Monday, March 29, 2010

RTTT, SEBC and other Acronyms

It's old news by now, but still worth repeating: Delaware won a Race To The Top grant for $100 million. Delaware and Tennessee were the only two winners in Phase I of the RTTT competitive grant competition. Now it's a race to make Race To The Top work for kids and educators.

The State Employment Benefits Committee met today. Two issues were dealt with. First, the $37.5 million deficit in the health fund will be filled by using reserve money from the fund. If general revenue fund money is available, the Joint Finance Committee may still entertain increasing the general fund contribution so that less health plan reserve money will be used. Second, the SEBC raised rates for the health plan by about 10%. (We do not yet have the rate increase data sheet in our possession.). However, employees will not pay this increase next year. The Governor requested in his budget that employees be held harmless from rate increases for FY 2011.

The Delaware State Education Association entered testimony today at SEBC. We have posted the testimony below. As you will see, we are still very concerned about any plans to create a different level of benefits for new hired educators.

Good afternoon Madame Chair and Members of the Committee.

My name is Tim Barchak, with the Delaware State Education Association.

We appreciate the thoughtful discussions that are taking place regarding the State Employee Health Plan.

We support the efforts of this committee to request additional funding from the Legislature, as well as to cover the employee portion of the premium increase, to get this plan through another tough year.

With the Spring Break of the Legislature beginning at the end of this week, we thought this would be the appropriate time to enter testimony on possible legislative recommendations by this committee.
If this committee is considering recommendations regarding reduced health benefits for new employees, we have the following comments:
· We do not believe legislation of this magnitude should be rushed into. We advise against legislation for this session. There will be only about 25 legislative work days left when we return from Spring Break. We do not see how stakeholders groups can be assembled and ideas pursued in that amount of time. We need a thorough review of all options.
· A plan should not create a permanent underclass of employees who have reduced health care for the duration of their careers. Additionally, some experiences with multi-tiering of benefits have resulted in unfavorable health plans for all members.
· Any consideration of benefit comparisons should keep in mind total compensation packages, for while some neighbors may have slightly less generous health plans, they may additionally have much more generous wage schedules.
· Finally, with any change in benefits we must keep in mind that education is becoming increasingly competitive with higher and higher expectations. If we drive our benefit package too low with already moderate wages, we will have difficulty recruiting the best young educators.

Thank you for your time and consideration this afternoon.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thoughts on ESEA Competitive Grants

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is ready for reauthorization, although Congress will probably not take ESEA up until next year. The Obama Administration has issued their "Blueprint" which sets forth the policy that they hope will be reflected in the ESEA. As some of you may have heard, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have voiced complaints. The education organizations believe that the Blueprint is too heavily focused on standardized tests, continuing the legacy of No Child Left Behind.

Additionally, the NEA and AFT are concerned about the policy shift away from formula driven funding towards competitive grants. Considering the chaotic chase for RTTT and SIG funds, the education world does not favor introducing this same model for the essential ESEA money. The Administration seems oblivious to the issue of capacity in an already stressed system.

This Administration is introducing the idea of competitive grants in many sectors of government. They are giving credence to the stereotype of government's "one size fits all" mentality.

In some areas, one may desire to have winners and losers, and the withholding of money can actually affect a desired outcome. Let us use transportation as an example. If the Secretary of Transportation wants to encourage investment in public transportation and discourage urban sprawl then the Secretary can design grant guidelines that promote public transportation. Continuing the analogy, look at St. Louis, Missouri. The metro-plex of St. Louis is now spread over 5 counties. An area almost twice as large as the entire state of Delaware. Under our scenario, if St. Louis hands in a grant application that plans for building more roads deeper into suburban areas, they will not win a grant. If St. Louis does not win a grant, they will not build the roads and ipso facto the policy of reducing urban sprawl has been carried out.

Now by comparison, the Secretary of Education wants persistently low performing schools to achieve standards and perform up to potential. If the same competitive grant is laid on top of
this situation, what happens? A school district which has a number of under performing schools and competes for ESEA, may very well not win that grant. After all, if the district had great innovative ideas on how to turn the situation around, they would be not be in the situation to begin with. Under the competitive grant scenario this district will not receive ESEA funds. Not receiving those funds continues the downward spiral. There is no aberrant behavior that will stop because of the denial of money. In fact, the struggling district will struggle even more.

Education does not need a dose of Social Darwinism. Education needs resources, understanding, and a way forward that is not all about quantifying the unquantifiable, such as learning and the value of kids and teachers.
Congratulations to Mary Pinkston, the Delaware Teacher of the Year. Mary gave an articulate speech with strong ideas today before the Delaware House of Representatives. Mary teaches mathematics at Brandywine High School. She has dedicated 17 years of excellent service to the children of Brandywine School District.

Monday, March 22, 2010

We Have a Health Care Law

Health care reform passed the US House last night. The legislation is a significant step forward in health insurance coverage and insurance reform. Coverage issues are initially addressed by an expansion of Medicaid, not only in the number of people eligible but also in the quality of services. The quality will be improved by increasing doctor reimbursement rates to the same level as Medicare. States will receive increased federal funding to cover the Medicaid changes.

Insurers will no longer be allowed to exclude children with pre-existing conditions. Adults with pre-existing conditions will be given immediate access to a high risk pool. Insurers will not be able to drop people who become sick. Lifetime plan limits are eliminated.

Rate setting reform will stop the use of such things as health status and sex from being used to establish premium rates.

The infamous "donut hole" in senior drug coverage is eliminated.

Small businesses will receive tax credits to purchase insurance coverage for employees.

Dependent children may continue on their parents' plan until age 26.

Insurers with excessively high administrative expenditures will be forced to give rebates to customers. Customers will have an appeals process to contest plan changes or decisions.

All of this is pretty positive stuff, but now a cautionary note. This bill contains an insurance mandate; basically, one way or another by private insurance or Medicaid or Medicare, you have to be covered. That is not bad or unprecedented by itself. Most of us are right now under an insurance mandate. If you drive a car, your state forces you to buy insurance. Also, this bill has various tax credits for those unable to afford the coverage.

The problem with the mandate is that it will do nothing to curtail health care inflation. The mandate may help with insurance inflation because the market will be huge and many new insurers may enter the expanded market. However, the costs of medical procedures, hospital stays, pharmaceuticals, etc will go unchecked and may in fact be fed by the new money in the market.

If, as promised by Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reed, that a vote on a public option is coming within a year, then all may be well. A public option is a health insurance plan operated non-profit by the government. The plan is much cheaper than the private plans from which insurance companies extract huge profits. More importantly, a public option enables the government to leverage down health costs. If the public option is hugely popular and millions of people become a part of that plan, along with Medicaid and Medicare, then the federal government can begin to set limits on providers. The government could, for example, tell hospital chains "we will no longer pay $1,500 a day for a hospital stay, we will only pay $1,000 a day. If you don't like it, we will take our 50% of the market somewhere else." That's the way a public option helps control the staggering health care inflation that has now driven health care spending to the level of 18% of our Gross Domestic Product.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Require Registration for School Elections

DSEA is briefing the Red Clay and the Christina Locals tonight on School Improvement Grants (SIG). Other Locals will be briefed in the following weeks. SIG presents many of the same challenges to districts and educators as Race To The Top only with a very abbreviated timeline in which to work out the challenges.
Tomorrow the State Employment Benefit Committee will meet. This is the second year in a row that the health plan is facing significant deficit issues. This year, the SEBC believes they need to find cost savings worth about $37 million.
Require Registration for School Elections

Why, in the State of Delaware is it possible for an individual who does not register to vote, to cast a ballot in local school board and referendum elections? Most citizens of the First State probably do not even know about this quirk in the law. In Delaware, one only has to live in the school district to vote in those elections.

We recognize that to have a voice in the governance of our city, county, state, and nation that one must be responsible and participatory in the democratic process by registering to vote. Yet, in the business of our school districts, electing the board members, and passing the taxation necessary to operate the schools, one only needs to show up with a utility bill showing that one has residence in the district.

How did this ever come to be? One could be a felon, denied voting right for all other offices, but granted the privilege for school elections simply by virtue of residence. Are the operations and governance of our schools less important than that of other public entities?

This issue becomes more problematic in Sussex County where districts may be geographically large with multiple sub-districts. There is no way to cross check voters on Election Day . One could take his utility bill to Sub-District A and then drive over a mile or two to Sub-District B and vote again.

Our schools and the people who run them, along with the funds to run them are important. Certainly important enough to be enfranchised into the democratic process along with other public bodies.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Last Few Days...

A little good news in Delaware revenue:
The DEFAC group which tracks state revenue in Delaware revealed some good news today. The revenue stream known as "escheats" was up by $70 million. Escheat refers to a state's ability to claim abandoned assets. In Delaware, our escheat is tied to corporate law and allows the state in certain situations to claim the assets of defunct corporations, even to access bank accounts in other states. While $70 million is a long way from the $287 million deficit, every bit helps.
My old home town in the news:
The Kansas City, Missouri public school system has been in the national news lately for taking the radical step of closing half of their schools. At one time Kansas City had one of the most beautiful and innovative network of schools in the nation. When Kansas City engaged in desegregation, they received a bonus from a judge who ordered the city to tax itself to do it properly. With the revenue, Kansas City desegregated not by forced busing, but by making a magnet school system so appealing, that white children from the suburbs voluntarily enrolled in the predominantly African American city schools. One school was a performing arts magnet with a state of the art theater, another was a Greek magnet with emphasis on classical learning and sports and included an Olympic sized indoor pool, and others focused on science with an abundance of computer access, some on language, etc.

The schools were huge, new, and lavish. The plan worked. Desegregation was achieved voluntarily. Then a strange thing happened with strange bedfellows. Anti-tax conservatives effectively teamed up with black neighborhood activists to challenge the desegregation program. The conservatives' position was simple, they believe taxation for any purpose (other than the military) is evil. The activists did not like the fact that many times children could not get into their own neighborhood schools because the slot was taken by a white child from the suburbs.

In the early 1990s the court overruled the earlier decision of forced funding, pleasing the unusual allies on the right and left; and leaving the KCMO school district with physical structures that were extremely expensive to maintain on the inside and outside. This act drove the Kansas City public schools to the edge of the cliff. The current recession has just provided the additional push.
Obama at odds with educators, again:
About a week ago President Obama, in a speech before the US Chamber of Commerce, praised the termination of an entire staff of teachers at a school in Rhode Island. It was obviously a crowd pleaser for the assembled bankers, insurance company executives, and corporate CEOs.

Now this week, Obama releases "A Blueprint for Reform". The Blueprint is his plan for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The National Education Association's president, Dennis Van Roekel, was blunt in stating his disappointment with the Blueprint. The following quote sums it up:
"What excited educators about President Obama’s hopes and vision for education on the campaign trail has not made its way into this blueprint. We were expecting to see a much broader effort to truly transform public education for kids. Instead, the accountability system of this ‘blueprint’ still relies on standardized tests to identify winners and losers. We were expecting more funding stability to enable states to meet higher expectations. Instead, the ‘blueprint’ requires states to compete for critical resources, setting up another winners-and-losers scenario. We were expecting school turnaround efforts to be research-based and fully collaborative. Instead, we see too much top-down scapegoating of teachers and not enough collaboration."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Patients Versus Consumers

There's going to be a lot of talk about health care in the next few weeks. On the federal level, the Democrats are claiming that health care legislation is not dead and that something will pass soon. Although, one should note that the rhetoric has changed to "insurance reform" from health care reform. That by itself is not good news. People need health care, not necessarily health insurance. Insurance is simply the paying vehicle. We could have a public non-profit as the paying vehicle which would simplify and cost contain at the same time. Politically, that will not happen. On the state level health benefits will be under scrutiny because of both continued health care inflation and because of another year of low revenues for the State's General Fund.

One perspective that deserves attention is the concept of "consumer driven health care". This idea of the patient as consumer is popular now in health care policy discussions. The idea is an attempt to understand how health care functions and well intentioned, but I believe flawed.

Let us play out the analogy between health care consumer versus patient. First, when I set out to buy a consumer item there is always the question of "is this a need or want?" I do not believe that is the case with health care, and I find the beliefs around this issue fascinating. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people go to the doctor when they perceive a legitimate need to go. What fascinates me is that everybody believes everybody else is a hypochondriac! Moreover, this idea that we go to the doctor too much is a 180 degree turnaround from what the health care industry was telling us in the 1980s. At that time Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO) were the rage. The idea was for people to maintain their health with regular doctor visits rather than waiting for acute symptoms. Every time one challenges the concept of overuse of health care the response back is purely anecdotal and usually absurd; such as someone going to the emergency room with a cold. How much does that really happen? Do you Mr/Ms Reader go to the doctor on a whim? Do you like missing work and sitting around in waiting rooms reading year old magazines?

Second, when I buy a consumer item all sorts of retailers are competing on the basis of price. What health care facilities compete on price? Have you ever seen a hospital run a commercial advertising discount surgeries for the month of April? No, and you never will. Hospitals and other health services compete on the basis of quality. "We have the best doctors. We have the newest MRI. We have birthing suites."

Third, when I buy a consumer item it is between the sales person and me. If I have done a little research on the internet, I probably know as much as the retail sales person about the product and what I need. A patient always has experts (doctor, specialist, etc.) telling him/her what is needed, how much is needed, when and where to get it. Moreover, the patient is not qualified to argue about it. Is it really appropriate for a patient to say "No, Doc I only need a double bypass, not the more expensive triple"? Should a patient say "No, Doc, not twice a day, I'm trying to save, let's say once a day"? Or perhaps the patient in the back of the ambulance should say "Wait fellas don't take me to General Hospital, it may be closer, but St. John's has a better room rate".

I believe that everyone is going to have to work together for solutions to the exploding cost of health care, particularly at a time when the State is basically broke. However, I do not believe that health care functions like other commodities in the market place.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Thanks Bobby

I was recently privileged to attend an economic summit hosted by the National Council of State Education Associations. Education advocates are becoming more educated in economics and more active in economic justice issues. The reasons are twofold. First, we find it difficult to educate children who come to school hungry, sick, having slept in a car, with a toothache, etc. Second, education and educators are starved for funds. As long as we have a concentration of wealth at the top 1% of society and as long as those folks and the corporations which they control do not pay their fair share of taxes, education will never be adequately funded.

This conference reminded me that we do not measure the right things in evaluating a nation's wealth. For example, did you know that technically this terrible recession ended last summer? As long as certain economic indicators begin to rise again like GNP and the stock market, the recession is considered finished in spite of months or years of pain ahead for common people.

Take a moment to read the words of the late Robert Kennedy who in 1968 challenged the "value" of our economy. This speech could be used as a meditation on the troubles of today.

For too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community value in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over 800 billion dollars a year, but that gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, that gross national product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic squall. It counts Napalm, and it counts nuclear warheads, and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our city. It counts Whitman's rifles and Speck's Knifes and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet, the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play; it does not include the beauty of our poetry of the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate for the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country it measures everything in short except that which makes life worth while. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Legislative Program Webinar Review

On February 19th this blog solicited your input on the Delaware State Education Association's Legislative Program. The Program is simply a short list of priorities which we hope capture our advocacy intentions. We want to make you aware of another opportunity for input.

On Monday, March 8th, at 6:30 PM we will host a webinar to review the document and give you a chance for input and questions. Members who are on our Cyber Lobbyist email list will receive an email with instructions for participation. If you are a member not on our Cyber Lobbyist list and wish to participate, then please email me at

RTTT Finalists
The US Department of Education announced the finalist list for Race To The Top grants today:
New York
North Carolina
Rhode Island
South Carolina

These states will be called to Washington in short order to give presentations about their grant applications.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Persistently Low Performing

It has been a year of disappointment with the Obama Administration, and yesterday's slam on teachers was just one more. In a speech before the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Obama praised the decision of a Rhode Island superintendent to fire the entire staff of a low performing school. This blame the educator, union busting maneuver is known as the Turn Around model.

The preferable Transformation model allows schools the flexibility to do innovative reform without the showboating drama and trauma of terminating an entire staff. Persistently low performing schools in Delaware are expected to do the responsible thing for kids and educators by choosing the Transformation option.

It is interesting that the Obama Administration attacks educators for failing to show results in a Rhode Island school. Will he hold himself to the same standard? So far, he has failed to deliver on health care, on peace in the Mid-East, on an economy that works for everyone, on climate change, and on the Employee Free Choice Act. Unfortunately for all of us, that is beginning to sound "persistently low performing".


On Monday, March 8th at 6:30 PM you will have an opportunity to weigh in on the Legislative Program document. DSEA will be sending a cyber-blast tomorrow with instructions on how to join the Webinar discussion. I will also post it on this blog tomorrow.

Monday, March 1, 2010

News Journal gets it Wrong

Those who still read the News Journal will have seen several articles criticizing the pensions of educators and state workers. The NJ is in full Social Darwinist mode. Public employee pensions and benefits are too generous according to the NJ.

An easy target for the NJ is the health care liability portion of the pension. Retirees (depending on their hire date with the state/school district) can get 50% to 100% of their health care before Medicare paid. The future cost of this is called the Other Post Employment Benefit (OPEB) liability.

The OPEB liability for all states is enormous. The Delaware OPEB liability is $5.6 billion. (Our state's total annual budget is around $3 billion) In fact, since all states are in the same leaky boat, bond rating agencies are not lowering ratings on this issue.

However, the NJ falsely reported that states must now fully fund this liability. That is absolutely false. The Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) established a rule a few years ago requiring states to show the liability for accounting purposes; not to fully fund it, not even to make a plan to fund it.

Delaware is in better condition on OPEB than many states. We have put $74 million in a non-revocable trust.

None of this is to imply that OPEB is not a big challenge. However, that challenge is all tied up in the general mess that is US for-profit corporate health care. We do not need to be less "generous" to public employees. We need to be more responsible to all citizens and have a national health care plan.