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Parents of Special Needs Students and School Budget Battles

Entirely by way of connecting observations from multiple districts, this detail of Katie Mulvaney’s  article on Superior Court Judge Susan E. McGuirl’s ordering Warwick teachers to stop their sick-outs is worth lingering over:

Ellen F. Polo, head of the Robertson parent teacher organization, said she is fully behind the teachers, as are 80 percent of the parents she knows.

“I fully support the teachers,” Polo said Monday, citing the union’s push for smaller class sizes and concerns about compromising special-education services. “If there’s a strike, I’d support it.”

The district has been eliminating teaching assistant positions that are crucial to meeting students’ needs, said Polo, whose oldest daughter is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

I’ve noticed that the parents of special needs students are often prominent supporters of (even warriors for) local school districts, backing the regular push for more funds all around.  They are understandably grateful to the district, generally, and the teachers in particular, and they have incentive to push back against budget pressures.  One such parent estimated on social media that her child receives $100,000 worth of services annually from the local school system.

Most Rhode Islanders will agree that these are services we should support, although the specifics of what and how should, of course, always be under review with an eye toward improvement and efficiency.  Similarly to school building maintenance, however, the fast ratchet of personnel costs that politically active labor organizations have succeeded in building into the budgets of government, including schools, ensure that budget pressure never ends and everything always feels insecure.  (Indeed, a general sense of insecurity is necessary for unions and other special interests and political organizations to maintain their influence.)

Personal gratitude notwithstanding, reforming our education system so that its focus is more convincingly on the students and their families shouldn’t be seen as a threat to those with special needs students.  Indeed, NAEP trends show that “disabled” students are losing ground in Rhode Island, having fallen from above average, among states overall, to below average.  Holding on to the status quo, that is, carries more risk than working together to find a new path.

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Warwick Teachers Now Go After the Little Ones

Warwick Schools’ strange rolling illness — which apparently hits large numbers of teachers one school at a time for just a single day each time — has now moved to the elementary schools, with students far too young to be left without some sort of care during the day.  Three schools for small children are closed today with no notice, at least one of them because of teacher absences.

That is, the event appears to be a deliberate “sick out” as a consequence of the district’s unionized labor force.  The public could reasonably see that as a form of actual illness, at least a mental illness akin to membership in a cult.

I think it was Gene Valicenti on WPRO who asked the local union leader, Darlene Netcoh, whether the union planned to hit one school at a time.  She professed no plans that were technically union-approved, but the rumors appear to have been accurate.  One wonders whether the district closed two other elementary schools as a preventative measure.

The bottom line is that this sort of thing simply shouldn’t happen, and the only reason it is allowed to happen is that the school district can take money from taxpayers whether or not they use the service.  Taxpayers can’t stop paying the bill.  Parents can only seek more-reliable options if they are willing to move or pay for private education above and beyond their taxes.  And the labor unions are part of a formidable national network dedicated to preventing our political system from working against their selfish interests.

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A Side Benefit of Giving Away Retirement Bonuses

Katherine Gregg notes, in a Providence Journal article, an interesting side effect of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to pay off long-time state employees to retire.  Gregg notes that the administration is assuming that 426 state workers will retire under the program, receiving $8.94 million in “retirement-incentive payments” and another $4.57 million in pay for unused time off from their years of employment.

[The plan] will also, coincidentally, turn state government into a hiring factory in the six months leading up to the 2018 elections.

So, heading into a statewide election for legislators and the governor, 426 union members will be happily flush with cash and another estimated 252 will have received seats on the state payroll gravy train.  That’s a nice little bonus effect of retirement incentives.

Of course, we shouldn’t accept the governor’s estimates.  Pushing employees into an underfunded pension plan may result in some near-term savings, but in the long term, it’s a terrible idea.  Taxpayer dollars go toward these pensions, and with people living longer and longer and government employees’ pay on ratcheting scales, we’ll only end up paying multiple people at a time for each job.

These sorts of buyouts are a bad idea when the idea is just to save money, and the impulse exposes a much more problematic fact of government.  Think about it:  If these employees are so far from worth what they’re being paid that we’ll give them bonuses up to $40,000 to get rid of them, why are we paying them so much in the first place?  If that’s not an indication that we need huge, systematic reform, then nothing is.

That point highlights the only time that buyouts might be reasonable in principle, which is when doing so is part of a system-wide fix.  But nothing is being fixed, in this case.  The governor’s just looking for a short-term budget trick that comes with some political benefit.

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Warwick School Conditions and Problematic Personnel

The local news media is all a-buzz this week with reports that the members of the Warwick teacher’s union have shut down another school with a “sick out,” this time Veterans Junior High School (affecting even younger children than those whose lives the teachers disrupted last Friday at Pilgrim High School).  This part of John Hill’s report in the Providence Journal should raise additional questions:

Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh said if the sick calls were a job action and not due to actual illness, the move had not been sanctioned by the union.

“It’s not an organized sick-out,” she said. “There was no vote.”

She said Veterans has had health issues in the past, with parents complaining about conditions in the building.

Upon inquiry from The Current, Hill replied that he’s working to verify Netcoh’s claim about the junior high’s especial difference from other Warwick Schools.  The superintendent’s office provided The Current with the following statement:

We have received no formal complaints from parents or staff of health issues related to the condition of Veterans Jr. High School.  In response to numerous unspecified statements, the District contracted with an independent agency last year to test air quality levels in the building.  All tests came back within normal ranges.  Additionally, substantial work was done over the summer replacing the school’s heating system with a new, state of the art heating and air conditioning system.  This work has resulted in significant improvement in the air quality as well as the movement and flow of the air in the building.

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s recently released assessment of school buildings in Rhode Island actually rates Veterans as being in the fourth best condition of the district’s 21 schools, with a repair-to-replacement ratio of 40.6%.

To be sure, that rating is not desirable, falling in the report’s “poor” category, and Warwick’s schools overall are fourth worst among Rhode Island districts.  Far from excusing the teachers’ labor union action, however, this fact suggests that more of the city’s limited resources should go to building repair and maintenance than to problematic personnel.

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Janus vs AFSME: One Of The Most Important Constitutional Cases Of Our Lifetime

Mark Janus is a child support specialist with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. He advocates for children’s rights when their parents are no longer together. When he was hired, he didn’t know that he was going to be forced to pay union dues until he saw the fees deducted from his first paycheck.

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Are These the Employees You’d Hire to Influence Your Children?

One can understand, I guess, why a certain type of person would want this sort of leverage in negotiating for more money:

Warwick School District superintendent Philip Thornton confirmed Friday morning that classes were canceled due to a “sick out,” where dozens of teachers called out sick over ongoing contract negotiations.

74 of 145 teachers in total called out Friday, causing the superintendent to cancel school over insufficient staffing.

What isn’t so easy to understand, however, is why we not only tolerate such behavior, but even give labor unions structural advantages in our laws.  “Sick outs” by well-paid, white-collar “professionals” are a form of extortion founded in greed.  (According to the contract on the district’s Web site, a step 10 teacher in Warwick makes $76,601, with large additions for longevity and graduate education as well as opportunity for more through other activities, all with a government employee’s stellar benefits and a 180-day work year.)

Imagine a private business that allowed your children to become pawns in a negotiation and could disrupt your entire life on a moment’s notice like this.  Couple that with the system’s institutional intention to indoctrinate its students, and it isn’t difficult to see why the education establishment so desperately fears school choice.  Only by forcing families to pay for their service can they get away with this level of abuse.

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School Choice Works and Should Expand in Rhode Island

Washington Examiner editorial highlights some evidence that school choice is increasingly likely to become a broadly implemented policy.  Here’s a key piece:

The latest fissures are created by a study of the country’s largest private school choice program. According to researchers, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which provides vouchers, increased college enrollment rates by about 6 percentage points for students who participated at all. For those who were in the program for four or more years, the college enrollment rate was as much as 17 points higher.

Before anyone leaps to suggest that this really just means those schools cream off the best students, opponents of school choice should know that children in the program disproportionately come from families with low incomes and, before joining the program, were mostly at bad public schools and did poorly on tests.

Add in a possible Supreme Court ruling this session that might put new pressures on public sector labor unions (by, again, increasing choice, in this case among workers) and public support for school choice policies, and opportunity may finally come to students who are poorly served by government schools.

As with much else, Rhode Island could be a leader in this area.  The state’s size and population density should make it fertile ground for the growth of schools serving nearly the whole state, with a plethora of options for families no matter where they live.

Evidence that I’ve seen out of Vermont and among Jewish communities (forgive the lack of links on a busy Monday) suggests that people will make decisions about where to live in order to take advantage of school choice.  If Rhode Island really wants to attract innovative companies and capture a “spillover” of the Massachusetts economy, policies that favor people, not special-interest insider groups like teachers unions would do the trick better and with much less waste and corruption than attempting to buy off those companies and people with offers to make them complicit in our state’s corruption.

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Evergreen Contracts One Positive of Special Session

As Ted Nesi reminds us in his weekend roundup, the legislation making municipal labor contracts, including those for teachers, essentially permanent until renegotiated did not overcome Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s veto at this week’s special session of the General Assembly:

The issue has become a game of chicken between the two chambers, with the Senate saying the House needs to vote first because Raimondo vetoed a House bill, but the House saying the Senate first needs to pass its own version and get that vetoed, too. …  a Senate spokesman reiterated that there will be no override unless the House votes. A House spokesman declined to comment, but there’s little indication Speaker Mattiello is inclined to call a vote.

That’s pretty obviously a pair of thin excuses to do the right thing in the face of labor union pressure, but hey, we’ll take it.  The lingering question — as with so much legislation that works its way into law — is why our representatives and senators would pass such horrible legislation to begin with.

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RhodeWorks Signs Bring More Censure from Feds

Rhode Islanders who follow the news can’t help but begin wondering how many times the federal government will have to send letters of complaint against our corrupt and inept state government.  The Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) is obviously the giant archetype of the problem, but even those blue RhodeWorks signs promoting Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo are an illustration.  Here’s Patrick Anderson in the Providence Journal:

The Federal Highway Administration has found the hundreds of signs scattered over roads and bridges are “not in compliance” with federal traffic regulations, Carlos Machado, Federal Highway’s administrator for Rhode Island, said Wednesday. …

Nancy Singer, a Federal Highway spokeswoman, provided The Journal with the federal regulation at issue in Rhode Island, which does not allow “promotional or other informational signs regarding such matters as identification of public officials, contractors, organizational affiliations, and related logos and symbols.”

Also of interest is that the signs cost an extra $100 each to make and install, bringing the total to $52,000, because the original estimate didn’t include labor costs.  Unionized state employees are both making and installing the signs.

Recall, in this context, that Raimondo’s Director of the Department of Transportation, Peter Alviti, was previously an employee of the Laborers’ International Union (LiUNA).  Shortly after his hiring, Alviti scuttled a hiring plan that called for the state to bring in more design and development employees, as recommended by an expensive outside analysis, and instead hired more laborers.  One effect of the change was that the new hires shifted from a different union to LiUNA.

Recall, also, that Alviti brought some tasks in-house, like road striping, claiming that having more union members on the payroll year round would be less expensive than hiring outside vendors for the part-year work.

Now we are reminded that the DOT has been finding work for its employees making overly political signs for the governor.  At what point does the federal government stop the cease and desist letters and send in the investigators?

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State House Report with John DePetro, No. 26: Resurrected Legislation and the Ghost of Failures Past

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, last week, the topics were the likelihood of an evergreen veto override, whether the DCYF would haunt Gina, PawSox, DACA, and Rhode Works transparency.

Open post for full audio.

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We Must Require a Definition of “Accountability”

Earlier today, I mentioned Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s recent appearance on WPRI’s Newsmakers program and his heavy reliance on buzz phrases and jargon.  One such term — which needn’t be jargon, but can be used that way — was “accountability.”

Wagner’s use of the word came to mind when I read an excerpt on National Review Online of a book by Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City Councilwoman and charter school founder:

While I was already convinced that the district schools weren’t in good shape, preparing for the contract hearings was nonetheless an eye-opener for me. Interviewing principals, superintendents, and teachers helped me understand just how impossible it was for them to succeed given the labor contracts, and how job protections created a vicious cycle. Teachers felt they’ve been dealt an impossible hand: their principal was incompetent or their students were already woefully behind or their textbooks hadn’t arrived or all of the above. They didn’t feel they should be held accountable for failing to do the impossible so they understandably wanted job protections. However, since these job protections made success even harder for principals who were already struggling with other aspects of the system’s dysfunctionality to achieve, they too wanted job protections. Nobody wanted to be held accountable in a dysfunctional system, but the system couldn’t be cured of its dysfunction until everyone was held accountable.

In that context, the question is unavoidable:  What does “accountability” mean?  It must have clear and predictable consequences, or it’s worthless.  As Wagner used the term, “accountability,” one couldn’t be sure what it entailed, suspecting that the idea might rely on the assumption that teachers and administrators would feel guilty about bad results and consider themselves as having been held accountable.  Or maybe the consequence would be a written-more-in-sadness-than-anger letter of disappointment from Department of Education.

Accountability should mean that people lose their jobs or that entire schools are threatened with going out of business because students are going elsewhere.  Unfortunately, that necessity goes against the sine qua non of government employment, which is job security.

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School Repairs and Where the Money Goes

So Democrat Governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo wants Rhode Islanders to make a “once-in-a-generation investment” to fix our substandard school buildings, and I can’t help but wonder:  Where is all the money we’re already spending going?

Rhode Island’s public schools need $627.5 million worth of major repairs to simply put students out of harm’s way, according to a major independent study commissioned by state officials.

But it would cost $2.2 billion to bring schools to an ideal condition — buildings that are energy-efficient, offer the right mix of technology and provide plenty of sunlight and fresh air.

The first thing to note is that $2.2 billion isn’t all that much higher (relatively) than the $1.8 billion that the state proclaimed a few years ago.  Suffice to say that it’s a lot of money and that this isn’t a surprise.

But again:  Where is all the money going that we’re already spending?  This whole thing has the feel of a government scam.  The first marker is that, by just about any measure, Rhode Islanders pay a great deal in taxes.  How can that not be enough to cover basic maintenance and improvement of something that’s long been considered a central function.

The second marker that raises questions about this new ask for huge taxpayer expenditures and debt is how we’re coming up with these numbers.  Tiverton, for example, is listed as having $46 million in “deficiency costs,” but the town is already paying off $54 million in debt for construction and repairs.  How did we reach the point of requiring $100 million in school repairs for a district serving about 1,800 students?

Something isn’t right with this whole pitch across the state, and Rhode Islanders should insist that elected officials figure it out before agreeing to put themselves into even more debt.

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Manufacturing Consent to Spend Our Money

The lede of an article by Kathy Gregg, to which the Providence Journal gave the headline, “Emails show rising public support for PawSox stadium subsidies,” ought to discourage all Rhode Islanders who aren’t making a living off of the government:

Roughly two-thirds of the 138 emails sent so far to the Rhode Island Senate expressed support for the proposed $38 million in city and state subsidies to build a new ballpark for the Pawtucket Red Sox.

Is this where we are, now?  Eighty-six emails expressing “at least generally supportive” opinions (some from people who would directly benefit) shows “rising support” and gives a green light to making a million people liable for tens of millions of dollars in debt?  I don’t know that one could find a better illustration of the way political gamesmanship and the news media’s inevitably spotlighted focus generate narratives that lead to substantial public policy decisions at odds with the public interest.

For additional detail on how this process actually works, consider this Facebook post, which Lisa D’Agostino mentions in the Projo’s comment section:

News Update: PawSox Rally at the State House,Thursday September 14th from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. All Thursday night apprentices classes are to report at 5:00 p.m. and sign in with respected instructors. Local 51 T-shirts will be handed out to each member. Also, we our encouraging all journeyman and retirees to please attend the rally in support. Let’s work together.

Apprenticeships, incidentally, are required for people who wish to become plumbers, pipefitters, and HVAC technicians, which the UA Local 51 covers.  I haven’t seen a requirement in the law that apprentices be trained in pressuring government to commit taxpayers to debt, but it wouldn’t surprise me to come across one.

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Details and Consequences in Cranston Fire Department

Don’t let the case of Paul Valletta, one of the most prominent faces of Rhode Island’s firefighter unions slip by without reading some of the details.  Here are some that WJAR’s Parker Gavigan has reported:

[Lt. Scott] Bergantino told police that while other firefighters were participating in the “Fill the Boot” campaign raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he and [Deputy Chief] Valletta got into a heated argument about overtime.

Valletta is also the Cranston fire union president and a state lobbyist for the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters. Their argument turned physical, said Bergantino, who told detectives Valletta pushed him up against a chalkboard, punched him in the head two times and then threw him over a recliner and onto the floor.

Sleep well, Cranstonites, knowing that this is who responds to your emergencies, and sleep well, Rhode Islanders, knowing these are the state’s insiders, for whose benefit much of our public policy is designed.  Note that the fight started on the subject of overtime, one key ingredient (other than pensions) making firefighting such a lucrative career in Rhode Island.  A quick review of Cranston budgets suggests that the department regularly overspends its overtime budget by around $1.2 million (about 34%).

According to Gavigan, it appears that police have some sort of recording of the incident, and Valletta is currently suspended with pay.  Anybody want to bet against my expectation that Valletta will find himself in a graceful retirement and Bergantino will get a nice bit of time off?

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The Testing Bounce-Around on School Accountability

Readers may have come across news that Rhode Island students’ scores on the PARCC tests remain underwhelming.  This paragraph from Dan McGowan puts it succinctly:

The majority of public school students across Rhode Island still aren’t meeting expectations in math or English, according to the latest round of standardized test scores released Thursday by the R.I. Department of Education.

Of course, the problem is that our education bureaucrats change the test, wholesale, every time they’ve been around long enough to begin pointing toward actual conclusions about actual students.  One needn’t be but so cynical to suspect that the problem with the recently abandoned New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests wasn’t pedagogical, but that they began to allow Rhode Islanders to trace students’ progress (or lack thereof) through enough years of their schooling to begin holding the system accountable.

The best way to resolve that particular institutional friction, of course, is to change the test.  That buys the system a few years of excused “adjustment” and then another four or five years during which the test are acknowledged to be measuring something, but without enough data to draw conclusions.  Then… change the test again.

This post shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of standardized testing as an ideal mechanism for accountability.  Much preferable would be empowering parents to judge which schools will better serve their children and to direct their education resources there by some mechanism that isn’t as intrusive as changing houses.

But there has to be some way for communities to judge how well the schools in their communities are performing, and without a market dynamic, the waters are too easy to muddy.  Parents don’t want to feel as if they’ve made bad decisions for their children, and when the decision is limited to uprooting your entire life and moving, the incentive is to make the best of what you’ve got.

With that framing, the handling of standardized testing is simply an extension of the strategy.  The game is to bamboozle each generation of parents to keep the corrupt union-driven system going.

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