Saturday, January 15, 2005

Old Stuff -- School Choice

Educating Mikey
School Choice in Maryland
Response to Baltimore Sun Editorial

The Baltimore Sun on Friday (2-22-02) devoted a considerable amount of ink agonizing over the fate of Cleveland's voucher program now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Sun editorial was obviously the written fitfulness of a divided editorial board, making arguments for and against the Ohio brand of school choice as a possible model for Maryland's urban public school failures.

I nearly choked on my pre-packaged tuna-fish salad sandwich when I read these lines after a paragraph in which the editors proudly display their grasp of the school choice concept: "It sounds great, even liberating. And several cities are experimenting with choice programs - mostly involving vouchers - that have produced at least some success in improving the educational options for impoverished families."

All of a sudden now "'s worth looking more closely at the promise and pitfalls associated with the whole idea of choice." The whole idea has been fighting for this chance for 20 years, but only now, while school choice teeters on the brink is the Sun taken with idea of giving the issue a fair shake in the press.

Then another heart-stopper: "The upside of educational choice is pretty clear." Again, without qualification (though using the term "upside" suggests there is a political agenda). It was enough to compel me to check the paper's mast to confirm that I was indeed reading The Baltimore Sun. You see, I also subscribe to the Wall Street Journal (thanks, Mom and Dad) and it is was just possible that I was reading the Journal's editorial.

And, probably for the first time in mainstream American media, it was disclosed that "...the strongest proponents of choice are, in fact, African-American parents whose children are stuck in awful public schools that dot the urban landscape." I was tempted to call the police. Surely the Sun's editorial board would not, of its own free will, go on challenging the public school teachers union orthodoxy for quite nearly half of the editorial. Obviously the paper's top management had been kidnapped by religious right-wing, gun freaks and forced to write fairly about school choice.

The downside? The vouchers are a sham. They don't cover the full cost of private school tuition not to mention uniforms, transportation, books and extracurricular aspects of "school life." Ah, that's more like it. The Sun does, in fact, know on which side its bread is buttered. And in the three sentences it took to make this point it reveals that it doesn't fully understand "the whole idea" of school choice.

The idea is to gradually introduce the concept by providing for vouchers and charter schools within the state education budget and laws. This first step is anathema to teacher-union-run state governments such as ours because it is an admission that their more-money-smaller-classes model has failed. Allowing this to happen in Maryland would be another failure of public schools, that of union money and demagoguery. This aspect of the debate should not be missed in the Sun's closer look (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for now but you'll forgive me for thinking that O.J. Simpson will find the real killers before we see ink on this).

The whole idea is to NOT replace one government-union jobs program with another. That is why the vouchers do not cover all the costs associated with private schools. The idea is to make that option MORE affordable for those who are willing to sacrifice for the future prosperity of the children they have brought into this world. And as the Journal, er Sun admits nearly every single parent to whom this chance is offered is willing and eager to do so. If uniforms are required they will get them, some how. If they have to rise extra early to walk or drive them to school everyday, they will. Perhaps this sacrifice is the "parental involvement" catalyst missing from the urban public school system that makes private and parochial schools work.

But after the cream of the public school student body is skimmed, what, the Sun wonders will be left for the poorest? More money and smaller classes? Too obvious. The Sun swerves to avoid that but falls into a ditch in assuming poorest are either too poor to teach or are too "unsophisticated" to recognize a good thing when it falls in their lap (can't wait for Gregory Kane's column on that one). This issue has the interesting if unintended consequence of abandoning the rich-poor class warfare in favor of the poor-poorest variety.

Still looking for the downside? Wait here are some more facts. "Vouchers won't bring more qualified teachers to public schools." Just a moment here. Does this mean taxpayers have been shelling out union scale for unqualified teachers? Perhaps we should identify the unqualified teachers and replace them? Swerve, skid. Then there is the "more money" argument for books, materials and maintenance. Given the ever-expanding nature of non-national-defense government programs, it stands to reason that a constant if not growing education budget will be available for a shrinking student body. That sounds like more money to me. How that money is spent is of course up to the teachers union. And finally, vouchers "won't extend the social safety net that is stretched too thin in public schools to meet the needs of the kids who attend." I will respond this as soon as someone tells me what it means.

Old Stuff -- More Reading II

Letter to the Editor of the Baltimore Sun

To the Editor,
I want to thank the Sun for publishing a fitting tribute to the "Severna Park moms" ("Artist, author have impact on schools," 2-28-02) who have worked so hard to make sure their children weren't deprived of the art, music, and cooking classes they so desperately need for a well rounded education. It doesn't really matter what the parents of other children in other county school districts want for their children after all. Hey, if they can't read, well, it's not the Severna Park moms' problem. And after their kids leave middle school? Who cares? As long as these two fine, accomplished artistes have indulged themselves and their children. Right?

The art accompanying the article was appropriate: a section of a twisted mass of snarled vines or roots. The observer is compelled to ask from whence they come and whither they go? Questions that obviously never bothered our moms whose only concern was with a short section of a similarly snarled education system, and then only for one particular generation.

And what have they wrought instead? I recently sat (stood) through the result of their hard work at the Severna Park Middle School. What started a year ago as a simple extra reading period has mutated into something that Rube Goldberg himself could never have contrived. Learning how to trade currency derivatives would be easier than figuring out how to balance 'A' days and 'B' days with core classes and 'encore' classes for half the year as opposed to the whole year. The timing of classroom changes alone is now being studied by NASCAR pit crews.

And I don't blame these ladies. They defended themselves and their kids like good mothers everywhere. They never really knew to what sort of monstrosity their cute little elementary school was attached. All the children there were reading and writing well and the moms were no doubt comfortable with their painting and writing, going to book-signings and exhibitions with little care of public school education problems. Until it hit home. Incensed, at first, that Johnny was tagged as an underachiever, a poor reader, they lashed out clumsily. OUR children don't need extra reading. THEIR children do. They retreated briefly when the Us and Them argument easily translated into Haves and Have-Nots casting the Severna Park moms in the role of Marie Antoinette. Time to get a lawyer, a class-action catalyst. And so a coalition was born.

And to what purposes was all this now-billable time and effort put? Why, to harass and intimidate, of course. That's what coalitions do best. Like a good machete, it's indispensable for cutting through snarled limbs and vines. A coalition's sharp underlying subtext is thinly veiled. It's not a precision instrument either. Like the machete, a coalition is driven with brute force to achieve quick results. You don't hire a lawyer and form a coalition to figure out why Johnny can't read and write well enough. Coalitions don't sit around pondering what is wrong with the education requirement, the system designed to fulfill it and the test for determining whether that system has worked to meet the requirement.

Why does a county school policy have to apply to all the schools in the county? If some schools are doing better than others why not concentrate county policy on the failing ones? Better yet, why not provide each school district with local control over their budgets and curriculum? These are questions that lead to real change. These are questions that are asked by our leaders in public office. Not by coalitions which form in the absence of leadership, crudely attempting to fill a void.

The only thing the Severna Park Moms have accomplished is to throw yet another monkey wrench at the old public school boiler and managed to get it working again... for them. How imaginative. They haven't really changed anything, just the number of monkey wrenches piled up around the boiler.

Again, these ladies are just passing through. It is not theirs to see that the system works efficiently to the academic benefit of all. They vote and pay their taxes like good Americans.

And, if nothing else, perhaps they have done us a service by exposing the cravenness of our politicians and the frailness of the public school system. How little it takes to make the system sway to and fro; how little regard the system and our "leaders" have for the past and the future students.

Mike Netherland
Severna Park

Old Stuff -- More Reading

Educating Mikey
More Reading!

From: Mike Netherland
Sent: Monday, June 04, 2001 5:13 PM

Honorable Anne Arundel County School Board Members,
On the eve of your third vote in the matter of more reading in middle schools next term, I want to encourage you to stand fast. Your morning meeting clashes with the schedule of a working stiff so I will not be able to join you. But it is important that you stand by your earlier votes for two reasons.

The first is that the opposition lobby is for the here and now. It is their children and their grandchildren that are affected next term. If their kids were in elementary school or high school next term, you would not be hearing from them. It would be somebody else's problem. This is not exactly the long view. And they are in the loud and very politically connected minority. You
must make decisions that apply to school districts county-wide.

The second reason you must stand by your decision is that reading, writing, English grammar and usage are the most basic of school functions. If testing has shown that public schools in our county are failing to do this then remedial measures are appropriate and necessary. And the truth is they are failing to provide this basic function. You don't need a test. You can see it
all around you. And why are they failing? So that a few may have their bands, kitchens and paint?

I'd consider it criminal negligence to turn out a student who may be able to whip up a souffle but who, without being able to complete a job application, will go about as far as the distance between the deep-fat fryer and frosty machine.

Yes, something went wrong in county elementary schools over the last two or three years. So what do we do about it? Let's focus on setting those kids on the right path while we fix the problems.

OLD STUFF -- "Mr. Mike"?

Written several years ago, this article reflects frustration with the lack of respect and formality that I saw as being, if not encouraged by adults (parents, teachers, etc.) then certainly facilitated by them. After asking them and myself why, I came up with this:

It all starts with "Mr. Netherland." It may seem like a throw-back, an anachronism, but one of the first things I taught my son was to honor and respect his elders. At the same time, I believe, there was collateral education: he learned that people in our culture have surnames. Now what was the most important lesson? Academics and politicians will want to know, so that precious social engineering resources can be focused on the most important lesson, cutting out a step, reducing waste, improving efficiency, delivering the best education in half the time. Well, it doesn't matter.

I also like to believe that I was able to provide a real-world example for the other children in the neighborhood, of honor and respect and the use of surnames in action, just in case their parents were struggling to impart the same lessons. It was my duty as a responsible member of the community and of society at large to do so, to insist that children address me as Mr. Netherland and my wife as Mrs. Netherland. It has been more than seven years since we moved to this lovely neighborhood. The kids are in or almost in high school and they still call me Mr. Netherland. They also, in my presence at least, use the surnames of the other parents in the neighborhood. And it fills me with great pride to hear them do so.

Now, why is this such a compelling subject for me? Because for some reason, people of my generation have sought to hide from their children, the fact that people have surnames and that using them is a sign of honor and respect. At some point, it became passe and old-fashioned to refer to people who are not your peers, not old friends or family in a formal way. The distinction between formal and informal social interaction was lost, or, more likely, bound with a stout rope and pushed overboard in the middle of the night.

How did this happen and when? It would be too easy to blame it on the Democrats, Hollywood or a "vast left-wing conspiracy." I suspect it has something to do with the concept of retail marriages. Try it risk free for five years or two children and, if you are not completely satisfied, return it for a full refund. One can't assume that Johnny Smith's parent's are Mr. and Mrs. Smith, still. Or try this theory: Our generation has become obsessed with protecting the privacy of ourselves and others. This is a strange character trait of the generation that created the Information Age. Perhaps, like Dr. Frankenstein, we have recoiled in horror at the monster we have unleashed. But it's more like the institutionalized paranoia in the face of a expanding body of liability law surrounding the Privacy Act. Rather than risk a lawsuit, it's better not to pry too deep into a person's life. God forbid you should volunteer your full name. Who wants that burden? Why risk being identified?

Perhaps the answer, as with the Truth, the final frontier, and Ralph Nader, is out there somewhere. Hunting it down seems to be a waste when there is so much to do to mop up and restore order right here, at home. But we should be able to recognize it. The WANTED posters should not be allowed to yellow on this one, just in case the varmint is spotted near our Solar System again.

Until then, however, if you feel you must introduce your child to your friends, peers, colleagues, other parents, members of the coaching staff, etc. (unless they are children themselves) do so in the formal manner. To do otherwise deprives both parties; your friend, et al, of the respect they deserve; and your children of the knowledge that this is a real person. A person with a family name and history. And of the knowledge that this is someone they should honor and respect. The education of Mikey, and of Will, Drew, Heather, Julie and Beth, and all children begins with this simple and important thing.

What are the other collateral benefits of this throwback? We begin to learn more about the people with whom we live and work. Mr. Mike is nothing. A two-dimensional cut out. A dressed up Mike. Mr. Netherland, however, is substantial. He can be located, made responsible and held accountable for his actions. He can be tracked down just about anywhere on the face of the Earth. Mr. Mike is a cartoon, a piece of bubble-gum, a Pokeman. Is this the impression of our friends and neighbors you wish to convey to your children?

Think about it. Don't you feel silly saying, "Ellie, this is Mr. Mike"? What does that mean? It means you can't be bothered to learn someone's last name, yet you feel no compunction about inflicting your children on them. You might as well introduce your children to "Mr. Serial Killer," or "Mr. Crack Smoker." Or it could mean that you don't think your children are capable of grasping the concept of respect. Which is it? Neither option reflects well on you or your family.

So the next time you are tempted to say "Oh, he can call me..... ." Don't. And if you get this from a friend or neighbor, simply say that you are trying to raise your children right. You might find things change back, for the better.

OLD Stuff

I am posting today some of my older missives, rants and communiques, mainly on local politics. But while they have a local peg the articles are also statements on broader issues and conditions you can find affecting anyone anywhere.

Old Stuff -- Union Cookies?

SchoolHouse Rant

One of the phenomena linking public school education with politics is the annual fundraising campaign. It is a scientific fact that parents fall for marketing ploys somehow linked with sending money to the local school system. This activity would be bearable if it was limited to the commercial sector because you can't blame someone for trying to make a buck.

But the scam has taken on an air of respectability with slogans like "Apples for the Kids," and close association with "your neighborhood grocer." How can we resist? Such campaigns depend on the little-red-one-room-schoolhouse image of modern day primary education rather than that of the hulking bureaucratic behemoth these institutions have become. This practice of phony fundraising has sunk to a new low in recent years as the local schools have glommed on to the Apples-for-Kids marketing strategy; with teachers sending their little money makers home with fundraising packets. While I refuse to acknowledge this practice, my wife, despite my plain disgust and attempts to reason with her, continues to abet.

Now, there is no one bigger when it comes to supporting noble fundraising campaigns. We buy Girl Scout Cookies, popcorn from the Boy Scouts, Easter Seals, etc. What is the difference? I am actually asked this question, by educated, thinking people no less. And it is mainly for those people that I write these columns. For the answer to this mystery one need only turn to the power of the Internet. Find a searchable state or federal government publications page and type in Girl Scouts. Without ever having done this I can tell you that your query will turn up zero matches. Try "school" and you could spend the next few weekends pouring through the material.

"Scam" is pretty strong word. But appropriate if the sense here is that one is fooling or intentionally misleading another for the sake of taking his money. And this is what is happening. We are lead to believe that the local school system (in Severna Park?) is undernourished and the "kids" who are busy playing with Republican guns, are suffering the consequences of dilapidated schools and school equipment. Surely we can take time out of our busy day to sell each other something and turn the money over to the school, for the kids. Why don't we just give the kid an envelope full of cash every month, that way we cut out the "selling" part of pretending that we are getting something we need or desire in return for our money.

Wait a minute, why doesn't the local school district simply register as charity case? Given the current state of the tax code this would provide a true incentive for sending that check. This way, the scam disappears and money starts rolling in because there is a tangible benefit in return for the donation. Surely the good folk of Severna Park can recognize a tax shelter when they see it. But alas, the school district is a government operation financed by property taxes.


At this point one has to start asking questions. If the school district is under funded, inadequately appointed and equipped, why don't we just raise taxes? Now we are talking selling. Why is this such a very hard thing to sell? Surely people can see the benefit of devoting more resources to the public school system? Let's just say they're skeptical. Have the current or past resources been squandered? Have we not been getting good results from past tax increases? Perhaps.

But what really bothers me about it is that a large percentage of the current funding is devoted to teachers salaries and a percentage of those salaries are siphoned off to finance the local teachers unions which all contribute to national teachers union, which devote a percentage of that money to financing the campaigns of such worthies as Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Now, buying into the apples for kids scam run by your neighborhood school means that currently allotted resources don't have to be managed effectively for the benefit of the kids. They can managed effectively for the benefit of the teachers, the NEA and the DNC. The computers, the soccer balls, the uniforms, the field trips, the lab equipment will be paid for by, well by the same people who have paid for everything else. The best part is that the teachers unions and Al Gore can simply blame people like me for not going along to get along; for depriving the kids.

But Mike, aren't you politicizing the "issue"? Aren't you just using politics as an excuse for being tight fisted? And, if you are a conservative, and conservatives are generally opposed to raising taxes, how do you propose to remedy the "situation"? Well, if the unions are a necessary component of the school system then let them stay and let's see some effective education in exchange for their contracts. We don't need computers, field trips and marching bands. What we do need are teachers who can teach and administrators who can manage resources for educational purposes.

This is a pipe dream, however. There simply is no incentive. Accountability and government employees' unions are immiscible. And they are like a cancer, unfortunately. You can't just ask them to leave. You have to remove the entire infected organ. Or, you can introduce an agent, a catalyst that will transform the teachers union into a simple collective bargaining unit rather than a tool of the national labor movement and the Democratic Party. The agent must be able to cure current infestations as well as deter future ones.

Yes, I'm talking about school choice and vouchers. Every time my son shows me home work with questionable, poorly conceived, or grammatically incorrect text and every time these flaws are passed off with a well, we talked about this in class and the kids should know what it means, I become more resolved.

And make no mistake. I am talking about taking money away from the public school system. For the cost of every voucher disbursed should be deducted from the public school budget. A law like this will get results faster than Prohibition and it's repeal. As soon as the unions have emptied their political coffers on lawsuits and losing political campaigns, on what will there be left to spend their time and dwindling dues? Survival will necessarily mean competition. Perhaps they'll raise the standards for teachers and textbooks. It'll happen within one fiscal year or one national election cycle, which ever comes first.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

If you see this man, buy him a
mocha java with whipped cream! Posted by Hello