What should our representatives do?

November 24, 2008

John Florez, writing in Utah’s Deseret News:

It would be even more refreshing to have elected leaders openly declare conflicts of interest without having to be caught or hounded into doing so. Even better would be if they quickly recused themselves where conflicts exist — just because it’s the right thing to do.

It is encouraging to see much of the talk before the state pre-legislative -session talk has included ethics reform and enforcement. That government officials know the public is watching them closely is a gentle and persistent reminder that ethics isn’t going away once the election ended.

Keeping the people’s trust is vital, and that means keeping one’s word. It has been amazing to see the way the administration and Legislature can work together in rapid fashion when they want to accomplish things that a majority of the voters did not want, i.e. soccer stadiums, foreign nuclear waste, vouchers, school district splits, to name a few. If they can do it so quickly for the things we don’t want, they most certainly can work quickly together for the things we do want.

McCain offers to sacrifice American education

September 6, 2008

John McCain’s campaign suggests the remaining weeks of the presidential campaign should concentrate on personalities rather than issues.  Why?

McCain’s issues sound like the failed policies of the George Bush administration, so it should be obvious why he doesn’t want to talk about them.

We have a higher duty, especially on the issues of education.  We need to live up to the challenge of young Dalton Sherman (who gave a more substantial speech than Sarah Palin, I think:  “‘Do you believe in me?’  5th grader Dalton Sherman inspires Dallas teachers.”)

In his acceptance speech Thursday night, McCain promised to continue the War on Education, hurling bolts — okay, aiming sparks — at much of the education establishment, but promising nothing that might actually improve education and help out great kids like Dalton Sherman.

Here I’ve taken the text of McCain’s speech as delivered (from the interactive site at The New York Times) and offer commentary.  For McCain’s sake, and because it reveals the threat to education, I’ve left in the applause indicators.

McCain said:

Education — education is the civil rights issue of this century.

Equal access to public education has been gained, but what is the value of access to a failing school? We need…

(APPLAUSE) We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice.

Competition has never been demonstrated to improve education.  In state after state where it’s been tried, we’ve found corruption tends to squander the education dollars, and the education dollars themselves are diluted and diverted from struggling public schools.  If John McCain promised to help New Orleans by diverting money from the Army Corps of Engineers to “competition in the levee building business,” people would scoff.  If he promised to divert money from the Pentagon to offer “competition” in the national security business, he’d be tarred and feathered by his fellow veterans.

We need to make schools work, period.  Taking money away from struggling schools won’t help, and taking money from successful schools would be unjust, and a sin — in addition to failing to help.  40 years of malign neglect of education in inner cities and minority areas should not be the excuse to dismantle America’s education system which remains the envy of the rest of the world despite all its problems, chiefly because it offers access to all regardless of income, birth status, color or location.

Millions of people fight to get to the U.S. because of the opportunities offered by education here.  McCain offers to snuff out that beacon of liberty.  If his position differs from George W. Bush’s, I don’t know where. If his position differs from that of the anti-U.S. government secessionists and dominionists, it’s difficult to tell how.

Let’s remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work.

The No Child Left Behind Act prompted states to develop brand new, impenetrable bureacracies to grant teaching certificates to people who do not go through state-approved schools of education.  These bureacracies often are unaccountable to elected officials, or to appointed officials.  They were quickly thrown together to regulate a brand new industry of training programs designed to meet the technical requirements of state enabling legislation, and often deaf to the needs and requirements of local schools.

The chief barriers to qualified instructors are low pay, entrenched administration, and a slew of paperwork designed to “expose” teachers in their work rather than aid students in education, which all too often keep qualified teachers from getting teaching done, and discourage qualified people from other professions from getting into the business.  Who could afford to get into telephone soliciting if every phone call had to be documented by hand, with evaluations that take longer than the phone calls?  That’s what teachers in “failing” schools face daily, and it’s a chief factor in the exodus of highly qualified teachers from public schools over the last six years (a trend that may be accelerating).

This proposal would make sense if there were a backlog of qualified and highly-effective teachers trying to get into teaching — but quite the opposite, we have a shortage of teachers nationwide (check out the debates in Utah last year on their poorly-planned voucher program, which sounds a lot like what McCain is proposing).

Has McCain had any serious experience public schools in the last 22 years?  (I’m wondering here; I don’t know.)

When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parent — when it fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them.
Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have the choice, and their children will have that opportunity.

Of course, with McCain taking money from the public schools, it will be difficult to find a “better” public school, ultimately.  Here in Texas we’ve experimented for more than a decade with a statewide plan to shuffle money from “rich” school districts to poorer districts, under a plan generally and cleverly called “the Robin Hood plan.”  We still have good and excellent schools in districts across the state, but an increasing number of the designated-rich districts have smashed into tax rate ceilings, and are cutting programs from school curricula, and extra-curricular activities.

Charter schools in Texas are numerous, but in trouble.  Few of them, if any, have been able to create the extra capital investment required to build good school buildings, or especially to provide things like good laboratory classrooms for science classes, auditoriums with well-equipped stages for drama, literature, and general sessions of the entire school, or adequate facilities for physical education and recreation — let alone extracurricular athletics.

Charter schools and private schools often short science education.  A coalition of private schools sued the University of California system to require the universities to accept inferior science education, rather than provide good science education.  (A judge tossed the suit out; the coalition is appealing the decision.) Worse, this coalition includes some of the nation’s best private, religious schools.  When a group claimed as the best plead for acceptance of mediocrity, it’s time to re-examine whether resort to that group is prudent.  When the “best” private schools plead to lower the standards in science, it’s time to beef up the public schools instead.

Worse, many charter schools in Texas and elsewhere are riddled with incompetence, and a few riddled with corruption.  The Dallas Morning News this morning carries a story about a group running two charter schools, one in the Dallas area and one in the Houston area, both in trouble for failing to measure up to any standards of accountability, in testing, in other achievement, in teaching, or in financial accounting.  Economists note that free markets mean waste in some areas (ugly shoes don’t sell — the shoe maker will stop making ugly shoes, but those already made cannot be recalled).  Administration appears to be one area of enormous waste in “school choice.”

Several American urban districts have tried a variety of private corporations to operate schools on a contract basis.  If there is a successful experiment, it has yet to be revealed.  These experiments crashed in San Francisco, Dallas, Philadelphia and Baltimore, from sea to shining sea. Continued hammering at the foundations of good education, calling it “competition” or “peeing in the soup,” isn’t going to produce the results that American students, and parents, and employers, deserve.

Choice between a failing public school and a corrupt or inept charter school, is not a choice.  Why not invest the money where we know it works, in reducing class size and improving resources?  That costs money, but there is no cheap solution to excellence.

Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucrats. I want schools to answer to parents and students.
And when I’m president, they will.
My fellow Americans, when I’m president, we’re going to embark on the most ambitious national project in decades.

Here we see how out of touch with America John McCain really is.  Does he think that any school system in the nation “answers to unions and entrenched bureaucrats?”  Seriously?  Does he realize the “entrenched bureaucrats” are anti-union?

Seriously.  Think about this.  Texas is the nation’s second largest state.  There is no teacher’s union here worth the name.  State law forbids using strike as a tool for bargaining or negotiation.  Teachers here generally are opposed to unions anyway (don’t ask me to explain — most of them voted for George Bush, before he showed his stripes — but there is no pro-union bias among Texas teachers).  Teachers unions are either much reduced in power in those cities where they used to be able to muster strikes, like Detroit or New York City, or they have agreed to cooperate with the anti-union proposals that offer any hope of improving education.  Read that again:  I’m saying unions have agreed to give up power to help education.

So what is the real problem?  The bureaucracy choking schools today is not the fault of teachers.  Significantly, it’s required by the No Child Left Behind Act.  But even that is not the chief problem in schools, and those problems are not from teachers.

Teachers did not move auto manufacturing out of Detroit.  GM did that.  Fighting the teachers union won’t bring back Detroit’s schools.  Charter schools aren’t going to do it, either.  Teachers didn’t drown New Orleans.  The failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina did that.  Busting the unions in New Orleans has done nothing to improve education, as all of New Orleans struggles, and as former Big Easy residents resist going back so long as the schools are a mess.  Our schools in Texas have taken on thousands of students from New Orleans and other areas hammered by storms — public schools, not charter schools.  In many cases, parents are choosing public schools John McCain wants to push kids out of.  Go figure.

Hard economic times hammer schools.  Teachers didn’t create the housing bubble, and it’s certain that teachers were not the ones who failed to regulate the mortgage brokers adequately.  We can’t improve education if we don’t have the necessary clues about what the problems really are.

Public education is an essential pillar of American republican democracy.  Public education is the chief driver of our economy. McCain appears wholly unaware of the conditions in America’s schools, and he appears unwilling to push for excellence.  Instead, to drowning schools, McCain promises to through a bucket of water, and maybe an anchor to keep them in place.  He’s urging a road to mediocre schools.  Mediocrity to promote political conservatism, or just to get elected, is a sin.

McCain’s running mate brutalized the public library in her term as mayor of Wassilla.  If she has a better record on education since becoming governor, I’d like to hear about it.

Teachers, did you listen to McCain’s speech?  How are you going to vote?

Misplaced comments on vouchers

November 11, 2007

Crooks and Liars highlighted the sore-loser comments of the pro-voucher bunch in Utah — and a bunch of people commented there. I’m sure they were planning to leave comments here, or at UtahAmicus, or Utah Teacher, or one of the other blogs that covered the issue like a blanket, but somehow they got sidetracked to Crooks and Liars. The comments are sometimes enlightening.

Eh. We probably ought to be reading C&L more anyway.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Notes from Evil Bender.

Roundup of Utah-based comments on Utah voucher defeat

November 8, 2007

LaVarr Webb’s UtahPolicy.com features a roundup of comments from blogs on the Utah election, and the referendum defeat of vouchers:

Blog Watch

Lots of reaction to the voucher referendum outcome: See BoardBuzz, Steve Urquhart, SLCSpin, The Utah Amicus, Dynamic Range, The Senate Site, Paul Rolly, Out of Context, Reach Upward, COL Takashi, Jeremy’s Jeremiad, Davis County Watch, Salt Blog, and Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.

Utah is a small state, blessed with television, radio and newspaper outlets that perform way beyond what the population should expect.  Webb’s site tends to summarize most of the important political stuff every day.

It is exactly that type of information that led to the defeat of the voucher plan, I think.  More later, maybe.  Go take a look at Webb’s link to a CATO Institute commentary; voucher advocates are not giving up in any way.

Utah voters spike vampire school vouchers

November 7, 2007

Vouchers are dead in Utah, for the moment.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports “Vouchers go down in flames“:

Voters decisively rejected the will of the Utah Legislature and governor Tuesday, rejecting what would have been the nation’s most comprehensive education voucher program in a referendum blowout.

“Tonight, with the eyes of the nation upon us, Utah has rejected this flawed voucher law,” said state School Board Chairman Kim Burningham. “We believe this sends a clear message. It sends a message that Utahns believe in, and support, public schools.”

More than 60 percent of voters were rejecting vouchers, with about 95 percent of the precincts reporting, according to unofficial results. The referendum failed in every county, including the conservative bastion of Utah County.

In the face of colossal failure, voucher supporters desperately searched for a scapegoat on which to hang it — anything other than the manifold problems of vouchers:

Voucher supporter Overstock.com chief executive Patrick Byrne – who bankrolled the voucher effort – called the referendum a “statewide IQ test” that Utahns failed.

“They don’t care enough about their kids. They care an awful lot about this system, this bureaucracy, but they don’t care enough about their kids to think outside the box,” Byrne said.

Funny, from my conversations with people in Utah, I got the idea they opposed vouchers specifically because the voucher plan would damage schools, and that would in turn hurt the kids.

I suppose it depends on what the definition of “care about kids” is.

Utah, the most conservative state in the nation, has strong teacher organizations, but nothing like a union that leads strikes and is not itself populated with conservative Republicans. Also favorable to vouchers, the Utah legislature is heavily Republican, with voucher supporters in most leadership positions. Millionaire Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., also pushed for the vouchers, stacking the state’s political powers in favor of vouchers. Such facts cannot get in the way of the desperation to deny them voucher supporters show.

Doug Holmes, a key voucher advocate and contributor, said, “We started hugely in the hole and it’s always been the case. The unions have done this in four different states, where they take the strategy of confusion to the people.”

But Holmes said, “You don’t run away from something because the odds are stacked against you.”

Odds stacked against vouchers? It’s not the voters who are confused, Mr. Holmes.

Voucher supporters blame even their friends and supporters, and offer headline writers the chance to use an avalanche of clichés with a promise that vouchers will rise again, perhaps in the old Confederacy:

Both sides, at one point, embraced the governor, who Byrne blasted Tuesday for his lukewarm backing.

“When he asked for my support [for governor] he told me he is going to be the voucher governor. Not only was it his No. 1 priority, it was what he was going to be all about,” Byrne said. “He did, I think, a very tepid job, and then when the polls came out on the referendum, he was pretty much missing in action.”

Byrne said the referendum defeat may have killed vouchers in Utah, but “There are other freedom oriented groups in other states – African-Americans in South Carolina are interested in it.”

Got that, South Carolina? Vampire vouchers are headed your way. Stock up on garlic, wooden stakes and silver bullets.

Oh, and don’t forget the Oreo cookies. Get lots of milk, too.

The whole world should be watching Utah

November 6, 2007

This is election day in much of the U.S. In Utah, voters have a referendum on vouchers to take money from public schools to give to students to attend private schools. This is the first state-wide test of vouchers anywhere.

William Hogarth's election series,

  • The Polling, from William Hogarth’s series, The Election, oil on canvas, 1754; from The Tate Gallery, on loan from Sir John Sloane’s Museum, London.

I think vouchers will be voted down, but either way, I wish there were more, serious national coverage of the story in Utah. Public education has refused to back down from scurrilous and often false claims against the schools, and parents and educators have fought a gallant, fact-filled campaign against Utah’s voucher proposal. Utah voters are traditionally among the better-educated, better-informed, and better-voting people. Known as a conservative stronghold, Utah will probably vote to put this voucher program in the trash can.

The rest of the nation could benefit from knowing more about the reasons this proposal fails, if it does — or why it succeeds, if lightning strikes the way Richard Eyre prays it will.

Marchers protesting the Vietnam War in 1968 used to chant “The whole world is watching.” If only it were true today.

Vote today!

Whatever your views, go to the polls if there is an election in your town, and vote. Your vote will count, and it angers and frustrates the big money interests who hope you won’t vote, so their campaign contributions and, perhaps, outright bribes, will have more clout. Go vote.

The County Election, George Caleb Bingham, 1851

Politicians can lie, but they can’t hide

November 5, 2007

A decision by the Supreme Court of the State of Washington last month had wags and pundits claiming that it is okay for politicians to lie, at least in the state of Washington.

On October 4 the Washington Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a law that banned publication of “a false statement of material fact about a candidate for public office” in advertisements or other campaign materials, if the statement was made with “actual malice,” or with “reckless disregard to its truth or falsity,” according to a report in the New York Times.

“The notion that the government, rather than the people, may be the final arbiter fo truth in political debate is fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment,” Justice James M. Johnson wrote for four the justices in the majority. A dissenting justice, Barbara A. Madsen, wrote that “the majority’s decision is an invitation to lie with impunity.”

Justice Madsen added that the decision would help turn “political campaigns into contests of the best stratagems of lies and deceit, to the end that honest discourse and honest candidates are lost in the maelstrom.”

Utah’s voters now are engaged in a great debate that tests those views. Can voters discern the truth from a fog of claims and counterclaims about school vouchers?

Polls show vouchers losing. What does that mean?

Ironically, perhaps, in the Washington case, the candidate who got the claim wrong, according to the court’s decision, also lost the race:

Mr. Sheldon said Ms. Rickert had violated a state law that made it unlawful to publish “a false statement of material fact about a candidate for public office” in advertisements and campaign materials if the statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning in the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard to its truth or falsity.

The commission ruled against Ms. Rickert and fined her $1,000. It found that Mr. Sheldon had not voted to close the facility and that it was, in any event, a juvenile detention center rather than one for the developmentally challenged.

Justice Johnson said the law under which the commission had acted was “a censorship scheme.”

“It naïvely assumes,” Justice Johnson wrote, “that the government is capable of correctly and consistently negotiating the thin line between fact and opinion in political speech.”

Mr. Sheldon had other ways to combat the brochure, Justice Johnson added. Mr. Sheldon and his supporters could have “responded to Ms. Rickert’s false statements with the truth.” And Mr. Sheldon remained free to file a libel suit, though he would have to prove not only falsity and actual malice but also that the statement had harmed his reputation.

In a brief concurring opinion, Chief Justice Gerry L. Alexander said the flaw in the law was that it penalized false “nondefamatory speech,” meaning statements that do not injure reputation. But he said the government should be free to “penalize defamatory political speech.”

The voters figured it out.


Opinions in Rickert v. Washington:


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