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Don’t Let TOPS Changes Become Barriers For Poor Students Changes To The Scholarship Program Should Put Equity First

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It’s safe to say that when it comes to K-12 education policy, Governor John Bel Edwards and I often disagree. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly support several of the Governor’s other policy objectives, particularly those which seek to improve the welfare of low-income families, such as his efforts to increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and raise the minimum wage, as well as his expansion of Medicaid.

Edwards’ focus on low-income families is a much-needed change. For far too long, lawmakers in Baton Rouge have chosen to ignore Louisiana’s poor, in spite of the fact that our state has one of highest poverty rates in the country. Nearly one out of every five Louisianans (19.9%) are living in poverty. For kids, the numbers are even worse: 28% of Louisiana’s children are growing up poor.

 
There’s no doubt that our high poverty rate is attributable, at least in part, to our education system, which has historically been one of the worst in the country. The low performance of our public schools also helps explain why Louisiana has one of the lowest college completion rates in the nation. As of 2014, 22% of adults in Louisiana had a bachelor’s or graduate degree; only four states – Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia – ranked lower.

 
On the other hand, as I’ve previously noted, Louisiana’s public schools are finally moving in the right direction, thanks to the reforms we’ve implemented over the past decade. The statewide cohort graduation rate has steadily increased over the past four years, reaching an all-time high of 74.6% in 2015. Plus, more of those graduates are leaving high school with the skills they need to succeed in college, as seen in increases in the number of students eligible for the TOPS college scholarship program.

Of course, the economic benefits that come with a college degree are significant. A 2012 study from the U.S. Treasury Department found that “the typical worker with just a bachelor’s degree earned…roughly two-thirds more than those with only a high school diploma.” For children born into poor families, the benefits of a college education are even greater. The same report noted, “With a college degree, children born in the bottom quintile have less than a 20 percent chance of staying in the bottom quintile of the income distribution.”

That’s why I am concerned by the package of bills in Governor Edwards’ legislative agenda that would fix the state’s TOPS scholarships at their current level going forward, unless the legislature acts to increase the award amounts. As a result, if tuition goes up in the future, TOPS recipients and their families could be on the hook to cover the difference.

From Governor Edwards' legislative agenda.

From Governor Edwards’ legislative agenda.

While I recognize the Governor is trying to close a frighteningly large budget deficit that his predecessor left behind, this proposed change to the TOPS program could become a barrier preventing low-income students from attending college, especially since they are are already saddled with mandatory fees that are not covered by TOPS scholarships.

Graphic from The Advocate.

Graphic from The Advocate.

A freeze on TOPS funding levels – much like the sales tax increase the Legislature passed last month – will hit the poor hardest. That’s why the Governor and state lawmakers should instead take a more equitable approach by using a sliding scale to determine how much TOPS recipients will pay in the event of future tuition increases.

For example, students from families with incomes at or above 250% of the federal poverty line might still receive a flat TOPS award funded at 2016-17 levels, but the program could cover an increasing percentage of any tuition hike for scholarship recipients further down the income ladder, paying the full amount for students from households at/below the poverty line.

Federal Poverty Line in 2016.

Federal Poverty Line in 2016.

While it’s likely that the legislature will take steps to rein in TOPS spending, we shouldn’t shut low-income students out of our state colleges and universities in the process. Governor Edwards and the legislature can do that by looking beyond an across-the-board freeze on those scholarships.

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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A Victory For Pettiness Over Progress Why Did The Governor Veto A Common Sense Education Bill?

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On Friday, Louisiana lawmakers voted to cancel a veto session to override Governor John Bel Edwards’ rejection of a number of bills passed by the legislature during this year’s regular session. The move was expected even though many Republican legislators accused the Governor of using his veto power to punish lawmakers who have consistently opposed his agenda.

Although the Governor’s line-item vetoes of construction projects in the state budget aroused the most controversy, the press largely overlooked his rejection of House Bill 568, a proposal from State Rep. Nancy Landry which would have revised the state’s student data privacy law.

Some background on H.B. 568

The story of House Bill 568 has its origins in a conversation I had last spring with a friend who works at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. For years, CREDO has produced highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of the state’s charter schools using data provided by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE). However, in 2015, LDOE officials informed CREDO they could no longer provide access to that information due to changes in the state’s student data privacy law, passed by the legislature in 2014, which prohibited the department from sharing data with research institutions outside of Louisiana.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford has published highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of charter schools.

Without access to student performance data, CREDO’s research on Louisiana’s charter schools would grind to a halt and education policymakers would lose an objective, in-depth assessment of the health of the state’s charter sector. Moreover, the refusal to share data with out-of-state researchers would mean that Louisiana’s influence on the national education policy debate would be significantly diminished.

Seeking to avoid that outcome, my friend at CREDO reached out to see if I had any ideas on how they should proceed. I connected her with State Rep. Nancy Landry, who serves as chair of the House Education Committee, to explain the situation and see if she could help. Their subsequent discussions resulted in H.B. 568, which Landry filed during this year’s regular legislative session.

State Rep. Nancy Landry (R – Lafayette), is chair of House Education Committee and has clashed with the Governor over education policy.

The bill sought to carve out an exception to the overly broad changes lawmakers made in 2014 by allowing data to be shared (in accordance with standard data privacy protection procedures) with researchers at any college or university in the United States accredited and recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In short, H.B. 568 was limited in scope and non-controversial, as evidenced by the fact that it passed by large margins in both the House (95-3) and Senate (27-7).


Read more about how researchers use student data:

Student data privacy and education research must be balanced

Last week, the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on data privacy protections for students. Michael Hansen highlights the gravity of the debate around how Congress will update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for use in the modern age where big data is king.


So what’s with the veto?

Which brings us to the question of why Governor Edwards vetoed the legislation, especially when it had broad bipartisan support. Let’s start with the “official” rationale provided by the Governor in his veto message:

“The legislation requires LDOE to enter into a memorandum of understanding in which the person conducting such academic research agrees to be civilly liable for any fine imposed as a violation of authorized uses of the student information. Under current law, a person who violates authorized uses of the student information is subject to both criminal and civil penalties. House Bill 568 references civil penalties only relative to the memorandum of understanding. However, it does not create an exception to the criminal liability provisions in current law. Because of these drafting concerns, I have vetoed House Bill 568.”

The contention that the Governor felt compelled to veto the bill over a technicality – i.e., it didn’t create an explicit exception to the criminal liability provision in the current law – is unconvincing. Even though H.B. 568 didn’t specifically address criminal liability, it’s not at all clear that it necessarily needed to do so. In any case, from a practical standpoint, it is highly unlikely that a prosecutor would pursue a misdemeanor conviction – as opposed to a civil fine – against an employee of an out-of-state research institution. In fact, to my knowledge, no one has ever faced criminal charges in Louisiana for violating the state’s student data privacy law. It’s also worth noting that the Governor’s Office never raised this concern as H.B. 568 was winding its way through the legislature and could have been amended.

The Governor’s Office never raised concerns about H.B. 568 as it was making its way through the legislature.

When taken together, the facts suggest that the decision to veto House Bill 568 had little to do with the content of the legislation and more to do with its author. Rep. Landry has clashed with the Governor repeatedly over education policy in recent years and several of the Governor’s school-related proposals have died in the House Education Committee, which Landry chairs. Although Edwards would not be the first governor to use his veto pen to punish lawmakers who opposed his agenda, it makes no sense to apply it to a bill as innocuous and apolitical as H.B. 568, especially seeing that Rep. Landry had nothing to gain by sponsoring the legislation.

Nevertheless, Governor Edwards did just that. Thanks to his veto, Louisiana’s overly broad and mind-numbingly parochial student data privacy law remains in force. Out-of-state academics who want to study our public schools will be told to look elsewhere. And as a result, our public education system won’t be able to benefit from the knowledge and insights their research would provide.


Read House Bill 568:


Read the Governor’s Veto Message:

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All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers

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For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement with Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.

Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.

Unethical and possibly worse

Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.

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Arsement's absences and Calcasieu Parish School Board holidays.

According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.

In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…

What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.

Missing absences?

If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.

Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.

The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.

Exactly why reform is needed

When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.

In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.

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