Teaching Time: It’s All About the Preparation

Many things can be said about teachers. A number of good ones are dramatically underpaid. Some classroom veterans who don't want to adapt likely make too much (simply due to longevity) based on their current contributions.

One of the few things people can agree upon is that a quality teacher is the most important factor in student achievement. With that in mind, it's not only the classroom leaders — but also those who prepare them for their careers — who are under increased scrutiny.

This Stateline story focuses on a growing number of states raising the bar on teacher preparation. It includes the following from Indiana and legislator Dennis Kruse, chair of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

In Indiana, the General Assembly this spring approved Senate Bill 409, which requires the state department of education to develop rules, standards and benchmarks of performance for teacher education programs and those who complete the programs. Under the legislation, the state will develop a rating system for teacher preparation programs. State Sen. Dennis Kruse, an author of the bill, said that after the legislature adopted tougher standards for teachers in 2011, lawmakers realized they had to hold the schools who train teachers accountable as well.

“We felt it was not really being fair to the teachers if they aren’t being trained correctly, so we felt we ought go to back to the schools to see which schools of education in Indiana are turning out teachers” who are effective, said Kruse, a Republican. “The ultimate goal is for students to succeed in the classroom and one of the best ways is to have an effective or highly effective teacher teaching them.”

Read the full story to learn about efforts in other states and at the national level.


Some States Trying to Move Back in 2012 Primary Schedule

Indiana avoided the national rush to move up the date of its 2008 presidential primaries. And national attention ended up being focused on the Hoosier state. Don’t expect any change from Indiana’s early May vote, and for a variety of reasons others are looking to fall back in the pack for 2012.

The modern presidential nominating process, in which candidates must compete in primaries throughout the country to have a chance to win, dates to 1972. After that, it only took a few election cycles for states to realize that the ones voting first had the biggest say in the nomination. By 1988, the push to “frontload” had begun in earnest.

Almost immediately, political scientists began complaining that the primary schedule was becoming perilously compressed. If too many states vote too early, they argued, only the best-funded candidates can compete. Candidates can effectively wrap up nominations in a matter of weeks, before the press and the public have time to scrutinize them. Then, states with primaries and caucuses later in the spring don’t matter. “A lot of states are not just less influential, but have no effective voice in the process,” says William Mayer, a Northeastern University political scientist who co-authored a book on frontloading.

Both the national Democratic and Republican parties have tried to impose some order on the process. But the parties don’t set the dates of primaries. State legislators do — because it’s the states who actually administer the elections, along with local governments.

Legislators’ foremost concern has been maximizing the influence of their own states. Even those who agree with the political scientists about the problems with a frontloaded calendar don’t want their own state to be the one left behind.

The results are dramatic. In 1976, on the Democratic side, the Iowa caucuses were in January and the New Hampshire primary was in February. Four more states voted in March and three more in April, with the other 20 primary states scattered later into the spring.

In 2008, six states voted in January. They included Florida and Michigan, which moved up their primaries in violation of Democratic Party rules. By the end of February, voters in nearly three dozen states had already cast their ballots in primaries or caucuses on both the Democratic and Republican side.

Medicaid Still a Puzzler for State Governments

While health care reform and its unknown costs have been popular topics, states have also specifically focused on Medicaid. Texas is among several states that have at least explored dropping out of the federal program. The consequences would be severe and there is no good choice, experts say. Stateline reports:

Arizona has generated national attention in recent weeks for its decision to stop paying for life-saving organ transplants under the state’s Medicaid program. The decision — made in the face of a severe fiscal crisis — has been portrayed as one of the recession’s sharpest state budget cuts.

In Texas, however, some Republican lawmakers — and Governor Rick Perry — have talked not only about dropping certain procedures and benefits under Medicaid, but about dropping out of the program altogether. They say the state can no longer afford the 45-year-old, state-federal health insurance program for the poor.

On Friday (December 3), a long-awaited state study quantified what such a decision would mean for Texas.

The study, by the Texas Department of Insurance and the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, found that as many as 2.6 million residents would lose their health insurance if Medicaid were abandoned. Many of those losing coverage would be pregnant women and babies, as the Austin American-Statesman noted. Texas would also lose $15 billion a year in federal assistance, or about a tenth of the state’s entire health care sector.

Keeping Medicaid without reforming it, however, is also not a viable option, according to the study. Rigid federal rules and a dramatic expansion of the program under the new federal health care law leave it on an unsustainable path in Texas — a "no-win dilemma."

"We have to reform the program to save it," Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, told The Dallas Morning News, which noted that Nevada and Wyoming are among other states that have studied dropping out of Medicaid.

National Shake-Up Brings ‘Fresh’ Faces to Government

Indiana’s 24 new members of the General Assembly make for an unusually large freshman class. But how about these House newcomer totals: 60 of 110 total in Michigan; 75 of 163 in Missouri; and 128 of 400 in New Hampshire? What will be the impact? Stateline reports:

If you see someone wandering around lost in the Michigan Capitol when the state House and Senate convene next month, there’s a good chance it will be a legislator. The 110-member House of Representatives will include 60 newcomers — all of whom will arrive in Lansing without any state legislative experience whatsoever.

The huge turnover in the Michigan House — the result not only of an unhappy electorate, but also of strict term limits that forced out 34 incumbents — has many political observers wondering what will happen when so many novices suddenly find themselves with so much power over the direction of state policy.

“It’s almost impossible to forecast,” says Craig Ruff, a Lansing political consultant who estimates more than 90 percent of all members of the Michigan House will have no more than two years on the job. At the very least, Ruff says, it could make for some interesting political theater, even within the newly elected Republican majority, as first-term members may not wish to be shepherded by their own legislative leaders.

“It’s much harder to enforce discipline when people aren’t accustomed to being disciplined,” Ruff says, noting that some lawmakers may be inclined to ask a simple question of their leaders: “I’ve got one vote. You’ve got one vote. What makes you so supreme?”

Similar scenarios may emerge in other capitols. The 2010 election cycle is frequently noted for its historic turnover in governor’s mansions, with 28 new chief executives about to take office in the coming weeks. But because of term limits, retirements and the ouster of hundreds of incumbents nationwide this year, there will also be a huge number of state legislators coming to the job for the first time. In many states, including Maryland, Nevada and Maine, incoming freshmen have already taken crash courses on everything ranging from the basics of legislative procedure to the right way to speak with reporters.

Nationwide, the turnover in state legislatures will be about 25 percent, a number that Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, describes as an “extraordinarily high” number in a non-redistricting year.

In several states, as in Michigan, first-time legislators will comprise roughly half of all members in one or both chambers, bringing a new and unpredictable dynamic to statehouses where clout and experience often rule. In Arkansas, for example, where term limits ensured plenty of turnover even before ballots were cast, 44 of 100 members of the state House will be new next year, with no state-level legislative experience under their belts.

In next-door Missouri, 75 of 163 House members will be state legislative novices. So large is the class of “true freshman” GOP representatives in the Missouri House that it outnumbers the chamber’s entire Democratic caucus, as well as the number of returning Republicans.

In New Hampshire, which does not have term limits, the 400-member House of Representatives — the largest state legislative chamber in the nation — will have 128 fresh faces next year, all of them new to the business of state lawmaking.

Third Party Candidates Shaking Up Elections

If you’re a moderate or just someone who’s not too enthused about either of the two main political parties, you may find this interesting. According to an article on Stateline, third party candidates are making serious impacts on races around the country. Granted, some of these candidates are former senators and office holders so they’re hardly outsiders, but it is rather noteworthy. (Oh, and the full article also discusses Jesse Ventura, so that alone is worth a few minutes of your time):

In this volatile election year, third-party and independent candidates are making serious bids for governor in a diverse array of states. Most of them won’t get many votes, but a fair number stand to influence the results and it’s possible that at least one may make it into office.

In Rhode Island alone, a handful of independents are running. The most prominent one is former U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee, who served in Congress as a moderate Republican until his defeat in 2006. Polling has showed Chafee either leading the race for governor or modestly trailing Democratic nominee Frank Caprio.

In Massachusetts, state Treasurer Tim Cahill broke with his Democratic roots to run as an independent against incumbent Democratic Governor Deval Patrick. Recent polls show that he could get as much as 10 percent of the vote, which is greater than Patrick’s current margin over Republican nominee Charles Baker.

In Minnesota, Tom Horner is running under the banner of the Independence Party, the successor to the party once led by Jesse Ventura. Horner, a moderate with a Republican pedigree, is hoping to draw Democrats who see their party’s nominee, former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, as too liberal, and Republicans who see GOP candidate Tom Emmer as too conservative. Horner has been polling at about 14 percent, which is much more than Dayton’s four-point lead over Emmer.

And in Colorado, former Republican U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo, who has been an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, may end up outpolling the official Republican nominee, Dan Maes, a Tea Party activist who inherited the nomination after the leading GOP candidate stumbled in a plagiarism scandal. Current polls show Tancredo taking 18 percent of the vote, about the same percentage by which Democrat John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver, is leading over Maes.

Given the number of these credible outsider challenges, it seems appropriate to look back at recent third-party governors to see how they fared once they won office, given that they lacked a major-party infrastructure and fellow partisans in the legislature.

Parties Badger Each Other in Wisconsin Over High Speed Rail

Discussion about the possibilities of high-speed rail has been plentiful over the years. The federal government is putting dollars behind the talk, with Wisconsin the big winner in a network that could extend throughout the Midwest. But there is controversy in the Badger State.

A brick-and-glass state office building on the banks of Lake Monona, just a few blocks from the Wisconsin Capitol and the rest of downtown Madison, shows no outward sign that it has become the focal point of one of the most heated — and unexpected — debates to divide this state’s Democrats and Republicans in a crucial election year.

The controversy is over what the building could become: one of the first new station stops on a high-speed rail network paid for primarily with federal dollars. Wisconsin won big in a national competition to get the high-speed rail stimulus money, and the issue historically has attracted bipartisan support here. Proponents say the new rail service will spur development and link Midwestern cities more tightly together.

But many Wisconsin Republicans this year are denouncing the new trains, using the project as a symbol to show how Democratic leaders in both state and federal government are spending money that neither can afford. “More than anything,” says Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive and Republican candidate for governor, “it symbolizes what people think of here when they think of runaway government spending.”

Both Walker and Mark Neumann, a former congressman who faces Walker in Tuesday’s (Sept. 14) Republican primary, want the state to stop work on the project. Walker launched his own website called NoTrain.com, calling for using the money to fill other transportation needs. Neumann doesn’t want it used for transportation at all; he wants the money for tax breaks, although it’s not clear how viable either option is.

Rail proponents are not backing down. President Obama visited Milwaukee to preview his plans to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure, specifically mentioning high-speed rail. His transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said in a recent visit that “nobody can stop this train.” And Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is running to keep the governor’s mansion in Democratic hands, is firmly behind extending high-speed rail to Madison.

Hoosier Leading Effort to Enhance Regional Identities

When asked, most Americans are likely to define themselves more as a product of their state or city. For example: "I’m from Indiana and I’m a Hoosier." "I’m from Brooklyn and I’m a New Yorker." "I’m from Boston and I’m a Bostonian." "I’m from Melmac and I eat cats." (That last one would be, of course, "Alf" — aka Gordon Shumway.)

But President Obama has enlisted his Asst. Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development (and former Bloomington Mayor) John Fernandez to get the nation to consider its regional identity and success (as opposed to that of states or cities) when competing for economic development projects.

Stateline asked Fernandez how hard it will be to persuade states, which are used to competing against each other, to think in terms of collaborating regions even when those regions cross state lines. He was realistic about the difficulty of changing the culture, both at his appearance before the group of legislators April 9 in Washington and in a  speech in Chicago in January.

“It’s a new way to keep score,” he says. “In the past, there was only one metric that mattered: the number of jobs created in my town [or state]. If you created a job, it had to be in your backyard to score points.”

“We need a new way to measure success,” he says. “If the city next door creates 1,000 jobs, it doesn’t mean you lost—it means the region won.  Jobs are not the only number. We need to rate our elected officials not just by the jobs they bring in today but by the jobs they make possible tomorrow.”

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty are keeping score the old way. The leaders of a region that overlaps three jurisdictions are demonstrating right in Obama’s backyard the difficulty of changing the one metric that matters, especially in an election year: job creation.

Northrop Grumman, the giant defense contractor, is planning to move its corporate headquarters from Los Angeles to the Washington area, and that has touched off a brawl among O’Malley and Fenty, both Democrats, and McDonnell, a Republican. Each jurisdiction wants Northrop Grumman’s high-paying jobs, and has offered the company millions of dollars in tax breaks so executives will choose them. O’Malley and Fenty are seeking re-election later this year; McDonnell was elected in November on a job-creation platform. (According to the Washington Post, Northrop Grumman has eliminated D.C. from contention.)

Oregon Businesses, Come on Down (and East)!

Oregon voters and the legislature were recently faced with some difficult budget decisions. Their solution was apparently to raise over $720 million by jacking up taxes, largely on businesses. It’s one way of doing things, but it’s probably not helping their businesses recover from the recession. So, if some of those fine Oregon companies wish to join us here in business-friendly Indiana, that’s certainly o.k. Granted, we don’t have mountains and ocean access, but corn is a beautiful vegetable and you haven’t lived until you’ve been to a Covered Bridge Festival in the fall. Also, bring your sneaks because you’re going to learn a lot about free throws.

Stateline writes:

For the first time since 1930, Oregon voters approved a general tax increase on Tuesday (Jan. 26), signing off on a plan to raise $727 million by targeting corporations and the wealthy.

By approving two ballot initiatives — known as Measures 66 and 67 — Oregonians showed that they prefer to tax relatively well-off segments of the population instead of making deep budget cuts to education and other state services.

Measure 66 raises income taxes on individuals who earn more than $125,000 a year and households that earn more than $250,000. Measure 67 replaces Oregon’s 79-year-old, $10-minimum corporate income tax with a new sliding scale that could sharply increase taxes for many businesses. Both plans were passed by the majority Democratic Oregon Legislature last year, but were placed on the ballot by opponents who gathered enough signatures to force a public vote.

As Stateline.org reported Tuesday, the election has national implications. Beyond being a referendum on a key part of Oregon Democrats’ policy agenda, the Beaver State is the first in the nation to vote on an emerging trend of state lawmakers targeting the wealthy for tax hikes. A record eight states, including Oregon, raised personal income taxes on their top earners last year, a practice Republicans have decried as “class warfare.”

Beyond being a showdown between Democrats and Republicans, the election turned into a proxy fight between labor unions that backed the measures and many businesses trying to reject them. The Associated Press reported that Tuesday’s special election was one of the most expensive issue campaigns in Oregon history, noting that the $727 million at stake represents about 5.5 percent of the state’s two-year, general-fund budget.

Taxes a Key Theme Around Nation

Stateline reports that many tax-related questions will arise via ballot initiatives throughout the nation this election season. Here are just a few I could glean:

* Will the Land of Kennedys be Tax-achusetts no more? It’s possible if the Small Government Act is passed.

* Will Colorado’s "TABOR" be abided? What exactly is it? If you’re like me, you incorrectly guessed it was the name of the newest American Gladiator. Lesson learned.

* Will Nevada adopt a property tax cap similar to California’s? Maybe, but let’s hope the Silver State remains the archetype for good times. After all, Danny Gans needs to make a living.

* Can both taxes and spending be cut in some states? They will if Grover Norquist has anything to say about it.

Grover … also not a gladiator, oddly enough.

Changing the Way the Votes Count?

I’m not sure I agree with the effort, but a question posed by the leader of National Popular Vote does stop and make one think.

Barry Fadem is the man. He’s president of the organization trying to persaude state legislatures to implement a popular election of the president. His question: "Why are all the other elections in this country based on the popular vote except for the most important one — the presidency?"

Supporters say the goal is to spread the wealth among candidate campaigning, similar to what Indiana experienced this spring for the first time in 40 years. Critics counter that rural areas will suffer, with candidates focusing on the big cities with the higher vote totals.

Stateline.org has the most interesting story. What’s your preference: the tradition of the Electoral College or time for a change?

On a side note, the chairman of the National Popular Vote effort is a scientist best known for inventing scratch-off lottery tickets. If only I would have come up with that idea!