Students dive deep in summer session Maymester classes

One Maymester class will spend a week in Clearwater, Fla.



“I think for students who really are trying to graduate in four years and want to do a second major or minor, summer school is a great option,” said Jan Yopp, dean of summer school.

Each summer session is five and a half weeks long, and classes meet for an hour and a half each week day. Maymester courses only last for three weeks, but students are in class on week days for three hours and 15 minutes, Yopp said.

This summer, the University is offering 550 sections of summer classes, 60 of which are during Maymester.

Maymester and summer school cost the same per credit hour. For undergraduate North Carolina residents, the cost is $235 per credit hour while out-of-state students will pay $620 per credit hour.

Yopp said Maymester is more suited for students who want time for other activities during the summer.

“One of the ideas (behind Maymester) was to give students some options so that they could earn some credit in summer and then have free time to do an internship, do study abroad, work a job or do something else with their summer,” she said.

Some Maymester students will even get to travel as part of their course.

Professor Geoffrey Bell is teaching a course in the environment and ecology department that will spend a week in Clearwater, Fla., in the Tampa Bay. Students will apply the concepts they learned in class by helping restore islands affected by invasive plants.

Bell said he thinks the format of Maymester courses lends itself well to this experiential style.

“You want the emphasis to be on actually doing stuff,” he said.

Although this is his first Maymester course, Bell said he has seen studies that have shown cases where shortened class terms have enhanced student learning. Bell said he thinks part of the reason is because students do not have to balance five courses.

Professor Brandon Bayne said this could even be a challenge in a summer session course, especially in those that typically come with a lot of reading.

“You have to think about how to structure the class in a way that’s fruitful,” he said. “It’s a challenge to really synthesize the material and achieve higher levels of mastery.”

A religious studies professor, Bayne said he enjoyed the smaller class size of summer courses because it allowed him to interact more with students.

He said in his summer course last year, he had 12 students in a class that normally has about 180 students during the school year.

Yopp said the average Maymester class size is 14 students. She said summer session varies more because it includes more large lecture classes.

university@dailytarheel.com

Virginia Tech approves new general education curriculum

 BLACKSBURG (WSLS 10) –  Virginia Tech approves a new general education curriculum. The program called Pathways to General Education will replace the current Curriculum for Liberal Education.

The new plan offers students three options to fulfill their general education requirements including an alternate pathway which is individualized by the student. The school hopes to have the new program in effect for students by the fall of 2016.

Here’s more from Virginia Tech:

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 6, 2015 – Virginia Tech approved a new general education curriculum, Pathways to General Education (http://www.pathways.prov.vt.edu/index.html), that will replace the current Curriculum for Liberal Education (http://www.cle.prov.vt.edu/). The curriculum passed University Council Monday afternoon.

The new plan (http://www.pathways.prov.vt.edu/RevisionGeneralEducationReportApril2015.pdf) offers students three options to fulfill their general education requirements:

  • A distributed model in which students choose approved courses from each learning outcome. This option is most similar to the current Curriculum for Liberal Education.
  • A Pathways Minor, which are interdisciplinary, such as sustainability and innovation, designed to fulfill multiple learning outcome requirements.
  • An Alternate Pathway, which is individualized by the student with oversight from a faculty advisor and may include experiences such as education abroad, undergraduate research, service learning, internships, co-curricular experiences, and more.

“It is our responsibility to give students the skills to succeed in a diverse and complex world,” said President Timothy D. Sands. “The Pathways General Education curriculum empowers students to choose a pathway that aligns with their goals and interests while meeting the needs of employers that are looking for graduates who can think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems. Integration of ethical reasoning and intercultural and global awareness across the curriculum is in alignment with the university’s InclusiveVT efforts.”

Over the past two years, the campus community participated in the curricular development process in a variety of ways. Faculty teams — which included 50 members from 32 departments representing all colleges with undergraduate programs — created the new learning outcomes for this curriculum.

“We sought out faculty members from a variety of disciplines to play an active role in the development of the curriculum, particularly those who have been recognized by faculty peers and students for excellence in teaching such as Academy of Teaching Excellence members and Diggs Teaching Scholars,” said Provost Mark G. McNamee. “The teams developed goals so that students would best understand what they are gaining from the general education curriculum.”

In addition, the general education leadership team held more than 130 meetings with colleges, departments, curriculum committees, Faculty Senate, and individual faculty members to gather input. An open house was held in April 2014 (http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2014/04/041514-uged-genedopenhouse.html) to solicit campuswide feedback.

“I have watched the individual members of the University Curriculum Committee for Liberal Education and the general education leadership team work tirelessly for years to meet with departments, colleges, the Faculty Senate, and individual faculty to develop the best possible revision to our core curriculum with the most input from experts across the university,” said Sarah Karpanty, associate professor, assistant department head, and graduate program coordinator in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and past faculty senate president. “Now, the hard work starts anew as we begin to revise and deliver individual and linked courses and pathways minors under this new model.”

Over the past academic year, eight faculty members are serving as Pathways Faculty Scholars (http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2014/07/071114-uged-pathwaysfacultyscholars.html), piloting courses and developing minors that promote best practices for general education.

“As Pathways Faculty Scholars, we support the new Pathways outcomes not just through the subject matter we teach, but also through how we teach it,” said Ann-Marie Knoblauch, associate professor of art history and associate director of academics in the School of Visual Arts and Pathways Faculty Scholar. “As a cohort we are challenging each other and ourselves to step away from a traditional classroom experience, such as lecturing to a room of students taking notes, and explore ways of delivering the content in new and engaging ways.”

Student voice was critical to the development of Pathways to General Education. The general education leadership team gathered feedback through Student Government Association leadership and student representation on governance committees.

Student focus groups held throughout curriculum development engaged diverse populations of students, such as student veterans, transfer students, student athletes, and underrepresented minority students, as well as students from a variety of majors. The focus groups informed planning teams what students appreciated from the current general education curriculum and what else they hoped to gain from it.

“Pathways provides students dynamic, applicable, and formative means of fulfilling their general education requirements,” said Andrew Schoka of Fairfax, Virginia, a junior majoring in industrial and systems engineering in the College of Engineering. Schoka is an Student Government Association representative and member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. “Virginia Tech is uniquely positioned to offer students opportunities that would not be available elsewhere through Pathways Minors and the Alternative Pathways. The level of interdisciplinary collaboration to create Pathways Minors, even at this early stage, is encouraging to see. I am unbelievably excited for the classes of future Hokies that will be able to take full advantage of the curriculum.”

Members of the University Curriculum Committee for Liberal Education with support from the general education leadership team will now develop an implementation plan that will work through university governance. The intent is for Pathways to General Education to be in effect for students entering in fall 2016, though students who begin prior to that will be able to take pathways courses to meet Curriculum for Liberal Education requirements.

The necessity of GEP requirements

Last Wednesday’s edition of the Technician included a very alarming column about general education classes, written by Kevin Kronk. In the column, Kronk says the general education requirements should be abolished due to opportunity cost and lack of interest. This sentiment should be alarming and disturbing because it goes entirely against the idea of university education.

Opportunity cost refers to the costs associated with pursuing one endeavor whilst another could be pursued, or as Kronk says, “Wasted time means wasting opportunities.” According to Kronk, “Required courses detract from students’ ability to focus on what matters to them.” Here he was referring to extracurricular activities in which students engage, of which it is true that many students feel pressure to maintain a life outside of the classroom. However, in the university setting, one’s studies must take precedence. This is not truly an argument against GEP courses, but rather against high-course loads in general.

In regard to Kronk’s claim of lack of interest, the general education requirements are very broad. For example, some students are required to take six hours of social sciences. Social sciences run the gamut from political science to archaeology to economics. Another example is the interdisciplinary perspectives requirement, which includes courses as diverse as STS 301 (Science and Civilization) and HI 482 (Darwinism in Science and Society). Surely students can find something to pique their interest. Or, if not, they may gain a new interest in a field they had never considered.

Unfortunately, despite being an indefensible position, there is a definite push to eliminate the liberal arts from university education. In 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory startled many people when he said, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it, but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” People who make asinine comments such as this seem to be missing the purpose of a university education.

Students do not go to college simply to get a job. That is the purpose of a technical school. The goal of a university is to broaden minds and create educated members of the human race. Education is not an a la carte smattering of interests. In fact, liberal education comprises a long and glorious tradition. The goal of liberal education is quite literally to liberate people from the bonds of ignorance, from Plato’s cave.

Kronk says, “There is nothing more that GEPs can offer us that high school, books and the Internet don’t already provide.” The truth is that high schools fail to cover many things. Essential elements of what it means to be a human are ignored, such as philosophy, race relations, gender studies and anthropology. These fields likely will not generate many jobs, but there is far more to life than work. Ignoring these key aspects of the human condition will not fully prepare people to grasp their place in the world.

People like Kronk and McCrory would like to see every student only take classes in their major and for everyone to major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM fields. Although STEM fields are certainly important, the world also needs writers and humanities scholars. These people seem to misunderstand the concept of “major.” A major is not what one studies exclusively, but rather what one focuses on whilst learning about other subjects, as well. To quote the historian C. V. Wedgwood, “An educated man should know everything about something, and something about everything.”

Typically, conservatives are the ones who want to restructure the curriculum so as to remove humanities and social sciences. This is ironic because this desire cuts against a millennium of tradition. Perhaps it is best that conservatives do not like change if this is the change that they suggest. The first universities, founded in the Middle Ages, gave students an education in the Classical thinkers. These universities were founded around the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. The goal of this education was not to prepare people for jobs, but to broaden their minds and allow them to better understand their place in the world. In fact, the majority of the graduates became either doctors, scholars or they joined the clergy.

I do agree with Kronk when he says “students need room to breathe and grow.” However, taking away the general education requirements will only serve to increase the overall ignorance of the population. A world full of engineers and scientists would certainly include great works of architecture and new discoveries.

But there would be something missing without the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the philosophy of Plato and the political thought of John Stuart Mill. There would be little independent thought and less creativity. And a people such as this would be very easy to control. It would be a dystopia. Certainly it would not be an invidious, totalitarian state as in George Orwell’s “1984.” Rather it would be a seemingly nice place like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where everyone is happy only because they do not see their own bonds.

A Texas Solution to the Nation's College Debt Crisis?

Can the college student-loan debt crisis get any worse? According to the latest Federal Reserve Bank of New York report, the answer is, “Yes, and it already has.” During the last quarter of 2014, delinquency rates for student loans worsened.  “Although we’ve seen an overall improvement in delinquency rates since the Great Recession, the increasing trend in student loan balances and delinquencies is concerning,” said a Federal Reserve Bank researcher. “Student loan delinquencies and repayment problems appear to be reducing borrowers’ ability to form their own households.”

But there could be better news on the horizon. The Texas Legislature is currently considering a bill—the “I CAN” Bill (“Incentivizing College Affordability Now”)—that would take statewide a new initiative called the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program (TABP), which offers targeted college degrees for far less than what Texas public university students currently pay.

The breakthrough can’t come fast enough for students. According to a recent summary of data compiled by the Texas comptroller’s office, “In 2012, 20.5 percent of . . . [Texas’s] student loan borrowers were more than 90 days delinquent, surpassing the national rate of 17 percent and marking the 10th highest rate in the country.” The comptroller’s report adds, “Particularly worrying is the fact that rising tuition rates are driving an equally steep increase in college loan debt. . . . Many Texas college graduates and former students are entering adult life hobbled by years and even decades of crippling debt.”

As I detail in a just-released study, last year, four higher-education partners—Texas AM University-Commerce, South Texas College, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and the College for All Texans Foundation—launched the TABP, the state’s first public university bachelor’s degree combining online learning and competency-based standards. Crafted by community college and university faculty, with an eye toward meeting the needs identified by business and community leaders, a new bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership can cost as little as $750 per (seven-week) term and allows students to receive credit for as many competencies and courses as they can master each term. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s website, students who enroll “with no prior college credits should be able to complete the degree program in three years at a total cost of $13,000 to $15,000”—less than half the price of a traditional degree at a Texas public four-year university. Students who enroll having already met their general education requirements can complete the degree in two years. Those enrolling with “90 credit hours and no credential” can finish their degree “in one year for $4,500 to $6,000.”

In addition to targeting applied degrees, the TABP also has a target audience in mind. And here, a little-noticed change in the demographics of higher education emerges. We still tend to think of the college experience as consisting of fulltime students attending a residential campus for four (-plus) years. But that picture has given way to the new reality. Today, the majority seeking some kind of postsecondary education—be it a two- or four-year degree or a certificate or credential—are “nontraditional students.” Nontraditional students are over 25 years of age and/or work fulltime and/or have families of their own to support. For this group, the new majority, the traditional college experience is generally out of reach.

Moreover, many of these nontraditional students have at least some college credit garnered in the past. By one estimate, Texas alone houses 1.3 million residents with some college credit but no degree. For such students, the TABP could be the only way to complete college.

How does the new program work? TABP offers an online-based, self-paced degree plan tailored for non-traditional students’ busy lives, and saves them and taxpayers money through granting course credit for competencies already acquired in the military, the workforce, or during prior college enrollment.

According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s website, the TABP was crafted “with two critical challenges in mind: (1) the rising cost of tuition for students and (2) a growing adult population, particularly Hispanic, that often lacks the right credentials and academic training to thrive in today’s economy.” In addition to fulfilling general education requirements via online courses, the program’s other novel feature is competency-based programs: “Advancement is based on showing competency in the subject area rather than spending hours in class.” Guiding this effort are three “main principles.” (1) “Students learn better when content is personalized and delivered at their level.” (2) “Students need targeted supports most in the first years and direct faculty instruction in their final years.” (3) “Students need a degree and an experience that will have value in the workforce.”

A Texas Solution to the Nation's College Debt Crisis?

Can the college student-loan debt crisis get any worse? According to the latest Federal Reserve Bank of New York report, the answer is, “Yes, and it already has.” During the last quarter of 2014, delinquency rates for student loans worsened.  “Although we’ve seen an overall improvement in delinquency rates since the Great Recession, the increasing trend in student loan balances and delinquencies is concerning,” said a Federal Reserve Bank researcher. “Student loan delinquencies and repayment problems appear to be reducing borrowers’ ability to form their own households.”

But there could be better news on the horizon. The Texas Legislature is currently considering a bill—the “I CAN” Bill (“Incentivizing College Affordability Now”)—that would take statewide a new initiative called the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program (TABP), which offers targeted college degrees for far less than what Texas public university students currently pay.

The breakthrough can’t come fast enough for students. According to a recent summary of data compiled by the Texas comptroller’s office, “In 2012, 20.5 percent of . . . [Texas’s] student loan borrowers were more than 90 days delinquent, surpassing the national rate of 17 percent and marking the 10th highest rate in the country.” The comptroller’s report adds, “Particularly worrying is the fact that rising tuition rates are driving an equally steep increase in college loan debt. . . . Many Texas college graduates and former students are entering adult life hobbled by years and even decades of crippling debt.”

As I detail in a just-released study, last year, four higher-education partners—Texas AM University-Commerce, South Texas College, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and the College for All Texans Foundation—launched the TABP, the state’s first public university bachelor’s degree combining online learning and competency-based standards. Crafted by community college and university faculty, with an eye toward meeting the needs identified by business and community leaders, a new bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership can cost as little as $750 per (seven-week) term and allows students to receive credit for as many competencies and courses as they can master each term. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s website, students who enroll “with no prior college credits should be able to complete the degree program in three years at a total cost of $13,000 to $15,000”—less than half the price of a traditional degree at a Texas public four-year university. Students who enroll having already met their general education requirements can complete the degree in two years. Those enrolling with “90 credit hours and no credential” can finish their degree “in one year for $4,500 to $6,000.”

In addition to targeting applied degrees, the TABP also has a target audience in mind. And here, a little-noticed change in the demographics of higher education emerges. We still tend to think of the college experience as consisting of fulltime students attending a residential campus for four (-plus) years. But that picture has given way to the new reality. Today, the majority seeking some kind of postsecondary education—be it a two- or four-year degree or a certificate or credential—are “nontraditional students.” Nontraditional students are over 25 years of age and/or work fulltime and/or have families of their own to support. For this group, the new majority, the traditional college experience is generally out of reach.

Moreover, many of these nontraditional students have at least some college credit garnered in the past. By one estimate, Texas alone houses 1.3 million residents with some college credit but no degree. For such students, the TABP could be the only way to complete college.

How does the new program work? TABP offers an online-based, self-paced degree plan tailored for non-traditional students’ busy lives, and saves them and taxpayers money through granting course credit for competencies already acquired in the military, the workforce, or during prior college enrollment.

According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s website, the TABP was crafted “with two critical challenges in mind: (1) the rising cost of tuition for students and (2) a growing adult population, particularly Hispanic, that often lacks the right credentials and academic training to thrive in today’s economy.” In addition to fulfilling general education requirements via online courses, the program’s other novel feature is competency-based programs: “Advancement is based on showing competency in the subject area rather than spending hours in class.” Guiding this effort are three “main principles.” (1) “Students learn better when content is personalized and delivered at their level.” (2) “Students need targeted supports most in the first years and direct faculty instruction in their final years.” (3) “Students need a degree and an experience that will have value in the workforce.”

America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous

If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and de-emphasize the humanities.

America’s last bipartisan cause is this: A liberal arts education is irrelevant; technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition.

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.

The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross-fertilization.

Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education. But so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.â€�

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

For most of its history, the United States was unique in offering a well-rounded education. In their comprehensive study, “The Race Between Education and Technology,â€� Harvard’s Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz point out that in the 19th century, countries like Britain, France and Germany educated only a few and put them through narrow programs designed to impart only the skills crucial to their professions. America, by contrast, provided mass general education because people were not rooted in specific locations with long-established trades that offered the only paths forward for young men.

And the American economy has historically changed so quickly that the nature of work and the requirements for success have tended to shift from one generation to the next. People don’t want to lock themselves into one professional guild or learn one specific skill for life.

That was appropriate in another era, the technologists argue, but it is dangerous in today’s world. Look at where American kids stand compared with their peers abroad.

But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less technically trained workforce ­— with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook. A country like Japan, for example, can’t do as much with its well-trained workers because it lacks many of the factors that produce continuous innovation.

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.

Companies often prefer strong basics to narrow expertise. Innovation in business always has involved insights beyond technology.

One final reason to value a liberal education lies in its roots. For most of human history, all education was skills-based. Hunters, farmers and warriors taught their young to hunt, farm and fight. But about 2,500 years ago, that changed in Greece, which began to experiment with a new form of government: democracy.

This innovation in government required an innovation in education. Basic skills for sustenance were no longer sufficient. Citizens also had to learn how to manage their own societies and practice self-government. They still do.

Fareed Zakaria is a columnist for The Washington Post, host of “Fareed Zakaria GPS� on CNN and author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education.�


Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.

Here are the 544 colleges being monitored because of their shaky finances

The Department of Education is giving students and tax payers a more complete picture of the schools it’s monitoring because of concerns about their financial situation or regulatory compliance after pressure from critics.

Earlier this week, the department released a list publicly for the first time of the more than 500 schools on so-called heightened cash monitoring, a designation that means the DOE is paying extra attention to the way those schools use their financial aid funds. But officials redacted the names of 20 schools from the list.

The department named those schools on Friday. Most of those schools are under what the department calls a program review. As part of the review, officials evaluate the school to make sure it’s meeting federal requirements and determine what the school needs to do to fix any compliance issues. The DOE isn’t disclosing any specific details from the program reviews at this point, but in most of those cases, it uncovered “severe” problems while investigating the schools named publicly on Friday.

“Following additional legal review and multiple media inquiries, the Department is now able to provide an updated list of all the institutions under Heightened Cash Monitoring,” Denise Horn, a Department of Education spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement accompanying the release. “This decision is in step with this Administration’s effort to increase both the quantity and quality of information that students, families and the public have about higher education.”

Ted Mitchell, the undersecretary for the Department of Education, told Inside Higher Ed on Monday that the department originally redacted the names of the schools because officials were worried it would hurt their investigations. On Thursday, the New York Times’ editorial board criticized that decision, writing that it “pretty much leaves in the dark students who are attending the schools or thinking about enrolling in them. They have a right to know how well or how poorly the institutions are doing.”

Schools that are on heightened cash monitoring can be placed under one of two levels of scrutiny and they have to jump through more hoops than typical to access their federal aid dollars. The colleges facing the less serious level of monitoring, known as HCM1, were there largely for small issues like late or missing audits. Schools in this category have to thoroughly account for how they spend their federal aid dollars.

Under the more serious level, HCM2, schools have to send the department extensive documentation before they can receive federal aid dollars. All, except for two of the redacted schools fall under this designation. One school was originally redacted because the department was in the process of removing it from the list and another was left off because the department was determining in which category it belonged.

The department also updated the list it released on Monday by removing 12 schools from the list and adding one. The list released Friday includes 544 schools, 475 of which are under HCM1 and 69 of which are under HCM2. More than half of the schools on the list are for-profit.

See the complete list here

Federal aid is a major source of funding for many colleges and losing access to that money could put a school at risk of closing. Making the complete list public allows students and their families to know whether the school they’re attending or thinking of attending is a risky bet.

“Heightened Cash Monitoring is not necessarily a red flag to students and taxpayers, but it can serve as a caution light,” Mitchell wrote in a blog post announcing the release of the original list.

Corinthian Colleges, the for-profit chain of schools that’s in the process of shutting down, was placed on heightened cash monitoring in June. The Education Department also delayed Corinthian’s aid disbursement for 21 days, putting the company into a cash crunch. After that Corinthian struck an agreement with the department to sell off or shut down all of its campuses, amid allegations the company was falsely advertising graduation and job placement rates and luring students to take on unnecessarily high levels of debt.

State budget bill lets attorney general spend $6 million of lawsuit settlement

click to enlarge

  • LESLIE RUTLEDGE: Gets to direct $6 million of lawsuit settlement spending.

The omnibus revenue bill provides for the spending of the $21.5 million recently paid the state as a result of a Dustin McDaniel-era class action lawsuit settlement against Standard and Poor’s for inaccurate financial rating information.

As I’ve reported previoujsly, the state won $21.5 million, paid to the attorney general’s office’s consumer fund. But the 2013 legislature put a $1 million cap on that fund, in part to curb McDaniel’s penchant for spreading it around like a gubernatorial discretionary spending account. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office has been telling me that a final workout of how that money would be allocated was still pending talks with legislative leaders.

Now it has become apparent that the money contributed to the bigger-than-expected surplus in the General Improvement Fund, which, as I noted earlier, produced $20 million worth of pork barreling for the legislature.

The 2015 state spending law requires excess from the attorney general’s fund to be deposited in the state treasury from where it flows into the General Improvement Fund, or surplus. From SB 691:

(f) Any funds provided by the Arkansas Attorney General from the Attorney General Consumer Education and Enforcement Account, received by the State of Arkansas through Settlement agreements or as designated by court order.

But, the workout of the deal left several million to be spent first by the attorney general’s office.

This is the workout provided to me by the House speaker’s office on use of money paid into the attorney general’s office.

Standard Poor $21.5 million

Additional Settlements (Duncan Shoes) $4.2 million

Total: $25.7 million

Less: $1 Million Balance in Consumer Education and Enforcement Fund

Total Available for Distribution: $24,700,000

Crime Victims Reparation Fund: $2.5 million

Criminal Justice Institute (Safe Schools Missing Persons): $600,000

Prescription Drug Monitoring: $500,000

Volunteer Fire Department (Rural Services): $500,000 (As with legislative spending of his nature, it lends itself to political interests, given the hyperlocal nature of the departments.)

Career Education and Training (Dept. of Career Ed): $2 million

Total Distributed by AG’s Office: $6.1 million

Estimated Amount Deposited into the General Improvement Fund: $18.6 million

Rutledge’s spokesman Judd Deere said he had not seen these numbers previously when I’d inquired about the spending of the settlement money. He said Friday that top office officials still said the agreement was not final, but he said he expected a formal announcement soon.

From the plain language of the law, it appears the money has been obligated  and that the attorney general, despite a $1 million consumer fund limit, will be able to take credit for some of $6 million of the largesse to a variety of agencies.

Fitch Affirms Vacaville Unified School District, CA's GOs at 'AA-'; Outlook Stable

SAN FRANCISCO–(BUSINESS WIRE)–

Fitch Ratings has affirmed the following rating for Vacaville Unified School District, CA (the district):

–$2.9 million general obligation (GO) bonds series 2005, refunding series 2005, and series 2007 at ‘AA-‘.

The Rating Outlook is Stable.

SECURITY

The bonds are payable from an unlimited ad valorem tax on all taxable property within the district.

KEY RATING DRIVERS

FINANCIAL BALANCE BY 2016: The recent improvement in the state’s funding outlook and efforts by the district to reduce special education spending are expected to restore financial balance by fiscal 2016. Operating deficits in the past three audited fiscal years reflect volatility in state funding and growing costs for special education programs.

SOUND RESERVES: The district’s unrestricted reserve has declined over the past three years but remained satisfactory at $11.2 million (13% of spending) at the end of fiscal 2014 (unaudited). Liquidity levels are solid.

LIMITED EXPENDITURE FLEXIBILITY: The district’s ability to contain labor costs and control special education spending will be critical in restoring financial balance as expenditure pressures from declining attendance, rising pension costs, and requirements mandated through the state’s adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) continue to grow.

ADDITIONAL DEBT EXPECTED: Overall debt levels are expected to rise moderately with an expected issuance of approximately $70 million in May 2015. Additional issuance plans under the recently approved $194 million in GO authorization would increase debt levels to still manageable levels.

SOUND ECONOMIC INDICATORS: The city of Vacaville (the city) benefits from its proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area regional economy, its low unemployment rate, and above average wealth levels. Recent tax base growth has been spurred, in part, by a recovering real estate market and significant employment growth in the area.

RATING SENSITIVITIES:

ONGOING STRUCTURAL IMBALANCE: An inability to correct the current structural imbalance leading to materially weaker unrestricted reserve levels could result in negative rating action.

CREDIT PROFILE

The district serves more than 10,600 students and is located 40 miles southwest of Sacramento and sixty miles northeast of San Francisco.

ONGOING STRUCTURAL IMBALANCE

The district recorded operating deficits (after transfers) in each of the past three years including deficits of $1.7 million (2% of spending) and $2.7 million (3.5%) in fiscals 2014 and 2013, respectively. The structural imbalance has largely been driven by volatility in state funding and special education expenditures, which have increased significantly over the past several years.

Financial performance is expected to begin improving in fiscal 2015 due to the increased state funding and management’s efforts to contain special education spending. Changes in the administration of the program, driven in part by an external consultant’s report, are expected to result in meaningful savings that will reduce its impact on the district’s operating results. Management expects the draw on unrestricted funds to be approximately $1.2 million in fiscal 2015 before stabilizing in fiscal 2016. The rating assumes management is successful in balancing financial performance by 2016.

The district’s unrestricted reserve declined to a still sound $11.2 million or 13% of spending in fiscal 2014 from $14.6 million (18.4%) in fiscal 2012. An additional decline of $1.2 million, which is expected in fiscal 2015, would reduce the unrestricted reserve to a still adequate 11.5% of spending.

The district’s ability to restore financial balance will be challenged by rising costs and pent up demand for salary increases by labor. Increased pension contributions to CalPERS and CalSTRS, additional costs associated with implementing LCFF requirements, and lost revenue from declining attendance are all expected to reduce the district’s budgetary flexibility over the medium term. Labor negotiations, which are currently taking place for fiscal 2015, could have a significant impact on the district’s financial performance depending on the size and timing of salary increases, if any.

ADDITIONAL DEBT PLANS

The district received voter approval for $194 million in GO bonds in the November 2014 election. The first issuance under the new authorization, expected in May 2015, is a preliminary amount of $70 million. An issuance of that size is expected to modestly increase overall debt to moderate levels. An issuance of the total authorized amount, which is not expected in the near term, would raise debt levels to somewhat high levels.

Overall debt levels with the expected $70 million issuance in May are estimated at 2.7% of AV and $3,363 per capita. Amortization of outstanding debt is slow with approximately 295 retired within 10 years.

SOUND ECONOMY; MODESTLY GROWING TAX BASE

The district benefits from its proximity to the large and diverse regional San Francisco Bay Area regional economy and employment markets. The district’s per capita income is 16% higher than the national average and poverty rates are well below state and national levels. The city’s 4.8% unemployment rate (November 2014) is below both the state (7.1%) and nation (5.5%) averages.

The district’s AV increased by 7.9% in fiscal 2015. AV performance since 2009 has been somewhat volatile with moderate declines and limited gains. The strong performance in 2015 is driven by the city’s above average employment growth and a recovering housing market along with some commercial and residential development. Fitch expects the additional development plans and continued economic growth to support at least stable to modestly positive AV performance over the near term.

The tax base is concentrated in Genentech, which represents approximately 8.9% of total AV.

Additional information is available at ‘www.fitchratings.com‘.

In addition to the sources of information identified in Fitch’s Tax-Supported Rating Criteria, this action was additionally informed by information from Creditscope, University Financial Associates, SP/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, IHS Global Insight, National Association of Realtors.

Applicable Criteria and Related Research:

–‘Tax-Supported Rating Criteria’ (Aug. 14, 2012);

–‘U.S. Local Government Tax-Supported Rating Criteria’ (Aug. 14, 2012).

Applicable Criteria and Related Research:

Tax-Supported Rating Criteria

http://www.fitchratings.com/creditdesk/reports/report_frame.cfm?rpt_id=686015

U.S. Local Government Tax-Supported Rating Criteria

http://www.fitchratings.com/creditdesk/reports/report_frame.cfm?rpt_id=685314

Additional Disclosure

Solicitation Status

http://www.fitchratings.com/gws/en/disclosure/solicitation?pr_id=982446

ALL FITCH CREDIT RATINGS ARE SUBJECT TO CERTAIN LIMITATIONS AND DISCLAIMERS. PLEASE READ THESE LIMITATIONS AND DISCLAIMERS BY FOLLOWING THIS LINK: HTTP://FITCHRATINGS.COM/UNDERSTANDINGCREDITRATINGS. IN ADDITION, RATING DEFINITIONS AND THE TERMS OF USE OF SUCH RATINGS ARE AVAILABLE ON THE AGENCY’S PUBLIC WEBSITE ‘WWW.FITCHRATINGS.COM‘. PUBLISHED RATINGS, CRITERIA AND METHODOLOGIES ARE AVAILABLE FROM THIS SITE AT ALL TIMES. FITCH’S CODE OF CONDUCT, CONFIDENTIALITY, CONFLICTS OF INTEREST, AFFILIATE FIREWALL, COMPLIANCE AND OTHER RELEVANT POLICIES AND PROCEDURES ARE ALSO AVAILABLE FROM THE ‘CODE OF CONDUCT’ SECTION OF THIS SITE. FITCH MAY HAVE PROVIDED ANOTHER PERMISSIBLE SERVICE TO THE RATED ENTITY OR ITS RELATED THIRD PARTIES. DETAILS OF THIS SERVICE FOR RATINGS FOR WHICH THE LEAD ANALYST IS BASED IN AN EU-REGISTERED ENTITY CAN BE FOUND ON THE ENTITY SUMMARY PAGE FOR THIS ISSUER ON THE FITCH WEBSITE.

Mark Dayton says he'll find way to reduce student testing

Governor Mark Dayton (Pioneer Press)

After the U.S. Department of Education this week rejected his plan to reduce the federally mandated exams Minnesota students take, Gov. Mark Dayton says he’ll find another way.

Dayton said he plans to meet Friday with state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius to discuss other tests the state can eliminate without federal approval. Dayton added that he thought there was a general consensus that students take too many tests and he still hoped to accomplish some reduction before the end of the legislative session.

Dayton had pushed for eliminating math proficiency tests in early elementary school and reading tests in middle school, as well as some college readiness exams. Those plans would have required state and federal approval.

The federal No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, education law requires students take annual proficiency tests in elementary, middle and high school. Here students take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, in reading, math and science.

Dorie Nolt, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman, said annual proficiency tests were too important to eliminate.

“Because of the key information that reading and math assessments in each of grades 3 through 8 and in high school provide to parents and educators, we will not consider waiving these requirements of the law,” Nolt said.

Minnesota is one of 43 states with a waiver from the NCLB requirement that all students be proficient by 2014.

In exchange, Minnesota implemented new, more nuanced ways of assessing the performance of students, teachers and principals.

The waiver was first granted in 2012 and was renewed for four years earlier this week.

Dayton first announced his desire to cut the number of tests students take in his 2014 State of the State address. Last month, citing the “heavy toll” excessive testing put on students, teachers and school curriculum, he proposed slashing the 21 required tests by one-third.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members and Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, backed Dayton’s proposal and it is included in the DFL-led Minnesota Senate’s education policy bill. Republicans and groups like the Minnesota Business Partnership and state Chamber of Commerce opposed the idea for reasons similar to those federal regulators cited.

Instead, supporters of annual proficiency testing urged Dayton to adopt the recommendations of a testing working group he create in 2014. The group recommended keeping the required MCAs and eliminating several college and career readiness tests.

It also discussed a cap on the amount of time students spend taking tests.

In addition to the tests mandated by law, school districts also require students take a variety of diagnostic tests. Those assessments vary by district and are typically used by teachers to gauge students’ academic abilities throughout the year so they can modify instruction.

Dayton said he wanted local school leaders to take a hard look at the exams they require.

“If they are concerned about excessive testing, they need to be part of the solution,” Dayton said.

Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/chris_magan.