Monthly Archives: September 2006

Joint Education Meeting #

I quite enjoyed last week’s joint meeting between the State Board of Education, the State Board of Regents, and many of our legislators. District officials, local school board members and concerned parents were there too.

I found it more productive than other education summits for one simple reason: policy makers at multiple levels were able to sit in in the same room and talk/brainstorm for a couple of hours.

Several discussions started that are worth continuing. (And, I promised Rep. Urquhart I would post my notes and thoughts.) These thoughts do not indicate any formal proposal or intended course of action at this point, and are not necessarily consistent with my views. They are simply items of discussion in a brainstorm-style session.

College participation and remediation

College attendance is down. I’ve blogged before about why I think this is true. Rising tuition—only one of many factors, in my mind—is getting the most play in the media, and was the most mentioned by discussion participants. (Are the articles triggered by public sentiment, or vice versa?)

A complaint we hear often from both higher education and business leaders is that not all high school graduates are adequately prepared for life after high school. UVSC is one of the louder voices, claiming that nearly one-half of their entering students require remedial math, and about one-third of the entering pool require remedial English. Despite accepting a good number of out-of-state students, UVSC says the remedial students are primarily products of Utah high schools. (Critics point out that UVSC’s entry requirements are slightly lower than a “fog the mirror” test, and argue it naturally tends toward a good amount of remediation.)

Tackling the issue of post high school participation and preparation, the group suggested:

A stronger emphasis on the core curriculum.

There was generally praise for the Board of Education’s recent strengthening of high school graduation requirements.

It was also suggested that some schools may be offering too many electives, that the quest for well-rounded students has gone a bit too far, to the detriment of fundamentals.

Electives

Some participants decried (rightly, in my mind) the practice of high school sports teams requiring students to take additional P.E. classes such as weight training in order to participate at the varsity level. Such requirements crowd out core instruction or career preparation courses.

Make curriculum available online

There was some praise of courses where lessons were available to parents. It was suggested parental involvement could be increased if course content were available online. (The core curriculum is online, but can be vague and riddled with edu-speak. Course content maps to the state-required curriculum, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true: it may be presented in a different order, or additional topic might be covered. Depending on the district, required curriculum could span multiple courses.)

The chicken or the egg? (or both?)

In my opinion, the best part of the discussion came when decision makers started asking for data. Two questions were posed.

First, can student preparation be tracked back to where their teachers were educated? In other words, are some colleges of education doing a better job than others? The answer is: we don’t know, but hope to find out shortly. Study tracking this particular question was started earlier this year.

Second, can the need for student remediation be tracked back to districts, or even high schools? Senator Lyle Hillyard (R-Logan) suggested colleges track the need for remediation and report the deficiency to the students’ home school or district. He suggested that if schools notified the ten districts producing the most students in need of remediation, the problem could be appropriately addressed before students graduate from high school.

Using the ACT

Sparked partly by suggestions from State Superintendent of Schools Patti Harrington, there was a good bit of talk about administering the ACT statewide, either as compliment to, or in place of, the UBSCT. Most saw value in using it, but there was some question regarding its place in the already over-full battery of tests given in school, and concern about the cost of providing the ACT for all students.

The ACT cannot fairly be used in place of the UBSCT for several reasons. It does not map to our state curriculum. We have no control over the content of the test. Of significant importance, ACT (the company) will not allow the ACT (test) to be used as an exit exam.

This led the group to ask if we’re adequately assessing what (whether) our students are learning. It was suggested that money for UBSCT remediation could be redirected to remediate the CRT, which is offered earlier. Someone also suggested that perhaps the CRT could be combined with or used in place of the UBSCT.

More high school counselors

The State Board of Education is including a request to fund more high school counselors in its budget in support of the newly increased high school graduation requirements. Discussion participants agreed that more counselors are necessary, and might aid in addressing college preparation as well.

Enough, already!

If you’re still with me, you must really be interested in education … and this was only the morning discussion! I’ve left some good suggestions out, in part because I’m still suffering from information overload. Where should we go from here? What suggestions deserve pursuing, and who should be responsible for doing it? The discussion only holds value if pursued, so leave your comments below.

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My Take on “J2” #

Tomorrow the legislature will likely cut our taxes. My response is somewhat mixed.

I’ve listened to senators, representatives, and even the governor sell the plan. They do a bang up job, and each time I walk away being convinced it’s in the best interest of Utah. But when I stop to think it through, I’m not so sure.

Education: talking point or honest intent?

Both sides are using education funding as the primary reason for their position.

On one side are parents, teachers, and those concerned about the immediate well-being of our public education system crying for adequate funding for public education. On the other are legislators, politicians, and the occasional business leader pointing to future economic growth, promising increased revenues will go to education. It is sometimes hard to tell whether it’s a talking point to appease the opposition, or whether they really believe the cut translates to increased education funding.

To his credit, I think the governor honestly and truly believes this cut will benefit education in the long term. Unfortunately, I have less confidence in the motives of others I’ve heard speak on the issue.

Wether it passes or not, education has no guarantee. The future is not as easy to predict as we might like, and the actions of future legislatures are even more difficult to foresee. Besides, were the tax changes not to pass, the legislature could still engage in money shuffling and not put existing growth for educational purposes.

Education funding

When asked whether they favored or opposed the proposed plan, Utahns were split down the middle. (48% favored, 44% opposed, +/- 5% error) When asked whether they favored a cut or using the money to fund education, the response was in support of public school funding. (58% ed funding, 32% tax cut, +/- 5% error) (Deseret News, “Most Utahns would forgo tax cut,” September 17, 2006)

In rather silly rebuttals, some legislators have suggested Utahns against the tax cut could simply overpay on next year’s taxes and have the money go to education. Sorry, but I don’t trust the legislature to not shuffle piles to divert the dollars to other projects.

Utahns are putting their money where their mouth is. A good number of local education bonds and leeways passed during the primary election. We’ll see more on the ballot this November. While the legislature is trimming the income tax, residents are increasing their property taxes at the ballot box to pay for education. Truer than any poll, this should be a sign residents want more spent on public schools.

Reforms

I’m in favor of the rebracketing and inflation indexing. I think that move, just over half of the proposed tax cut, represents sound tax policy, and is socially responsible. It’s the bifurcated system I struggle with.

With a handful of minor exceptions, the flat tax option will be of primary benefit to the wealthiest 5% of Utahns. That’s not much of a reform.

I attempted to sum up this piece of the reform and the arguments for it into a sentence of single-syllable words: If we give tax cuts to the rich, more rich folk will move to our state; more rich folk [paying taxes] means more dough for the state (and more cash for schools).

Feel free to tell me my characterization is inaccurate, but if that’s the debate it sounds like a long shot, and I’m not sure I buy it.

Every journey…

I’ve heard more than once that this is the “first step” in true tax reform. I haven’t heard what the next step is. What is our goal? Before we start the journey we should be comfortable with the destination. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.

My end goal is public education funding in the context of a society with multiple needs (transportation, safety, health care, etc.). I don’t think this road will get us there.

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Tuition Tax Credits: Rhetoric and Reality #

Yesterday, an anonymous reader commented:

EVERY voucher/tax credit proposal in Utah since 2002 or so has had a means-testing component to it so how can you say that the Utah Taxpayers Association’s comment bore only passing resemblance to previous legislation?

It’s a fair question.

Yes, tuition tax credit bills in the past few years have had means testing. Governor Huntsman indicated he wouldn’t sign one otherwise.

One foot in sea and one on shore

I’m not suggesting that previous bills didn’t have means testing, but that Mr. Jerman’s description of means testing was different than the laws that were proposed. He described a program where only the economically disadvantaged would receive the credit and those who are currently able to send their children to private school without assistance would not be eligible for (or even desire) the benefit. My concern is not specific to Mr. Jerman (although it appeared in that context), but rather to much of the public debate on tuition tax credits: what he was selling and what I’ve read in proposed legislation are not consistent.

Rep. Ferrin’s 2005 bill (HB 39) provided for 50% of private school for tuition, up to a maximum of $2,000 for all students, and up to a total of 100% or $4,000 for students in low-income households. The second substitute of the same bill provided greater benefit for middle-income families and less of a benefit for low-income families.

In 2006, HB 184 was introduced offering even less money to disadvantaged students than 2005 HB 39 2S while maintaining the previously proposed middle-income benefit.

The Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship (Utah Code 53A-1a-701, etc.) was seen by some as a trial run for tuition tax credits, and has no means testing. Last session’s HB 181 (now Utah Code 53A-1-612) offers a voucher for remediating high school students who fail the UBSCT multiple times. It also has no provision for means testing.

To one thing constant never

I’m not opposed to a voucher or refundable tax credit allowing low-income families access to private school. I do not support a similar benefit for upper income households. I’m uncomfortable that the rhetoric and the legislation don’t match.

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Education Paradox for Breakfast #

The Utah Foundation Breakfast last week was certainly interesting, but not terribly helpful. Half of the presenters were there primarily to push their political interests, some ignoring the purpose of the summit as I understood it.

Paradox Lost

If your keeping an eye on the public education debate in the state, you know that the Utah Foundation released a report earlier this year titled “Paradox Lost,” a follow-up to their previous report, “Utah’s Education Paradox.” (pdf) The paradox was this: Utah has the lowest per-pupil spending in the country [1], while in 1995 spending a higher percent of our personal income on public education than 45 other states. (“Paradox Lost,” p. 1)

“Paradox Lost” highlighted that while we are still last in per-pupil spending, we can no longer claim the same level of support of public education as we could several years ago. The primary reasons for this drop are the floating down of the property tax basic levy, and the shift of income tax funds to higher education. [2] The breakfast, as I saw it, was to allow diverse groups to propose solutions, or (as some did), to debate whether the problem is a problem at all.

The Presentations

Some of the presentations were, unfortunately, political and predictable. Others were interesting, some thought-provoking. I’ve summarized some of their comments, and my response, in the order they presented.

USBA, USSA, UASBO

Bruce Williams, a district business administrator and presenting on behalf of the Utah School Boards Association, the Utah School Superintendents Association, and the Utah Association of School Business Officials, proposed a very simple idea. He recognized that school districts are required to participate in funding, and that local property taxes are their most stable source of funding. He argued that rates are falling without matching appraisals, resulting in reduced taxes per household. To address this issue, he proposed that instead of adjusting the basic property tax rate down annually, do it every four years, matching the cycle in which appraisals are completed. He concluded by saying that if the downward trend un the funding effort (particularly the floating of the basic levy) were to continue, he doesn’t believe we can continue to fund education at even a minimal level.

Utah Education Association

The UEA president repeated their call to “Invest in education” and reduce class size. It’s not something I’ve heard too many disagree with, but I didn’t hear anything that addressed the matter at hand. Unfortunately, her presentation, while very “feel-good” lacked substance. Their position paper does a much better job of highlighting causes, but their bottom line is still “spend more on education.”

Utah Taxpayers Association

Mike Jerman, Vice President Utah Taxpayers Association, had two main points: 1) funding isn’t the problem, and 2) tuition tax credits are the answer to all of education’s significant [but unspecified] problems. He pointed to competition in higher education as an example of how competition can improve the system, and how education can provide “a more personalized experience.”

I bristled at this for a couple of reasons. Higher education has a drop-out rate that would be wholly unacceptable in public education, not counting the significant number of young people who never go to college. Additionally, it was my experience that higher ed was the most impersonal part of my education. Everywhere I went, I was a number, not a name. At the time of my graduation, only one professor really knew my name, and that was only because I had worked for him outside of school.

Lastly, the tuition tax credit system that Mr. Jerman argued for bore only passing resemblance to the one making annual appearances at the legislature. He emphasized means testing and providing tax credits for the economically disadvantaged, suggesting the rich wouldn’t want (or be able to use) such credits.

If you want another perspective, head on over to the Utah Taxpayer Blog for their impression of the presentaitons.

Parents for Choice in Education

Doug Holmes, Executive Director for Parents for Choice in Education pointed participants to the position paper they submitted, suggesting the model they propose would simplify education funding while maintaining equity. He didn’t go into the details, but his report is worth reading. It suggests moving away from the most line items and the WPU—which although it stands for “Weighted Pupil Unit” has only passing resemblance to per student funding—to a model that more closely resembles per student funding.

Mr. Holmes lost points with the crowd (to the detriment of his proposal) for using quotes from Horace Mann suggesting schools can and must operate in locos parentis (in place of parents), and comparing our current education system to communism and planned economies. He summed up his presentation saying, “Exposing the public system to competition will create a greater willingness to fund that system.”

State Charter School Board

Dr. Scott Smith, chair of the State Charter School Board echoed my sentiments, saying, “I don’t feel that the system is broke; I see that it is underfunded.”

Higher Education

Richard Kendell, Commissioner of Higher Education told attendees he believes plans to freeze the basic levy or earmarking a certain percentage of income taxes to public education are ill-fated, because we tie the legislature’s hands. He argued other earmarks, including those for water projects and transportation ought to come off as well, to allow the legislature more flexibility. He said one of the unintended consequences of the 1996 constitutional amendment allowing income taxes to be used for higher education has not resulted in a windfall for higher education, as some in public education assert. The level of funding to higher education has gone down, but its importance has not. A high school graduate with no skills will no longer be introduced into the middle class.

Notes

  1. Utah was ranked 51st in 2004 in per pupil funding from all sources. It would take about a 20% increase in total spending to catch up to number 50, Idaho. See the U.S. Census Bureau’s press release for more information.
  2. Higher ed isn’t the winner here. As Education Fund dollars are shifted to higher education, General Fund dollars are being pulled out for other purposes in what some have called a money laundering scheme.
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Customer Service Done Right #

A friend of mine recently accepted a position at Boise State University, and documented the numerous customer service troubles he encountered along the way. It’s a bit long but worth reading. I’ve highlighted his main points here.

  • As customers, we search for someone to blame, but only because we want a problem fixed. The person who caused the problem may not be the one to fix it. When working with customers, take ownership; connect the customer to the solution.
  • Uncorrected little mistakes can become big mistakes. Responsibility lies with those who made the little mistakes at the beginning.
  • Don’t try to hide mistakes. Take responsibility—)but more than that, take ownership of finding a solution.
  • Capitulating early won’t provide the emotional win, but in real terms it may be cheaper than arguing. Even if we don’t consider intangibles like a positive brand image, word-of-mouth, repeat customers, or opportunity costs, our time and our employees’ time is valuable. Understand the cost of covering mistakes.
  • Empathize, don’t patronize. We do this by taking ownership, sharing information and providing options.

You can see the recurring theme: take ownership.

I had problem with a major telecom when I last moved. (The other major telecom had caused me some significant trouble, so I switched.) I still had no service one week after it was to have been hooked up. It took eight hours on the phone (much of it on hold) over the course of more than fourteen calls to about five different customer service lines (all with horrible phone trees) before was I finally connected to a manager that promised he would personally make sure it was fixed. I was pessimistic, but willing to trust him. I wanted to trust him. He couldn’t, of course, fix it over the phone, but he did promise to call me back. (Which he did after it was fixed that evening.)

The simple act of someone taking ownership was enough to ease my frustration. I finally felt as if someone cared (empathy), he promised to call me back (information), and he followed through (trust). Why did it take so long to find someone willing to do that?

If you ever have to deal with customers, or manage people who do, head on over and read the whole thing.

Before you ask, yes, I know he’s using a knock-off of my design. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And, he asked politely.

Hire Tom! Hire Tom!