Education: Tracking System Failure

by Levi Cavener

       Recently, Roger Quarles, executive director of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and former chief deputy on Tom Luna’s staff, announced that the Albertson Foundation would change course in its philanthropic giving, moving away from public schools and focusing new dollars on community-based projects.   

       The reason for the alleged shift seems to be due to an underlying frustration that teachers and schools just weren’t adopting Albertson-fueled “innovation” quick enough. In a recent Boise State Public Radio interview, Quarles voiced his frustration regarding the lack of Idaho schools to adopt Albertson initiatives, “You have to look at that and go ‘fundamentally there’s some problems within that system.’”   

       Let me be clear: Albertson has done some terrific work in supplying schools and students with funds to pilot classroom technology, curriculum and emerging instructional methods. However, let me also point out that Albertson and Quarles have been equally complicit in building those exact same “fundamental   problems.”

       For example, take Idaho’s longitudinal cradle-to-cadaver data tracking system: Idaho System of Educational Excellence and its companion, Schoolnet.   

       ISEE/Schoolnet was developed to uniformly track student and teacher data across the state. Unfortunately, millions of dollars and years later — and funded by both Idaho and the Albertson Foundation — ISEE/ Schoolnet, like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, is still lying on the table waiting to be shocked into life.

       ISEE/Schoolnet has been such a colossal failure that in 2014 Idaho paid school districts to fund whatever system they preferred.    Schoolnet was so dysfunctional that Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, inquired at a 2013 legislative committee meeting, “Is [Schoolnet] working anywhere, for any purpose, to improve education?”

       The answer? No. In addition, when the data finally made it into teachers’ hands, it often wasn’t accurate.     

        Said one U.S. Dept. of Education federal grant reviewer of Idaho’s original ISEE/ Schoolnet plan, “Idaho could benefit from examining the successful models of several states and hiring a professional grant writer and some technical experts….” While such feedback should have initially tapped the brakes on the project, Idaho and the Albertson Foundation pushed the gas to the floor, with Albertson promising a $21 million grant.   

       Which is where Mr. Quarles fits in. When the Legislature caught whiff of the project’s total ineptitude, Superintendent Luna dispatched then-Chief Deputy Quarles to clean up the mess. It didn’t go well. Despite some “software CPR,” districts across the state jumped ship and started again using a hodgepodge of independent data systems.   

       It gets better: Since then, Quarles left his post as chief deputy to become executive director of the Albertson Foundation. One of his first acts as executive director was to break the foundation’s promise to Idaho’s schools and students by withholding the final ISEE/ Schoolnet funds. To be fair, it was the correct decision; the writing was on the wall about ISEE/Schoolnet. Even Pearson, the company hired to build ISEE/Schoolnet, skipped town.     

       But this dysfunctional outcome is precisely the type of “fundamental problem” that Quarles places on Idaho’s public school system. Perhaps it’s better that ISEE/Schoolnet remains in the lab on life support. Like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, some things just aren’t meant to be shocked into life.   

       Albertson’s decision to back out is telling; it highlights precisely the dysfunction caused when radical, ideologically driven interest groups dabble in education policy. Albertson’s continued commitment to funding more special interest groups, like Teach For America, merely compounds the so called “fundamental problems” here in Idaho.

       Sorry, but Idaho’s “fundamental problem” has nobody to blame more than the Albertson Foundation itself.    

Levi B Cavener, a special education teacher in Caldwell, manages the blog  An unabridged version of this piece, including hyperlinks to primary sources, is available there. 

Nation: Congress gets checklist

by Judy Ferro

“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort.”

“Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another, or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?”

Last Tuesday President Obama challenged the new Republican Congress to abandon infighting and move America forward.  He shared a vision of an America where families are more secure and corporations and infrastructure are strong.

In effect, he presented the country with a checklist by which to measure the success or failure of our Congress.  I’ve seen no comments from Republican leaders to show they got that message—except, perhaps, Romney’s recent lip service to poverty issues–but they could not miss it.

Obama proposed what the vast majority of the American people want.

“That’s what middle-class economics is: the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

Right after that Democrats’ abysmal showing in the November elections, the Progressive Change Institute asked thousands of liberals what changes they’d like to see.  Then it hired GBA Strategies to measure support of 52 proposals among a cross-section of Republicans, Democrats and Independents in Mid-January.   The poll found that 17 items were supported by 70% or more of those polled; 43 items, by 50% or more.

Several of the items with 70% support are similar to ones that Obama proposed:  giving students the same low interest rates as big banks; universal pre-kindergarten; fair trade that protects workers, the environment, and jobs; an infrastructure jobs program ($400 million per year); debt-free college at all public universities; and millions of clean energy jobs.

Each of these issues are supported by more than 50% of Republicans; two—fair trade and low interest rates on student loans—are supported by more than 70%.  The Republican rank-and-file apparently see these as bipartisan—or even Republican—issues.

With a supportive President and Republican majorities in both House, how will Republican leaders explain not getting any of these passed?

Other proposals similar to Obama’s supported by the majority of Republicans included:  net neutrality; closing tax loopholes that reward companies for shipping jobs or hiding money overseas; increasing the income tax rate on incomes over $1 million to 50%; transparency in trade negotiations; and raising the minimum wage for tipped workers.

Such results make it clear why the Republican leadership works over the same tired issues over and over.  Lowering taxes (primarily for the very rich), ending required health insurance, and stopping gun control appear to be the only issues on which they agree with their own rank-and-file.

In fact, the Progressive Institute’s poll indicates that most Republicans support many progressive issues that Obama didn’t mention in his address: allowing Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate medicine prices; allowing persons of any age to buy into Medicare; applying social security taxes to higher wages; requiring that corporate political donations be voted on by shareholders and made public; and requiring that NSA get warrants before spying.

In spite of decades of propaganda by the Republican machine, the party rank-and-file do not see eye-to-eye with the party’s billionaires.

The majority of Republicans, like Democrats and Independents, want to see less divisiveness and more action.

Well, Obama has laid out a a checklist.  The Republicans have the ball.

We, the people, will be keeping score.


Politics: Progressive Issues Advancing

by Judy Ferro

Many progressive issues are alive and well in Idaho this month.

Although Governor Otter’s endorsement of the report by the Medicaid Redesign Workgroup was weak, it was far better than the flat “no” in last year’s State-of-the-State Address.  The difference gives hope to the many advocates for the 104,000 Idahoans who are not eligible for health insurance assistance under either Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act.

A newly released poll commissioned by Idaho Politics Weekly indicates that 67 percent of Idahoans want the words “sexual orientation: and “gender identity” added to the Idaho Human Rights Act. Either legislators are finally listening or they wanted to avoid the conflicts which led to 200 or so arrests last year; the House Ways and Means Committee has announced a late January public hearing for “Add the Words.”  After nine years of effort, advocates will have a forum with legislators.

And the Governor is recommending a 7.4% increase in funds for public schools. Last year Otter spoke highly of the Educational Task Force’s efforts and then recommended minimal funding.  Fortunately, legislators found more money for schools.

The Governor’s budget support is a substantial step, but critics will debate his priorities.  Operational funds for schools—the versatile money that pays for everything from textbooks to utility bills—would still be $27.5 million less than the 2009 budget.

And Senator Jeff Siddoway, chair of the Local Government and Taxation Committee, is loudly objecting to increasing annual salaries for beginning teachers to only $32,800 a year.  The Republican from the Idaho Falls area says starting teacher salaries should be increased to $40,000 now, not at some distant point in the future.  Starting salaries over $43,000 in nearby Wyoming make it hard for the school districts he represents to retain teachers.

Otter’s State-of-the-State address also included a number of other recommendations Democrats can support: aiding local communities in infrastructure improvements, rebuilding bridges, streamlining the State Tax Commission, and taxing Internet purchases at the time of sale.  Less appreciated is his request for a five-year reduction in the upper tax bracket from 7.4 to 6.9%.

On Wednesday, Idaho Democratic legislators gave an address to the state including both approval and prodding for Otter’s stands.

On the economy, they applauded Otter’s conversion to supporting workforce training and higher-paying jobs.  They outlined the next steps as increasing the minimum wage and establishing Small Business Development Centers.  Eloquently, they requested that tax decreases for special interests be balanced by cuts in special interest exemptions so “workers, families, school children and communities” aren’t left footing the bill.

The Democrats also appreciated that the Governor was finally recognizing the importance of a serious investment in education.  They thanked Idaho educators who have “done much with limited resources” and pointed out the need “to keep focusing on keeping good educators serving our kids.”  They expressed support for doing what would best serve the kids, whether it be early childhood education, guidance counselors, or revision of the funding formula.

Then the Democratic leaders hit on an area absent in Otter’s speech: accountability and honesty in government.  “One, we need to revise how contracts are developed, vetted and monitored. Two, when there is malfeasance, there needs to be an investigation and correction, and prosecution if criminal offenses occur. Three, we need to review our contracts to ensure that our citizens get what they paid for!”

They also asked for more financial disclosure, prohibition of “lobbying the executive branch during contract development,” and an end to retired state employees returning overnight to lobby former co-workers.

The strong message from progressives on education, fairness, and jobs is being heard.  We can hope that it will also bring real change this legislative session—or the next, or the one after that.

Politics: A Dem State-of-the-State

In a few hours Gov. Otter will unveil his agenda for Idaho’s 2015 legislative session. Most of us will be pleased by some items and upset by others. Last year’s refusal to recommend needed educational funding still rankles me. Fortunately, the legislature gave education more than lip service.

I generally hope for the best possible agenda from a conservative governor who faces fierce opposition from the right wing of his party.

Down deep, however, I yearn for actions that would truly be the best for the people of Idaho. Here is what I’d like to hear the Governor say.

We may take four major steps to save taxpayers’ money and stimulate the economy.

First, we will stop wasting taxpayer money on lawsuits for purely political purposes. The Supreme Court will rule on same sex marriage based on lawsuits brought by individuals in Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Louisiana without Idaho’s help. Our task force rightfully concluded that Idaho can’t afford to manage these federal lands because, unlike in Utah, our lands don’t have oil reserves to exploit. And Obama’s executive order on immigration doesn’t differ enough from dozens of similar orders by previous presidents to expect the courts to change it. That’s up to Congress.

Second, we will save taxpayer money by staffing the Tax Commission enough to ensure adequate enforcement of tax laws and by expanding Medicaid to cover those who don’t make enough to benefit from the Affordable Care Act. The latter will not only save lives, but will reward, rather than punish, people for being employed. In addition, we will work to get Federal approval of a school broadband contract that is not biased toward my campaign donors.

Third, now that nearly half the states have raised their minimum wage above $7.25 an hour without economic catastrophe, Idaho will plan for annual increments that will allow one person with a full-time job to pay for basic food, rent and transportation for two people. Idaho taxpayers must stop subsidizing the labor costs of profitable businesses.

Fourth, we will heed the opinion of over 70% of Idahoans and “add the words” to extend basic rights to housing and employment in spite of sexual orientation and gender identity.

There are also four areas in which we must invest money for the future: education, infrastructure, jobs, and justice.

We must bring our public school funding per student up to pre-recession levels before we concern ourselves with major changes. We want schools to remain focused on education young people rather than on filing reports. We will continue to listen to parents and educations as we work to prioritize the Educational Task Force recommendations.

We must find the $300 million necessary to maintain our roads and bridges. We will recommend increases in gasoline taxes, vehicle license fees, and use of general funds in order to spread the burden. Remember, this measure will add jobs that stimulate the economy as well as protecting the state from lawsuits resulting from continued negligence.

We must work with private companies to provide the workforce development and technical education to make hiring here more attractive. We will also invest in university laboratories and research; they are business incubators. We will encourage continued expansion of wind and solar power generation.

We must continue to improve our justice system by providing an effective public defender system and providing basic treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.

And, finally, we must find a way to give state employees a 3 percent pay increase.

Join with me in working toward a more prosperous Idaho.

Elections: Liberal initiatives and conservative victors

The more I review 2014, the more confused I am about the Idaho voter.

I could never plan a future campaign; I can’t even make sense of past ones.

America’s 50 states have different issues, different economies, different personalities involved, and different election laws. You’d think analysts could study the effects of different variables and come up with workable theories concerning cause and effect.

One established theory is that a bad economy is bad news for the incumbent party. That could, however, be the party controlling the presidency, the Congress, or the statehouse. And economy could mean prices, jobs, wages, the stock market and more. So Idahoans might look at their nearly last place ranking in wages and per capita income and vote for a new team to deal with the state economy. Or they might look at nationwide improvements in employment numbers and consumer confidence and vote with the national administration.

Voters in Idaho did neither. So, rather than dismiss the theory, pundits posit that voters compared family incomes with the higher ones in 2001 and voted against the national administration. But wouldn’t it have made more sense to compare incomes with the lower ones in 2009?

Another theory is that negative campaigning works even though everyone says they dislike it. . If it does nothing else, it keeps some would-be supporters from showing up at the polls. Well, something is discouraging potential voters, but I can’t point to an Idaho election where negative campaigning determined the outcome.

And issues don’t seem to be a deciding factor either. This month’s Hightower Lowdown points out that 2014 voters often supported progressive Democratic issues while voting for Republican candidates.

Four states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota—voted for a higher minimum wage and elected Republican senators who opposed it. Arkansas passed a proposal for an $8.50 minimum wage by 65% while rejecting a Democratic incumbent senator in favor of a “right-wing, Koch brothers’ Republican.”

Alaskans not only voted for a higher minimum wage, but also to prohibit future mining projects that would endanger wild salmon habitat and for full-legalization of marijuana. Still, they elected Republicans to the U.S. Senate and House.   Their new governor is NA (non-affiliated); no Democrat ran for that position.

Floridians voted overwhelmingly to dedicate about $1 billion a year in real estate taxes to the protection of water in the Everglades and other areas and 58% of them supported medical marijuana. They still re-elected Gov. Rick Scott, who opposed both measures.

In Wisconsin “Koch-financed governor” Scott Walker pulled off a re-election victory even as 12 local elections approved measures stating that corporations did not have constitutional rights and money is not speech.

It’d be easy to conclude that voters are confused, but few things in politics are that simple. People may actually be progressive on environmental issues, libertarian on moral ones, and vote Republican to protect their gun rights.

Idaho Democrats tend to recruit and nominate centrist candidates that represent the broad moderate bases of both parties. We endorse progressive initiatives dealing with education, but avoid more controversial ones. Supporters of a minimum wage increase couldn’t get the needed signatures.  Only Republicans and Libertarians have come out in support of medical marijuana. Initiatives opposing anonymous corporate money in politics or promoting conservation issues are seldom discussed.

Nominating centrists and avoiding divisive issues may be the best route, but it hasn’t brought Idaho Democrats a lot of victories. The Hightower analysis suggests that strong advocacy of progressive issues doesn’t work for candidates either.

Maybe the voters aren’t confused, but I definitely am.