Thursday, June 28, 2007

Educational Reforms in our Public Schools

Much has made of Michael Bloomberg's take over of the New York City school district, and whether or not his move was successful (as defined by an improvement in the education level of the students) remains to be seen. At this point there is certainly a lot of debate over the issue, to the extent that other cities are following suit, or, in the case of Los Angeles, trying to follow suit.

I'm not advocating that Antonio Villaraigosa should be allowed to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District, as I don't find Villaraigosa to be anything like Bloomberg. As an example, and one that I think is typical since Villaraigosa took office, I recently came upon a dog lying in the street crying out because it had just been hit by a car that then sped off. It was not possible for me to stop, and I realized that the best thing I could do was to call the city and get help for this poor animal. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 311, which would connect me with the city. The voice that answered was Villaraigosa, who greeted me and welcomed me to the 311 system which would allow me to connect to any city service, and that if this was an emergency I should dial 911 (which I did not do because I'm fairly certain that 911 is only for human emergencies, not animal). I had to sit through this message twice, because he repeats it in Spanish, apparently so he can show off that he speaks Spanish (like that's a unique skill in Los Angeles).

I finally got through the message and made my selection, that I wished to speak to a live operator, and I was once again greeted by Villaraigosa, this time telling me that while I waited, I would be entertained by selections from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra or the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

A live operator answered and I explained the situation to her, and she immediately connected me with the closest animal shelter. The person at the shelter took the information, and then proceeded to ask me personal questions (name, phone number, address), to which I finally asked why he needed this information to help an injured animal. He informed me that the city tracks their calls and they need this information to supply to, who else, Villaraigosa. I firmly informed him that an animal was injured and possibly dying and his time would be better served in helping that animal, rather than playing 20 questions with me.

I don't know what became of the poor dog, but this incident is typical of what Los Angeles is like under Villaraigosa, so the thought of him taking over the school district is frightening. Simply put, he doesn't know what he's doing running the city, and to allow him to screw up our school district is something the future of our city and our students cannot handle.

Whether or not this happens (and God willing, it won't), I think we need to take a more common sense approach to the idea of our schools and school districts. We need to focus more on the education of our children and less on the bureaucracy that mires many of our institutions. To that end, I wish to offer these ideas for the proper running of a school district:

1. Limit administrative salaries - one of the major problems we face today is an inequity of salaries between the teachers and the administrators. True administrators have a greater responsibility and should receive a higher salary, but if that salary is double what a teacher earns (or more), there is a major problem. Administrative salaries should be capped at no greater than 20% higher than the AVERAGE teacher's salary. For those working in the schools (principals, vice principals, etc.) that average is of the teachers in their school. For district administrators, that average is spread throughout the entire district. For the Superintendent of Schools, the salary would be no more than 40% higher than the average teacher salary. This means that if the average teacher salary is $40,000 the cap for administrators in the school would be $48,000 and the Superintendent would earn $56,000. These positions should be taken for the desire to make improvements in the school lives of our children, and not to make oneself rich. Now, the argument is that if you don't offer the salary, you won't attract competent people, but I would argue that this is not so. The governor of California made considerably more money as an actor than the governor's office pays, and that salary, to my understanding, he has waived during his terms in office. If an administrator wishes to increase their salary, all they have to do is increase the teacher's salaries. They're in administration, so it should be their drive to raise the funds if they want a salary increase.

2. Open bidding for services - the idea that cities and/or school districts are necessarily the best place to get goods and services is ridiculous. Bidding should be held on everything the school district needs, and the bidding should be open to any competent business. It's not necessarily the idea of finding the absolute lowest price, but of keeping costs down as much as possible. For example, just because one company has always been used for desks doesn't necessarily mean that they are the best company, nor the most cost-effective. Contracts should have to be renewed annually, with a new bid process each year. This would keep costs as low as possible.

3. Social promotion - social promotion is the idea of sending a child to the next grade whether or not they have passed their exams adequately. This is the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard. What good does it do the child to promote them into a grade for which they are unprepared? It only ensures failure in future grades, and when they finally get out of high school, not by earning a degree, but simply because they went through 12th grade, what jobs are they going to find? Students need to demonstrate that they can do the work for the next grade before being promoted to that grade. The fault with this system lies mostly with the parents, because when a child begins to fail the parent needs to get involved. More on that to follow.

4. Free schools shouldn't be - our current system funds schools with state money, but that needs to be augmented. The states should continue to fund the schools, at least at the current levels, but there also needs to be a responsibility from the parents of the students. We should charge tuition of $100 per student per academic year (including summer, if necessary). This cost would be borne by the parents of the students. The idea that a parent might be too poor to pay this is unfounded. The poorest parents often have beer in their refrigerators, and can afford to buy things like cigarettes, so to request $100 per child is not unreasonable. It also means that adults need to be more responsible. If you bring a child into this world, you will be responsible for it.

On top of the $100 per year, parents will be fined for excessive absence by their child (unless medically approved) and for a child failing a grade. As soon as a child starts failing, the parents are to be notified, and it becomes as much their responsibility for educating their child, and ensuring that proper study time is allotted and homework is completed, as it is for the schools. Should the parents fail in their duties, they will pay for it, out of their wallets. An additional $100 for the child to repeat the year.

5. More languages - there is an old joke that goes, what do you call someone who speaks three languages? Tri-lingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bi-lingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

We need to stop being the laughing stock of the world. We are not a world unto ourselves, and it's high time we took our place as a nation that is part of the world and not above it. Our neighbors to the north speak French and our neighbors to the south speak Spanish, therefore we should be teaching our students both of these languages. This is very easily accomplished by starting them early. In first grade every child will be taught in English, but each day they will spend short periods of time learning Spanish and French. By the end of first grade they should be able to count to ten, recite the alphabet, say hello, goodbye, my name is, what is your name, and the primary colors, as well as printing their letters. In the second grade this will be built upon with additional information, again in all three languages. By continuing in this way, each child will be able to read, write and speak three languages by the time they reach high school. At that point, each child would be required to take three more years of another language, resulting in a total of four languages that every graduate of public high schools in this country will be able to read, write and speak. This makes our students ready to enter not only the work force, but the world. They can travel almost anywhere and be able to communicate, and they become better representatives of our nation to the world.

6. Curriculum - Reading, writing and arithmetic remain the foundation of our educational system and they must remain so, however they are not exclusive. History is important as a nation that does not know its past mistakes is destined to repeat them, and science is what keeps our civilization progressing. Art, music, drama and sports are all important because they allow the student a chance to get out of the daily grind and into something more enjoyable, and physical education ensures they remain healthy. Working two languages into this schedule won't be easy, but it's not impossible.

These six steps are a foundation upon which a school district can be built that will ensure the success of our students, and of our future.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Supporting Our Troops

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding in our country today about what it means to support our troops. My brother Dennis and I were discussing this recently, in one of our usually heated debates, since Dennis tends to lean toward the Republicans, the right, Lord Voldemort and other areas of evil, while I remain just left of center, where all intelligent, articulate, caring human beings are. But enough about me.

Dennis' argument was that Hillary Clinton (our next President of the United States) made a statement that she will always support the troops, but then voted against the funding of the troops in Iraq. I don't know when she allegedly made this statement, but her vote came in May 2007, when both she and Obama voted against funding for the troops that did not contain a timeline to remove the troops from Iraq.

"I fully support our troops" but the measure "fails to compel the president to give our troops a new strategy in Iraq," said Clinton.

She further supported her position when Mitt Romney claimed that "Their votes render them undependable in the eyes of men and women of the United States military and the American people."

"I don't see that at all," Clinton responded. "the American people have been living now with this war for five years. I want to de-authorize it."

Added Barack Obama (our next Vice President of the United States), "The country is united in our support for our troops, but we also owe them a plan to relieve them of the burden of policing someone else's civil war."

Apparently, Right Wing tools (like my dear baby brother) don't understand that supporting the troops does not mean opening the purse every time they need money, so let me explain it the way Jesus would; with a parable.

Once upon a time there was a family with a mother, a father and a son. As the son grew up he became aligned with some less-than-reputable people, and as time went on he became a drug addict and drunk. Any time he got his hands on any money, he spent it on drugs and alcohol, and his parents were despondent over what to do with him.

Now, they loved their son, and they supported him, but they realized that giving him money was a very bad idea without him first giving them some kind of assurance that he would not be spending that money on drugs and alcohol. He refused to give them this assurance, so they refused to give him any money. They continued to feed him, clothe him and give him a home, but not to give him any money.

Did these parents stop supporting their son? Of course not. They simply realized that what was best for him was not unlimited funds that would be used for drugs and alcohol, but give him what he needs until such time as he is able to handle money without spending it on things that will kill him.

Hillary and Barack did the same thing. They both support the troops, but they refused to fund them if there isn't any end in sight. The war was a mistake and at this point you won't find many people who are willing to argue that point. Since we haven't been able to invent a time machine yet, we're stuck with the war, so the best course of action is to end it as soon as possible. This is support of our troops. Bring them home where they belong, and that is what Clinton and Obama both tried to do by withholding their votes on the bill.

Hillary does support our troops, but she is intelligent enough to understand that support does not mean a blank check.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

James W. Holsinger, Jr.

On May 24, 2007, President Bush nominated Dr. James W. Holsinger, Jr., a University of Kentucky medical professor, to be the 18th surgeon general of the United States. At the press release to announce the nomination, Bush stated, "As America's chief health educator, he will be charged with providing the best scientific information available on how Americans can make smart choices that improve their health and reduce their risk of illness and injury. Dr. Holsinger will particularly focus his efforts on educating parents and children about childhood obesity, a serious epidemic that decreases quality of life and burdens our healthcare system. I am confident that Dr. Holsinger will help our Nation confront this challenge and many others to ensure that Americans live longer, better, and healthier lives."

Anytime George Bush says "I am confident" of anything, we have reason to be skeptical about his predictions. According to Wikipedia (which is not always an accurate source, I do admit), Dr. Holsinger is a member of the United Methodist Church. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a Methodist, or being a member of any religion for that matter. The problem is if you are serving in a position where you are representative to all Americans, you cannot use your personal beliefs against (or for) any Americans over any other Americans.

For example, if your personal religion is that you're a Buddhist, and as a Buddhist you're also a vegetarian, you cannot try to pass legislation against eating meat based on your beliefs. You can introduce legislation if there is a valid health reason against the particular meat (importing beef that might be infected with Mad Cow Disease, for example), but not based on your personal religious beliefs.

Why does this matter in the issue of appointing Dr. Holsinger as Surgeon General? Well, he not only belongs to the Methodist church, but has also sat on its Judicial Council. In fact, he resigned the council over the issue of homosexuality (which he opposes):

The (Methodist) church's panel on homosexuality is stirring a ruckus even before its report is written. James Holsinger, medical director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, quit the study committee last February because he felt certain its conclusions would follow liberal lines.

After leaving the panel, he continued with the church, and helped to found a new congregation called Hope Springs Community Church in Kentucky. Rev. David Calhoun is the pastor of Hope Springs. According to Calhoun:

"Hope Springs also ministers to people who no longer wish to be gay or lesbian," Calhoun said.
"We see that as an issue not of orientation but of lifestyle," he said. "We have people who seek to walk out of that lifestyle." On this point, the church would differ with many gays and lesbians, who consider their sexuality a matter of identity, not a lifestyle choice.

This becomes a bit disturbing. In his announcement of the nomination, Bush stated, "he will be charged with providing the best scientific information available on how Americans can make smart choices that improve their health and reduce their risk of illness and injury." Yet he began a ministry that works to stop homosexuals from being gay. Is that finding consistent with the "best scientific information available"?

According to the American Psychiatric Association:

"The APA Board of Trustees endorsed a position statement at its December (1998) meeting that opposes therapeutic techniques some psychiatrists and mental health professionals claim can shift an individual's sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The Board acknowledged that there is no evidence that these so-called 'reparative therapies' have any efficacy in converting someone from one sexual orientation to another."

If Dr. Holsinger is against homosexuality, and started a ministry to help change gays to straight, which the American Psychiatric Association states cannot be done, then I don't see that he will be providing the best scientific information available. He seems to be doing just the opposite when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, therefore, will he do the same with other issues? What about stem cell research? Is he going to follow conservative views on that issue as well?

I have to question the logic of appointing this man into the position of "America's Doctor" given his views. I'm sure Bush can do a better job of finding someone to fill this position who can represent all Americans, not just the right wing.