Monday, December 21, 2009

How Wonks Amuse Themselves

First a note to my followers: The General Assembly will go into session on January 12th. The postings on this blog will increase considerably to several per week. Thanks for reading.

How Wonks (nerds) Amuse Themselves:
I have been concerned for some time about rhetoric concerning the size of state government. The News Journal has featured several articles referencing the number of Delaware state employees with the inference that state personnel is bloated. The assumption requires investigation beyond the superficial.

One should also note that regardless of the size of state government the current budget crisis is not about overspending. By that logic, all but a handful of states in the nation all overspent last year resulting in collapsed budgets. That's nonsense. The 43 states that had to make serious budget cuts last year are all suffering lost revenue due to the economic recession, not because they all became careless with spending at one time.

Small states deal with two conditions making an apples to apples comparison regarding state government and state payrolls difficult. First, because we are small we do not get an economy of scale in most endeavours. Second, and more importantly, small states notoriously blur jurisdictional lines in the administration of services. In large states, cities, sewer districts, water districts, libraries, counties, townships etc. all have duties distinct from state government. By contrast in states like Delaware, the state provides services usually assumed by other government entities in larger states. For example, in Delaware the state may patch potholes in your residential street, or plow snow on a county road, or provide a state trooper to handle a domestic dispute in rural Sussex, or send a truck to pick up recycling in New Castle.

Because of the unique adoption of services by small state governments, it is more useful to look at the aggregate number of public employees per 10,000 population rather than exclusively at state employees per 10,000 citizens. By looking for the total number of public employees per state, one somewhat compensates for the sharing of services factor.

By using the "Governing Sourcebook" of the Congressional Quarterly, one can find both the state government employees per 10,000 population and the local government employees per 10,000 population. Then it is a simple matter to total the two numbers and rank states. Now, before giving you the numbers for Delaware let me add a note of caution. Public services, from education to trash collection are a matter of local values and priorities. It is more useful to engage citizens in honest discussions about their values and priorities, than to play quantifying games.

With that caution given, Delaware has 362 state employees per 10,000 population and 295 local public employees per 10,000 population for a total of 657 (2008). That number ranks us 35th in the nation below conservative Texas with 662 and above neighbor Maryland with 652.

These numbers do not sound extravagant to me. However again, it's about values. What do you want for your children? Should education continue to improve? How should your state look, smell? How safe should the water be? How available should the police be?

Public services are those services too important to be left to the market, too important to be owned and operated by any entity other than the public themselves. Our investment in public services reflect our values.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Santa Brings RTTT and Maybe Something Else

Race To The Top Briefings
DSEA local presidents will be briefed on the progress of the state's RTTT application,the Department of Education's strategic plan, and the regulatory changes that tie them together. The southern locals will be briefed on Thursday, December the 16th and New Castle locals on Monday, December the 21st. There has been a good deal of cooperation between DSEA and the Markell administration for positive results in many areas of regulation. The DSEA is looking forward to sharing with presidents at the briefings.

State Fiscal Policy
I was recently privileged to attend the national State Fiscal Policy Conference. This is an annual conference sponsored by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The conference gives advocates information about making public policy work for ordinary Americans. The following are a sampling of workshop titles this year: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about State Debt & Bonding (But Were Afraid to Ask); If You Tax Them Will They Flee? Countering Migration Myths; Writing About Fiscal Policy Effectively; Closing Corporate Tax Loopholes Through "Combined Reporting"; and Building and Sustaining Effective Revenue Coalitions.

The last workshop title brings up an interesting issue for Delaware. Delaware is one of perhaps three states in the nation that does not have a public policy analysis group. Most states have an affiliate of one of the following: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Economic Policy Institute, or Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

These groups provide analysis of public policy, particularly state fiscal policy and economic conditions from a populist perspective. They provide an important balance to corporate, anti-government, anti-public service, anti-union forces at work in most state capitols.

Advocates for public educators, state workers, and good public services are at a disadvantage without the research and analysis offered by economic policy groups.

Perhaps Santa is reading this blog and will bring Delaware a public policy group...we haven't been too naughty.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Thoughts on Merit Pay vs. Alternative Compensation

Educator compensation issues seem to go hand in hand with education reform discussions. Federal dollars, particularly related to innovation in grants through Race To The Top have prompted more attention than ever on ways to compensate teachers and other educators. An interesting change in language seems to be happening in many position papers, articles, and discussions. The older and narrower term "pay-for- performance" is replacing the modern, more inclusive "alternative compensation". Unfortunately, it is more than a matter of semantics.

Alternative compensation can mean any form of compensation other than pay for seniority alone (the vertical steps in the salary schedule). Alternative compensation as it currently exists is for such things as education (horizontal movement on salary schedule), professional development and special certifications such as NBC. Moreover, many teachers unions are interested in exploring other possibilities for alternative compensation through the collective bargaining process.

Pay-for-performance is a term which comes with much more baggage. Linking teacher pay directly to student performance is not new or innovative. The very first pay for performance experiments happened in the United Kingdom in the 18th Century. In the United States the flirtations with pay for performance began in the 1920s. The history of pay for performance is of failed attempts.

In spite of the heavy touting of merit pay by the big business interests (who declare themselves as stakeholders in education), it is quite uncommon for private sector professionals, particularly if the compensation is based on client outcomes. Certainly, the Chief Executive Officers of corporations have not based their own compensation on performance.

The challenges to pay for performance in education are legion, but just to name a few:
Educators are a self selected group not likely to be motivated by money. To put it another way, one has a group of people who by choice have entered a profession that has historically not compensated well. Thus one could conclude money is not a primary motivator, yet these programs seek to motivate primarily by money. Also, the concept of pay for performance assumes that educators are holding something back in their teaching, not giving 100%, and that they need a cash incentive to give that extra effort. For educators this is a ludicrous idea.

The variables between students and educators are exponentially staggering. 'I have more special education students than Mary. Mary has more students below the poverty line than Mark. Mark has several emotionally disturbed students not shared by Ann. Ann has numerous English as second language students, a challenge not seen by Ted at a magnet...on and on.' Finding a formula that is fair will require Stephen Hawking's help, but I hear he is tied up (pardon the expression) with String Theory.

New compensation plans cost money. One assumes that with new improved measurements for teacher effectiveness that almost all of the teachers will qualify for the incentives. Many of the same folks pushing for merit pay see little merit in paying taxes. From where will the sustainable funding come?

Finally, there is absolutely no data supporting the idea that pay for performance improves student learning.

Considering all the drawbacks to merit pay should not confuse the issue with the broader concept of alternative compensation. Teachers are open, within the context of collective bargaining, to opportunities for compensation that take into account qualifications beyond their experience.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

RTTT in the News

Race To The Top and related:
Yesterday saw a splash in the paper with the release of the Delaware Department of Education strategic plan. This year many of the plan's initiatives are tied to positioning Delaware for the program known as Race To The Top (RTTT). RTTT is a federal program that provides competitive grants to encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform. Delaware is eligible for a grant between $20 million and $75 million.

Within that framework are guidelines under the following headings: Great Teachers and Leaders; Turning Around Struggling Schools; Standards and Assessments; and Data Systems to Support Instruction.

Delaware had many innovations already in place that fit well with RTTT guidelines. The remaining changes needed are for the most part regulatory versus statutory. This means that the Department of Education can draw up new regulations and have those approved by the State Board of Education instead of needing to draft legislation and have changes made to the Delaware Code. This is another advantage for Delaware because the deadline for PhaseI applications is January 19th. If changes to law had been required it would have been close to impossible to meet the deadline with the General Assembly not beginning session until January.

DSEA has been involved in discussions with the Governor's office and DOE. DSEA is encouraged by the communication and collaboration with the Administration. There is a sincere effort to make educators into partners with the RTTT program.

Everyone has to work together to make sure educators are given the resources they need to implement new ideas because all reform innovations eventually boil down to a teacher with a class of students.