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As the end of the year approaches, so does the end of my term as a State Senator. In February I finalized my decision not to run for a second term in the Nebraska Legislature. In my last few weekly columns as a State Senator I am going to share some personal observations and experiences at the Capitol. My comments will be candid. Some may disagree with my assessments. It is my intention that placing context to the political events of the past four years will give voters and taxpayers a more comprehensive perspective of state government.
There have long been “two Nebraskas”. My first experience in the rural/urban divide was during the Class 1 schools debate in the 1980s. As an elementary school student at Heartwell, I wrote letters to state senators imploring them to retain rural elementary-only districts like my small K-6 school. As the population shifts eastward and Lancaster, Douglas, and Sarpy counties continue to expand their population majority, the conflict between rural and urban interests will only increase.
Despite differences in geographical interests and even political ideology, the ultimate goals of state policy used to be the same. Whether from Omaha or Minden, state senators were focused on the same outcomes: public safety, proficient graduates, vibrant communities, and economic opportunity. The debate and differences in opinion were about how to achieve those ends. The traditional partisan differences between the role of government emerged and compromises were made, but they were negotiations about the means to the same end.
Over the past four years I have observed the emergence of a political system in Nebraska that is no longer merely discussing differences in political philosophy. Battle lines have been drawn over who rules and how they will then change the fundamental principles of the state. Filibusters have increased and the divides widened as the debate shifts away from differences in the “how” and toward a zero-sum, winner take all result. The “two Nebraskas” are no longer rural and urban, but rather a tug of war over which regime will control the vision of what Nebraska is and will be, regardless of the history and founding principles of our state.
This development has been most stark in the area of public safety. While the public places even greater demands on law enforcement to keep Nebraskans safe, a significant contingent of Nebraska lawmakers no longer view crime as deserving of punishment and seeks to treat criminals as victims, rather than perpetrators. Debates over mandatory minimum sentences, juvenile court procedures, felon voting, prison reform, and sentencing reform demonstrate the fundamental differences in whether or not commission of a crime comes with consequences.
Every community meeting about the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney illustrates the chasm between ideology in Lincoln and local citizens. While local residents fear for the safety of their families and property as the number of increasingly violent juvenile detainees escaping from YRTC into local residential areas grows, bills introduced in Lincoln focus on lower levels of detention and decreased custody of violent youth.
The lack of any progress on the decade old property tax crisis in Nebraska is frustrating, but not surprising. If it were merely a debate about how we fund public schools with the end goal of providing fair and adequate funding for all districts, the problem would have been solved in the first year of my term. However, special interests and lawmakers are not coming to the table to hash out the means to that end. Rather, the outcome–whether the total tax burden for Nebraskans remains neutral or grows exponentially–is the chasm separating two radically different visions of Nebraska.
It is impossible to move off of a high center and arrive at legislative solutions with such radical differences in outcomes. Our failure to agree upon the destination, and then debate the best route to get there, represents the greatest challenge facing Nebraska. The founding principles of our state and the social ethic that has made Nebraska such a great place to live, work, and raise a family for a century and a half are not merely relics of the past with no relevance in today’s world. To the contrary, modern life demands a commitment to our founding ethic now more than ever.
All Nebraskans are familiar with the United States Constitution. Many of us memorized the preamble as students, as well as the first ten amendmendments known as the Bill of Rights. Nebraskans, however, also have a state Constitution. Composed of 18 Articles, the annotated copy is over 141,000 words long. By comparison, the original United States Constitution is only 4,543 words long, and reaches only 7,500 total words when all 27 amendments included.
Nebraska first developed a Territorial Constitution in 1866 prior to statehood. Two Constitutional Conventions, first in 1871 and again in 1875, resulted in the state Constitution that establishes the parameters of Nebraska government today. Only 17 states have constitutions that predate Nebraska’s.
In 1920 a third Constitutional Convention was held that resulted 41 amendments. Additionally, the Legislature authorized constitutional commissions in 1970 and 1997 to present recommendations for any changes to the Legislature. In total, the Nebraska Constitution has been amended 235 times, all which required a vote of the people.
Given the sheer size of the document, it is unlikely few Nebraskans outside of the judiciary, legal profession, or academia have read it in its entirety. While is has been amended several hundred times over its 143 year history, the Nebraska Constitution largely remains a document reflecting the founding principles of Nebraska. The 1960s and 1970s saw the greatest number of changes to the Constitution, with 91 amendments adopted during those decades.
There is only one report of the proceedings of the 1871 Constitutional Convention, and no record of the deliberations in 1875 that led to our current Constitution has been found. However, we can look for common elements in other state constitutions and writings of the time for insight into the thinking of our state’s founders. One common element in the constitutions and founding statutes of 47 states is known commonly as the “gift clause”. In the Nebraska Constitution the Gift Clause can be found in Article XIII Section 3.
Founders in most states during the 1840s through 1870s feared the corrupting influence of the use of government resources, paid for by the people, for the private benefit of corporations, individuals, and associations. To create a sharp distinction between private economic interest and the authority of the state government to tax its people and spend that money, gift clauses strictly prohibited the extension of the credit of the state to any private entity. In Nebraska, the Constitution also permits “the state may guarantee or make long-term, low-interest loans to Nebraska residents seeking adult or post high school education at any public or private institution in this state.”
Over the decades this provision has largely been ignored. There have been few court rulings in Nebraska to define the parameters of the “credit of the state”. In 2010, Nebraska voters approved the addition of Section 4 to Article XIII through LR 295CA. The change allows cities and counties to purchase property, incur debt, and extend credit for development to “non-profit” entities. These entities represent private interests and private gain.
The explosion in the number of “public/private partnerships”, in which public tax dollars are used in conjunction with private investment, would likely cause great distress to Nebraska’s founders. In many cases, the creation of quasi-governmental non-profits, using public revenue, tear down the wall of separation between private economic gain and public spending. Many of these entities do not follow open meetings laws, as has been an ongoing conflict with MECA, the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority in Omaha. Others, like the University of Nebraska Innovation Campus, do not disclose use of public dollars for private companies.
Nebraska’s economy and government have changed significantly since the adoption of our Constitution in 1875. Even in light of the progress of modern times, the principles our founders implemented to protect the public interest should be taken into careful consideration. When public money and credit are spent, they should be subject to full transparency. The use of public dollars for private gain should never be shielded from taxpayers.
Voters may already have noticed some changes in the weeks following Election Day. Your pile of mail is smaller, not filled with catchy mailers advocating for one candidate or another. With no need for polls or robocalls, your phone rings less in the evening hours. Radio stations are no longer filled wall to wall with political ads–the ones you get sick of hearing again and again. The election is over, and you get to return to the day to day of your life without all the exhausting political messages.
As voters turn their attention away from politics and politicians, special interest groups and political power brokers are ramping up their efforts. Newly elected senators have had their first dinner with the State Chamber. Lobbyists are busy scheduling lunch, drinks, and dinners with senators to push their agendas, counting votes and promoting senators for specific roles and committees. Coalitions are forming and votes are traded for seats on Executive Board, Committee on Committees, and for committee chairmanships.
Before the first televised minute of the opening day, much of the legislative agenda for the next two years will already be determined in a process shielded far away from public view. Unlike campaign contributions, which must be reported, food and drink for immediate consumption are exempt from disclosure rules in Nebraska. Lobby reports must be filed when lobbyists are active on a specific bill, but there is no public record of the topics lobbied over wine and steaks at the Nebraska Club in the weeks leading up to the start of the legislative session.
During a campaign, voters are front and center. Every candidate promises to fight for you, your family, and your wallet. As a voter, the currency of your political power is the vote you cast on November 6. You have spent that political capital. However, your job is not done. When you want to forget about politics and get back to the routine of your life and family is when you need to pay the most attention and be the most engaged. The voices of the 696,000 Nebraskans spoke on Election Day. If voters go silent, the voice whispering in your senator’s ear will not be that of the taxpayers that elected them.
You will compete with the expense accounts of corporations pushing for tax credits, incentives, and special carve outs to make their businesses more profitable at your expense. Nonprofits funded by billionaires push their agendas with an army of paid staff and a blizzard of “reports”. New senators are quickly indoctrinated about the “institution” of the Legislature and encouraged to fully immerse themselves and their families in the social network of capitol politics. Senators are encouraged to exercise their “independence”, which is really political code for voting in opposition to their district or campaign positions.
As a voter and taxpayer, don’t let your political influence end at the ballot box. Make sure your senator knows clearly and explicitly how you feel about issues before the Legislature. Call and email their office. Attend town halls and respond to call in shows. Do not assume campaign promises tell you how your senator will vote. If the only voices a senator hears are those echoing through the capitol rotunda, they will vote accordingly.
The highest profile issue during my first year in the Legislature was the death penalty repeal. Interest groups were giving me bad “polling data”, telling me my constituents supported repeal. Lobbyists, acting on their own, told me how to find “political cover” in a group. I came home to Heartwell every recess day and weekend, where my constituents made clear their opposition to repeal. The results of the statewide referendum showed definitively how many senators ignored their districts in favor of the story in the political echo chamber of Lincoln.
Get involved. Stay informed. Ask questions and demand specific answers. Government works best when it is transparent and accountable to the people who empower it. The election may be over, but the work of the citizenry to hold their elected representatives accountable has just begun.
Via the initiative and referendum process the ballot box provides an opportunity for voters to directly influence policy and state law. At the last general election Initiative 427 gave lawmakers an opportunity to directly see how their constituents felt about the expansion of Medicaid benefits to able-bodied adults. Medicaid is a program intended to provide basic health care for children, families, the disabled, and the elderly. Legislative bills attempting to expand Medicaid to able-bodied adults without children or disabilities have not passed during the past 6 years.
Initiative 427 passed statewide with 53% of the vote. Although a simple majority means the winner takes all, analysis of the voting results at the county and even precinct level shows a significant difference in Nebraska voters’ support of expanding Medicaid between voters in Nebraska’s eastern urban centers of Lincoln and Omaha and the rest of Nebraska.
For state senators outside of Lincoln and Omaha, the results on election day reinforced what constituents have been telling us when proposals to expand Medicaid came before the legislature. Despite a multi million dollar media campaign funded almost exclusively by out-of-state interests, the teacher’s union, and Omaha billionaires Warren Buffet and Walter Scott, Greater Nebraska voters demonstrated a firm opposition to expanding government benefits to able-bodied adults without children who have chosen not to obtain full-time work. It was the margin of support in Douglas, Sarpy, and Lancaster counties that pushed the measure into winning the statewide vote count.
Across District 38 none on the of the counties I represent voted in support of expanding Medicaid. Over 60% of the voters in Phelps, Kearney, and Nuckolls counties opposed to the measure while over 55% in Buffalo, Clay, Franklin, and Webster counties also opposed expansion. Even surrounding counties with demographics different then the predominantly rural counties I represent opposed Medicaid expansion including Adams, Hall, and Dawson counties. Despite allegations that the Legislature “failed to act”, local results of the election clearly show state senators who opposed expansion during prior years were accurately representing the voters in their districts.
In the political campaign leading up to election day, supporters of expanding Medicaid made a number of claims about the impact the additional entitlement and its associated costs will have, especially for rural Nebraska. As the expansion becomes law and new enrollees receive benefits, Nebraskans have the opportunity to examine and test the validity of those economic predictions.
For example, the impact of Medicaid expansion on the 64 critical access hospitals located throughout rural Nebraska was widely promoted. However, the vast majority of the Nebraska population is not served by these facilities. As the new enrollees sign up for Medicaid benefits we will be able measure the actual magnitude of the impact on rural Nebraskans and compare that against the costs and taxes paid.
We also will have an opportunity to compare point in time pre- and post-expansion to analyze the behavior and utilization patterns of new enrollees. For example, if the new recipients of the entitlement reduce or increase expensive emergency room usage and if they actually access preventative care that now will be free.
Another important metric to watch carefully will be the insurance coverage options provided by employers of part time employees. Expanded Medicaid now provides an incentive for employers to not offer insurance coverage to employees who might now be eligible for coverage at taxpayer expense. Analysis of those behaviors can provide insight into the impact of expanding entitlement programs to able-bodied working adults.
As the legislature develops legislation in the next session to enact Initiative 427, it would be advantageous to include mandatory reporting of relevant metrics by healthcare providers and new Medicaid enrollees. As experience has demonstrated with other taxpayer funded benefits, including the criteria for evaluation of the program’s success or failure and data collection is vital at the time of implementation.
Evidence is the foundation of rational decision making. Since governments make decisions that impact the lives of citizens, either positively or negatively, rigorously collected and analyzed data is essential. However, just having mountains of metrics and graphs do not mean they are useful. The improper use of data led Mark Twain to recount that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.
Few disciplines are as awash in data as education. A look around the website of the Nebraska Department of Education finds page after page of information about demographics, attendance, salaries, expenditures, and test scores. Despite an extensive investment in time, tax dollars, and human resources at the school district level on up through the state agency, collecting all of this data has led to no improvement in student performance or college readiness. In fact, the current hot topic in policy is “workforce development”, a statewide acknowledgment that a high school diploma is insufficient to equip most young adults with the basic skills needed for entry level jobs.
Much of the information presented on the Education Department website provides a textbook case study in the improper use of data. In his 1954 book “How to Lie With Statistics”, a must read for data nerds like myself, Darrell Huff illustrates the basic principles of statistics by showing common errors used to present data. Simply put, merely applying a quantitative approach or presenting sheer volumes of data is not better than having no data at all. In fact, when the standards of statistics are not followed, misleading data leads to bad decisions. It can also, as Twain’s statement indicates, erode public confidence in the value of evidence.
Tables of numbers can be difficult to read, while graphs easily illustrate differences and trends. When used incorrectly, however, graphs can give the appearance that trends are more pronounced than they actually are. The NDE graph for free and reduced lunches demonstrates this error. The scale on the line graph does not begin at zero, but rather at 34%. The scale ends at 48%. The range of the data is only from 38-46%, a very small change. However, by using an arbitrary and distorted scale on the graph, it gives the casual observer the impression of a much greater change over time. The variation in the state’s 95% attendance rate over 10 years is less than 1.5%, yet the arbitrary scale used on the graph is 70-100%.
Another common abuse of statistics is to demonstrate a correlation between two variables and then imply one variable causes the other. Test scores are frequently plotted against demographic characteristics of students, and the conclusion is drawn or inferred that one factor causes poor learning outcomes. Qualities as diverse as education level of parents, sex, time of day the test was given, household income, race, and dozens of others have a correlation with test scores. Correlation alone does not mean causation. A totally distinct variable that has an impact on the two metrics measured may actually be the cause. Frequently the ranges on these correlation graphs are also truncated as well, visually distorting the data.
Presenting incomplete statistical analysis can also misrepresent reality. Averages without information about the distribution of the data are of little value. Two groups of students may have an identical class average score in the mid-B range. However, in one group half of the class earned A’s and the other half earned C’s, while in the other group every student scored a B. The class average shows no difference between the classes, while in reality the student performance between the two groups is quite different. “Averages of averages”, such as when a school’s average ACT composite score is compared to another, are of even less value representing reality.
Whether by ignorance of statistics or willful misrepresentation of data, the outcome is the same. At minimum, valuable time, dollars, and effort are wasted. Even worse, decisions are made based on bad data that have negative consequences. When our kids and their future are at stake, nothing less than the most accurate, honest approach to evidence is acceptable.
The common justification for poor academic proficiency and low rates of college readiness among graduates of Nebraska high schools is poverty. At first look, the claim makes intuitive sense. Children who come from poor homes without adequate food, medical care, and housing are not able to learn during the school day. They experience stress other children do not. There is no doubt that children who come from families in poverty face greater challenges in reaching academic proficiency.
However, the claim that poverty is the primary reason for Nebraska high school students’ poor levels of college readiness quickly falls apart under even basic scrutiny. Using U.S. Census Bureau figures, the poverty rate for school aged children 5-17 in Nebraska is 13%. However, three times that many graduates, 39%, don’t reach any of the college readiness benchmarks established by the ACT. Clearly, poverty does not explain 2 out of 3 of the students who fail to meet a single proficiency benchmark.
Moreover, the “evidence” used to justify the claim, such as a graph produced by the Nebraska Department of Education, compares rates of lower income students in a school to average ACT composite scores in the same school. It does not link student socioeconomic status to their individual performance. They are not actually demonstrating that poor kids are less prepared, but rather showing that schools with more poor students, on average, tend to graduate students with poorer average composite scores. That data tells us about schools, not kids.
A numerical trick used to justify the poverty claim is to use a non-equivalent metric other than income-based poverty as a substitution. In Nebraska, the NDE uses “free/reduced school lunches” as the variable for poverty. Children from families below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals. Schools are paid $3.31 per child for lunch and $1.79 to provide breakfast. That group alone encompasses more than just children who live below the poverty level, but would be a reasonable measure of poverty.
However, the statistic used by NDE is lumped together with students who also receive reduced price school meals, being required to pay the school only $0.30 per meal. To qualify, the family can make between 130-185% of poverty. A single parent with two children who makes $19 per hour at their job would qualify. A family of six, like I grew up in, making $62,000 per year, above the Nebraska median household income of $59,000, would qualify for reduced price school meals. The Nebraska Department of Education includes those children in their “poverty” statistic. Lumping the two groups together and not providing separated data at the district or state level is an attempt to inflate the “poverty” numbers and perpetuate the excuse.
The argument also ignores the significant resources provided to children in poverty to overcome the lack of family income. Nutritionally, a child in poverty receives free breakfast and lunch at school. In addition, the average low income Nebraska household with children receives $395 per month to buy food through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That does not include additional food benefits through WIC, the Women Infants and Children program.
The impacts of poverty on children and their ability to learn are addressed through multiple additional programs. The average child on Medicaid in Nebraska receives $3400 in health care benefits annually. Furthermore, over 11,000 school age children from low income families receive an average annual subsidy of $3,200 to pay for child care. Federal rental assistance is paid to 27,000 low income Nebraska households for housing, and another 43,000 Nebraska households receive LIHEAP money for their utilities. Nutrition, medical care, child care, and housing assistance are all provided to improve the stability of the home for poor kids and improve their ability to be academically successful.
Also, the Nebraska school equalization aid funding formula, TEEOSA, provides schools districts increased state-aid per student based on the proportion of students in poverty. These additional direct instructional resources are to help children from low income families overcome the hurdles presented by their home life.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the poverty excuse for widespread academic failures in the state’s education system persists, perpetuated at even the highest levels of the education bureaucracy in Nebraska. It is convenient, as it avoids anyone’s accountability for failure to teach our kids. If statistics are manipulated and misrepresented cleverly, the concept appears to make sense.
Dismissing the academic ability of an entire population of children based purely on their socioeconomic status is unbridled discrimination. Poor children can learn. Two out of three Nebraska graduates who do not meet any of the ACT benchmarks are not in poverty. We must rethink education in Nebraska.
Imagine a scenario where 4 out of 10 bridges collapsed from improper engineering. Or, if only 22% of hospitalized patients met all benchmarks for standard of care. The engineers responsible for the failed design and the health care providers who consistently breached the standard of care would be subject to sanctions of their license, civil liability, and even face possible criminal charges. In both, public outrage would demand immediate improvement. In neither case would anyone entertain the notion of lowering the standards on the engineering licensing exams or health care practitioner board exams in light of systemic failures in performance.
Such scenarios seem too extreme to ever occur in reality. However, in Nebraska only 22% of 2018 high school graduates met all four college readiness benchmarks established by the ACT exam, while 39% did not attain any. The greatest asset of Nebraska, our children, are being failed by the current educational system. The vast majority of Nebraska high school graduates will require remedial coursework, paid at their own expense and often with borrowed money, to be successful in either two or four year college programs.
Ignoring years worth of alarming evidence, the State Board of Education and Nebraska Department of Education adopted a rule change lowering the standards required for admission to teacher education programs in Nebraska. The test, called the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators, evaluates skills in math, reading, and writing of potential teachers. Fortunately, Governor Ricketts did not sign off on the rule change, citing the need for high standards for teacher proficiency in Nebraska. It was ultimately withdrawn.
There are many outstanding teachers throughout Nebraska and teacher quality matters. A 2012 study by a Columbia and two Harvard professors, cited by President Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address, quantifies the major earnings impact of even slight improvements in teacher performance. The study found that replacing a teacher in the bottom 5% of their performance measure with only an average performing teacher raised the average lifetime earnings of the class by $250,000. Replacing an average teacher with a top 5% performer raises the lifetime earnings by almost $1.5 million.
In addition to the increase in earnings, the study identified students in classes with high value-added teachers got higher quality jobs, lived in better neighborhoods, and girls were less likely to become teenage mothers. Each of these is a marker of upward social and economic mobility. This is not the only evidence supporting the impact of teacher quality on learning outcomes.
Finland is often cited as the model of a successful education system, with some of the highest academic achievement in the world. You have likely seen videos on social media describing the extra emphasis on recess and unstructured play time for students. Teachers are among the highest paid professions in Finland. What is left out of the narrative are the extremely rigorous requirements to become a teacher in Finland, specifically that they must be among the top 10% of their high school class. It is more difficult to graduate with a Finnish teaching degree than to become a physician. Amanda Ripley, author of book The Smartest Kids in The World, puts it this way: “To get into education college in Finland is like getting into M.I.T. in the United States. And imagine what could follow if that were true here.”
Lowering the bar for academic proficiency for teachers is contradictory to evidence-based recommendations for improving student performance. The response of the Nebraska Department of Education Director of Teacher Certification to poor pass rates of teacher ed program applicants is equally baffling. Kevin Peters told the Lincoln Journal Star “We had a lot of kids not doing well on that test for whatever reason.” Rather than explore the underlying cause for lack of academic skill proficiency and developing a plan to fix it, the proposed alternative was to just lower the standards.
It stands to reason the skill deficiencies measured in sophomore college students by the Praxis Core Academic Skills Exam may be the same deficiencies identified by the ACT among high school graduates. Without aggressive remediation, high school deficiencies remain throughout college. It is unlikely K-12 students will develop the skills and passion for rigorous academic achievement if the people they spend the most time with outside of their parents, their teachers, don’t have a respect for and record of high academic achievement themselves.
Horace Mann, one of the earliest advocates for universal public education in the United States, said “education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” The ability of education to improve an individual’s social and economic mobility is unparalleled.
Competency in reading, quantitative skills, and science are not only required for attainment of degrees. Modern American life utilizes increasingly complicated financial products–mortgages, insurance plans, credit options, and retirement savings. Advanced medical technology requires more complex decisions for patients and families. Information literacy in the digital age is needed now more than ever.
In the recently released report of 2018 Nebraska high school graduates’ ACT scores, 81% of Nebraska graduates aspired to post-secondary education. It is clear Nebraska students and families value education as the gateway to a better future. The great tragedy is revealed a few pages earlier in the report. While 8 in 10 students want to pursue higher education, only a little over 2 in 10, 22%, met the proficiency benchmarks in english, reading, math, and science necessary to succeed in first year college courses. More outrageous, 4 in 10 did not meet a single benchmark.
A student’s academic potential cannot be measured by a single test, nor should a student be defined by a single score. However, taken in aggregate, the results of the first year in which all Nebraska high school juniors are required to take the ACT test should sound alarm bells among parents and policy makers. It is incorrect to assert the ACT is only relevant for students pursuing a four year college degree. The modern ACT is far more than a memorization and recall standardized test. Today’s ACT is a sophisticated evaluation tool that assesses skill and competency in english, math, reading, and science.
While much focus is incorrectly placed on the composite score, the ACT has developed a series of metrics that effectively predict how prepared a student is for introductory college courses. Using comprehensive data, the ACT has established baseline scores in four different areas that predict a student will have a 75% chance of scoring a grade of C or better in an introductory college course, the college readiness benchmarks referenced above.
The 6 in 10 Nebraska high school graduates who want to pursue education beyond high school but do not possess the proficiency in the four skill areas to be successful in a first year college course have several options. All come with a significant out of pocket cost. First, they can enroll in college course work, struggle, and drop out. Second, they can pay for remedial coursework in college to build the skill set they did not attain in high school, costing both years and tuition dollars. Third, they can change their post-high school goals from their aspirations, limited by their lack of proficiency in high school skills. In all three of these alternatives, most Nebraska students and their families will be taking on debt to finance the costs.
The fourth, and worst alternative, is that students not prepared for academic work beyond high school, regardless of their desire, simply cannot pursue it. The great equalizer of education is beyond their reach. This is the greatest tragedy of all.
College is not the best or only path for every high school graduate. However, every high school graduate in Nebraska should be prepared to have the option to pursue a two or four year degree if they choose. The systematic failure across the state of our public education system to prepare all students for success beyond the high school diploma cannot be ignored. The Nebraska Education Commissioner saying the state is doing “relatively well” is a cop out. Nebraska students and families deserve better. Education leaders need to stop making excuses.
From the Great Recession, triggered by complex mortgages many consumers did not understand, to the 2016 election in which voters could not discern real from fake information on their social media feed, recent history is riddled with avoidable complications created by a lack of academic proficiency in basic quantitative and reading skills. Now, more than ever, students need to be leaving high school with verifiable skills, not just a diploma.
Objective evaluation of policy after it has been implemented is vital. Only through critical analysis can lawmakers determine whether or not a policy is having its intended outcome and make any needed modifications. The Legislative Performance Audit Committee, which I chair, has released a performance audit in response to requests from legislators to examine the impact of the juvenile justice reforms adopted in 2013 and 2014 on the operation of the male youth facility in Kearney known as YRTC-K.
In 2013 the Nebraska Legislature passed a sweeping reform of the juvenile justice system. Prior to the passage of LB 561 in 2013, youth offenders were managed in a more punitive, custody-based model. At the center of that system were the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers. Originally known as the Nebraska State Reform School for Juvenile Offenders, two YRTCs are operated by the Department of Health and Human Services: a male facility in Kearney and a female facility in Geneva. A driving force behind the reform measures in 2013 was a belief that courts had become over-reliant on an incarceration-like system for youth offenders rather than rehabilitation and treatment, which meant unnecessarily commitment of juveniles to the YRTCs.
The 2013 policy adopted a rehabilitative approach to youth who had committed crimes. Rather than punishment by commitment to a state facility, juvenile courts would first utilize community based social services, approaching the offense with local treatment rather than incarceration. Commitment to the YRTC would be the last resort for high risk youth or those who do not improve after utilizing all available local resources. In 2014, LB 464 gave additional discretion to prosecutors and the courts when pursuing charges in juvenile or adult court for youth offenders, expanding options for use of a treatment rather than a punitive approach to juvenile crime.
Specifically, the performance audit examined the demographics of youth committed to YRTC-K, the nature of youth violations at the facility, and the staffing levels during the period directly prior to and immediately following the implementation of the juvenile justice reforms. The purpose was to evaluate any potential impact of the legislative action on the population at YRTC-K.
Among the wealth of information in the 86-page report, two findings stand out and warrant further evaluation. First, youth from rural counties are disproportionately represented in the YRTC-K population. In fact, from 2014-2017, rural youth at YRTC-K are 10-15% higher than the percentage of rural youth statewide.
The disparity warrants further information about the rural offenders at YRTC-K, including their offense level and participation in rehabilitation programs before institutional commitment. The legislative changes were successful in decreasing the total number of youths committed to YRTC-K, as well as the average daily population, by utilizing local treatment resources first. However, if rural youth do not have adequate access to treatment and rehabilitation programs in their communities because the services do not exist, commitment to YRTC-K may be the only option, rather than a last resort.
Second, the performance audit revealed an extremely unequal distribution of violent offenses committed by young men at YRTC-K. The audit identified that 37% of the youth had no documented reports of misconduct, either violent or non-violent. Of those youth cited for a violent incident, 32% had only one incident, while another 42% had only between 2 and 5 incidents. However, a very small proportion of the population were responsible for most of the violent incidents, with 14% of those cited committing between 6 and 10 infractions and 12% committing 11 or more infractions. On the extreme, 7 individuals were responsible for more than 30 violent incidents each.
It is prudent for lawmakers to examine whether a single facility is the best option for housing a population of non-violent youth and youth with a mild record of infractions with a much smaller population of youth who exhibit consistent patterns of violent behavior during commitment. For the safety of youth and staff at the facility, identifying alternative strategies for dealing with the small population of youth responsible for the greatest violence may be beneficial.
The YRTC-K performance audit highlights the need for specific goals and identified metrics to be clarified during the adoption of legislation. Defining what the outcomes of any reform measure will be and how to measure their success or failure is a responsible approach to public policy.
In 2015, a study appeared in the academic journal International Archives of Medicine titled “Chocolate with high Cocoa content as a weight loss accelerator”. Within weeks news of the study was reported in over 20 countries in print, on morning TV shows, and in online stories. The study’s results showed that the participants on a low carbohydrate diet who ate 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily lost more weight compared to those eating a low carb diet alone, were too good to be true.
The headlines were sensational. The coverage was global. The study was a hoax.
Filmmaker Peter Onneken and journalist John Bohannon developed the scenario to demonstrate how a scientifically unsound study, literally “junk science”, could be published by a journal and reported on by the media with no critical evaluation of the merits or validity of the data. Although the study was actually conducted, the sample size was very small, only 15 people, and the analysis of the results lacked standards and rigor expected of scientific inquiry. Not a single journalist examined the methodology or results of the study before reporting it to the world. In a very graphic and indisputable way, Onneken and Bohannon made their point.
On September 14 a report was filed with the Nebraska Legislature on the progress of a $250,000 pilot study of cannabidiol oil paid for by Nebraska taxpayers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. LB 390, passed in 2015, authorized the study and required a progress report to the Legislature each year by September 15. The report filed is less than a page and a half in length and contains the information required by law.
The legislative report is not, by any stretch of the term, a scientific study. While the number of participants are listed (23), and some of the side effects are enumerated, there is no analysis of the significance or magnitude of the observations. The report states “the majority have demonstrating [sic] benefit”, but does not state what those benefits are, if “majority” means merely 12 of the 23, if the 3 patients who dropped out of the study due to negative effects are included, or whether the drug had different impacts on the 11 minors in the study compared to the adults. The small sample size, large number of variables that are mentioned, and the diversity of the study subjects are all red flags for anyone critically evaluating the outcomes of the study.
That did not, however, stop media from overstating conclusions based on the brief status report of the project. A September 15 Lincoln Journal Star article repeated the text of the report, without ever examining whether the results were statistically valid. In response to an email I sent to the report’s author, the UNMC Associate Vice Chancellor for Clinical Research, on September 18, he replied “the principal investigator is working with a statistician now on the data” and that complete data was not yet available even for review. Given the very small number of study participants, it is impossible to distinguish any observed effect from random chance without careful and rigorous statistical analysis.
The lack of statistical analysis or even a complete data set didn’t seem to matter to the Lincoln Journal Star editorial board, who proclaimed in a September 21 editorial headline “UNMC study reiterates need for a medical cannabis law”, even though the “study” didn’t even examine medical cannabis. The cannabidiol oil in the study is actually a commercial product that received FDA approval in June of this year. Just a few days later, the Omaha World Herald News Bureau also cited the “study” in an article about proposed medical marijuana legislation. Senator Anna Wishart, who is again proposing the policy, sent the Lincoln Journal Star article to all senators via email on September 18 as “evidence” in support of her medical marijuana policy.
When media articles and legislative reports are used as the basis for making policy, they should, at minimum, be based on sound and rigorous analysis. Making conclusions based on a small, incomplete data set that has not yet undergone any peer review is reckless and irresponsible. The failure of the report’s author and the journalists to inform the public that the data set has not yet been subject to analysis has the potential to mislead and misinform. A single email was all it took for me to obtain the facts.
While the chocolate-weight loss scenario showed how absurd sensationalized science reporting can be, the reporting on the cannabidiol study is not a joke. When taxpayer money is used to fund a study, the assumption is the results will be presented in a valid, unbiased manner. I have recommended to the report’s author he amend his filing with the Legislature to reflect the incomplete and unanalyzed status of the data. Verifying the veracity of information should be the first job of a journalist, especially when their articles are used by lawmakers and editorial boards to promote public policy. This instance indicates lawmakers cannot assume accuracy in newspaper articles without verifying the details themselves. The facts matter. Public trust and human lives are at stake.
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