Mystery Parents Take Some of the Mystery Out of Charter School Enrollment

. December 18, 2014

Charter school authorizers in the District of Columbia have taken up a new tactic to attempt to ensure that their charter schools are not turning away students who have specialized needs, such as those with a disability. Modeled on the “mystery shopper” used in retail, staffers pose as parents of students with a disability and call charter schools inquiring about the schools’ enrollment process, according to The Notebook blog in Philadelphia.

According to the blog:

If the school answers all the questions about the enrollment process correctly, it passes. If the school answers any question inappropriately — for example, if it tells the “parent” that the school across the street is better suited for students with disabilities — the charter board calls back again at a later date. If the school gives a wrong answer twice, it gets a warning. And if it fails to address the problem, its charter could be revoked.

The program has been running for three years. In the first year, 2011-12, 11 schools gave inappropriate answers in the first round of mystery calls, and 10 such schools failed to respond appropriately in the second round. By 2013-14, 17 schools gave inappropriate answers in the first round and two did so in the second round, according to the blog. The wrong answers in the second round of 2013-14 were partially attributed to the District’s new single enrollment system.

“We started this because there was a huge perception among the public that charters counseled out students with disabilities,” says Naomi R. DeVeaux, the deputy director for the district’s public charter school board. “We wanted to know if this was true,” the blog quotes her as saying.

The blog notes that Massachusetts has started a similar mystery parent program.

Body Cameras

. December 17, 2014

In recent months there have been many public cries for law enforcement agencies to use body cameras. President Obama recently announced that he would request $75 million in federal funds to distribute 50,000 body cameras to police departments nationwide, as part of a package to improve police relations with the public.  The cameras are seen as a way to improve evidence collection, strengthen officer performance and accountability, enhance agency transparency, document encounters between police and the public, and investigate and resolve complaints involving officers.

But according to a recent Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report, although the cameras offer benefits, their use also raises concerns, including concerns about misuse and the public’s privacy rights. The report recommends that “before agencies invest considerable time and money” to deploy body cameras, they consider these concerns and consult with frontline officers, unions, prosecutors, community groups, other stakeholders, and the general public. The report suggests that such input will, among other things, increase the perceived legitimacy of a department’s body camera policy.  PERF recommends that agency policies cover the following topics, among others:
  1. basic camera usage, including who will wear the cameras and where the cameras will be placed;
  2. the staff member responsible for ensuring cameras are charged and working properly;
  3. recording protocols, including when to activate or turn off the camera and the types of circumstances in which recording is required, allowed, or prohibited;
  4. procedures for downloading, storing, and safeguarding the data;
  5. the method for documenting chain of custody of the data;
  6. how long records will be retained;
  7. data access and review;
  8. the policies for releasing recorded data to the public;
  9. training; and 
  10. policy and program evaluation.

States Challenge President’s Immigration Actions

As reported by CNN last week, 24 states (led by Texas) are suing President Obama over his executive actions on immigration announced in November.  (Maine is the only state from New England to have joined the lawsuit.) These states allege that the President’s immigration initiatives violate the U.S. Constitution and federal law.  The lawsuit was filed in a federal district court in Texas.

A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report from November sheds some light on the legal issues surrounding the President’s immigration actions.  The report summarizes the President’s initiative and addresses several other questions about the issue, including (1) the legal authority for the administration’s actions, (2) whether there are constitutional constraints on the executive’s discretionary authority over immigration, and (3) other legal issues that may be raised by the administration’s actions.

The report, which is dated November 24 (four days after the President announced his immigration initiative), states that its “answers are necessarily preliminary.” CRS expects to update this report although their reports are not always publicly available.

Wooden Skyscrapers in the Works

. December 16, 2014

In an effort to find environmentally friendly alternatives to steel and concrete, some architects are turning to wood as their building material of choice.

As noted in a recent NPR article, “wood has long been considered too weak for high rises — not to mention a towering inferno just waiting to ignite.” Architects and biochemists are working to solve these shortcomings. According to the article, researchers are studying wood at the cellular level to see how it could be strengthened. The article also explains that the flammability of tall wooden buildings is actually a misconception. Unlike small homes, massive structures are not flammable “because the surface of timber burns and chars just enough to provide a good insulator that protects the interior.”

Researchers are also trying to improve concrete by studying it at the molecular level. An MIT professor is examining how to make concrete more resilient while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by changing the ratios of concrete’s ingredients. He and his team hope their efforts were result in a stronger, greener building material.

New Report: Threats to Schools

OLR Report 2014-R-0282 explains (1) existing laws that pertain to threats to schools and (2) state agency efforts to track the number and nature of threats made to schools.

When someone threatens to harm a school, the school district takes precautionary measures to protect students and staff including (1) lock-ins (conducting classes while refusing building entrance or exit), (2) lockdowns (confining students and staff to hiding positions in secure rooms), and (3) school closures with class cancellations. State criminal laws and school disciplinary measures are available to punish someone who makes such threats.

SDE is required by federal law to track all student disciplinary offenses reported by Connecticut school districts. SDE data shows a state average of 67 offenses labeled as “school threat/bomb threat” that led to disciplinary action over the last three school years. This number does not capture all threats as it only reflects incidents that resulted in student discipline.

Click here to read the full report.

2014 Connecticut Insurance Market Brief Released

The Hartford Courant reports on the 2014 Insurance Market Forecast, which the Connecticut Insurance and Financial Services Cluster (CT IFS) hosted on November 20 in Hartford. The day brought together more than 350 insurance professionals at this annual insurance convention. This year’s gathering featured the release of the 2014 Connecticut Insurance Market Brief, the latest installment in a series of reports on the insurance industry in Connecticut. The CT IFS collaborated with PwC on the brief, a report that includes executive perspectives and a summary of information and trends on the sector, including Connecticut’s 200-year insurance history.

According to the brief, Connecticut’s insurance industry is one of the world’s largest. There are 110 domestic insurance and 1,288 non-domestic insurance entities doing business in the state. “Insurance continues to be a keystone in Connecticut’s economy, representing 2.8% of the workforce, 5.6% of the payroll, and 5.7% of the gross state product.” Also, “according to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, one new job in the insurance industry adds an additional 1.73 jobs to the Connecticut economy.”

New Report Compares the Property Tax Burden Among the States

. December 15, 2014

In 2013, the median-value home in Bridgeport bore the highest tax burden when compared to such homes in the nation’s other urban areas, according to a latest annual report comparing property tax burdens across the nation. The report, which was prepared by the Minnesota Center For Fiscal Excellence and the Lincoln Land Institute, measured tax burdens by comparing the amount of taxes paid on a property against the property’s resale value.

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Applying this measure, the report found that the New England region, with its heavy reliance on the property tax to fund municipal services, had the highest residential property tax burden, followed closely by Midwestern urban areas and Mid-Atlantic rural areas. The burdens were lowest in the South and West.

So, should we all move to Georgia or Arizona? Not so fast. The property tax is just one component of a state’s overall tax system. Some states, for example, allow municipalities to levy sales, income, and other taxes besides property taxes. Consequently, “some locations have relatively high property tax levies because those local governments are more dependent on ‘own-source’ revenue (revenue they raise themselves) or have limited non-property tax options available to them,” the report stated. Other factors that mitigate residential property tax burdens include levying income and sales taxes to fund local government and policies that require some types of property, such as factories and shopping malls, to bear more of the burden than homes and apartments.

CT Ranks 5th in Percentage of Jobs that Require Bachelor’s Degrees

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Career Outlook, 21.7% of Connecticut’s jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree.  And only three other states, plus the District of Columbia, have larger concentrations of jobs for college degree holders: D.C. (32.2%), Massachusetts (22.7%), Virginia (22.3%), and Maryland (22%).  According to BLS, Connecticut has a particularly high concentration of actuaries, aerospace engineers, and marketing managers. 

Nationwide, 18% of jobs require a bachelor’s degree and the employees in those positions earn a $68,190 median annual wage.  The median annual wage for bachelor’s degree positions in Connecticut is $78,880.

Connecticut’s 2.9% of jobs that require doctoral or professional degrees (e.g., law or medical degrees) were also in the top 10 nationally, behind D.C. (8%), New York (3.5%), Massachusetts (3.5%), Vermont (3.2%), Rhode Island (3.2%), Maryland (3.1%), and Delaware (3%).  

Is the Stick Shift an Endangered Species?

. December 12, 2014

Only about 10% of the motor vehicles built in North America have manual transmissions (stick shifts), down from about 35% in 1980, according to an Associated Press article. The article says that some of the country’s best-selling vehicles, such as the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, don’t even offer stick shift models.

Manual transmissions were all there was until 1939, when Oldsmobile premiered the automatic transmission. But manuals were still the transmission of choice for many drivers, who preferred their lower cost and the better gas mileage they provided. But improvements in automatic transmissions have closed these gaps, according to Jack Nerad, the senior editor of Kelley Blue Book, who is quoted in the article.  “The manual transmission has become kind of a dodo bird,” he says. 

Proposed Medicare ACO Rule Delays Penalties An Additional Three Years

According to a recent Kaiser Health News article, a new rule proposed by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) would give Medicare accountable care organizations (ACOs) an extra three years before they face penalties for poor performance.

ACOs are voluntary networks of doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers that coordinate care for Medicare patients. They assume medical and financial responsibility for their Medicare patients’ care and are eligible for bonuses when they coordinate care, reduce Medicare spending, and meet certain benchmarks. Underperforming ACOs are subject to penalties, however most have a three-year grace period that allows them to earn bonuses while being excused from these penalties.

According to the article, the new proposed rule would extend this grace period to six years. However, those ACOs taking advantage of the grace period can only keep up to 40% of their Medicare savings, instead of the 50% they are allowed to keep during their first three years.

The proposed rule also establishes a new Medicare ACO program, “Track Three,” that would allow participating ACOs to keep up to 75% of their Medicare savings. Those that exceed Medicare spending benchmarks would be responsible for up to 15% of excess spending, instead of the current 10% maximum.  The new program is similar to the “Pioneer ACO Model” program, a high-risk Medicare ACO pilot program that ends in 2016.

The proposed rule is open for public comment until February 6, 2015.

For more information on Medicare ACOs, see OLR Report 2014-R-0238.

Marijuana Breath Test

. December 11, 2014

Although Colorado and Washington allow recreational marijuana use, a driver in either state can be charged with driving under the influence (DUI) if he or she has five nanograms or more of THC (i.e., tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana) in his or her blood (COLO. REV. STAT. § 42-4-1301 and WASH. REV. CODE § 46.61.506).

According to a recent USA Today article, police in both states rely on blood tests to determine whether someone has been smoking marijuana or consuming it. Washington State University researchers are developing a marijuana breath test that police could use when deciding whether to arrest a suspected impaired driver.  Because the breath test will not be able to pinpoint the level of THC in the body, follow-up tests would still be needed for evidentiary purposes, as with drunken driving cases.

The Washington State University research team plans to finish testing a prototype marijuana breath test by the end of this year and begin human testing in 2015, per the article.

According to a previous USA Today article, the federal government has recently completed an experiment aimed at identifying the level of marijuana that impairs drivers.

New Report: Changes in the Mandated Reporter Law Since 2011

OLR Report 2014-R-0286 describes changes the legislature has made to the law on mandated reporters of child abuse since 2011.

The legislature has made several changes to the law since 2011, including making it a crime for (1) mandated reporters to fail to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the Department of Children and Families or (2) someone to intentionally and unreasonably interfere with or prevent a mandated reporter from reporting such suspected abuse or neglect. It also expanded the list of mandated reporters to include youth camp directors, youth athletic coaches, directors and trainers, all Department of Public Health employees, and certain employees of the Office of Early Childhood.

For more information, read the full report.   

Proposed Change to Federal Regulations Would Affect State Authority Over Special Education Modifications

According to the Federal Register, since 2007 federal regulations have allowed states to modify academic standards and develop alternative standardized tests for special education students, changes that were meant to give them the flexibility needed to assess these students when reporting their academic progress to the federal government (as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Law).

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) proposed eliminating states’ authority to modify  special education curriculum standards and testing requirements (78 Fed. Reg. 52467-71 (Aug. 23, 2013)).

DOE offers two reasons for these proposed changes. First, the new general assessments developed by state consortia since 2007 are more accessible to students with disabilities, and they will yield results that are more valid, reliable, and fair.  (Connecticut joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which designed a new test aligned to the Common Core State Standards, in 2010.)  Second, research shows that more accessible general assessments can promote high expectations for students with disabilities when paired with appropriate support and instruction. Consequently, DOE anticipates that modified standards and tests will no longer be needed.

The notice and comment period for the proposed regulations has closed.  Final action is scheduled for January 2015.

Connecticut Manufacturing Innovation Fund is Now Accepting Applications for Matching Grant Voucher Program

. December 10, 2014

This past session, the legislature passed a bill creating the Connecticut Manufacturing Innovation Fund (CMIF). CMIF was intended to provide Connecticut manufacturers with resources to meet demand for their products and strengthen the state’s manufacturing sector.

Governor Malloy recently announced the approval of a $3.5 million matching grant voucher program as a part of CMIF. The voucher program, funded by the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) and administered by the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT), provides financial assistance to eligible Connecticut manufacturers to help them undertake innovative projects that will improve productivity, efficiency, and competitiveness. The program will award grants in amounts from $5,000 to $50,000, and grant recipients must match awards dollar for dollar. Recipients may use grant funds for many different purposes, including accessing technical experts, training employees, developing prototypes, and improving processes.

CCAT is administering the program on a first-come, first-served basis, and those interested must submit an application on CCAT’s website to be placed in the queue for funding consideration. For more information on the program, including eligibility and application requirements, visit CCAT’s website.

Thousands Apply for State Veterans’ ID

More than 6,270 Connecticut veterans have applied to participate in the state’s veterans’ ID program, according to the New Haven Register. The program allows veterans to place an American Flag symbol on their state-issued driver’s license or identity card to indicate their veteran’s status. The symbol is intended to help businesses and service providers verify a veteran’s status for certain discounts, programs, and services.

The symbol is issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), but veterans must first apply to the Department of Veterans Affairs to have their veterans’ status verified. For information on how to apply for the veterans’ ID, see DMV’s website.

State Spending on Medicaid Compared with Other Expenditures

. December 9, 2014

The Medicaid share of total state spending is expected to increase in FY 2014. This projection comes from the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), whose annual State Expenditure Report analyzes and compares state spending in the following seven categories:

  1. elementary and secondary education,
  2. higher education,
  3. public assistance,
  4. Medicaid,
  5. corrections,
  6. transportation, and
  7. “all other.”

The report for FY 2014 estimates spending in the Medicaid category, which includes state and federal funds, will comprise the largest portion of total state expenditures at 25.8%. In comparison, the elementary and secondary education category will comprise 19.5% of the total. The proportions shift, however when only state funds (i.e., general funds and other state funds, excluding bonds) are counted: the Medicaid share drops to 15.3% while the elementary and secondary education share increases to 24.2%.

The report also describes fluctuations in federal funds to states over the past few years. The winding down of federal funds dispersed through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009) and the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act (2010) have led to shifts in the distribution of funding sources for state expenditures. A summary of the report is available here.

New Report: Using Education Technology To Collect And Analyze Student Data

OLR Report 2014-R-0274 describes (1) the practice of data collection and analysis known as "data mining," as used by education technology companies; (2) debated issues surrounding the practice; and (3) state actions to strengthen student privacy protections.

Education technology companies that provide services to school administrators, teachers, and student users have the ability to mine student data. These companies that create electronic devices, programs, or apps could use the technologies to identify the characteristics and habits of individual users (i.e., metadata) for various purposes without the users' knowledge or permission.

Although various federal laws contain provisions protecting students' personally identifiable information collected in schools and online, they have not been updated to incorporated change in education technology such as data mining of metadata.

Click here to read the full report.

More International Students Studying at U.S. Colleges and Universities

According to a recent Stateline article, almost 900,000 foreign students studied at American colleges and universities in the 2013-2014 academic year, which is a record high and nearly double the total from 20 years ago. The article analyzes the causes of this growth and notes that it is driven in part by financial considerations, particularly for public institutions. Unlike out-of-state students, who often receive financial aid, international students often pay an institution’s “sticker price,” providing the institution with additional revenue.

The article also compares all 50 states based on the percentage of students who are from outside the U.S. The percentages range from a low of 1.6% in Maine and Mississippi to a high of 9.9% in Massachusetts. (Connecticut’s percentage is 5.2%.)

New Report Maps Freight Networks, Suggests Strategies for Transportation Infrastructure Investment

. December 8, 2014

A new report from Brookings presents the findings of a study that analyzed 2010 goods trade data in order to provide policy makers with previously unavailable data that helps them understand trade networks within the United States and plan investments accordingly.

The study found that trade is highly concentrated — more than 80 percent of goods traded (valued at $16.2 trillion dollars) in the U.S. either start or end in one of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country. The report provides several interactive tools that demonstrate the connections between the cities. Looking, for example, at Hartford, it shows that the value of goods coming in and out the city is nearly $98 billion, and its largest trading partners are New York City, New Haven, Boston, and Springfield.
The analysis provided by this report is useful for many aspects of policymaking, but has specific implications for transportation planning and funding. According to the report’s press release, these findings may suggest that certain metropolitan areas and the surrounding infrastructure should get more federal money, as opposed to the even geographical distribution of federal funds that exists now. The press release also suggests that, at the local and regional level, leaders could consider planning regionally and focusing investment on certain hub in order to support the trade economy of the region as a whole.

Colorful Detergent Pods both Appealing and Toxic to Children

The AAPCC recently published a fact sheet on the dangers of pod exposure to children. The association encourages parents and caregivers who use the pods to keep them locked up in a location that’s out of children’s reach.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) at least 9,935 children age five and younger were exposed to the pods from January 1st to October 31st 2014.
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A study recently published in Pediatrics underscored the danger that single-use laundry detergent pods pose to young children. The study noted that “the colorful, candylike designs of the products may have contributed to a recent phenomenon involving young children…ingesting them or bursting them open, exposing their skin or eyes to the detergent chemicals.” Ingestion has led to symptoms ranging from lethargy or difficulty breathing to, in very rare cases, coma or death.