compensation and Teacher Quality," by the Committee on Economic Development argues that:
The so-called “single salary schedule” which structures how most teachers are paid is too rigid, resulting in perennial shortages of teachers in some subjects. It rewards teacher characteristics (years of experience and academic credentials) that are not strongly linked to student learning, and it ignores measures of teacher effectiveness in the classroom. Recent research documents how teacher resources are misallocated across schools (to the detriment of the most at-risk students), a misallocation that results in part from the lack of monetary incentives for teachers to take on the toughest assignments.
Today's post, however doesn't take a stand on these pay- policy issues. I want instead to take a look at the arithmetic of steps, and how that relates to the structural issues that confront us in school finance. Is the State of Minnesota providing sufficient revenue to sustain step-based salary schedules across the State? If not, is it realistic for legislators to wish away or will away the step system by starving it to death economically? If the step system disappeared, is it realistic to believe that what replaces it would really be any cheaper, and if it were cheaper, would that be a good thing in the long run?

The arithmetic of steps works just fine, when the State provides enough money to school districts to cover the cost of two years worth of step increases, any health insurance cost increases absorbed by the district, plus some salary schedule improvement to provide increases to teachers who earn no step increase because no step movement is provided at their position on the salary schedule. But when state funding increases are not sufficient to do that, the step structure can lead to friction between labor and management, and often to significant reductions in programs, increases in class size, or other financial retrenchments. For this reason, its important for policy makers to understand the arithmetic of the step system as it exists in Minnesota school districts.
Before I do that, however, I want to pause to point out that this issue of labor costs is not the most significant financial challenge that faces school districts. I say this, because my posts are discussing labor costs arithmetic right now, and I don't want to leave the wrong impression. By far the greatest financial challenge that is driving school districts towards financial destruction is the bankrupt special education funding system. In FY 1999 and 2000, the difference between state mandated special education spending and revenues to pay for that spending was about 350 million per year. The Department of Education is projecting that based on current trends, that difference--that shortfall in funding for mandated spending compared to state and federally provided revenues--will rise to over $700 million per year by FY 2013, or $1.4 billion for the biennium that begins with 2013. During that same period, total state and federal mandated special education spending in the state of Minnesota (not counting the $5000 in regular funding provided for all students, including students with disabilities) will more than double to two-billion dollars. Yet to date, no Republican nor Democrat has introduced any legislation designed to address this problem, nor has the Dayton administration even mentioned it as a problem. If this unfunded mandate were funded, many school districts across the state, including our own, could eliminate their operating referenda completely, and actually be better off. So let's not lose site of a sense of proportionality. I'm talking about steps today, but the elephant in the room, is the mandate-deficit that nobody wants to fix.
So with that sermon, back to the arithmetic of the step system. Here is a short summary of the issues that confront us when revenue increases from the State are non-existent or at the low end.

In the years that the State fails to provide adequate revenues to fund step increases, financial chaos results.

Step systems still create a class of employees who receive no increases from the single salary schedule: Under almost all step systems there are employees who are at a step level that doesn't provide an increase. In our own school district here in St. Cloud, almost half of the steps on our grid provide for no salary increase. The step movement is concentrated in the first 7 or 8 years of longevity, and in the following years, there are numerous years in which an employee receives no step increase. The total cost of step increases is relatively high, but not all employees receive the benefit of that cost. As a result, at bargaining time, there is tremendous pressure on the labor representatives of teacher to provide step increases plus an upward increase in the entire salary schedule so that all members receive some form of increase.

The number of "empty steps" and their distribution varies from district to district. In some districts most, or all, teachers in the range of steps (that is 12, 20 or more) get step increases, but the amount of any one step increase may be reduced because there are more steps to pay. The amount of the step increase in some districts may be higher at some steps than others. In the St. Cloud District, our first 7 or 8 steps are all filled in. But in later years, there are a number of "empty steps" where the teacher receives no step increase at all. The District's cost of the first 7 or 8 steps is much higher, then, than the following years, because the schedule is designed to move teachers rapidly upward at the beginning, meaning that there is less step money available in later years.

Step systems create a perceived automatic cost increase that suggest to employees that when management delivers only step increases, employees have experienced a pay freeze. This freeze, which is called a soft-freeze, denies many employees a pay increase, because they are in a step free zone of the pay schedule, as I stated above. Employees perceive the step increase as nothing more than what they were expecting all along, and they have a great deal of difficulty understanding why the District is suffering financially when they personally did not get a raise.

In some school districts, step increases occur after the contract term is complete, during bargaining. If the State has not provided sufficient funds to pay those step increases, the district is losing money even before bargaining has begun.

Minnesota legislators and the governor need to come to grips with the arithmetic of step increases. They should begin by getting financial information on the actual cost of the system as it exists in Minnesota. They would be fooling themselves to think that step increases are going to disappear as if by magic and that somehow raises are just going to go away permanently, without an adequate replacement. But if legislators refuse to fund the cost of step increases, and if school districts continue to pay them, public education is destined to die a slow and painful death.

Excess Cost-Aid proration
Lane Improvement Costs
Increased TRA Costs Imposed on Districts
Health insurance, Part I
Health insurance, Part II
Health Insurance, Part III