Other states getting tough about school spending oversight

Maybe it’s time for Kentucky to do the same

Education Week reports that a number of states such as Maryland, Oklahoma, Washington and Kansas are starting to raise questions and even call for investigations into how state education dollars are actually being spent.

Some of this is being encouraged by new requirements to show accurate per pupil spending amounts for all schools.

Certainly, we have never had really accurate and comparable per pupil spending reports for Kentucky’s schools. For example, in 2015-16 the Kentucky School Report Cards “Data Sets” Excel spreadsheet for LEARNING_ENVIRONMENT_STUDENTS_TEACHERS shows the Payneville Elementary School in Meade County supposedly spent only a ridiculously low $120 per pupil. The state average that year was over $10,000 per pupil. Clearly, the Payneville number is just flat wrong, but it is about the only school level funding data you can find.

By the way, the LEARNING_ENVIRONMENT_STUDENTS_TEACHERS Excel spreadsheet for 2016-17 doesn’t even have entries in the per pupil spending column, possibly because I suggested to the Kentucky Department of Education that if they can’t get the numbers close to credible, they are probably better off not publishing anything.

In any event, if our educators cannot accurately tell us the overall total amount of money we are spending per student in each school, we clearly have a problem that needs more investigation. Our educators keep saying they need more money, but how can they know that if they don’t seem to even know how much they are getting now?

International tests for babies?

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests for 15-year olds have been around for a long time, comparing results for teens in different nations around the world on tests of math, reading, and science. Usually, US results are less than stellar.

But…Baby PISA! According to Helge Wasmuth, an associate professor of early childhood and childhood education at New York’s Mercy College, Baby PISA is coming, and hardly anyone knows it.

More importantly, Prof. Wasmuth raises some serious questions about how this program is being developed and how babies are going to be evaluated. Certainly, with many educators reluctant to start doing evaluations of children even in the lower elementary grades (hence Kentucky’s current KPREP tests don’t start until the third grade), whether a meaningful evaluation of 3-year olds is even possible seems very much in question.

Wasmuth isn’t alone with concerns about this new program. Truth in American Education has weighed in, and they are not pleased.

If your toddler is selected for this dubious program, I would strongly suggest parental caution.

That’s assuming someone is even informing parents that their toddlers are being used in some sort of international comparison study.

Bluegrass Beacon – Pension deliberations: Nothing but uncomfortable

BluegrassBeaconLogoEditor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon column is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.

Legislators frequently grumble about Kentuckians’ lack of interest in, attention to and knowledge of complicated issues like the public-pension system.

Some observation about how “people’s eyes glaze over when I start talking pensions” usually accompanies such grievances.

But now, with the debate turning away from the usual, seemingly far-away discussions about impersonal pension-policy issues like ARC payments and investment returns to matters landing closer to home – how future benefits for current state workers are determined, for example – individual Kentuckians and citizen-groups are paying attention, weighing in and even seeking more information.

All of which makes the House of Representatives’ secret meeting on Aug. 29 bewildering.

The day following the release of long-awaited recommendations by PFM, the consulting group charged with auditing Kentucky’s troubled public-pension systems, the House closed its doors.

Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, explains: the political pow-wow was “for informational purposes only.”

Meeting secretly, Hoover said, would allow lawmakers to gather information from PFM consultants and state Budget Director John Chilton “without the media there.”

It would, he continued, “make it a more comfortable setting for them to ask questions.”

To try and verify this meeting was “for informational purposes only,” the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government filed a complaint requesting not only an acknowledgement by House leadership that open-meetings requirements were violated, but that it also “provide the public with a copy of any written record or audio or video recording of the closed session.”

Even if the recent secret meeting was limited to gathering information, why close doors?

What was said that an already underinformed citizenry would not have benefited from hearing?

What’s different about this pension-reform discussion compared to, say, reforms in 2008 and 2013 where, since the doors remained opened, all could witness the glad-handing and back-slapping accompanying empty claims of having fixed the system for decades to come only to discover a few short years later little was accomplished except delaying tough decisions while the retirement systems’ funding levels continued to slide?

Considering how little information has been available to taxpayers who pay the bills and hundreds of thousands of state workers and retirees who have no fingernails left while worrying about how Frankfort ultimately will respond to PFM’s report, shouldn’t elected representatives’ first meeting concerning its recommendations have been accompanied by flung-wide-open doors?

This wasn’t a private company’s board meeting where the agenda is driven by how to increase profits and satisfy shareholders.

These are elected representatives meeting to discuss the worst-in-the-nation pension crisis, which threatens funding for every government program and service that anyone from either side of the political aisle cares about and is burdened by liability that will require billions of our tax dollars to fix.

Why wasn’t this meeting televised from Pikeville to Paducah on Kentucky Educational Television (KET)?

What could be a higher priority for KET, for which taxpayers shell out more than $14 million annually, than covering such a critical gathering of policymakers concerning this severe threat to the commonwealth’s entire economic stability and future?

“Yes, but that would be terribly uncomfortable for the politicians.” shaky politically-consternated voices would claim in united knee-jerking reaction.

In view of what’s at stake should this legislature fail to take needed steps to ensure digging in Kentucky’s pension hole ceases, it must be nothing but uncomfortable.

This debate must be one of the legislature’s toughest, most tension-filled and, yes, unpleasant debates in its long history.

Reporters must be allowed on the floor to cover it; galleries must be opened for Kentuckians to witness it.

True government transparency requires citizens not only know the final score but behold the good, bad, maybe even some ugly during all nine innings.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.

About those claims that the US has high poverty

Americans are frequently assaulted with amazing claims that our country has one of the highest poverty rates in the entire developed world. We get it from sources like the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF, sometimes just the United Nations Children’s Fund), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and a host of others, as well.

For example, the Washington Post reported in April 2013 that the United Nations Children’s Fund had just issued a new report showing the US poverty rate ranked just one off the bottom on a list of countries from “virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.”

These claims sound really grim, but are they accurate? Can it be that when many poor in the US somehow manage to have cell phones, TV’s, refrigerators and a lot of other things that these Americans still are badly off compared to, say, the poor in some of the former Communist satellite countries?

Actually, the same WaPo article provides clues to what is really going on, and it’s a classic example of why you really need to understand what is behind the numbers people keep passing around.

When you dig further into the Post’s article, it explains that UNICEF defines poor as living in a household that earns less than half of the national median income in their country.

In other words, UNICEF’s dubious statistics use a separate poverty level for each country. UNICEF isn’t keeping all the countries on a level playing field with their numbers.

The WaPo article expands on this, explaining:

“UNICEF is using its own ‘poverty line’ here; the more typical international definition is a family that lives on less than $1.25 or $2 per day. Almost no Americans qualify for this definition. Internally, the United States defines the poverty line as a family living on less than about $22,000 per year, which includes about 15 percent of Americans.”

So, not only does UNICEF measure poverty using unequal standards for each country, but if a common poverty scale accepted by many economic researchers is used, hardly anyone in the US falls under that common poverty level.

[Read more…]

Accountability puzzle

Over at the Prichard Blog, Susan Perkins Weston discusses some puzzling material that is part of the Kentucky Board of Education’s agenda package for its meeting tomorrow. This material is called the “Kentucky Accountability System, Long Term and Interim Goals for Public Reporting,” and it includes a series of tables like the one below that show projected, year-by-year score goals for different student groups in different school levels and subjects for the period from 2018-19 to 2029-30.

KY Long Term and Interim Goals Table for HS Math

Strangely, there is no explanation offered for these tables, and while they might seem straight-forward at first, as Ms. Weston points out, that simplicity fades away quickly once you examine the tables more closely. Then, as Weston points out, all sorts of issues arise.

Weston covers the problems nicely, but I’ll just add one key additional point. The tables start out with “Baseline” scores for 2018-19. The problem here, of course, is we have not even seen the test results from 2016-17 at this time. Where did the Kentucky Department of Education come up with those baseline scores for tests that are still two years away?

Also, given the strange way some of the numbers work, do these tables make any sense? As Weston points out for the table above, the Kentucky Department of Education says that it will be just fine if our high school math proficiency rate way out in 2029-30 is only 49.7 percent! Really?

There are plenty of other issues concerning the state’s new school accountability system that have yet to be resolved, which we and other groups have mentioned before.

I don’t really think anyone will know how the new system works until we get real data from the 2018-19 school year to examine, and that is, of course, still two years away. Meanwhile, while the state board certainly can vote to continue the progress, I don’t see how they will be able to adopt an enforceable regulation for the accountability system anytime soon.

Is there a backlash growing over Kentucky’s proposed school accountability system?

Unbridled Learning, Kentucky’s current public-school assessment and accountability system, is on the way out, and Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt and the Kentucky Department of Education have been working on an as-yet unnamed replacement accountability system for some time. Pruitt and his team have held two sets of public hearings seeking Kentuckians’ input into the new program and he formed several advisory committees to further develop ideas for the new system.

Now, a proposed system is starting to take form. The Kentucky Board of Education took its first formal look at the proposal in June, and a follow-up discussion is expected during the board’s August meeting.

Surprisingly, amid this movement toward finalizing Kentucky’s new accountability program – which, by law, must be submitted to Washington, DC for approval by mid-September – a curious letter appeared last week, co-signed by leaders of several organizations including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, who were members of one of Pruitt’s key advisory committees.

It almost seems like the letter is, to use technical lingo, a minority dissenting report.

[Read more…]

KentuckyWired: Still suffering from the secrecy virus

COG LOGOThe Bluegrass Institute has made no secret of its opposition to KentuckyWired, the state’s $340M broadband initiative, describing it as “a big government boondoggle” and examining the “[v]irus of secrecy infect[ing]” the project in an October 2015 article.

It should have come as no surprise to me when I was unable to locate the agency’s offices so that I could submit an open records request.

I was asked to obtain a copy of the regular meeting schedule for the Kentucky Communications Network Authority, the board that oversees KentuckyWired. The schedule was not posted on the agency’s website – not a legal requirement but a common practice among public agencies —  and the only available telephone number sent me directly to voicemail.

Several telephone calls to the Governor’s Office, to which KCNA is administratively attached, yielded no results. Otherwise helpful employees had never heard of the authority and ultimately provided me with the same telephone number I had already unsuccessfully called.

Later in the day, I reached an employee who provided me with the agency’s address: 209 St. Clair Street, Fourth Floor.

My reasons for hand delivering the open records request were twofold. First, I had wasted so much time attempting to locate the agency’s address, I missed the afternoon mail. And second, I wanted to determine if the agency had complied with KRS 61.876 by posting rules governing access to its records in a prominent location accessible to the public.

These statutorily required rules are the “how to’s” for citizens wishing to access the agency’s records by means of an open records request. KCNA’s rules were nowhere to be seen. Is this a violation of the open records law? You bet.

Several hours after I delivered my request, I received a telephone call from agency counsel and a subsequent email.

Notwithstanding the legal requirement that the “schedule of regular meetings. . .be made available to the public,” he indicated that  “at the April 2015 [sic] meeting the KCNA board set its regular meetings on a quarterly basis:  March, June, September and December.   The meetings will be scheduled for the 3rd Thursday of each month.  The Board’s next meeting is June 15 at 1 pm in Room 110 of the Capital.  Since the board set the regular meetings at the April meeting, I don’t have a document to provide to you, but I wanted to give you the information.”

I asked that he specify the actual dates, times and locations, and he responded, “Based on this schedule, the meetings will be September 21, 2017, December 21, 2017 and March 15, 2018, all to be held at 1 pm in Room 110 of the Capital [sic], contingent upon schedule and room availability.”

I reminded agency counsel that “the regular meeting schedule should fix the date, time and place for regular meetings,” but was minimally satisfied with his response.

That is until I received a follow-up email from agency counsel on June 15. He advised, “I wanted to let you know that at today’s meeting the Board changed the December meeting date.  It is now Dec. 14, 2017 at 1:00 pm in Room 110.”

By rescheduling the December 21 regular meeting to December 14, KCNA obligated itself to treat that meeting as a special meeting and to comply with statutory notice requirements. It is well established that a rescheduled regular meeting is a special meeting. See, for example, 92-OMD-1473, recognizing that “when the public agency deviates from its regular meeting schedule and reschedules that regular meeting, the rescheduled meeting becomes a special meeting.”

“The express purpose of the Open Meetings Act” —  Kentucky’s highest court has observed — “is to maximize notice of public meetings and actions.  The failure to comply with the strict letter of the law in conducting meetings of a public agency violates the public good.” Both the legislature in enacting the law and the courts in construing it have demonstrated a commitment to open government openly arrived at.

Nevertheless, these events confirm that KCNA’s regular meeting schedule is conditioned “upon schedule and room availability” and therefore not fixed as to date, time and place. It provides inadequate notice to the public and no real certainty as to future regular meetings.

KCNA is far too casual about what constitutes a formally adopted regular meeting schedule. How many more changes will the board make and will these changes be reflected in its illusory regular meeting schedule?

How better to evade oversight than to conduct meetings without adequate notice to the public. Apparently, KCNA is still infected with the virus of secrecy that afflicted it in 2015.

Amye Bensenhaver, one of the foremost experts on Kentucky’s nationally recognized open records and open meetings laws, is director of the Bluegrass Institute’s Center for Open Government.

Strike two it is for Jefferson County Schools’ Chief Academic Officer manning

I wrote on April 26, 2017 about the surprise announcement that the Lisa Herring, Chief Academic Officer (CAO) in the Jefferson County Public School District (JCPS), was a finalist to become Birmingham, Alabama’s new school superintendent. The surprise here was that Herring, who has been on the job less than a year in Louisville, was even considering a move.

Well, it’s now clear that Herring can’t exactly be in love with her current position in JCPS. The online news service connected to the Birmingham News just announced that Herring has indeed accepted that top spot in the Birmingham school system.

[Read more…]

Digital learning: Not always pleasing parents

Before getting into this, I want to stress that I believe digital learning has strong potential to improve K to 12 education. I base that opinion on my own experience when I was an Air Force instructor pilot and an instructional technology program developer for the first generation of automated teaching machines to go operational in the Air Force pilot training program. Good equipment, properly used by well-trained staff, and – perhaps most importantly – loaded with good instructional programs, can enhance learning.

With that said, I also believe that just loading up a school with lots of digital equipment and then rapidly grabbing ahold of a digital learning program can prove problematic.

A case in point seems to be surfacing now in the Boone County Public School District in Kentucky.

In “Facebook program at school causes controversy,” the Kentucky Enquirer points to a growing controversy in the Boone County system over a digital learning program called Summit Learning, which was originally developed in California. Summit is being supported online by Facebook.

For sure, Summit, at least in its Boone County incarnation, is controversial. The Enquirer says the squabble is “so fierce that at least two families have yanked their children from Boone County Schools and other parents are accusing the district of treating students like guinea pigs.”

The Enquirer continues, “There are questions about how classrooms should be structured, how students should be graded and how much homework they should get. And there are questions about privacy – who collects what data and how it is used.”

There have also been questions about implementation. For example, Summit is supposed to be a “Blended Learning” approach where students spend part of the day on computers but are also supposed to still get classical teacher led instruction, as well. However, determining exactly what the computer-to-classical-approach mix should be is a challenge even in well-ordered systems.

In my Air Force days there was still a large amount of instructor-to-student interaction after our instructional technology came along. Having observed some Summit classroom activity, my initial impression is that the Boone County model is more heavily weighted towards computer time. I don’t know if the Boone mix is right or not; I am not sure at this point that anyone else really knows, either.

Without question, parents have been speaking out about their concerns with Summit. Long before the new Enquirer article came out, it was public knowledge that parents were upset.

For example, parents took considerable time to criticize the Summit program – on the record – at the November 10, 2016 meeting of the Boone County Board of Education. Parent Jeremy Storm said his child was supposed to have teacher interaction, but it seemed like the child was only working with teachers about 10 minutes a week, at best. Myrna Eads echoed this 10-minute teacher contact comment concerning her child. She also said that, as of this November school board meeting, some students had already finished the entire year’s program with Summit and were now just playing video games.

Jeremy Storm also said teachers were not really aware of what was in the Summit program because the adoption wasn’t taken slowly. Stacie Storm, his wife, added to the concerns saying her school’s School Based Decision Making Council didn’t handle the Summit adoption correctly and said Summit is not fully aligned to the Kentucky Core Academic Standards. Other parents were upset that no alternative to Summit was offered in some Boone County middle schools. That could be problematic for students who need more direct teacher contact.

Permission Slip Controversy

The Enquire article echoes comments I’ve heard about controversy over a permission slip parents are required to sign before their students can participate in the Summit Learning program. The Enquirer talked to parents and writes, “They said the permission slip for Summit was buried in a mountain of back-to-school paperwork, which was sent home with a threat: sign and return these, or your kid gets detention.” There was no opt-out option available on this permission form.

Parent coercion is just not acceptable.

Furthermore, there are concerns about sharing of private student data with Facebook/Summit, which may or may not prove to be a major problem.

I think more answers on Summit are coming. I am advised that complaints have been raised with the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA), which is the responsible agency to investigate claims regarding SBDM activities and some of the other issues parents have raised. The OEA is usually detailed and thorough in its investigations, so I don’t know how soon their findings will be made public.

However, multiple sources confirm that several parents were so upset that they have pulled their children completely out of the Boone County system. That, by itself, is a major attention grabber.

C’mon Prichard, let’s get this right

I just ran across an article in the Messenger-Inquirer (subscription) where the Prichard Committee claims that based on its “A Citizen’s Guide to Kentucky Education:”

“In 2002, Kentucky was given $6,316 per student; the U.S. average per-pupil spending was $8,206, and at that time, Kentucky ranked 42nd among the other states. Compare that to the 2013 spending, which says that $9,266 was spent per student in Kentucky. The U.S. average was $11,254 spent per student, and Kentucky ranked 37th out of 50 states, the report indicates.”

So, according to Prichard’s numbers, in 2013 Kentucky would have spent $1,988 less per pupil than the national average.

Going to page 5 in the Citizen’s Guide, I learned the ultimate source for these financial figures is supposed to be the annual Public Education Finances documents from the US Census Bureau.

OK, we use those Census documents, too.

But, Prichard’s 2013 numbers didn’t look right. So, I went to Table 11 in Public Education Finances 2013 where this data and ranking information is found.

Surprise!

Kentucky’s “Current Spending” for 2013 was actually $9,316 per pupil while national average spending was just $10,700. That is a spread of only $1,384 per pupil. That difference is over 30 percent lower than Prichard’s numbers show. That’s a pretty big difference.

Oh, the real Census information also shows that Kentucky ranked 35th, not 37th, for its spending in 2013.

Prichard’s numbers don’t agree with the 2002 Census report, either.

But, I guess a 30 percent error is OK when you want to push the state to spend a lot more than it can afford.

You see, Table 12 in the 2013 Public Education Finances edition shows how Kentucky supports education in relationship to taxpayer average income. We ranked 15th in the nation in 2013 for education spending once you allow for the fact that we are not exactly the richest state in the country!

Wow! In 15th place!

You’re not hearing that from Prichard, sadly.