Saturday, March 05, 2005

Stop that bunny!

The moral fabric of our country is clearly being shredded-- by a bunny! Damn rabbits. Elmer Fudd had Bugs, and James Dobson & Co. have Buster.

A Presbyterian church in DC decided to have a great big party and show the banned episode of Buster's adventures. It was banned -- at Secretary Spellings command -- because it included a lesbian couple in Vermont.

The beginning of the article is hillarious, but the last graf I included, with the quote from the Church's pastor, is exceptional:

What Has Floppy Ears And a Subversive Tale?

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page D01

Like forbidden dissenters in some intolerant land, a couple hundred families took refuge in a church basement in Washington yesterday for a morning of dangerous television. So controversial were the images that the Bush administration wants its underwriting money back. So subversive was its plot that the local public television station refused to air it.

Drinks were served: juice boxes. And hors d'oeuvres: Goldfish crackers. Faces were painted, and balloons were twisted into ladybug hats.

Did we mention that a plurality of this revolutionary audience was younger than 10?

The sheets of 160 stick-on nametags at the door of Church of the Pilgrims Presbyterian -- those radical Presbyterians! -- ran out quickly, and an additional 100 or more had to be improvised with masking tape. The army of strollers and car seats and diaper bags kept coming to the big gothic church at the corner of P and 22nd streets NW.

They had come to see a television cartoon rabbit by the name of Buster...

Church of the Pilgrims has 150 members, is a More Light Presbyterian congregation, one of 109 churches in the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) that dissent from the church's ban on ordaining gay officers. At a time when religion is often cited against homosexuality, the Rev. Jeff Krehbiel, the pastor, said congregations like his must embrace families of all types "not despite our Christian convictions but because of our Christian convictions."

Indeed. I seem to recall that Jesus traveled around and met with prostitutes and sinners, even said something about how the rain and sunshine fall on all equally. But not gays, huh? I love the evangelicals who discriminate against gays -- and make no mistake, Spellings is appealing to them when she bullies PBS into taking a show like Buster's off the air. To those evangelicals, I offer Matthew 23:4-6 on the subject of hypocritical preachers :

You must do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practice what they preach... Everything they do is to attract attention.

Exactly. The James Dobsons of the world write treatises on bringing up children but really he's like a petulant 2 year old, starved for attention and doing anything he can to get it. Christians and non-Christians alike need to stand -- at all times -- for tolerance. Kudos to the Church of the Pilgrims in DC. Here's hoping more churches take your lead.

In closing, does anybody out there really think that if Jesus were alive today he'd be a conservative Republican?

High stakes tests on steroids

From yesterday's Sun Sentinel (via O'hanian):

The top-secret material arrives in shrink-wrapped boxes, the containers to be secured in vaults with tumbler locks. Each document possesses a unique tracking code. Each is strictly for-your-eyes-only.

It's not the formula for cold fusion, the floor plans for nuclear reactors or even the Oscar envelopes.

It's the FCATs.

That's Florida's high stakes test. How much does all this cost and why isn't that money going to instructional programs instead of diagnostic tools when excellent tests (like the NAEP) already exist? The article points out that the multiyear contract for creating and field testing FCAT questions costs $145 million. That doesn't include security for the tests.

And that's only for Florida. This is going on all over America. Billions of scarce education dollars are being devoted to measurement while programs as varied as drug-free schools to the National Writing Project are cut.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Washington abstains from abstinence-only

Way to go, Washington. I hope other states will follow their lead:

House passes bill outlawing abstinence-only sex ed


OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to sex, state representatives said Friday.

The House passed a bill that would prevent high schools from offering abstinence-only sex education. Instead, schools' sex ed classes would have to include information on both abstinence and contraception.

"We want our children to abstain, but if they don't, I want them to have a safety net," said Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, D-Normandy Park, who sponsored the bill.

Washington schools aren't required to teach sex ed. In response to reports that some students were getting inaccurate information from some sex ed classes - for example, some were told condoms are rarely effective - the state Health Department and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction created voluntary guidelines for medically accurate sex education. The House bill makes those guidelines mandatory, though schools still can choose whether to teach about sex at all.

Some Republicans said that local, elected school boards should be able to decide for themselves what kind of sex ed to offer. They said some schools will likely drop sex ed altogether rather than drop abstinence-only education.

"To say, 'Take it or leave it' is an insult to these school boards," said Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Bellingham. "We're saying, 'We're going to jam this down your throat whether you like it or not.'"

Rep. Rodney Tom, R-Medina, said he could think of 12,000 reasons to pass the bill - the number of teen pregnancies in Washington last year.

"One of the great myths is we're encouraging kids to have sex," Tom said. "When students have medically accurate sex education information, they are less likely to be sexually active."

The bill passed 61-36. It goes now to the Senate.

Here's a case where local control is unacceptable. School boards do not have the right to discriminate, nor should they have the right to mislead. Schools must give medically accurate information to students. Period.

Small schools yield results

We're going to be hearing more and more about smaller high schools after the National Governors Association's education summit last week. 13 states signed on to a plan to aggressively pursue a strategy of reducing their size; Texas was one of them.

Today, the San Antonio Express News ran an excellent article about small schools. Here's a section of it:

Naomi Housman, director of the National High School Alliance, believes nothing less than a radical rethinking of the American high school is needed. At least nine major reports took aim at the comprehensive high school last year, including one authored by Housman.

In Bexar County, 36 percent of all students who start high school — and 43 percent of Hispanic students — fail to earn a diploma, according to the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association.

Students are less likely to disappear from small schools, which come in myriad forms.

In San Antonio, Health Careers is a stand-alone school. Others, such as Jay High School's Jay Science and Engineering Academy, is a magnet program for Jay students only, and Lee High School's four "houses" are schools within schools.

The six magnets that draw from well beyond their school borders range in size from 272 students at the North East School for the Arts to 850 students at Health Careers High School, with the remainder serving about 450 students each.

When teachers, students and administrators know each other by name, a sense of community and shared purpose develops, reducing discipline problems, dropout rates and truancy, small school boosters say.

San Antonio's six magnets sent a minimum of 85 percent of their students to college last year. All but one of Communication Arts High School's 101 graduates went to college.

These kinds of results speak volumes more to me than any test scores.

When Eduwonk attacks!

Look out! Just when you thought it was safe, another Eduwonk offensive:

Not to beat a dead horse, but Brink returns to the issue of the progressivism of No Child Left Behind. He essentially argues that it might be progressive if it were funded enough.

Uh, no I didn't. What I wrote is here; I never said NCLB would be progressive if it was funded. What I said was this:

[N]o education legislation that fails to address the fundamental problems of inadequate and inequitable funding can truly be called progressive.

But Eduwonk didn't stop there:

This, of course, falls squarely into the “it sucks but fund it trap”. If the law’s no good or regressive, then it’s no good and regressive regardless of its appropriation. If its goals are worthy, then they’re worthy regardless of Washington budget fights. Moreover, funding is a strange measure of progressivism in the first place. By this facile logic, President Bush is more progressive on education than President Clinton. Is Brink going to take up that case?

No, I'm not. And there's a simple reason. All the money the Bush Administration has put into the system has been swallowed whole by the costs of the tests. It'd be like saying, we're going to cure AIDS -- no, we're not going to find a new drug, we're just going to run a bunch of tests and find out who has it. Once we've done that, there will be no more money available to fund medicines, hospices, etc.

This is real simple: Tests are diagnostic. They don't necessarily improve instruction or increase learning. And often, when they are high stakes tests, they impede learning by limiting the curriculum to very narrow objectives.

NCLB is not a progressive law. It is not worth fighting for. What the education system needs is not more tests; we have plenty already. A progressive education initiative would provide new money for facilities, rescources, and teacher salaries and would focus that money in the schools -- both urban and rural -- that need them most.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Who decides?

Recently I asked an education official I know who used to work in Texas Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock's office if anyone in that office ever considered asking the Supreme Court for clarification on their various rulings (Edgewood I, II, and III) that the school finance system was unconstitutional. He looked at me as if I had asked him if he had ever kissed his sister: that's just not done, he seemed to say.

So this story struck me as odd:

GOP leader asks Supreme Court for final school funding decision

Associated Press

HELENA -- In an unusual move, Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan paid a visit to the state Supreme Court offices Wednesday to ask in person the question on the minds of nearly every lawmaker: When will the Supreme Court explain its reasons behind declaring the state's school funding system unconstitutional?

Lawmakers have been waiting for months for more guidance from the court on its preliminary order last fall. The three-page order said only that the current system was illegal and inadequate. The justices, citing their heavy workload, said they would issue a full opinion at a later date to explain further.

Keenan, R-Bigfork, delivered Chief Justice Karla Gray a letter Wednesday afternoon asking for more information "as quickly as possible" in order for lawmakers to develop a new funding system before the court's deadline this October.

"We're being put into a position where we're going to be making decisions in the next 45 days and the Supreme Court is going to be playing the doubting Thomas," Keenan said. "They need to back up their decision with some parameters."

This meeting today between the Chief Justice and the Senate Leader is symbolic of the confusion reigning in nearly every state as to whose job it is to define exactly what an adequate and equitable school finance system is. The legislative branch determines spending; one of their chief jobs is to tax and spend. But the judicial branch is supposed to interpret the Constitution and most state constitutions call for some measure of adequacy and equity (though each does so in its own quirky way).

So who should decide? Should, in the case above, the Court give parameters or merely wait for the Legislature to adopt a budget and then rule on its constitutionality?

Update: Here's a similar case from Alabama:

Supreme Court won't answer House query on amendment

(AP) — WHAT'S NEW: The Alabama Supreme Court has refused to answer a question from the Alabama House over whether a defeated amendment to remove racist 1956 language from the state contitution could have caused judges to order tax increases to improve education.

WHY: The court said it has restricted such advisory opinions to questions on the constitutionality of proposed legislation and this query would require "a speculative opinion."

Update 2: And if you didn't believe me that this confusion is really widespread, here's yet another example from Arkansas:

Yes, the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval to what the state legislature did in the 2004 special session to make the state’s public school system adequate and equitable. But it was nowhere near a unanimous decision — the vote was 4-3 — and even those of the majority opinion wrote that they still had some reservations about how close to the mark the legislature had gotten.

New blog

I'll be watching this new blog, which debuted with an article about the inconsistencies of an exclusive public school that resents charter schools. This new blogger is obviously pro-charter. I haven't yet made up my mind. So I look forward to reading Jonathan's arguments.

And you gotta love his tagline:
"My parents paid a hundred grand for my education, and all they got was this stupid blog."

Good stuff.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Is NCLB a progressive law

I want to revisit the discussion that's been going on here recently about the role of the national government in education.
Eduwonk recommended an article essay aptly entitled "Education and American Federalism" by Leo Casey. It's an excellent read and it reinforced in my mind why I'm loath to reflexively side with NCLB opponents on states' rights grounds:

[C]ivil rights for African-Americans [is the most obvious, but not] the only area in which the federal government has been the avenue for progress in American society. Virtually every important civil liberties case in the 20th century has been against state and local government, and brought about through the federal government judiciary. New Deal economic regulation of corporate power and establishment of the workers' right to organize, environmental legislation, abortion rights and other civil rights for women and disabled people, and so on: the federal government has been in the lead.

Indeed. The federal government's role in the last 70 years (yes, it started with our beloved New Deal, my fellow progressives) has increased tremendously, moving into many areas previously left to the states. The federal government has, usually (Casey pointed out several notable exceptions), moved to protect the disempowered and thus can be said to have acted progressively. So, yes, I can see why progressives would think No Child Left Behind is a progressive law. I get the reasoning.

There's one problem, though, and it's the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to talk about any more: money.

Before you roll your eyes and groan and click away from this page, ask yourself this question: what does a child living below the poverty line in South Texas (or the South Bronx or rural Wyoming for that matter) really need in his or her school? Do they need more tests or more resources? Do they need books, computers, tables, desks, and new facilities (and NOT portable buildings which are the latest necessary fad in school architecture) or more tests? Do they need increased funding so that their schools can attract better teachers or more tests? I could go on but you get the point.

It's simple economics, really. You get what you pay for. We're going to get some really good tests and probably some really good test scores in places that didn't have them because that's where the dollars are flowing. But we'll still have high teacher turnover, leaky roofs, portable buildings, and out-of-date textbooks and technology. We will get what we pay for.

I've been following very closely the school finance debates in Texas lately and I'm sick of hearing that the school districts could do things more efficiently. Of course they could. (The Legislature could be more efficient, too, but don't get me started on that.) But consider this: on average, 85% of school money goes for teacher salaries. And we know how low those are in every state. The bottom line is that education's bottom line is suffering. And as long as states have to stretch already tight budgets to pay for more underfunded federal mandates (read: tests), that bottom line will only get worse. Meanwhile, the roofs are still leaking, the teachers are still underpaid, and the textbooks are getting more out of date by the day. As long as that is true, no education legislation that fails to address the fundamental problems of inadequate and inequitable funding can truly be called progressive.

I'd really like a progressive federal education law. If I ever see one, I'll be the first to support it.

Utah delays

The story yesterday morning was that the Utah Senate might pass the bill to end that state's involvement with NCLB, forcing the Governor to sign it or make the very unpopular move of vetoing it. Instead, they decided -- at the Governor's urging -- to wait. A special session was announced last night; it will convene April 20.

The move to delay will give Spellings and the feds about six weeks to compromise. They have indicated, according to yesterday morning's article, that they will not negotiate in several areas:

A letter faxed Tuesday from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education Darla Marburger to [Utah] Superintendent [of Schools] Patti Harrington summarizes the "common understanding" between the state and feds:
* The department recognizes Utah's standards for veteran elementary teacher quality.
* The department acknowledges Utah's concerns over federal standards for special education teacher quality but won't budge.
* Utah can develop its own standards for measuring the quality of rural teachers who teach several core subjects.
* Utah's school accountability system must measure the academic progress of all student groups, including ethnic minorities, English learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students.
The letter also invites Utah representatives to Washington for further discussions. A trip is planned for later this month.

This will be an interesting process to watch unfold. Opponents of NCLB should have no illusions: this does not, in any way, foretell the death of No Child Left Behind. But it does open the door for reasonable modification to allow meaningful discretion for states in what has been, to this point, a fairly draconian law.

So much for flexibility

The Connecticut Department of Education received word this week that they will not be allowed to test every other year. Secretary Spellings allowed North Dakota some flexibility last month on teacher quality provisions, so the hope was that the Administration was sending a signal that they would be more conciliatory to the wishes of the states. Such, apparently, is not the case.

The big problem here, as usual, is money. The cost of the annual testing regime (itemized here) is over $110 million. The federal government gives Connecticut $70 million. Now, I'm not sure how well I'd perform on a standardized exam, but I'm pretty sure that means that Connecticut is left with a $40 million unfunded mandate. If the feds are going to require the testing, and refuse to accomodate reasonable state requests for modification, they should at least pay for it.

Monday, February 28, 2005

"The flexibility [we have] given you"

I just noticed this from President Bush's speech to the National Governor's Association yesterday. Consider the italicized sentence in light of the previous post about the complexity of the national-state government relationship in education. Apparently, the president's a little tongue twisted and confused about this, too (which I know will come as a huge surprise to everyone: what?!? the president tripping over words?!?)

We want to work with you, as well, on education matters. And I want to thank Governor Warner for leading the charge for high standards coming out of high schools. It was an appropriate and important message. Some in Congress may want to try to undermine No Child Left Behind. Forget it, we're not going to let them do it, because it's working. And I want to thank you all for implementing No Child Left Behind; using the powers of the -- that the federal -- the flexibility the federal government has given you to achieve what we all want, which is an educated America. And the hopeful thing is, is that the achievement gap is closing in America. How do we know? Because we measure. So I want to congratulate you for the initial stages of making sure the education system works fully. And I look forward to working with the governors on implementing ideas about how to make sure the high school systems work.

"Using the powers of the -- that the federal -- the flexibility the federal government has give you..." He clearly started to say "using the powers of the federal government" but realized that wasn't right. He corrected it by saying "the flexibility the federal government has given you," which is a particularly ironic comment considering the outporing of complaints -- from conservatives and progressives alike -- about the lack of flexibility in NCLB.

Ah, but what do we in the "reality based community" know about anything anyway?

It's that f-word again

Another liberal rag, the Des Moines Register, has jumped on the flexibility bandwagon:

A bipartisan panel of lawmakers has stated the obvious following a year-long review: The federal No Child Left Behind Act is riddled with problems, including undermining state reforms that were working before it passed. Not only that, the law may be unconstitutional. Congress should take this cue to revise, if not repeal, the law.

... Signed into law by President Bush in 2002, it forces every public school in the nation to follow a cookie-cutter model for improvement whether or not it meets local needs. The model places far too much emphasis on standardized tests, a limited measure of progress. And so much time is now devoted to testing that other educational activities suffer.

Is it clear -- now that Armstrong Williams has been tragically forced to the sidelines -- that the Administration is losing the PR battle over NCLB?

No monopoly on inconsistency

I love that Eduwonk is criticizing me for my inconsistencies. This from someone who loves NCLB and was appointed to the State Board of Education by a Governor who frequently derides it for its inflexibility in a state that is seriously considering opting out.

But that just highlights the comlexity here. I wish he wouldn't be so quick with his snarky answers and instead contribute to the discussion. That having been said, he's right: I contradicted myself.

I said I'm for national standards but wish the states had more flexibility. It is a contradiction of sorts and I admit that. The fact is, on this issue of federal involvement in schools, the only pure positions are the extreme ones -- have the feds take over schools completely or leave them completely out -- and I'm not willing to endorse either of those.

So I'm looking, as I think the country is, for a sensible solution. To reach that, I think we all need to acknowledge that the president, with NCLB, overreached. Don't believe me? Fine, consider this:

Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), one of the most stalwart backers of President Bush's No Child Left Behind education policy, said Sunday that he nevertheless backs the Texas education commissioner's challenge to the federal law over standardized testing of special-education students.

Texas exempted nearly 10 times the desired number of students from regular standardized testing, even after its request for a waiver to do so was denied by the U.S. Department of Education, which is led by former Houstonian Margaret Spellings.

"Dr. (Shirley) Neeley is the commissioner," Perry said at the National Governors Association education summit in Washington. "She makes the daily decisions, and I support her and the Texas Education Agency."

Despite the state's apparent defiance of national requirements, Perry said that Texas public schools, and their alignment with No Child Left Behind, are exemplary.

When asked how he reconciled that claim with Neeley's action, the governor said, "One of the things we find is that one shoe is not going to fit all 50 states."

Now, believe me, I'm no Rick Perry fan. And I'm not sure Gov. Perry could begin to grasp the constitutional ramifications of the debate, but, I've got to admit, the man has a point. And ladies and gentleman, when Rick Perry goes against No Child Left Behind, this is a sign that it is truly a problem. Governor Goodhair, as we call him down here, has been a cheerleader for every Bush plan since day one.

So yes, there are logical inconsistencies in my arguments. And unless you are a rabid wingnut lunatic, you've got some, too. It's the difficulty and the beauty of the federal system. It requires a constant readjustment to get it right. All I'm saying is, right now, under the present circumstances, things need to be adjusted back to the states. Is that terribly unreasonable?

I'm not, as Eduwonk suggests, a states rights progressive. It just seems patently obvious when states as different as Utah, North Dakota, Virginia, California, and Texas are saying that NCLB isn't working for them, there's something wrong and you simply can't solve the problems of states as different as those from Washington. The pendulum has swung too far to the national side, it needs to swing back to the states.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Liberals and local control

Last month, I was annoyed at Idaho's move in the courts to fight NCLB with a "local control" argument. I came across this editorial from the Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman which helped crystallize my problems with liberals or conservatives using local control arguments. When conservatives use it, they're making an irrelevant argument. When liberals use it, they're irrelevant and dishonest. From Chapman:

For the last 70 years, conservatives and liberals have argued whether assorted powers should be centralized in Washington or entrusted to the states. The debate is still going on, but with a strange twist. Somewhere along the line, the two factions switched sides. The result is like watching a version of "The Odd Couple" in which Jack Lemmon is the slob and Walter Matthau is the neat freak.

People who cheered the expansion of federal power under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal have suddenly rediscovered that the Constitution assigns many prerogatives to state governments. Last week, a task force of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group long seen as unsympathetic to conservatives, issued a report roundly criticizing the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act.

Among the complaints were many of the same ones made by Democrats in last year's presidential primaries. The act, it concluded, lacks adequate funding, relies on misguided measures of progress, sets unreasonable requirements for teacher training, and conflicts with other federal and state laws. But the report also leveled a surprising charge: that it violates the 10th Amendment to the Constitution.

If you're not familiar with that amendment, don't feel bad. Neither is the U.S. Supreme Court. The amendment says, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." But since the 1940s, those words have been interpreted to mean anything but what they say.

In practice, and in legal theory, the 10th Amendment became as obsolete as powdered wigs and wooden teeth. Only a small group of conservative and libertarian legal mavericks has argued for taking it seriously.

Now, however, the National Conference of State Legislatures upholds a position that, a few years ago, would have had liberals hooting with laughter: "The Task Force does not believe that No Child Left Behind is constitutional under the 10th Amendment, because there is no reference to public education in the U.S. Constitution." Liberals are not jeering now, but applauding.

Local control usually is no more than an argument made by people who don't like what the central government is doing. I'm not going to fall for that. We do need national standards for our schools. What if a state says they're not going to educate their poorest citizens? Or they're going to privatize education? Then will the liberals arguing for local control continue to do so? I doubt it. A strong and vigorous national government is essential in all of the most important public policy debates.

Now, the Constitution is the basis for our government, so I'm not suggesting we simply throw out the 10th Amendment. The federal government needs to tread lightly in areas where states have traditionally held control. (The Bush Administration is known for many things, treading lightly is not among them.)

Chapman really hits the point in the second graf, though: liberal Democrats, including myself, love the New Deal. Where's the constitutional right to establish social security? The answer: there is none. The founding fathers could not have foreseen the Great Depression, nor could they have foreseen the establishment of an education system that attempts to teach 55 million students.

Oh, and don't forget, we will get the White House back one day, so let's not burn our bridges. Let's not argue local control now only to regret it later on.
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