Louisiana’s House Education Committee will convene Wednesday morning to consider a number of important proposals, including House Bill 390 from State Rep. Gary Carter (D-New Orleans), which would ensure that TOPS college scholarship awards are equitably distributed in the event of future funding shortfalls.
The program that eventually became TOPS was originally launched in 1989 as a merit-based scholarship program for low-income students. But in 1997, the state legislature eliminated the program’s income caps, meaning that any Louisiana student who met the minimum academic requirements could earn a TOPS scholarship to cover the cost of tuition at an in-state college or university. As might be expected, the size of TOPS exploded as families rushed to take advantage of the opportunity and state lawmakers made sure the highly popular program was fully funded every year.
That all changed last spring, when Louisiana lawmakers voted to cut TOPS awards – for the first time in the program’s history – across-the-board by 30 percent, as part of an effort to close a $750 million budget deficit. The move left TOPS recipients on-the-hook to make up the difference this school year, which amounted to as much as $2100 for some students.
Data suggests TOPS cuts impacted enrollment
Legislators subsequently made a bad situation worse by opting to “front-load” TOPS awards in the fall this year, rather than spreading the cuts evenly between the two semesters. This meant TOPS covered full tuition in the first semester, but only about 40 percent in the spring. Although proponents of the plan said this approach would give families more time to figure out how to cover costs, others believed it was a “budget trick” that offered false hope that the state would find the money to fully-fund TOPS.
Either way, preliminary evidence suggests that the TOPS cuts had a negative impact on college enrollment this school year. According to data I received from the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOFSA), the number of students who used their first semester TOPS awards, but failed to use their second semester awards (when the TOPS cuts kicked in) jumped by 10 percent this year, in spite of the fact that the overall number of TOPS recipients was lower in 2016-17 than in 2015-16.
Although more research is needed to conclusively determine the cause for the increase in 2nd semester dropouts, it’s not hard to imagine that many were students who found themselves unable to afford tuition when TOPS cuts went into effect.
H.B 390 keeps the path to college open for low-income students
Of course, many Louisiana families found themselves scrambling to cover tuition bills this year as a result of the TOPS cuts, but there’s little doubt that they hit low-income students hardest. House Bill 390 would ensure that future cuts to TOPS (or tuition increases) do not become an insurmountable financial barrier to poor students, preventing them from attending college.
H.B. 390 still calls for the Legislature to fully fund the TOPS scholarship program. However, in the event of another funding shortfall or tuition increases, the proposal would allocate TOPS awards according to need. Students from low-income families would receive larger TOPS amounts than students from more affluent families, while still ensuring that all students receive an award. The bill would also prioritize awards for students with an ACT score of 30 or higher, in an effort to keep the state’s best-and-brightest in Louisiana.
For months, the Louisiana College Access Coalition, a group comprised of more than two-dozen leading education organizations, has been lobbying legislature to support the proposal, but they need your help. Reach out to members of House Education Committee (find their contact information HERE) and encourage them to support House Bill 390 so the path to college and a better life remains open for low-income students in Louisiana.
Read the full text of H.B. 390:
Read the House Education Committee’s May 10th Agenda:
Read more on this story:
For almost 20 years, Louisiana high school students who graduated with a 2.5 G.P.A. and a score of 20 on the ACT exam were eligible for a TOPS scholarship that would cover the cost of tuition at a state college or university.
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.
A Victory For Pettiness Over Progress Why Did The Governor Veto A Common Sense Education Bill?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers
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 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.
Louisiana is ready for a new direction. https://t.co/eDLPMl5tEC
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) April 12, 2017
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.
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…
- Although he called out sick on February 23rd, he noted in a blog post that he actually went to Baton Rouge to attend the final meeting of the Governor’s ESSA Advisory Council;
- He took sick leave on March 29th, but again mentioned on his blog that he was in Baton Rouge at a BESE meeting;
- The same goes for May 18th (he also missed May 17th), when he was “sick” in Baton Rouge to introduce House Bill 536 with State Rep. Vincent Pierre, as he wrote in a blog post ironically titled, “HB-536: Who really puts children first?”
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.
— LAE (@LAEducators) November 16, 2016
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.
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) November 17, 2016
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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