Tuesday, June 24, 2014

LA: Jindal seeks to block Common Core tests

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took steps Wednesday to block the use of tests tied to the Common Core education standards, a move that puts him at odds with state legislative, education and business leaders but one that could help the likely 2016 presidential candidate with tea party supporters and conservative voters.

Top Louisiana education officials said the Republican governor overstepped his authority and they intend to go ahead and roll out the standards and the testing tied to them.

Jindal once supported Common Core, but reversed his stance earlier this year. He says federal officials are using the English and math standards adopted by most states as a method for wresting education control from local officials.

"Common Core's become a one-size-fits-all program that simply doesn't make sense for our state," Jindal said at a news conference.

The standards, adopted by more than 40 states, are a grade-by-grade benchmark of what students should learn in English and math. They were developed by states, allowing states to compare their students' performance.

Supporters of Common Core say the standards promote critical thinking and raise expectations for students, better preparing them for college and careers.

Criticism has grown as the Obama administration encouraged states to use the standards, leading to charges that the Common Core is an effort to nationalize education and remove authority over content and curriculum from local control.

But unlike in other states where Republican leaders have yanked the multi-state education standards from public school classrooms, Jindal lacks support from state lawmakers. And Jindal's stance pits him against his own hand-picked education superintendent.

Both the Louisiana Legislature and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education support the standards.

Jindal's executive authority is limited, so he sought to strike at tests from the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers that are linked to the standards, as a backdoor way to get Louisiana out of Common Core.

"This does get us out of Common Core, because Common Core to my mind is defined by the test," the governor said.

He also said he'll ask lawmakers next year to revisit the debate and adopt state-specific education standards that he's asking the education department and state education board to develop.

"We are completely committed to high standards for our students here in Louisiana. You can certainly have high standards without giving up control of our educational system to the federal government," Jindal said.

But whether the governor's announcement will stop any state education plans remained in question Wednesday.

"He doesn't have the authority that he's articulating that he has," said Chas Roemer, chairman of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, usually a Jindal ally.

Among a series of anti-Common Core actions, Jindal issued an executive order requiring a competitive bid process for public school standardized tests and sent a letter to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers saying the state isn't planning to use its tests.

The Department of Education and the education board planned to use the Common Core-related testing for students in third- through eighth-grades, but the tests haven't yet been purchased for the upcoming school year.

Jindal said the tests in question appear to be the most expensive available, so he's confident they couldn't be chosen in competitive bidding when Louisiana law requires the state to choose the lowest bidder.

But Superintendent of Education John White and Roemer said the governor's executive order won't change the roll-out of Common Core in classrooms or the use of the standardized test, called PARCC.

"We're planning on going ahead and implementing the plan that's in accordance with state law and with what we've been doing for four years," White said.

White said his department can buy test questions under an existing contract with an outside vendor. The Jindal administration responded by saying it would suspend that contract.

White said his lawyers are researching the issue and what happens next.

"We'll have to figure out what the legal options are," he said.


Soaring pension costs devour school budgets in California

The revised budget unveiled in May by California Gov. Jerry Brown seeks to increase the amount of money that public school districts and their teachers would pay into the teacher pension fund going forward. The legislature must approve a budget by June 15 or legislators forfeit their pay until a budget is passed.

The amount that school districts would pay into the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) would jump from 8.25 percent of teachers’ salaries to 19.1 percent, based on the governor’s budget plan. Rates would ramp up to the full 19.1 percent over a seven-year period.

Teachers’ contributions to CalSTRS would also increase, from 8 percent of their salaries to 10.25 percent, and take three years to reach the 10.25 percent rate. The State of California—meaning state taxpayers—would also pay more into CalSTRS.

For Alameda Unified School District (AUSD), for example, the district’s share of pension costs would rise from $3.9 million to $9.6 million by 2020, according to the district’s chief business officer, Robert Clark. This would be nearly a 150 percent increase in just six years.

Alameda’s teachers would also be expected to increase their pension contributions, about $500 to $600 a month, depending on each teacher’s salary. But according to one news report, the teacher union president in Alameda, Audrey Hyman, insists “school districts should increase teachers’ compensation to help them meet their rising pension costs if the proposal is approved by lawmakers.”

In other words, union officials want the school district to pay for the teachers’ share of any future pension-cost increases, not the teachers themselves who will benefit from the pensions. This perk, known as “pension pick-up,” is unfair and encourages teachers to “shoot for the moon” when lobbying for higher pension benefits because they know they won’t be stuck paying any of the additional cost. Chicago’s budget has suffered greatly from this “go for broke” teacher response.

All of the additional money needed by AUSD and its teachers for CalSTRS will be grabbed from other parts of the budget. Alameda parents need to realize that if their local school building is crumbling and classrooms are starved for resources, generous teacher pensions are a major cause, swallowing up money that would otherwise fund classroom instruction. This diversion of money to pensions will happen in school districts across the state.

Long term, state taxpayers should not be forced to contribute anything into CalSTRS. Public school teachers are hired by school districts. They are employees of those school districts. They are not state employees. And teachers negotiate pay and benefits with school districts. State taxpayers are not seated at the bargaining table.

It is immoral to make state taxpayers backfill CalSTRS’ deficits. Long term, state taxpayers should be relieved of any obligation to fund public teacher pensions. School districts and teachers should fund their own pensions. Gov. Brown and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office have each made statements generally supportive of this change.

A serious reassessment of California’s public employee pension systems is long overdue. If changes are not made, schools and other public services will continue to suffer as more money is poured into pensions, leaving less money for traditional public services such as police, firefighters, libraries, roads, and schools.


Close half of Britain's universities, leading academic says

Half of universities should be closed as part of sweeping reforms to Britain’s “messy, muddled” higher education system, according to a leading academic.

Sir Roderick Floud, the former president of Universities UK, said Britain had “too many universities” and institutions in cities such as London, Leeds, Oxford and Sheffield should be closed or merged.

The existing system of higher education was “unnecessary and inefficient” because large numbers of universities are “trying to do too many things at once”, he said.

Sir Roderick also suggested that elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge should focus on research and stop recruiting undergraduates altogether – affecting well over 6,000 students a year who are currently enrolled at the two ancient institutions.

The comments were made before a valedictory lecture today to Gresham College, London, where he has been provost for the last six years.

Britain has more than 150 universities, higher education colleges and specialist conservatoires.

David Willetts, the Universities Minister, has actually signalled an expansion in numbers by saying he wants to create dozens of new campuses in higher education “cold spots” over the coming years.

The Coalition has also granted a number of small private colleges official university status and pledged to allow more institutions to use the prestigious title.

But critics have claimed that too many school-leavers are being pushed into taking degree courses when alternative routes such as on-the-job training would be more appropriate.

Writing in Times Higher Education magazine, Sir Roderick said Britain had created a "messy, muddled non-system of higher education".

“I believe that we have too many universities, that they are trying to do too many different things, and that the way we fund their research is fundamentally flawed,” he said.

“We don’t need two or more universities in each of our major cities, glowering at each other and competing to attract the attentions of businesses and local authorities.

“Why does Leeds or Sheffield or Oxford, for example, need two vice-chancellors, registrars or groups of governors?

“In London, the situation is even more bizarre, with some 40 universities within the M25 and more arriving by the day. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has remained supine in the face of evidence that all this is unnecessary and inefficient.”

Sir Roderick, the former vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, criticised the fact that universities now attempt to “do too many things at once”.

This included research, organising conferences, catering, offering careers advice, investing in the stock market, maintaining historic buildings, financing start-up companies, developing science parks, promoting sport and even running bus services.

He insisted there was a “strong argument for specialisation”, insisting that some universities “could concentrate entirely on postgraduate education”.

Sir Roderick said top universities needed to make “better use of the best researchers who are already, in many places, concentrating on master’s and PhD students and leaving undergraduate teaching to junior staff”.

The comments will be seen as reference to Oxford and Cambridge which already rely on large numbers of PhD students to lead seminars.


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