Thursday, March 26, 2015

MY BOTTOM LINE









It appears that I’ve opened the door to conversation about public education. That’s a good thing.

In his response to my original piece, Douglas Epp mounted a spirited defense of our current way of doing things. I expected it would be the case. The two primary tasks of most bureaucracies are to defend and enlarge themselves.

It didn’t surprise me that our resident experts are trying to shift the blame. It’s the Koch brothers’ fault. It’s the poor, being cleverly disguised as a “demographic” problem. It’s the Hispanics and the need for English as a second language programs.

But, there was one thing I didn’t expect. I didn’t think that our leaders would be in such a celebratory frame of mind. We’ve fallen behind in the international race and they’re all but popping the corks and sipping the bubbly. Mr. Epps put it this way. “We are consistently getting good value for our educational dollar here in the state of Kansas.” If what he says is really true, then God help us. As Frankie Schaeffer put it a few years ago, we’re becoming “addicted to mediocrity.”

It’s clear. We have some very important differences in our respective approaches. 

First, I believe we’re shortchanging our children, particularly when we blame a significant number of them for the problems.

Early on, Mr. Epps wrote “One thing Mr. Dillon seems to ignore is poverty really does matter.”

Should poverty prevent us from providing a good, solid education? Of course not! The overwhelming majority of Emporia’s poor are decent, hardworking folks, making do on a workingman’s wages. They do most of the hard work in this town. They tote our garbage; they shingle our roofs; they mow our lawns; they flip our burgers. They have children who are very bright. They’re quite capable of learning. They’re not the reason our education system is failing.

The PISA studies seem to agree with me. Among their findings was this“The share of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the United States is about average.” 

Next, there’s the “English as a second language” crutch. I’m going to say this as plainly as I can. Emporia’s Hispanics are perfectly capable of mastering two languages. Emporia’s young Hispanics are intelligent, resourceful, and willing to learn. They’re not the reason our international test scores are so low. 

According to the most recent international reports, the Danes, whose mother tongue is Danish, are “very highly proficient” in the use of the English language. The Swiss, who communicate in German, French, and Italian, are highly proficient in the use of English. In all, there are thirty-one countries on the list that range from very highly proficient to moderately proficient in English. Many of them score better than us on the PISA tests and spend less per student on education. 

Then, there’s the progressives’ piƱata – The Koch brothers. They aren’t the only people who have the power to influence academia. When I attended Ohio State University, I registered for a class in Chinese literature. On the first day of class, the professor told us that a pornographic Chinese novel titled Rou Pu Tuan would be required reading. I didn’t complain. I just dropped the course. In another class, I was required to read excerpts from Mein Kampf. I didn’t like it, but I read them. At the campus library I could get “Das Kapital” or the “Communist Manifesto” in English, French, German, or Spanish. If reading Chinese pornography, twisted political philosophy like Mein Kampf, or totalitarian ideology is okay,  I doubt that a small dose of supply side or free market economics would so thoroughly corrupt our youth that they couldn’t function as the model citizens we want them to be.

Mr. Epps asked if I supported early childhood education. Of course I do. I support the four components outlined by our Department of Education, particularly the finished product, which is “successful children.”  I also support some of the aims outlined in the 2014 Kansas Supreme Court decision on education, including ensuring that our graduating students have “sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization.” I also agree with the court’s assertion thattotal spending is not the touchstone for adequacy.

While money isn’t the only consideration, I’d still pay top dollar for a product that would put us where we rightly belong – number one!

I’d wager that every school board member ran for office claiming to be the go to person, the man or woman who could fix everything. They might have even claimed they could walk across Wooster Lake for all I know. Enough of us believed them to get them elected. I think it’s time for them to produce results in keeping with their stump speeches.

This is my bottom line. I want to pay for education, not bureaucracies.  I expect our system to make us number one in the world. I hope that Mr. Epps will agree with me on that. If he does, I assure him that I’ll do my part to ensure that our kids get the resources THEY need to make that happen.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

SUBSIDIZING STUPIDITY



I read this morning that “in politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” I’m not sure who said it. Some people attribute it Napoleon Bonaparte. Whoever it was knew a lot about politics.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking at some of the proposed legislation coming out of Topeka. Reading it has led me to believe that stupidity may even be a requirement for some Kansas legislators.

Even when the intentions are good, the stupidity at the heart of some of the proposals is palpable. On February 17th, the Topeka Capitol Journal ran an investigative report on the death of four year old Mekhi Patrick Dean Boone, who died from what state officials described as the “worst case of child abuse they have seen.” According to the log at Children’s Mercy Hospital, “There is not a 2 inch part of his body that doesn’t have bruises. He was beat to death.”

Mekhi Boone died needlessly, at the hands of his father. But there’s more to the story. Mekhi’s mother has filed a civil lawsuit claiming that “outrageous conduct of the state of Kansas and one of its contractors (T.F.I. Family Services) caused the death.”

The litigation is slowly working its way through the system. In a recent response to Mekhi’s mother’s claim that the state and T.F.I. violated Mekhi’s due process rights, the state made the following counter-claim – “These answering Defendants affirmatively assert that the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution does not require these answering Defendants to protect its citizens from private violence.”

The response was stunning. It reeked of callousness, indifference, and bureaucratic nonsense.

It’s clear. The entire system failed Mekhi Boone.

The child welfare system is in desperate need of a fix, not only in Kansas but all around the country. The Los Angeles Times, for example, filed a report on February 28th that outlined the egregious failures in the California system. Many Los Angeles foster parents have given up on getting support from the system. In one case cited, a foster parent told the agencies, “Take me off your list. I gave up on you guys.” When he was asked why, he replied, “I could never get the social worker to call me back.”

It had the ring of tragic familiarity.

Here in Kansas, Senator Forrest Knox from Altoona offered a “remedy,” in the form of Senate Bill 158, which would prohibit any potential foster parent from either smoking cigarettes or having alcoholic beverages in the home. The senator’s intent was noble, but his solution to the foster care problem in Kansas was patently stupid. Few, if any, Kansans could ever become foster parents under those guidelines. 

The root of our foster care problem is the bureaucracy. That’s what needs to be bulldozed, not potentially good foster parents.

Representative Virgil Peck took stupidity to an even higher level when he championed HB2234, which would make it illegal for a college professor to use his or her title in a newspaper column or op-ed when the opinion concerns a legislator or a candidate for public office. In a fit of generosity, Representative Peck did leave room in the legislation for professors to use their credentials in opinions about newspaper editors, garbage collectors, carpenters, dentists, day laborers, media magnates, and other assorted serfs.

Finally, proving that stupidity can be limitless, someone in the legislature has proposed an amendment to K.S.A. 25-306(B). The proposed change would prohibit any candidate for political office from withdrawing from the ballot after a primary. The only exception allowed would be death.

Of course, we all know the reason for the proposal. Its champion should have called it the Chad Taylor amendment.

I’ve given the matter some thought and I’ve decided we need to amend the proposed amendment. Let’s just leave deceased candidates on the ballot. Really! Corpses couldn’t do any worse than some of our current crop of living, breathing elected officials. In fact, corpses might even do better.

Dead candidates might even add a bit of spice to our interminably dull political campaigns. The clever marketing strategies would be endless… “Dead Man Running,” for example. If the corpse’s opponent happened to be a guy named Ted, we could see yard signs that read, “VOTE DEAD, NOT TED.” If a corpse were to get elected, we could have it embalmed, stuff it full of straw, dress it up in a Brooks Brothers suit, and prop it up at one of those legislative desks at the capitol. 

For those who think my idea isn’t workable, I have question. Do you think a corpse could do a better job than Virgil Peck and his cohorts?

I rest my case.

Will Rogers once asked, “If stupidity got us in this mess, how come it can't get us out.” I think he actually knew that subsidizing stupidity in politics can only make things worse, but left it up to us to figure it out.

Apparently, we Kansans haven’t learned that lesson yet.

Friday, February 27, 2015

THE HEARTLESS BRUTE



Someone’s got to be the heartless brute; it might as well be me.

I attended the February 21st “legislative dialogue” that was held at Presbyterian Manor. I got a real education. 

The Koch brothers have it in for our kids. They’re the reason we can’t get enough money for our schools. They’re greedy and they buy politicians, particularly Republicans. In the 2014 election cycle they purchased over $7,000,000 worth of influence, with 99% of that money going to rapacious Republicans.

Far be it from me to mention that the National Education Association contributed over $26,000,000 in campaign contributions during the same election cycle, with 99% going to Democrats. I never heard anyone at the meeting complain about that, nor did I hear a peep about the $73,000,000 that Tom Steyer gave to liberal causes or the $4,000,000 that George Soros gave to liberals in 2012. I guess money contributed to conservatives and Republicans must be tainted, while money given to liberals and Democrats is donated “ex-cathedra.”

One person asked our legislators if they were going to take a pay cut. It seemed only fair in the light of the “fact” that our kids were being mugged in the budget process. That didn’t seem like a bad idea to me, but I might have gone a bit further. I’ve seen the U.S.D. organizational chart. It’s a piece of work, something that would have done Nikita Khrushchev and the old line communists proud. About the only thing missing is a slot for a highly paid professional bureaucrat overseeing the department of seven letter words beginning with the letter “X,” Xeroxed for example. 

Someone’s got to be in charge of making all those copies. Right?

I suppose I shouldn’t ruffle too many feathers. I’m sure that every executive director, associate executive director,  assistant director,  assistant superintendent, associate superintendent, principal, assistant principal, or lowly coordinator has been fully cost justified in the same way as all that AstroTurf.

Almost every time I pick up my daily issue of the Gazette, I read about problems with education funding. The kids need laptops, tablets, or IPads. The school district is strapped for cash. This morning I read about the very real possibility of budget cuts.

I’m not an unreasonable man. I’d be willing to pay top dollar for a top tier product. But, my problem with the way education money is being spent is that it simply isn’t delivering the quality education it should be.

And, it’s not just me. The vast majority of us really do care about education. We want our kids to get a top notch education, but there’s a disconnect. We’re not getting what we’re paying for.
In the most recent P.I.S.A. (Program for International Student Assessment) study on math, science, and reading, for example, American students rank far below many of their international peers in countries like Korea, the Czech Republic, Poland, Finland, Belgium, Iceland, and over twenty other nations. We’re mired in 27th place. 27th place!

That’s not a pretty picture. And, when we look at our local school district, things are every bit as bad. In a 2009 Bush Institute report comparing local school districts with their international peers, for example, the results were hair-raising. Our kids here in Emporia rank in the 39th percentile in math and the 46th percentile in reading. In other words, 61% of kids from countries like Finland, Ireland, Belgium, etc. are outpacing our kids in math and 54% are ahead of us in reading.

That’s unacceptable! I’d like to think we could all agree on that.

What role does money play in the results? The financial addendum to the P.I.S.A. report was quite revealing. The United States spends about $12,000 per student on education. Our local education spending is on par with that number. Only two countries (Luxembourg and Switzerland) spend more (in U.S. dollars) than us. Even Sweden’s roaring socialists spend less than us. How much do the Finns spend on education? About $9,600 per student. The Irish? About $9,000. The Koreans? About $8,000. The Poles? About $6,100, which is roughly half of what we spend.  How are they, and so many other countries, managing to do so much better than us with a lot less money?

I could go on and on, but it’s driving me crazy. I’m sick and tired of spending big money for 27th place. If our education system were a 27th place racehorse, I’d have put it out to pasture a long time ago.

The pundits and the bureaucrats say they want more money. “Fine,” I say. But I also want to tell them, “It’s time for you to belly up to the bar and figure out how to produce results commensurate with the money we’re spending.”

I’m ready to have that kind of conversation.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable. Our kids are Americans, for God’s sake. They deserve better than we’re giving them. They should be number one in the world, not 27th, particularly for the kind of money we’re spending.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF









A couple of essays ago, I wrote about the millions who marched in Paris to express their support for freedom of speech. It was an impressive show.

The French say they support freedom of expression. Really? Why, then¸ did Bob Dylan run afoul of the French courts for something he uttered publicly in 2012. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.”

Before you could say, Je Suis Charlie,” some of Dylan’s Croatian fans expressed their outrage. That, in turn, prompted the Council of Croats in France to file a formal complaint.  Dylan was then charged in a French court with inciting hatred with his remarks. If he had been convicted, he could have faced a one year prison sentence and a fine of up to $62,000. So much for freedom of expression, eh?

Dylan escaped the clutches of the court on a technicality. He hadn’t given his consent for Rolling Stone to publish his remarks. But, it hasn’t ended there. The court ordered the director of the French edition of the magazine to stand trial for publishing the remarks.

I think it’s time to remind the French there are times when the physician needs to heal himself.
Of course, we on this side of the Atlantic do the freedom of expression thing better than the rest of the world. Right?

I’d be willing to be if I were to walk around Emporia and ask people whether or not they supported the principle of free expression, an overwhelming majority would say they did. But, do we truly support the principle? Or, do we just give it lip service? 

It wasn’t so long ago that Kansas University professor David Guth got the National Rifle Association lathered up with the following inflammatory tweet he submitted in the aftermath of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut:  The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

It didn’t take long from the time Professor Guth submitted the tweet till the university placed him on administrative leave, where he stayed for seven months.

I’ve been on many college campuses over the years. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that the academic environment is all about free expression and dialogue, even when some of the ideas being expressed are out of step with those currently in vogue or ideas that most of us would find abhorrent. Too many to count, I think. The sentiment is noble, but it’s far from being true. In a 2014 report on speech codes on college campuses, for example, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that “nearly 60% of the 427 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.”

But, it’s not always students who are censored by academia. In 2014, Brandeis University rescinded an offer to Somali born Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree. Why was the offer rescinded? The Council of Islamic American Relations had complained to the university. In his communication to Ms. Hirsi, Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence said, “certain of her past statements” were inconsistent with the university’s “core values” because they were "Islamophobic.” In May of last year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was invited to be the commencement speaker at Rutgers University. Some students complained about Ms. Rice’s work in the Bush administration during the Iraq War. They used their free speech rights in the campus newspaper to keep her from exercising her free speech rights to speak at the commencement. She decided to decline the offer the university had made. In her letter explaining her decision, she wrote, “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families.”

Someone had to take the high road.

Freedom of expression is always going to be a dicey issue. Nowadays, almost anything we say or think is bound to offend someone. And, when those times come, there will always be someone who is willing to use his or her free speech rights to shout their opponent down or use administrative levers to squelch the things they don’t want to hear.  More importantly, they want to prevent others from hearing and making up their own minds about what’s being said. I’ve seen it happen in public meetings I’ve attended here. I’ve even seen some of our paragons of public virtue attempt to squelch voices they don’t want us to hear.

As I’ve said before, it’s easy to say we support freedom of expression. But I think there’s a huge gap between what we say and what we practice. Maybe, as with the French, it’s time for us to tell ourselves, “physician, heal thyself.”