Thursday, September 18, 2008

Transparency in Campaign Financing: The Windows Need a Lot of Cleaning

CampaignDisclosure.Org just released their 2008 rankings for nationwide state campaign financing disclosure. If you are not familiar with this group, take some time to visit their website at

Their purpose is to "bring greater transparency and accountability to money in state politics" and they give each state a grade for overall performance in four categories: campaign disclosure laws, electronic filing programs, public access to campaign finance data, and disclosure web site usability.

If you look at the rankings, 10 states failed the test (literally received an "F"), and 40 states are considered to have passed. Utah comes in at the bottom of the passing states with a solid D-. The good news is, that's an improvement over the F's we've received in the past.

Improvements, But Come On...

The Deseret News covered the release of this report (,5143,70025960.00.html) and gives a view of both the problems we still have with campaign finance transparency as well as the progress being made toward electronic filing requirements for candidates and a user-friendly database for the public.

Believe me, I'm all for appreciating improvement and success along the way, but please, a D-??? The grade Utah recieved is not just an indictment of the process and tools involved; I believe it is a clear indictment of our campaign financing laws, or relative lack thereof. In a state that talks a lot about values, morals, and ethics, our campaign financing laws (and the resulting questionable campaign financing ethics?) are some of the worst in the nation...almost to the point of being egregiously non-existent.

We Notice, We Care, We Want Reform!

In a January, 2007 report, KSL revealed that "an exclusive poll by Survey USA for Eyewitness News asked Utahns to ascribe a level of importance, on a scale of one to ten, of certain issues. Nearly a third gave campaign finance reform an 8, 9, or 10, ranking it as very important. Those in favor of campaign finance reform say special interests have too much influence, while those opposed say access to public officials should not be unfairly restricted." (

Just yesterday, a coalition of concerned groups launched an official campaign regarding government ethics reform. They are calling on the legislature to do its own house cleaning by addressing this very issue. Too many legislators, and the special interest groups who court them, are benefitting far too much from the current state of affairs. See the story at, and take a look at the pledge to address reform that UTPS is asking legislators and legislative candidates to sign at

It's an age-old political dilemma: how does the common man compete with money and power? How do we hold our elected officials accountable for things we cannot see, track, and evaluate? I'm on the side of the little people who simply ask for honest disclosure and representation. We need to do some house cleaning, window cleaning, a good old scrub down from top to bottom. Transparency and ethics in government is achievable and we cannot let Utah fail this test year after year!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Special-needs students, teachers and taxpayers get the shaft

Many people were recently affected by the closure of Woodland Hills (Utah Southvalley Community School at Woodland Hills or USC as they've been known for just over a year), but few were surprised. That's because payroll checks began to bounce earlier in the summer and teachers contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune reported that USC "churned through at least 50 employees." That's a big number and I thought that it must be an exaggeration until I read the fifty plus angry comments appended to The Tribune article. Now I'm beginning to understand the truth of the matter.

There are a lot of losers in this closure (the biggest loser being Bob Jones), but more importantly the special-needs students that counted on a place to learn and the teachers who really cared about the students and stuck around despite all the telltale signs that the school was going under. That being said, the emphasis that I'm obviously taking on the Bob Jones scam is concerning the taxpayers. It's a position we can all relate to because all of us are taxpayers.

USC would have received public funding in the form of tuition tax credits this year but besides having closed, they also failed to file their application by the May 1 deadline. The program that gives public money to private schools is called the Special Need Carson Smith Scholarship and the school had participated in years past. In fact, the school received $160,477 last year, the third-largest amount of the 40 plus participating schools.

Funding for the program began in 2005 when it was signed into law by Governor Huntsman and further expanded in 2006. There is very little accountability for receiving such a large amount of our money. There are only 15 provisions for a school to adhere to during the application process and 11 of them are preceded by the following statement.

"No documentation is required in the application relative to this provision."

The 15th provision simply recaps the documentation that is needed which is simply 1) a Tuition and Fee Schedule, 2) a copy of the most recent Public Health Inspection Report, 3) a copy of the most recent State Fire Marshall Inspection Report and if the school stores, prepares or serves meals to students, 4) a copy of a current and satisfactory Safety and Sanitation Report from the Department of Health. So little accountability! No need to report where the money is spent and on whom? Do we have any idea of the money that USC received was spent on the students, or did they just plan to use it to fund a trip to Japan for the football team? I wonder how many special-needs students were planning on going?

I must make mention again of the huge loss for these students and their families. It is very difficult to find good places for these students where their needs will be met, however, many of them have now come back to public schools where their Special Education needs, by law, must be provided. Public schools try very hard to meet those needs despite funding shortfalls and burdensome federal regulations. In a private school parents are not provided any guarantees that the school will meet the Special Education needs of their child. The federal laws do not apply and parents take a chance when they put their special-needs children in private schools.

Ironically, the only thing left of the USC school website is a notice demanding that lunch balances are paid and equipment returned and a picture of the guy responsible for the demise of the school. Can we demand that our public funds be returned or will the program be expanded yet again in 2008?

Monday, September 8, 2008

School Funding, Class Size, and the Earth's Rotational Velocity

Ah, money. It makes the world go ‘round. Or, at least it keeps it from winding down and coming to a screeching halt, especially if you view it through the organizational behavior lens of Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory. But, what does this have to do with school funding and class size, you ask? Well, potentially a lot if you take a look at how this theory addresses job satisfaction and motivation, and apply it to the ongoing challenges our Utah teachers face each year.

What Does Hygiene Have to do with Motivation?

If you are new to Herzberg, let me give you a quick primer on his work. Frederick Herzberg, a well-respected psychologist who eventually graced the halls of our own U of U as a professor of management, is known for his widely-applied Motivation-Hygiene Theory. In business and academic circles, his theory has the reputation for being able to nicely account for two aspects of motivation: satisfaction and dissatisfaction. For the purpose of looking at school funding and class size, I'll focus in this post on dissatisfaction.

Dissatisfaction is primarily the result of hygiene factors, which are sometimes also referred to as "maintenance" factors. Either way, these elements are simply the basic building blocks of an acceptable working condition. These particular factors have little effect on long-term satisfaction—they merely prevent dissatisfaction. The point is, Herzberg found that these factors must be met and sustained in a work environment before an employee can move on to real levels of work satisfaction, enjoyment, and performance.

Keeping Dissatisfaction at Bay or Sway

According to Herzberg and the results of his well-documented research, here are the factors that, if missing or inadequate, can lead to job dissatisfaction:

Pay and Benefits
Company Policy and Administration
Relationships with Co-workers
Physical Environment
Job Security

With regard to education, this list begs the very questions we ask ourselves during each legislative session. Even if we focus on just education funding and class size, this theory suggests imperative questions for which I want better legislative answers.

Last.....and First: Funding and Class Size

Over the past several years, I've been watching for legislative changes that will have real impact on local school funding and class size challenges. I'm still watching....and waiting. While appropriations for education have increased somewhat, Utah is still dead last in the nation for per pupil funding. Let me repeat that. We spend less on each of our students than every other state in the nation. In the 2006 fiscal year, Utah spent $5,437 per student. The highest-ranked state, New York, spent $14,884 per student, and the national average was $9,138. Even if we overlook the highest-ranking state, we are still only spending 60% of the national average on our students. To put it another way, we are not even close to the second-to-last state, Idaho, which spends $6,440 per student...a $1000 gap. In short, we are way behind.

To be fair, after nearly ten years of education funding decline, "the Legislature has increased state funding effort for public education in the most recent two state budgets", according to the Utah Foundation. It's the relative size of those increases that I wonder about...and the lingering, and sometimes widening, gap between Utah's education funding compared with the rest of the nation.

Now let's juxtaposition our per pupil spending numbers against Utah's class size. We have, as you might have guessed, the largest class sizes in the nation. Our student-to-teacher ratio is 22.6 which adds up to about seven more students per teacher than the national average. Not only at an intuitive level would this appear to be a problem, but most education experts agree that larger class size does directly translate into many challenges—both for the students and the teachers. Challenges ranging from lack of focus and on-task work, discipline problems, and only reaching superficial levels of instruction are routinely observed in larger class sizes.

Now, Back to Hygiene

Bringing us back full circle to the rotational velocity of the earth and Herzberg's hygiene factors, let's take a look at the theory again armed with the numbers above. Does money really make the world go 'round? It sure does help.

When we consider what it takes to attract and retain the best teachers, Herzberg's model is eye-opening. While it seems to state the obvious, it emphasizes that offering the basic building blocks of an acceptable work environment is only a starting point. With regard to education, I can see at least three factors on the list that are impacted by low funding and large class sizes: Pay/Benefits, Work Environment, and Status (and perhaps Company Policy and Administration). That's nearly half of the list and the odds of dissatisfaction, I think, speak for itself. In fact, years of real-world observation and motivation research indicates that all of the hygiene factors must continually be met in order to prevent dissatisfaction.

In my experience, Utahns collectively speak about education with fervent support and generally agree that education is one of the state's highest-held values. However, my experience also says "follow the money" to find the real, rather than stated, values. We see values translated into public policy every year and for a state that claims to value education, the policy...and the lagging behind. Let's do what it takes to retain the best teachers by meeting their basic needs, supporting them with policy, and then allowing them to teach with passion.

Kudos to legislators who have supported increased appropriations for public education....let's just see more of it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Florida School Voucher Update - Amendment 9 thrown out!

Good news for residents of Florida today! The Florida Supreme Court threw out amendment 9, which combined a private school voucher program with Patrick Byrn's so-called "65% Solution" proposal. The intent of the amendment was to reverse the Florida Supreme Court decision that threw out a private school voucher proposal as unconstitutional.

Even though this amendment has been defeated for now, have no doubt that Patrick Byrne will be pushing his agenda somewhere soon again. Maybe even in Florida since this isn't the first time he has peddled his ideas there. I found a 2006 article from that documents his previous try and gives precious insight into his tactics and flawed point-of-view. The article starts out, "The 43-year-old man behind the education spending plan storming the nation is crashed out on a couch in the Florida Capitol," and continues with the following highlights.

"I don't think [the 65 percent plan] really had any legs to start out with," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who thinks the plan is dead in the upper chamber.

But with the most important 21/2 weeks remaining in the legislative session, it's too early to predict exactly how it will play out.

Byrne admits little knowledge of Florida politics. His entry into the state's education debate started a year and a half ago in his Salt Lake City apartment.

A mutual friend introduced Byrne to Tim Mooney, an Arizona Republican political consultant. For about a year, Mooney had been laying the groundwork for the 65 percent campaign.

Byrne is surprised at how quickly it's taken off. "I never had any idea politics was so easy," he said.

You'd think he'd be back on that couch, crashed out and full of humble pie, but I'm not done keeping an eye on him, just in case he has a hollow leg. Afterall, let's not forget what Byrne said after the sound defeat of vouchers in Utah. He said he was going to push vouchers "on African-American churches in South Carolina". He WILL take these ideas anywhere and everywhere he thinks he can sell them.