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Serious questions remain over ACHE funding methodology for colleges and universities

Bill and Susan Britt

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Strident dissension erupted during the 2019 Legislative Session when it was discovered that a new methodology adopted by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) led to Auburn University being short-changed in the budgeting process.

ACHE Executive Director Dr. Jim Purcell who holds a doctorate from the University of Alabama tried to explain away why Auburn University received a significantly reduced percentage of state funding, but what he did not reveal were his close ties to the company who had recommended the cuts or allegations of misdeeds against the organization.

What is also seemingly apparent is the use of questionable data comparisons between nationwide institutions and Alabama’s schools of higher learning to determine funding allocations for the state’s colleges and universities in fiscal year 2020.

Purcell Hires NCHEMS

Colorado-based vendor, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) was hired by Purcell to conduct statistical peer equity adjustments for each public institution, which dramatically lowered Auburn’s percentage of state funding for fiscal year 2020.

In other words, ACHE hired NCHEMS to compare Alabama’s universities and colleges to like institutions around the nation and on those findings recommend a budget to the Legislature. But a review of the process appears to show inequities in the methodology.

The review by NCHEMS resulted in Auburn receiving an increase of five percent, while the University of Alabama’s was more than 7.5 percent and Athens State University received the most significant increase at more than 11 percent.

The funding disparity led to rare public feuding between lawmakers, education leaders and others.

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While the budget issue was eventually resolved, lingering questions about the process remain.

Records going back to 2003, suggest this was the first time ACHE had used this type of peer review formulation to determine funding recommendations for state colleges and universities.

Purcell’s Ties to NCHEMS

Purcell was named Alabama’s State Higher Education Executive Officer in April 2017, previously having served in similar capacities in Rhode Island, Louisiana and Arkansas.

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During his tenure at these agencies, Purcell contracted NCHEMS, the same group who performed Alabama’s peer equity review for various projects.

NCHEMS is a vendor Purcell repeatedly hired as he moved from state to state holding jobs in higher education.

Public records show Purcell accepted money from groups with close ties to NCHEMS. These financial ties can be seen in Purcell’s state disclosure forms.

While serving in higher education roles in the states of Arkansas and Louisiana, Purcell received money from NCHEMS’ associates.

NCHEMS is located at 3035 Center Green Drive, Plaza 2 in Boulder, Colorado. Also, in the same building, is the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) that states on its website, “WICHE played a leading role in the creation of NCHEMS.” A third group, the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) is also housed in the same location.

In 2008, NCHEMS produced a study entitled “Adult Learning in Focus.” Purcell is listed as an advisor to the study.

In 2010, while working as the State Higher Education Executive Officer with the Louisiana Board of Regents, and as the leader of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, Purcell reported income from WICHE, the group that helped create NCHEMS.

In 2012, while working in Louisiana, Purcell reported travel compensation from SHEEO.

Creating Fake Information in Nevada

In 2016, it was revealed that NCHEMS conspired with the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) and its Chancellor, Dan Klaich, to prepare a fake document designed to mislead members of the Nevada Legislature.

According to an investigative report by The Nevada Review-Journal, “Nevada System of Higher Education officials actively worked to undermine the Legislature’s effort to overhaul college and university funding models…going so far as to present a false document to lawmakers and joking about it afterward.”

Emails show Nevada higher ed agency misled Legislature on funding study

During the episode, NCHEMS allowed NSHE to write a memo under the NCHEMS letterhead. As the Review-Journal wrote, “The memo was styled as the think tank’s response to questions raised by the committee and it directed Klaich to share the response with the committee.” Emails obtained by the Review-Journal shows that NCHEMS provided the stationary, and Klaich and NSHE filled in the blanks.

Klaich resigned after it was revealed he had presented a memo to the Nevada Legislature which was written by NSHE staff and put on NCHEMS letterhead – with the blessing of both Klaich and NCHEMS President Dennis Jones. Further, the Review-Journal printed email excerpts that showed NCHEMS and Klaich had colluded in misleading the Legislature.

Committee members were told that NCHEMS was an impartial consultant, when in fact the NSHE was working hand-in-glove with NCHEMS to create biased information for the Legislature jointly.

Despite his previous ties to NCHEMS and the allegations in Nevada, Purcell brought NCHEMS to Alabama.

Questions Emerges in Arkansas

Purcell led the Arkansas Department of Higher Education from December 2007, to February 2011. Numerous media reports note that the Department of Higher Education used NCHEMS during Purcell’s tenure.

A 2011 Arkansas Times story notes that Purcell paid NCHEMS $15,000 for a report for the state and the University of Arkansas chancellor criticized it.

G. David Gearhart, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, as reported by the Times said, “the study looks like a put-up job, conclusions favored by DHE arrived at in advance.” Gearhart, “also said the consultants used incorrect data, making UAF look worse in comparison with similar research institutions in other states in producing graduates. And he told the Times that both the consultants and the director of DHE, Jim Purcell, had made statements in connection with the study that were unconscionably untrue.”

Peer Review Shows Inequities

NCHEMS’ higher education funding formula and use of peer groups created markedly different results in 2019, for some schools – results that differed dramatically from the funding formulas previously used in Alabama for decades.

The NCHEMS peer groups were meant to assess whether a specific university was being funded on a level that is competitive and comparable to similar publicly-funded universities across the country.

For each Alabama institution, NCHEMS provided a set of 10-15 peer universities to ACHE. No Alabama university was in another’s peer group. If a specific state institution was not shown to be funded to at least 90 percent of the average of its relative peer group, ACHE would recommend an additional funding adjustment on top of the standard adjustment recommended for all universities in the state.

In an analysis of the reports, some glaring inconsistencies in peer selection criteria stand out. The reports were based upon the performance of a given university/college in comparison to a group of nationwide peers selected by NCHEMS. Performances were averaged among the peers and measured back to the selected Alabama university/college. In an analysis of tuitions and fees, state and local appropriations and non-operating grants, and total number of students, some of the averages appear to be skewed by including other peers that are far superior or inferior to the Alabama institution.

Examples of comparisons

A comparison of Athens State and Valley City State University in North Dakota, shows appropriations are within 5 percent, however, Athens tuition receipts are 95 percent higher than Valley, and it has 53 percent more students.

When Alabama A&M is compared to North Carolina A&T University, A&T’s tuition budget is 1.29 percent higher, its state appropriations are 2.5 percent higher, but it has almost twice as many students.

In the case of Auburn University, in comparison to Colorado State University—Ft. Collins, the tuitions and students are comparable, however, state and local appropriations represent less than one percent of Auburn’s appropriations.

Looking at Alabama State University and Southern Connecticut State University, Connecticut’s tuitions, appropriations and total students exceed ASU by almost double in all three categories.

Colorado School of Mines appears in comparison to the University of Alabama—Huntsville. While the headcount is close, Colorado’s tuitions are nearly double UAH while their state and local appropriations only represent 6.45 percent of what UAH receives.

Athens State, Jacksonville State and Troy University peers included university/colleges that receive zero state and local funding, dramatically affecting the average.

While most reports appear to be using different universities/colleges in each analysis, Texas International A&M University is used as a peer in the three reports: Auburn University—Montgomery, Jacksonville State University and the University of North Alabama. The financial line items for all three are identical.

This pattern continues throughout the reports:

Delta State University appears as a peer in both the University of Montevallo and Auburn University—Montgomery.

Southern Mississippi is on both University of Alabama and University of Alabama—Huntsville report.

Georgia College and State University are on the University of North Alabama, Jacksonville State University and Alabama State University comparison.

Southern Oregon appears on Montvallo  and University of West Alabama Reports.

More than ten other university/colleges were used for the same sort of baseline in other comparisons.

Further information on all university/college reports and summaries can be found at this link.

In Conclusion

Due to the proprietary nature of NCHEMS process, the methodology used to determine these peer groups is publicly unknowable. Ultimately, the methodology for choosing these peer groups – which determines the funding recommendation by ACHE to the Legislature – is a secret, to those who have a vested interest in the data’s accuracy.

A basic statistical analysis of the variation in state appropriation levels within specific peer groups for each university shows apparent inequity when comparing the groups to each other.

A set of peer groups that are fair and equitable should have reasonably similar statistical properties — this is not the case for the peer groups provided by NCHEMS.

Most of the universities’ peer groups have very similar levels of variation in state funding, but a few do stand out from the group. In short, how NCHEMS selected their peer groups gave a significant advantage to some universities. Other universities received no adjustment related to the NCHEMS peer groups.

Anomalies in the statistical peer equity adjustments overseen by NCHEMS led to a heated controversy during the 2019 Legislative Session. Lawmakers, as well as administrators, have expressed a desire to avoid problems going forward.

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Opinion | Instead of fixing a school for military kids, how about just fixing the schools for all kids?

Josh Moon

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The education of police officers’ kids isn’t worth any extra effort. 

Same for the kids of nurses and firefighters. Ditto for the kids of preachers and social workers. 

No, in the eyes of the Republican-led Alabama Legislature, the children of this state get what they get and lawmakers aren’t going to go out of their way to make sure any of them get a particularly good public education. 

Except, that is, for the kids of active duty military members stationed at bases in this state. 

They matter more. 

So much so that the Alabama Senate last week passed a bill that would create a special school to serve those kids — and only those kids. To provide those kids — and only those kids — with a quality education. 

An education better than the one available right now to the thousands of children who attend troubled school systems, such as the one in Montgomery. 

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The charter school bill pushed by Sen. Will Barfoot at the request of Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth carves out a narrow exception in the Alabama Charter School law, and it gives the right to start a charter school located at or near a military base — a school that will be populated almost exclusively (and in some cases, absolutely exclusively) by the kids of military members. 

The explanation for this bill from Barfoot was surprisingly straightforward. On Tuesday, Ainsworth’s office sent information packets around to House members to explain the necessity of the bill. 

In each case, the explanation was essentially this: the Maxwell Air Force Base folks don’t like the schools in Montgomery and it’s costing the state additional federal dollars because top-level personnel and programs don’t want to be in Montgomery. 

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And in what has to be the most Alabama response to a public education problem, the solution our lawmakers came up with was to suck millions of dollars out of the budget of the state education department budget and hundreds of thousands out of the budget of a struggling district and use it to build a special school that will provide a better level of education to a small group of kids simply because it might generate more federal tax dollars. 

And because having your name attached to a bill that supposedly aids the military looks good, so long as no one thinks about it too hard. 

But in the meantime, as this special school is being built, the hardworking, good people of Montgomery — some of them veterans and Reservists themselves — are left with a school district that is so recognizably bad that the Legislature is about to build a special school to accommodate these kids. 

Seriously, wrap your head around that. 

Look, this will come as a shock to many people, but I like Will Ainsworth. While we disagree on many, many things, I think he’s a genuine person who believes he’s helping people. 

The problem is that he is too often surrounded by conservatives who think every issue can be solved with a bumper sticker slogan and screaming “free market!” And who too often worry too much about the political optics and too little about the real life effects. 

And Montgomery Public Schools is as real life as it gets. 

Right now, there are nearly 30,000 kids in that system. And they need some real, actual help — not the window dressing, money pit BS they’ve been handed so far through LEAD Academy and the other destined-for-doom charters. And they sure as hell don’t need a special charter for military kids to remind them that the school system they attend isn’t good enough for the out-of-towners. 

Stop with the facade and fix the school system. 

You people literally have the power and the money to do this. Given the rollbacks of tenure laws and the passage of charter school laws and the Accountability Act, there is nothing that can’t be done. 

Listen to your colleagues on the other side, who took tours recently of charter schools in other states — charters that work with underprivileged students and that have remarkable success rates. Hell, visit those charters yourself. Or, even better, visit some states that have high performing public schools in high poverty areas, and steal their ideas. 

But the one thing you cannot do is leave children behind. Whatever your solution, it cannot exclude some segment of the population. It cannot sacrifice this many to save that many. 

That sort of illogical thinking is what landed Montgomery — and many other areas of the state — in their current predicaments. Carving out narrow pathways for a handful of students has never, ever worked. 

Let’s stop trying it.

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Leadership in child care scholarships now available year-round

Staff

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A full-tuition scholarship that grants current childcare professionals the opportunity to obtain certifications and degrees to best care for Alabama’s children is now available year-round.

The Leadership in Child Care Scholarship, which covers students’ tuition and a number of fees required to pursue child development credentials is now available in the fall, spring, and summer semesters at the state’s participating community colleges and Athens State University.

Qualified students must be currently employed at a childcare center or family and group home, and must be seeking one of the following certifications or degrees:

  • Child Development Associate (CDA) 
  • Short-term certificate, certificate, or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Child Development/Early Care and Education Studies
  • Bachelor of Science in Education – Early Childhood Education Major
  • Bachelor of Science in Education – Technical Education: Early Instructor

“Those who work with young children have a special calling and we’re thrilled that this scholarship program has helped so many students earn the credentials they need to better care for Alabama’s children,” said Virginia Frazer, Program Assistant for the Leadership in Child Care Scholarship. “Expanding this scholarship to the summer semester will allow even more childcare providers the opportunity and flexibility to apply and complete their course of study in early childhood development.”

The scholarships originated in 1999 and are made available through funding from the Department of Human Resources.

For additional information, the list of participating colleges, and the Leadership in Child  Care Scholarship application, visit: www.accs.edu/childcare. Scholarship applications for Summer Semester are due April 1, 2020.

 

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House passes Tier III retirement for education employees

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to expand retirement benefits for education employees.

House Bill 76 is sponsored by State Representative Alan Baker (R-Brewton).

Baker said that Tier III benefits for educators is necessary to encourage teachers to stay in education and to recruit new teachers to the state.

Rep. Thomas Jackson (D-Thomasville) said that this bill addresses “the brain drain on our educators.”

In the wake of the Great Recession, legislators stripped education employees of the ability to retire with full benefits before age 62. This was a cost savings measure as every retired education employee is an enormous drain on the state’s education budget, particularly since the cost of healthcare benefits skyrocketed after the passage of the affordable care act in 2010. At age 65 education retirees are less costly to the state because Medicare picks up roughly 80 percent of their healthcare cost. A retired teacher younger than that, under tier III, would cost the state as much for healthcare as a current employee.

Baker said that his bill, titled the Education Workforce Investment Act, would cost less than a one percent pay raise would.

HB76 would change the retirement structure for public education employees hired after 2013. These changes include allowing employees to retire with benefits after 30 years of service even if they haven’t reached age 62 and would basically undue the cost savings package passed eight years ago.

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Baker said that this was necessary to address the growing teacher shortage in the state.

“We have a shortage among educators, particularly we recognize the teachers in the classroom,” Baker said.

Rep. Harry Shiver (R-Stockton) thanked Baker for bringing that bill, “We need to help the education community.”

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Representatives voted unanimously 105 to 0 for the bill.

The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate, where it is controversial.

Thursday, Alabama Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) said that the House bill goes too far. The Senate favors Tier III benefits for teachers, but opposes them for other education employees. The Baker bill includes: bus drivers, education aids, school lunchroom workers, security guards, nurses, clerical people, janitors, etc.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) defended the House bill.

“They are all part of the education profession because of that we are trying to recruit people to fill all of the pool for the whole of education,” McCutcheon told reporters on Thursday.

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Education

Alabama voters will decide whether to fire the state school board

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The fate of the state school board will be decided by Alabama voters on March 3. 

A proposed constitutional amendment, Amendment One, asks if voters want to change how the folks in charge of education at the state level are selected. 

A yes vote would abolish the elected State Board of Education and the Board-appointed position of State Superintendent of Education. Instead, there will be a Governor-appointed Commission, the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education. The Commission would appoint a Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, to replace the existing state Superintendent’s position.

A no vote would leave the current system in place, meaning school board members would still be elected by voters based on districts. 

The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) conducted an analysis of the amendment, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses of the amendment. 

“Proponents say elected boards are more responsive to the public will. As elected officials, board members have their rightful place and, ideally, are only responsible to the people who elected them. They should be more empowered to oppose what they believe is not in the interests of the state’s schools and children.

At the same time, as elected officials, re-election is an important goal, if not the central goal. Thus elected board members may find themselves where the interests and desires of voters conflict with policies, programs and practices that best serve children. 

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Conversely, proponents of appointed boards cite the strength of the vetting process in creating boards with knowledgeable, skilled, effective board members. An appointment process allows the governor to consider the needs of the board and the qualities different candidates would bring. 

Others cite that governor-appointed boards and appointed superintendents create a more efficient, aligned, and harmonious system for setting and implementing education priorities. Ambitious and substantive changes to a state’s school system are more feasible in a more efficient system that encourages collaboration and strengthens the governor’s capacity to effect change. However, while somewhat insulated, appointed boards are not immune from political pressure.”

Earlier this month, Governor Kay Ivey addressed PARCA at the annual Albert Brewer Legacy lunch at the Harbert Center in Birmingham, asking the council to support Amendment One.

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“Alabama is at the bottom in about every education category that can be found,” Ivey said. “Too many of our third graders cannot read and too many of our high school graduates are not ready for a career or college.”

“Vote yes on amendment one when you go to the polls on March 3,” Ivey said. “We have had three superintendents in five years. We can do better.”

 

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