"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Monday, February 15, 2016

More Possible State Laws: Parental Rights Under Attack

Update: Feb. 16, 2016: The House Ed Committee voted against passing HB164 out of committee and on to the rest of the House.  Please thank Reps Fawson, Coleman, Lifferth, Christensen, Noel, Gibson, and McCay for their Nay votes!  And thanks to all of you who wrote letters and to those who commented during the committee hearing!

Our parental rights are being challenged as our legislature is in the midst of its 45-day session.  What there is no dearth of is possible laws regarding education, and some of them directly impacting your responsibilities and rights as a parent.

It's important to remember that the role of government is to protect rights, to not to 'create common good' or to 'facilitate good outcomes and the best of intentions.'  Please remember what Road is paved with good intentions.  A quote usually misattributed to Voltaire reads, 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'  In making laws, it is important to put yourself on the receiving end of the penalties of the law.  If you are supportive of SAGE testing, please imagine if the tests were changed and you were not supportive.  How does someone else not having their child take the test impact your ability to raise your child as you see fit?  It doesn't.  This is what freedom looks like.  It isn't all of us agreeing all the time on what is 'good' or 'right' or 'best.'  It is allowing others 'maximum latitude' to live their lives in such a way that you don't interfere with them and they don't interfere with you.

HB164: Opt Out of Testing is being limited
Please email and, if possible, attend the committee hearing, tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016 at 2 pm in House Building, Room 30.

This legislation does three things, all of them wrong.

1. Allows the end-of-year testing (aka SAGE summative) to be used for student grades and grade promotion (going from 3rd to 4th grade?  Not if you fail this test.)

2. Limits parents' ability to opt out of all software/testing packages purchased by the state, like everything on SAGE (summative, formative, and interim), as well as things like Utah Compose.  Anything where the state contracted directly with a vendor, then state is directly responsible for data privacy, terms of use, and so forth.  Since there are no state privacy directives, the current law allows parents the ability to just avoid any 'questionable' data-mining programs provided by the state.  HB164 will still allow you to opt out of end-of-year tests, but all the others will result in possible negative consequences for your child.

3. Allows the State Board to create incentives for students who take the test.  Imagine, for a moment, that you have decided to opt your child out of SAGE testing.  Your child's best friend takes the test and gets a reward.  Your child, of course, KNOWS that his/her friend got this reward for taking the test.  This creates a positive home environment that supports you as a parent in what way?  I'll just leave it at that.

Here's a link to the bill.  http://le.utah.gov/~2016/bills/static/HB0164.html

(One note: underlined words are what the bill is adding.  Strike-out words are those being removed by the bill.  All the other words are what is currently in the law and will be left alone.)

Email addresses for the House Education Committee:
blast@le.utah.gov; vlsnow@le.utah.gov; lavarchristensen@le.utah.gov; kimcoleman@le.utah.gov;
brucecutler@le.utah.gov; seliason@le.utah.gov; justinfawson@le.utah.gov; fgibson@le.utah.gov;
ehutchings@le.utah.gov; dlifferth@le.utah.gov; dmccay@le.utah.gov; csmoss@le.utah.gov; mnoel@kanab.net; mariepoulson@le.utah.gov;

Please keep your remarks respectful and to the point.  My letter is listed below.

Additionally, Alpine's Board has asked our Assistant Superintendent, Rob Smith, to assist us at the legislature with bills that we all support or oppose unanimously, as well as, to articulate the principles upon which we have unanimity.  You can keep abreast of things that the Board supports, as a whole, at this link on our district's website.  http://alpineschools.org/legislature/  Since our board is quite diverse, I believe it is very important and impactful when we all agree on an issue.  We have, a few times in the past, weighed in on legislation, but are trying to do more.  Mr. Smith has an excellent rapport with our legislators, and I am pleased that he was willing to assist us in this manner.  It has been determined that Mr. Smith will discuss the board priorities and principles, but will not state that the board is supportive or opposed to any legislation in which we are not 100% agreed.  I believe this is an excellent position for us to take. 

SB38: Unanimous opposition by Alpine School Board
One of the bills that our board unanimously opposes is SB38, school funding amendments.  While many of us are supportive of charter schools, SB38 creates a scenario where the legislature decides charters need more money, and then takes it from the district schools.  As a result, the board will raise property taxes to compensate.  I expect to give a much broader description in the near future.  But, suffice it to say that I find it wrong for one entity to essentially delegate the consequences of their actions to another, e.g. make the local boards raise property taxes while the legislature washes its hands of it.  There are many more transparent options, if you find that charters need more money.  (On that, not everyone is agreed, including me.  From what I can tell, Alpine gets less money per student than the charters we would be giving our money to  Again, that's wrong.  While the charters in our area may get less money than the districts statewide, they will not be getting money from those districts, just Alpine.)

The following bills are ones I oppose that are generally not supported by the full board, but probably not as heavily opposed for their content as just for the idea of why should we have more programs with more strings instead of giving the money to the local districts and charters and letting us decide, based on your input.

SB67: More Family Replacement/Data Gathering Infrastructure
This bill creates an infrastructure for data gathering, and a three-way partnership for funding between private entities, the state, and the feds.  I'm sure there will be no problem with determining who is to blame for any failures when there is no real consistent overseer. (Sorry, for my sarcasm.)  I will go into more detail on this one, as well.  But the data collected, that includes physical and mental health information, can be shared with pretty much anyone who can claim to be part of an educational program.  Additionally, some of the 'pilot' schools and United Way are already asking parents to sign away their privacy rights under the Federal privacy act (from 1974) FERPA (which is mostly meaningless to begin with).  Health data is usually protected by a much broader law, called HIPAA.  At the very least, even if you believe that this program will be awesome (it sounds very nice and will help), student medical information should be protected at the higher HIPAA level.  The bill should be amended to require this level of protection. 

HB277: More technology grants
This bill 'allows' local districts and charters to apply for state grants for technology. More strings because the state can't trust us at the local level: board members, parents, and teachers, to do what they want.  So, they will call it locally-led, since we can propose what we want to be in the grant, but it does limit what we can do with it.  We have to apply for the grant (more paperwork and administrative overhead), administer it with the appropriate 'accountability' to the state, and next year, it might all go away, so it can't be anything very long term.  On the flip side, they could just take that money and put it on the WPU (Weighted Pupil Unit), which is how the state pays each school per student that they educate.  The money on the WPU, the more flexibility we have as a board to spend the way you would want.  The biggest issue in our district seems to be class sizes and building new schools for growing areas.  In short, it is possible that the best use of that money in Alpine would be for reducing class sizes, not giving everyone a Chromebook to be used in a class of 35.  But if HB277 passes, then the state has decided that there is no circumstance where this money should be used for anything other than what they think it should be used for.  The sad thing is that chances are we would use it the way they want, for the most part.  But it is NOT local control (despite what was said in the committee meeting).  It's the same as allowing you the ability to walk anywhere you choose...within the 9x9 confines of a prison cell.  And even if you never would want to walk outside those 81 sq.ft., there is no freedom in not being able to. 

Oh, and there is some evidence that this program nicely matches the technology initiative that is being pushed by the White House.  One parent's well-documented concerns to this affect were dismissed with a question about whether or not President Obama had helped write the bill.  You don't have to have the feds write something for your "plan" wherever it came from to 'fit' what they are proposing (good or bad).  A substitute motion to prohibit the use of federal funds or incentives in funding this program was rejected in the committee. 

Following legislation during this period is very important for maintaining our freedom and our liberties.  The best place to go is: www.le.utah.gov.  You can search bills by number, sponsor, or topic.  Every bill will go before a committee.  If passed out of the committee, it goes before the full body (either House or Senate, wherever the bill originated).  If it passes, then it goes to the other chamber's committee.  If it passes, then to the full body of that chamber.  If it passes, then on to the Governor for his signature.  So, there are many steps along the way in which we can weigh in, and help support or prevent legislation.  You voice can make a BIG DIFFERENCE with our legislators.  And be aware that so many other organizations have lobbying arms, including the Utah School Boards Association, Tech Firms, etc.  There is no lobbying organization for you.  So, be involved and make your voice heard.

And when it comes to your rights as parents, I leave you with the wise words of our Former Supreme Court Justice, Dallin H. Oaks, ruling in Re: JP in 1982.

The rights inherent in family relationships—husband-wife, parent-child, and sibling—are the most obvious examples of rights retained by the people. They are “natural,” “intrinsic,” or “prior” in the sense that our Constitutions presuppose them, as they presuppose the right to own and dispose of property....
The integrity of the family and the parents' inherent right and authority to rear their own children have been recognized as fundamental axioms of Anglo-American culture, presupposed by all our social, political, and legal institutions. “To protect the [individual] in his constitutionally guaranteed right to form and preserve the family is one of the basic principles for which organized government is established."... This parental right transcends all property and economic rights. It is rooted not in state or federal statutory or constitutional law, to which it is logically and chronologically prior, but in nature and human instinct....
We conclude that the right of a parent not to be deprived of parental rights without a showing of unfitness, abandonment, or substantial neglect is so fundamental to our society and so basic to our constitutional order that it ranks among those rights referred to in Article I, Section 25 of the Utah Constitution and the Ninth Amendment of the United State Constitution as being retained by the people... 
Family autonomy helps to assure the diversity characteristic of a free society. There is no surer way to preserve pluralism than to allow parents maximum latitude in rearing their own children. Much of the rich variety in American culture has been transmitted from generation to generation by determined parents who were acting against the best interest of their children, as defined by official dogma. Conversely, there is no surer way to threaten pluralism than to terminate the rights of parents who contradict officially approved values imposed by reformers empowered to determine what is in the “best interest” of someone else's child.

My letter to our House Reps on the Education Committee asking them to OPPOSE HB164.

Please vote no on HB164 for the following reasons.
1. It allows end-of-year state tests to be used for individual student grades or grade promotion with no proof that the tests are valid or reliable or should even be used in such a fashion. 
2. It creates possible incentives for test takers, so the child who is opted out can watch those who did take the test (like the state told them to) get rewarded.  Does this not create a situation where a child is to be shown how 'wrong' their parent's decision was?  Furthermore, the child becomes the pawn between the schools and the parents.  It's really 'blackmailing' parents to 'encourage' them to allow the testing, so their child doesn't think they are mean and won't let them have the reward for test taking.  Since state law says that parents are primary and the state is secondary and supportive, I fail to see how this is supportive of the parent's wishes. 

3. It limits parents' ability to opt their kids out of anything but the end-of-year tests.  There is not demonstrable protection for student privacy and any sort of understanding as to how student data may or may not be used, as per the contract with our testing vendor, American Institutes for Research (AIR).  Not allowing parents to opt out of all versions of this testing, does not resolved the original data privacy concerns that parents have.  Those still exist.
If you'd like more information, please see below, or feel free to contact me at your convenience.
Even if you think there is no concern with SAGE testing, we should allow parents who do have concerns to protect their children as they see fit.  To limit this ability is to limit parental rights and to place the wishes and 'needs' of the state above that of the parents, and the individual child.  This is wrong, even if done with the goal of improving education. 
Thank you so much for your service to our state.
Wendy Hart
Alpine School Board, ASD2: Highland, Alpine, Cedar Hills
More information:
1. SAGE testing has never been validated.  In 2014, I and two of my fellow board members, Brian Halladay and Paula Hill, requested information from then associate superintendent Dr. Judy Park regarding validation and privacy (see below) concerns, and received no response.  The state of Florida, which purchased its test questions from Utah, attempted to do an independent validity study on Florida's version of SAGE.  There is some question about the validating organization truly being independent, there is some interesting information that we should be aware of.  Florida currently requires passage of this test for graduation and certain grade-level promotions. However, one of the conclusions was that Florida's test was not valid for individual student grades or promotions. 

I appreciate that teachers are being evaluated based on test scores.  I believe it is wrong (even if the test was valid) to use this as part of the teach evaluation process for many reasons that I won't cite here.  But teachers are adults.  It is more wrong to penalize minor children who don't pass the test and potentially impact them for the rest of their lives. 

Also, setting the proficiency scores was a very subjective process that began, not with an analysis of the content of the questions, but with a straight list of which questions had more right answers.  (The analysis of some of the questions, came later.) The assumption was that those with the least right answers were the most difficult.  That may be true in most cases, but it could be equally true for confusing or invalid questions, as well as those with incorrect answers.  Then the test was 'normed' to make sure there was a 40 - 45% proficiency outcome to match the NAEP and ACT tests. So, we created a target where 60% of the kids would be considered failing, and then we hit it.  If we know that our goal is to have 60% of the students fail, and we set the bar that way, how is it fair to then allow those scores to be used in student grades?
2. This sets a very dangerous precedent where the state is allowing parents to be set up to play the 'bad guy'.  Creating a possible rift between parent and child, even in the short term, should never be something the state sanctions, let alone agrees to. 
3. The SAGE platform comprises three types of testing: a. summative (end-of-year), b.interim (same or similar questions to end-of-year, not seen by the teacher, but can be given multiple times a year for practice and benchmarking), and c. formative (a software system that includes a databank of questions that teachers can select and/or contribute to for chapter tests, daily assignments).  Of the three types, the formative tests are the most insidious for data collection.  The VP of AIR, Jon Cohen, told a member of the parent panel that every mouse click and latency measures (how long it takes for the child's actions), as well as the actual submitted answers are being collected on the formative platform.  There is a huge amount of data being collected on every child that logs on.  Our contract does not limit what can or cannot be done with that data outside of their not sharing it with a 3rd party without the USOE's (not a parent's) consent.  AIR has over 20 subsidiary organizations that are involved in policy-making recommendations and other functions at the national level.  There would be no limitation placed on any of them or their employees on how that data was used in their own internal research or analysis.
My main concerns with the SAGE tests are: 1) there is no validation to show that what we are told is being tested, actually is what is being tested. 2) no guarantee of data privacy. In 2012, the US Dept of Ed changed their privacy regulations, allowing any personal student data to be shared with a 3rd party without parental knowledge or consent, as long as it was for an 'educational program.'  It's important to note that the term 'educational program' is undefined.  As a database analyst, by trade, it is important to note that there is so much data being collected on our kids in education, as well as other areas, these days, that it makes data privacy almost a mythical creature.  If I, as a parent, choose to limit that data collection on SAGE, I should have that right. 
The summative tests are the only type of SAGE testing that is being retained for parents to opt out of without consequences.  I spoke with Sen. Osmond (the previous sponsor and author of the current language in state code) about these three types of SAGE testing, and it was his intent to allow parents the ability to opt out of all three versions of SAGE without naming it specifically.  At the end of the day, we are, again, assuming that the state knows best, and parents should not be allowed to protect their children as they see fit.