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.

Do Kentucky’s KPREP school assessments do what they are supposed to do?

If so, why is the evidence not available after five years of KPREP testing?

The Bluegrass Institute has discovered a rather extraordinary January 6, 2017 letter from the US Department of Education to Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt.

This letter says evidence provided by the Kentucky Department of Education only shows that the state’s public school assessments just partially meet requirements of federal education legislation.

The letter lists the following general comments:

  • Reading/ language arts (R/LA) and mathematics general assessments in grades 3-8 (Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP)): Partially meets requirements
  • R/LA and mathematics general assessments in high school (ACT QualityCore EOC for R/LA and math): Partially meets requirements
  • R/LA and mathematics alternate assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in grades 3-8 and high school (Alternate K-PREP for R/LA and math): Partially meets requirements

The letter continues:

“The partially meets requirements designation for a component means that it does not meet a number of the requirements of the statute and regulations, and Kentucky will need to provide substantial additional information to demonstrate it meets the requirements. The Department expects that Kentucky may not be able to submit all of the required information within one year (underlined emphasis added).”

Keeping in mind that the Kentucky KPREP and End-of-Course tests have been in place since the 2011-12 school term, the letter’s expanded details about the missing evidence are very disturbing.

For example, Under Critical Element 1.2, the US Department of Education says Kentucky needs to provide:

“A description of State stakeholders involved in the development and/or adoption process for the R/LA, mathematics, and science content standards that includes detail on subject-matter expertise, individuals representing English learners (ELs) and students with disabilities.”

This might be really hard to do. Kentucky basically just adopted the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics (CCSS) at a high level. State stakeholders really had no say in the final decisions about what went into the CCSS. The adoption was made by the Kentucky Board of Education, the Kentucky Educational Professional Standards Board and the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. Subject matter experts were not involved in this widely televised, media event joint meeting of these three boards.

In fact, the adoption of Common Core took place about 3-1/2 months before the final version of the Common Core was even published. It is hard for experts to have looked at something that didn’t even exist at the time of adoption. In fact, the public comment draft of the Common Core didn’t even come out until March 2010, weeks after the three Kentucky boards had already adopted the Common Core, sight unseen.

Under Critical Element 1.5, Kentucky still needs to provide:

“Evidence that the State has procedures in place for ensuring that each student is tested and counted in the calculation of participation rates on each required assessment.”

How’s that? Kentucky can’t provide evidence it really is testing all students with KPREP? Not even after the test has been in used for five testing cycles? That is a real problem.

And, the letter doesn’t stop there. To learn still more, click on the “Read more” link.

[Read more…]

Alabama’s educators lied about high school graduation rates

Education Week reports that “Alabama Officials Admit to Lying About Graduation Rate.”

In an apology announcement the Alabama Department of Education says:

“The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) is involved in a review of recent graduation rates by the Office of Inspector General, which resides within the United States Department of Education (USDE). The ALSDE has determined, after completing an initial audit, that the graduation rate was misstated to the people of Alabama – policymakers, educators, parents, students, all citizens – and to the USDE.”

One inflationary factor Alabama admits is:

“Low Oversight of Local School Systems’ Awarding of Credits – The ALSDE did not increase oversight as needed of local school systems’ awarding of earned class credits. In some cases, local school systems misstated student records and awarded class credit, resulting in diplomas that were not honestly earned.”

Well, maybe US Ed will be coming to Kentucky, too.

As we have pointed out in several blogs, the Bluegrass State also claims very large high school graduation rates, but many students might not really meet the stated requirements.

In particular, while Kentucky regulations stipulate that students must be proficient in math through Algebra II to graduate, a number of school districts recently reported graduation rates well above 90 percent but only have single-digit proficiency rates on the state’s Algebra II End-of-Course (EOC) Exam.

top-and-bottom-10-grad-rate-vs-algebra-ii-prof-rate-table

In fact, as shown at the bottom of the table above, even in the district with the least disparity, there still seems to be a notable gap between the graduation rate and the Algebra II EOC Exam proficiency rate.

See our latest series on high school graduation rate quality control problems for more.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

So, don’t be surprised if US Ed comes calling on Kentucky after they finish up in Alabama and in California, which also seems to have some grad rate credibility issues.