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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, October 31, 2005

Editor & Publisher on Pimentel's apology

Yesterday, I noted Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editorial Page editor O. Ricardo Pimentel's apologizing in print for doing "a bit of promulgating" of Bush administration lies spin propaganda misstatements about Iraq and the justification for the war. Today, Editor and Publisher picks up on the piece, too:
The most important newspaper in its region finally apologized to readers for accepting "cooked" evidence about WMD in Iraq that helped lead to war in 2003. No, it was not The New York Times.

In a column on Sunday, O. Ricardo Pimentel, editorial page editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote that, “Yes, regrettably on the matter of WMD, count us as among the many who were duped. We should have been more skeptical. For that lack of skepticism and the failure to include the proper caveats to the WMD claim, we apologize, though I would note that, ultimately, we didn't believe that the president's central WMD argument warranted war. Not then and especially not now.”

The column appeared on the same day Tim Rutten, media writer for the Los Angeles Times, urged major newspapers to own up to their role in easily accepting the WMD argument from the Bush administration. He noted that his own newspaper was among this large group.
The other side, of course, thinks this is just about the worst thing ever (and they repeat debunked lies while they're at it). But the other side needs to see a bigger picture. As the Rutten article reference by E&P says,
Connect the dots and what do you get?

Clearly, it's a picture of an administration in disarray--particularly when you shade the scene with the fact that more than half of all Americans now say the invasion of Iraq was a mistake; the implosion of presidential crony Harriet E. Miers' Supreme Court nomination; the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the investigation into possible insider trading by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

That's the foreground.

In the background is a more ambiguous image, and bringing it into clearer focus is the most urgent challenge now confronting the American news media. Plainly put, the issue is this: George W. Bush and the key members of his administration--particularly Cheney, Libby's former boss--convinced the American people, still traumatized by the Sept. 11 atrocities, to support war against Hussein by telling them that he had both nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction. It was only a matter of time, they said, before the vengeful Iraqi dictator, a mass murderer of his own people, made those weapons available to terrorists who would use them against the United States.
And, Rutten says, the media played along, knowingly or not, and it's important to the credibility of the media to admit when they are wrong. An ill-informed electorate is as bad--or worse--than an uninformed electorate. "The American people need to know [how we were manipulated] because that knowledge is key to the responsible exercise of citizenship in the upcoming midterm elections and beyond," Rutten says. Yeah, yeah, I can hear the dissenters, he's a partisan Democrat, blah, blah. To paraphrase Lawrence Wilkerson from that previous post of mine: Given the choice, I'd take an honest partisan over a lying warmonger any day.

What's important here is that the media (and I find it hard to believe that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel may be a leader in this regard) is waking up from its 1990s-induced fit of pundit journalism, and instead taking responsibility for, you know, reporting, like, facts. Being able to admit you were wrong is a good first step. Insisting on playing spin the pundit bottle will only lead to the same kinds of messes we're in now: 2000+ dead and counting.

Testing Week

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a two-part series on Wisconsin's state testing, testing that began officially last week. In part one, Alan Borsuk does a good job of running down much of what makes educators wary of the tests:
Ask a room full of teachers at a planning meeting at a Milwaukee public school and you get an off-the-record round of groans that appears to represent the views of many educators. Schedules have been reshaped, curriculum changed, special procedures put into effect. The pressure is high.

Leaders of the state Department of Public Instruction aren't very enthusiastic. "It's not like we felt a need for more testing," said assistant superintendent Margaret Planner. [. . .]

Under the federal law, all third- through eighth-graders must be tested each year in reading and math, starting this year. The same is true for one grade in high school--in Wisconsin, it is 10th grade. [. . .] Thousands who have special education needs or limited ability in English and who would not have been included years ago are now taking tests, in many cases with special arrangements made to assist them, or with special tests. Schools face consequences if they don't have at least 95% of their students take the tests.

Add it all up, and it is a lot of testing--and money.

Wisconsin paid the private firm that handles the state testing program, CTB/McGraw-Hill, $6.6 million in 2004, and that's only a part of the total testing tab in the state.
It is worth noting here that McGraw-Hill posted a 17.5% increase in third quarter profits the other day. All purely coincidental, I'm sure.

I want to write much more about the testing, but, alas, since this is testing week, I don't have time right now to do it. Jim Horn at Schools Matter does some good commentary on this article, though. Perhaps later this week I'll have more time to say something.

In part two, Amy Hetzner writes about the effects of No Child Left Behind on special education students, noting that the law confilcts in many serious ways with federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) legislation:
It is the testing of special education students in particular--along with the expectation they be able to match their peers without disabilities - that has been both one of the more controversial and celebrated aspects of the law.

All but the most severely disabled students are taking the same tests from third through eighth grade and in their sophomore year of high school. That means students who previously might have been exempted from state tests - or whose lower-than-average results might have been explained away - are being prepped, scored and compared to their classmates in regular education classes. And there are consequences for poor performance. Weak performance by a group of students in a school--such as special education students--can lead to sanctions.

The development has some educators concerned that students with disabilities will be taught fewer of the skills they will need to cope in life and a more limited curriculum. [. . .]

Glenn Schmidt, a longtime special education teacher at Northside Elementary School in Sun Prairie, calls the federal law "disastrous" for children with disabilities.

He complained about the time the extra testing takes away from instruction, especially now that students with disabilities can receive such accommodations as extra time to complete the tests. And he questioned the value of a fifth-grade reading assessment for a student already known to read at a second-grade level.

"The year before last, I had nine kids in here that were taking the WKCE and, at one point or another in that testing week, seven out of the nine of them really broke down in doing it," Schmidt said. "The whole testing situation tends to be very difficult when kids know they can't do it," he said. "These kids are sharp enough to figure out these are tests that, in many cases, are difficult for them to master."

Despite the fears of some, school leaders believe they can resist the pressures to narrow the curriculum to reading and math instruction and to ignore teaching life and work skills required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act--or the pressures to pull special-education students out of regular education classes.
Last year at my school, it was our special education students who kept us from moving up on the sanctions list, instead of going further toward them. Four special ed kids, in fact--four who did not take the test. Had they taken it, whatever their performance, we would have made "safe harbor," as they call it, showing enough growth even without meeting minimum performance standards, and would not have fallen to another level of sanctions. I don't know who those four were, but I am guessing that they feel the same kind of response Glenn Schmidt's students do--that testing is beyond them at their identified disablity level, and, more importantly, that there is no life-skill purpose behind doing it. Even my regular education students feel that way about the tests sometimes.

Even I feel that way about the tests some days. Today is one of those days.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: We were lied to--and we lied to readers--about Iraq

Okay, I'm paraphrasing slightly O. Ricardo Pimentel's editorial from today's paper, but not by much:
The New York Times has gone through its mea culpas on this score, capped recently by Judith Miller's alleged tell-all on her role in Plamegate. Miller is the reporter who undeniably did much of that promulgating, taking at apparent face value self-interested claims from dubious sources that such Iraqi WMD existed.

Those caches of deadly weapons did not exist, of course, revealing much of the administration's stated reasons for going to war to be just as barren--as in devoid of truth. I'll leave for the moment the question of whether this was a matter of error or just plain lying.

The New York Times occupies an elevated strata of journalism. But do the rest of us below that level of influence and reach--this newspaper's Editorial Board being my concern--also have a responsibility to explain ourselves?

I think so. In the interest of transparency.

The news side of this operation simply reported the days' events and debate in the walkup to the war, including meaningful reporting of the reasons given.

But, you see, this Editorial Board did indeed accept the premise that Saddam Hussein had these weapons early on. And in that acceptance by the board, it can be credibly argued that we did a bit of promulgating ourselves.
Pimentel is the paper's editorial page editor, and, as such, bears ultimate responsibility for everything appearing on that page. In the run-up to the war, despite Pimentel's assertions that the Journal Sentinel "hedged" and "counseled caution," the paper, like most papers around the country, was an unabashed cheerleader for Bush and his plans to interrupt the war on terror with a sideshow in Iraq. Pimentel says they were misled, and, while not asking for forgiveness, asks a much more pertinent question:
Now, of course, we discover much evidence that the intelligence fed the public, including us, was "cooked" or "fixed"--choose your favorite description--around what the administration viewed as its most salable argument. Americans were not likely to favor invasion because of the dominoes-of-democracy theory nor because Hussein was a monster. Vietnam is a word that still resonates, and what made this particular monster any more worth toppling than the world's many other monsters?

But, yes, regrettably on the matter of WMD, count us as among the many who were duped. We should have been more skeptical. For that lack of skepticism and the failure to include the proper caveats to the WMD claim, we apologize, though I would note that, ultimately, we didn't believe that the president's central WMD argument warranted war. Not then and especially not now.

So there it is--with an addendum. We take responsibility for being duped on the matter of WMD--and still arguing against war--but at what point will those doing the duping be held accountable for taking us to war?
The only person "doing the duping" (not counting Miller, whom Pimentel assumes was a patsy) that Pimentel mentions by name is Colin Powell, who, with his February 2003 United Nations speech was the one who "resolved" the editors' doubts about Iraq's WMD. Yet Powell was as much a victim as the editors were. Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson made that clear this week in the Los Angeles Times, as he fingered those who really were responsible:
In President Bush's first term, some of the most important decisions about U.S. national security--including vital decisions about postwar Iraq--were made by a secretive, little-known cabal. It was made up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. [. . .]

Its insular and secret workings were efficient and swift--not unlike the decision-making one would associate more with a dictatorship than a democracy. This furtive process was camouflaged neatly by the dysfunction and inefficiency of the formal decision-making process, where decisions, if they were reached at all, had to wend their way through the bureaucracy, with its dissenters, obstructionists and "guardians of the turf."

But the secret process was ultimately a failure. It produced a series of disastrous decisions and virtually ensured that the agencies charged with implementing them would not or could not execute them well. [. . .] It's a disaster. Given the choice, I'd choose a frustrating bureaucracy over an efficient cabal every time.
Wilkerson is in a position to know things, having been at State for the process that led us to war, a process that included creating false evidence of Iraqi WMD and, when challenged, engaging in the kind of criminal conspiracy that led to Scooter Libby's indictment this week. It was a process whose beginning, middle, and end was in Dick Cheney's office. It was a process that should lead Pimentel to call, as other media figures have, for Cheney's ouster. Pimentel knows all about Cheney and his role in the cabal, since Thursdays editorial cites Wilkerson by name. We all know about Cheney's role in outing Valerie Plame as revenge on Wilson, since it's in black and white in Libby's indictment. Pimentel and his editors made some very cogent points along these lines when they endorsed John Kerry last October: "The president is a decent man, yes," they wrote. "On the whole, however, he has been so wrong about so much in such a short time that accountability must kick in at some point." The cabal was wrong about Iraq, about WMD, about everything. Time to call for accountability again.

So why can't you pull the trigger, Mr. Pimentel? Isn't it enough that we were lied to, sir, and that the vice president is almost certainly culpable in a a politically-motivated breach of national security? Does Cheney actually need to eat a baby on live TV before you call for his head? This is your chance to be bold, and show some leadership on an issue of great concern to your readers.

Say it with me: Cheney must go.

Now print it in your paper.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Friday Saturday Random Ten

The Day Late and a Dollar Short Edition

1. "Art of the Gun" The Nields from Play
2. "If These Teardrops Had Wings" Vance Gilbert from Summerville Live
3. "Four" Phineas Newborn, Jr. from The Great Piano Of . . .
4. "Man I Used to Love" Susan Werner from Last of the Good Straight Girls
5. "Winter Woods" Peter Mayer from Earth Town Square
6. "Falling" Dave Herlihy from This is Boston, Not Austin
7. "Jagged" Old 97s from Fight Songs
8. "Strange Fire" Indigo Girls from Women Live from Mountain Stage
9. "Return Trip" Mulgrew Miller from Hand in Hand
10. "Intermittently" Barenaked Ladies from Maybe You Should Drive

Friday, October 28, 2005

Would you like a weapons system with that glazed?

Perhaps the most shocking news on this Fitzmas day (and, by the way, here's hoping Fitzmas comes twice this year) is that the Carlyle Group--they of the shady aerospace and military stuff--have bought Dunkin' Donuts.

Diversify, diversify, diversify . . .

Once again proving that the editors don't read their own paper

To the editors,

In your editorial Thursday about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program's having reached the "cap" on students it can accept ("Giving families options"), you relentlessly attacked Governor Jim Doyle for his vetoes on the legislature's attempts to "lift the cap" (emphasis mine):
Gov. Jim Doyle must recognize that, in opposing such a move, he is hurting needy children. [. . .]

Republicans have pushed lifting or abolishing the cap. Doyle has thrice vetoed such bills. He must stop opposing the interest of needy kids in Milwaukee and work out a deal with Republicans on voucher caps.

Doyle would doubtless argue that he is looking after the interest of the needy kids in MPS. What he fails to grasp is that he is narrowing their options. Even an option not exercised is of value because it gives the holder more bargaining power.

What Doyle must do is make a quality education for poor children the top goal and recognize that putting more resources into MPS is but one means to that goal, rather than the top goal itself. Another means is the lifting of the enrollment cap on the voucher program. Our preference is to employ any and all means that lead to the top goal.

Doyle, with his more pinched perspective, says he'd back raising the lid if the Republicans would back his plan for smaller classes in the public schools--a plan the GOP regards as too expensive.
Yet it is very clear from the story your very own paper ran the day before ("Stop taking new voucher students, state tells schools"), it is not Doyle at all who needs an attitude adjustment. Rather, it is Assembly Speaker John Gard and the Republicans in the legislature (my emphasis again):
Hitting the cap "changes the debate," [John] Gard said. "It puts enormous pressure on the governor. It's a simple thing. It shouldn't come with a bunch of spending strings or pork for Milwaukee."

Doyle was traveling late Tuesday and could not be reached. Spokeswoman Melanie Fonder said the governor stood by his earlier position that raising the cap must be tied to help for public schools. "He is more than willing to sit down and reach a compromise that will improve the quality of education for all kids in Milwaukee, whether they're in choice schools or public schools," she said.
Which one sounds like he wants to compromise? Which one sounds like he's more concerned about the education of all of Milwaukee's children? Hint: Not single-minded John Gard.

I think you owe Governor Doyle an apology.

Yours, as always,

folkbum

Last-Minute Cheddarsphere Meet

Wisconsin blog regualr and political fixture (and the Democratic primary challenger to Herb Kohl) Ben Masel organized a last-minute meeting planned for Saturday. It's supposed to be unseasonably beautiful, so he proposes we meet in Aztalan State Park, halfway between Madison and Milwaukee (but still way out of the way for anyone else). Planned meeting time is a soft 12:30. Here's a map if you need one!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Not so wild about Harriet

Wow. Harriet Miers actually did it--she withdrew her nomination the Supreme Court.

In some ways I'm not surprised: The most reactionary of the religious and social conservatives in the country ate her alive for her ambiguous statements regarding choice and separation of church and state. Democrats complained (quietly, since we didn't want to overshadow the spectacle of Republicans eating their own) about Miers's qualifications to serve. No one, it seems, was pleased with her. But that's never stopped Bush and his single-mindedness before.

Makes me wonder who's left to choose from, given that there was a credible story (I can't find the link now) about other, more qualified folk withdrawing their names from consideration becuase they were afraid the process would be so ugly. Who in their right mind would step up now?

Government Accountability: Joint Finance does a Good Thing

In the wake of two convictions in the Wisconsin legislature corruption scandals--convictions, finally, after five years of waiting--the Joint Finance Committee approved SB-1:
The bill (SB 1) would merge the state Ethics Board and Elections Board into the new Government Accountability Board, which would have an enforcement division that, unlike the current boards, could prosecute politicians for criminal violations. Currently, only district attorneys and the state attorney general can pursue criminal law violations. [. . .]

Under the new bill, the governor would appoint four people to the new board based on recommendations from the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the deans of the Marquette University Law School and the University of Wisconsin Law School. The Senate would have to approve the appointees.

If Doyle signs the bill into law, the Government Accountability Board would be formed immediately. The Elections and Ethics boards would continue to exist until May 1; they would then be abolished, and their staffs--including the long-time executive directors of each board--would be transferred to the Government Accountability Board.

The makeup of the new board would be modeled on the Ethics Board, which is non-partisan. The Elections Board includes representatives from the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties, as well as appointees of the governor and other politicians.

The new board's enforcement division could investigate potential violations of the state's lobbying laws, campaign finance rules and code of ethics for public officials.
At present, the Ethics Board is perhaps the most toothless agency in all of state government: They have no enforcement authority and, in fact, have to seek funding from Joint Finance for every single individual investigation that they wish to pursue, which can put everybody in an awkward position. ("You want money for what?" "To investigate you, sir." "Um, let me think about it.")

I am surprised and disappointed that three Democrats--Milwaukeeans Pedro Colón and Lena Taylor, along with Sen. Russ Decker of Schofield--voted against the bill. Colón noted that the bill would give the new Accountability Board the power "to go all over your life." Given the way things have been going down in Madison over the last few years, I think the scrutiny--or the threat of scrutiny--will be refreshing. A more powerful independent watchdog will, I hope, lead to some cleaner governing.

I do want to acknowledge that among those voting for the bill in Joint Finance was indicted Republican Scooter Jensen, whom I've let have it in a few recent posts for not accepting responsibility for his alleged ethics (and legal) violations the way others have. Kudos to Scooter for that, and to Madison Dem Mark Pocan, the only Democrat on the committee to vote for it. Accountability and ethical governing ought to be a bi-partisan no-brainer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

And lo, a campaign issue descended from on high,

and the Republicans were well pleased, and the SpongeJon did rejoice. And a voice cried out from the Wilderness, Oh, crap.

It's looking more and more like Wisconsin's Gubernatorial election next year will feature a perhaps-unprecedented confluence of issues guaranteed to bring national Republican attention and tens of millions of dollars in spending from national conservative groups. So far, we know it will be an anti-gay marriage amendment (most likely, anyway), concealed carry, voter ID, and TABOR/ tax-freeze nonsense. The latest is the voucher cap:
State officials ordered schools participating in Milwaukee's voucher program to stop enrolling new students through the choice program because it appears to have hit the state-imposed enrollment cap of about 14,750 students. [. . .]

In a letter sent to all choice schools on Tuesday, the Department of Public Instruction said that private schools are prohibited from accepting choice applications or enrolling students through the program through the remainder of the current school year.

"We absolutely had to say, 'Don't enroll anymore,' because we are very close to the cap," said Tony Evers, the deputy state superintendent.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program lets low-income families send their children to private schools using state-funded tuition vouchers. The cap is set at 15% of the enrollment of Milwaukee Public Schools, or 14,751 students for this school year. [. . .]

Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, has vetoed bills to raise or eliminate the caps three times, saying at different times that it would prompt property tax increases or needed to be tied to a more comprehensive education package for Milwaukee. He has said he would be willing to increase the number of students who can participate in the program if it includes additional funding for smaller class sizes.

Assembly Speaker John Gard (R-[Sun Praire]) said Tuesday that the state couldn't afford the funding Doyle wanted for smaller class sizes.

Hitting the cap "changes the debate," Gard said. "It puts enormous pressure on the governor. It's a simple thing. It shouldn't come with a bunch of spending strings or pork for Milwaukee."
There's lots to say here, but let's look first at what Gard has to say, since he's got the party line that Mark (I ♥ Tom DeLay!) Green and Walker: Tosa Ranger will follow (give it a few hours and their press releases will be all over, if they aren't already). One, the state can't afford to reduce class sizes, the one educational reform that has near-unanimous consent among researchers of all stripes as to its effectiveness. But we do have the money, apparently, to throw at an unaccountable shadow system of private and religious schools. Two, money for Milwaukee's public schools is "pork," while an unecessary dock wall in your district isn't. Or all the building projects you shuffle to your road-building buddies. Three, demanding accountability from an unaccountable system that eats up $75,000,000 in taxpayer dollars is attaching "strings." How many other programs that have spent billions of taxpayer dollars over the last fifteen years ago have been allowed to escape even elementary scrutiny? Remember that it was only last week that any school in the program ever had been shut down for not meeting rudimentary requirements, and only last school year that any schools had ever been shut down period for violating the public's trust.

Fifteen years with no strings, no accountability, and a steadily declining sense of obligation to our public schools.

Last weekend's paper featured an editorial entitled "State failing black students," damningly criticizing the commitment of the state to the Milwaukee Public Schools:
How many clangs of the alarm bell have to be sounded before policy-makers start feeling the need to deal more urgently, differently and more creatively with what can properly and officially be termed a crisis?

The latest clang comes in the form of a Journal Sentinel analysis by reporter Sarah Carr of the latest national test scores that show a wide gap between Wisconsin's black and white students in reading and math. In fact, in eighth-grade reading and fourth-grade math, the gaps in this state are the largest in the country, this despite the overall good news that Wisconsin students generally scored above national averages.

But the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress - often called the nation's report card - show that black students here are not scoring even as high as black students nationally in all four of the test's categories, fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade reading and math. Latinos also are faring badly in comparison to white students but not by as wide of margins. [. . .]

We are not suggesting that those involved in teaching Wisconsin's black students are not serious about teaching or are not committed to their students. We are suggesting that "fixing" schools is only part of the solution, albeit a necessary one. Addressing the underlying problem of poverty, disproportionately affecting the state's black community, is the broader solution. And, to the extent schools can be "fixed," doing so is as much a matter of good-faith efforts in the state Legislature and in the governor's office as efforts in the schools.
"Fixing" the schools doesn't involve decrying solutions as "pork" and skimming money off to give to unaccountable private schools. "Fixing" the schools doesn't mean cutting $40 bmillion--the amount MPS would have lost under Gard's budget--needed to keep and train teachers, repair failing buildings, and provide textbooks and supplies to our most disadvantaged students. "Fixing" schools does not involve posturing for next November's Gubernatorial election.

The editorial concludes on a note I have sounded before--mark this day, my friends, as it may be the only day I ever agree with the eductaion editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel--by calling on the state to address poverty in Wisconsin's biggest city:
Yes, this means more resources for schools. And that's because of that underlying problem: poverty. Simply, when it comes to resources, the need is greater in schools that serve students who are disproportionately poor.

But overcoming poverty is the ultimate solution. That means growing jobs for workers across the socioeconomic scale.

The test scores come on the heels of other recent stories - Milwaukee ranking seventh nationally in poverty and ninth among cities with the highest concentration of poverty. In this regard, the performance of Wisconsin's black students on this test is hardly a surprise since the black community is hit hardest by poverty here.
I bet you a nickel--no, two nickels--that poverty will not be a theme in next year's election. Nor will health care, or true school-funding reform, or will anything else that could actually make a difference in the lives of the people who most need it. No, the election will center on this confluence of conservative issues: tax freezes, voter ID, guns, vouchers, and gay marriage. And the state will continue to fail its black students and fiddle as Rome burns.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Wisconsin Democrats take responsibility for crimes;

Wisconsin Republicans don't, sit on Joint Finance Committee instead

At least, that's the headline I would write if I had a better job. Chuck Chvala pleaded out:
Former state Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala (D-Madison) today pleaded guilty to two felonies for having a state worker campaign while on state time and for funneling illegal amounts of cash into the election fund of a fellow Democrat in 2000.

Chvala’s sentencing was to be held soon but was postponed until December, to give his attorneys time to prepare a proposal to have him complete a community service project that he hopes would substitute for any time behind bars. [. . .]

In exchange for Chvala’s pleas, 11 other felony corruption charges — including two extortion charges that accused Chvala of asking lobbyists for campaign cash to schedule votes on their pet projects — were dismissed. Six additional counts that accused Chvala of campaign finance violations and of having state workers do on-the-job campaigning were also dismissed, but the judge can consider them when he sentences Chvala. [. . .]

Chvala and four other legislators were charged in 2002 — more than a year after a secret John Doe investigation was convened by the Dane County district attorney. The initial probe into the use of state workers to campaign on state time mushroomed into pay-to-play allegations that involved possible violations of state extortion laws.
Those "four other legislators" include one Democrat--Brian Burke, who also copped to breaking the law--and three Republicans--former Assemblyfolk Steve Foti and Bonnie Ladwig, plus current Assembyman Scooter Jensen, who sits on the powerful Joint Finance Committee. The Republicans have yet to admit to wrongdoing, though reports at the time of Burke's plea indicated that Foti might plead, too. Foti, Ladwig, and Jensen are all accused of abusing power the same way Chvala did. Why is it so hard for them to take responsibility for it? Must be something in the Republican blood--watch the spinning tomorow when the Plame indictments come out, and you'll see what I mean.

Drinking Liberally Tomorrow

I will, in fact, be there, though probably not with bells on. Hope to see you there, too.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Pardon

(with deep, deep apologies to Joni Mitchell)

It’s coming on Fitzmas
They’re arresting me
They’re taking my mug shot
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a pardon
I could skate away on

But it don’t snow here
It stays pretty brown
I’m going to make a lot of money
Then I’m going to put on the judges' gown
I wish I had a pardon
I could skate away on

I wish I had a pardon so strong
I run off with everything I had
Oh I wish I had a pardon
I could skate away on
Because I made my baby mad

He tried hard to help me
You know, he put me at F-E-M-A
But I did so badly
How I wished I could stay
Oh I wish I had a pardon
I could skate away on

I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish with my trust
Now I’ve gone and lost the best chance
To be POTUS
Oh I wish I had a pardon
I could skate away on

I wish I had a pardon so strong
I run off with everything I had
Oh I wish I had a pardon
Because I made my baby mad

It’s coming on Fitzmas
They’re targeting me
They’re writing songs about it
And betting on me
I wish I had a pardon
I could skate away on

Advocate Weekly

Another week, another fine set of reads linked at the Advocate Weekly. Of particluar note is Chris Correa's examination of the new NAEP scores as a function of poverty--poverty being one of my bugbears when it comes to education policy. As he notes, poverty "explained between 40% - 49% of the variance in performance."

Let's have a big shout-out to the cowards at the American Education Reform Council!

After all, I know that those Milwaukee-based pro-voucher people read the blog, so let's give them a virtual wave. How do I know they read me? The magic of the internet!

A couple of Thursdays ago, I got comments on two posts from commenters whose names I did not recognize. It's always nice to get new readers, of course, and with steadily rising hit counts over the last several months and some mentions in high-profile places like NEA Today, I have been looking forward to new names in the comments. But these comments were interesting.

First, there was "mike" responding to this post about Jonathan Kozol's scheduled appearance at the 20th anniversary fundraiser for Rethinking Schools. The comment from "mike" was an odd dis of Kozol:
I don't get Kozol. Everything I read by him points out that there are problems in education. obviously. Where are his solutions? Then always seem to be so vague.
And so on. I didn't think much of it, except that then I noticed a comment on an older thread from a "Tom," taking issue with my commentary on a Journal Sentinel story noting that Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction was withholding voucher checks from some choice schools that failed to file paperwork on time. He actually made some cogent points, and I even started looking at some research to debate him, but then I noticed something about the comments from "mike" and "Tom": Both comments, posted about ten minutes apart, had come from the same IP address. So I figured I was dealing with some kind of troll and ignored him.

But "mike"/ "Tom" showed up again last Friday, this time calling himself "Bill" as he commented in my post about DPI cracking down for the first time ever in fifteen years of Milwaukee Choice on schools that did not offer enough instruction time or a complete curriculum as defined by Wisconsin's constitution. This comment from "Bill" called me out specifically as a liar:
Note that three of these schools are in trouble for not meeting academic standards. You make some good points on voucher schools, but your repeated statements about no academic standards at voucher schools is false.
Okay, so "Bill" didn't use the word liar, exactly, but it raised my hackles. And if you've been here long enough, you know that my hackles often override my better judgment. So I started responding in the comments without thinking.

When I did start thinking, I thought to myself that the argument "Bill" used was similar to what "Tom" had said the week before. So I checked the IP address from the comment by "Bill" and, as you may have guessed, it was the same as the other two suspicious comments. So I made sure to add that to my response.

The IP address thing reinforced my notion that "mike"/ "Tom"/ "Bill" was trolling, or at least engaging in classic HaloScan troll behavior by posting under different names, perhaps not knowing that HaloScan shows account owners the IP addresses of commenters. But the comments--save the dig at Kozol--were smarter than your average troll comments. So I figured I should at least see what I could learn about "mike"/ "Tom"/ "Bill."

Turns out that the IP address "mike"/ "Tom"/ "Bill" was using belongs to the American Education Reform Council, an organization that should be familiar to anyone who has spent any time studying the national school voucher debate. They are, as I said at the top, based in Milwaukee, but their reach extends well beyond ground zero for vouchers and into pretty much any school choice debate anywhere in the country. I'll let the good folks at People for the American Way describe them, from an article they did called "Community Voice or Captive of the Right?: A Closer Look at the Black Alliance for Educational Options":
AERC poured $185,000--a whopping 65% of its grant money--into BAEO in 2001. AERC, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3), is affiliated with the American Education Reform Foundation (AERF), which serves as AERC’s lobbying arm. The two groups share office space and Susan Mitchell heads both groups.

AERC is intimately connected to BAEO in both staffing and funding. John Walton not only funds AERC--giving almost one million dollars via the Walton Foundation between 1999 and 2000--but was also AERF’s previous president and provided its initial grant. The Bradley Foundation also supports AERC, providing $300,000 grants in 1998 and 2000. It is clear that the Bradley and Walton Foundations have a key role in both directly and indirectly funding BAEO.

In addition, Howard Fuller himself sits on the AERC board alongside John Walton. Kaleem Caire stepped down from his position as executive director of BAEO to become Project Director for AERC’s national effort to expand parent options.

As a 501(c)(3), AERC’s political advocacy is restricted. It cannot endorse political candidates and may only do a minimal amount of lobbying on legislation. However, AERC ran “informational” advertisements during the Colorado and Michigan voucher campaigns in 1998 and 2000, respectively. AERC spent $500,000 on the Michigan initiative, in addition to the $2 million Walton spent out of his own pocket.

AERC activities apparently extend beyond advertising to organizing local grassroots organizations. A Friedman Foundation newsletter credits AERC and the Institute for Justice for working together to start Pensacola Parents For School Choice in May 2000.

Without the restrictions of a 501(c)(3), AERF can participate in more overtly political activities. It was a major force behind failed efforts to get a voucher referendum on the California ballot in 1996 and 1998. Walton and AERF then teamed up with a combined $410,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to pass Proposition 226, so-called “paycheck protection,” in California to limit the use of union money being spent in political campaigns. The organizers of the anti-union measure all worked together on the state’s failed 1993 voucher initiative and saw the measure as payback for money the teacher’s union spent to “cream the measure.”

AERF drew public criticism in 1997 when it hired Sterling Tucker, a community activist and former D.C. City Councilman, to organize support for a DC voucher program designed by House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX). Local officials opposed this congressional effort to impose a voucher program in the District of Columbia. Several black ministers, who had initially supported the program, later withdrew their support, accusing Tucker of misleading them about the program and not disclosing his connection with AERF.
That's quite a history, though for those of you in the audience who support vouchers, it probably doesn't bother you at all. However, PFAW does remind us of an important Wisconsin case involving, indirectly, the AERC and AERF. Barbara Miner tells the story in Rethinking Schools:
Voucher Backers Illegally Funnel Money

A suit by the State Elections Board of Wisconsin has accused voucher supporters of illegally funneling money into the Wisconsin Supreme Court campaign of Justice Jon Wilcox.

The Wisconsin State Journal newspaper has called the illegal donations "one of the largest political-corruption cases in state history."

Wilcox was elected in the spring of 1997 and in the summer of 1998 voted with the majority to uphold the Milwaukee voucher program providing public dollars to private schools. During the election campaign, Wilcox's vote was considered crucial to the outcome of the voucher case. His opponent, Walt Kelly, was known as a strong supporter of public schools and of the separation of church and state.

Days before the election, a group known as the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation engaged in a massive, $200,000 pro-Wilcox postcard and phone-calling campaign. In order to not violate state campaign finance laws, the group denied it had any ties to the Wilcox campaign. Following an extensive investigation, this spring the State Elections Board filed suit accusing the Wilcox campaign and the Coalition with illegally coordinating their activities to circumvent state election laws.

The Wisconsin State Journal noted in an April 20 [2000] story that Wilcox "probably would have had to withdraw from the case if the contributions from school-choice supporters had been made public."

Only two of the donors to the postcard and phone-calling campaign came from Wisconsin. The others were described by The Wisconsin State Journal as a "nationwide collection of Republican school-choice supporters." Donors included nationally known voucher advocates such as John Walton of WalMart and Patrick Rooney of Golden Rule Insurance in Indiana, who each kicked in $25,000 to the campaign. [. . .]

Out-of-state donations accounted for 85% of the cash used to finance 345,000 postcards and 250,000 phone calls on the Supreme Court election. The single largest contribution, $34,500, came from the American Education Reform Foundation, a nationwide pro-voucher group based in Milwaukee. [Several individuals connected to AERC and AERF also contributed.]
PFAW does let us know that "AERF was not found in violation of election law." Wilcox was, though, as this third-hand reprinting of a dead-pixel Shepherd Express article notes, paying $10,000 in fines. Sadly, Wilcox never recused himself from the lawsuit involving Milwaukee's vouchers, despite the massive contributions from voucher backers. He ruled in favor of continuing the program.

The PFAW article I quoted above mentions in passing both the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Howard Fuller. BAEO is a wholly-owned creation of the conservative white wealth of the Bradley Foundation, no matter what their letterhead says, with new recent funding by the Bush Administration. (See the Black Commentator, for example, here, here, and here.) Howard Fuller is on AERC's board and has been (if I remember right) president of BAEO. Fuller was a former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent (before my time in the district) and helped to create the unaccountable shadow system that undermines and sucks tax dollars from the public schools he headed. Fuller admitted, in last spring's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series on voucher schools that the biggest lie they used to sell us vouchers--that the "marketplace" would keep bad schools out of the program--was, in fact, a big lie (more on that here). Fuller now makes a good living promoting vouchers from inside Marquette University.

Anyway, this all brings us back to the American Education Reform Council: This is a nation-wide organization with millions of dollars in right-wing cash behind it, instrumental in pushing voucher programs in Milwaukee and plenty of other places, with the ear even of pocketed politicians like Wisconsin's indicted Scooter Jensen. Why would they bother with li'l ol' me? More importantly, why would an organization whose stated objectives explicitly say they "seek[] to ensure an honest debate about school choice" send an anonymous coward to comment on my blog? I think it's clear that they are afraid of the truth about voucher schools getting out. Look again at the comment from "Tom":
All voucher schools must also qualify as private schools, which have academic requirements such as 875 hours of instruction and a sequentiall curriculum in Math, Science, Language, Reading, and Health. DPI can, and has, examined schools for this. If a school cannot prove it is meeting these academic requirements, DPI can pull their status as a private school and hence kick them out of the choice program. [. . .]

To call the voucher program a black hole is misleading and harmfull to the ultimate goal of lifting up all Milwaukee children so a voucher program doesn't even need to exist.
So less than a week before DPI came down--for the first time ever in 15 years--on schools who didn't meet the 875 hour or curriculum requirements, "Tom" is trying to pre-emptively defend the quality of voucher schools by saying, "Hey, at least they meet these minimum requirements!" It's clear now that not all voucher schools do meet those requirements, and the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars we've already paid to the suspect schools is lost forever. The hundreds of students who have passed through those schools have lost forever years of schooling--years of schooling MPS has to make up for. And of course the voucher program is a black hole--there is not one academic performance datum required to be made public by any voucher school. Not one. Zero. Zilch. Even the worst-performing MPS schools make public the data that show how poorly they perform, allowing parents to make a truly informed choice, and not a leap into the unknown.

As DPI keeps cracking down--and I hope they do!--I'm sure more schools like the ones currently targeted will come to light. And, yes, let me throw in my standard disclaimer: There are plenty of voucher schools doing a fine job educating Milwaukee students, and who will never face challenges or penalties from the DPI. (Which schools they are, we can't be 100% sure, because of non-existent accountability procedures.) What worries me is that there are those like "mike"/ "Tom"/ "Bill" and his allies at AERC, BAEO, AERF, the Bradley Foundation, and beyond who want to keep the curtains closed, who want to keep expanding the program to involve more untested, unaccountable schools eating up your taxpayer dollars without any quality control or transparency.

They are so opposed to transparency, apparently, that they won't even use their real names.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Blue Nation

Courtesy of Delaware Dem, here are red-blue maps of the US using SurveyUSA's 50-state approval numbers for Bush. Blue is net disapproval, red net approval, and purple a tie. Note the change following Miers and other scandal revelations since September. Since that change was mostly in the South, I wonder if Hurricane disatisfaction isn't rising.

October

September

Your required Sunday reading

Teacherken's What makes a good high school?

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Speaking of the school board . . .

The board did make official the tax hike I hoted here.

Are layoffs coming for MPS?

Every year for the past three years, Milwaukee Public Schools has cut hundreds of teaching positions from its budget. The result is the kind of mess that exists at my high school--class sizes of 35 or 40 are not uncommon. We have six-and-a-half English teachers in my department for 1500 students, and English is a four-year requirement. Further results include the total elimination of art and music programs at the elementary level, and bare-minimum phy-ed classes. The district has been hiring few new teachers, unless those teachers are certified for science, math, or special ed.

Now comes word that four more schools will likely close next year, including Juneau High School.

Some of you may remember earlier this month when I noted that the superintendent finally kept one of his appointments with the staff at my school and met with us. Our fear had been that he was going to tell us he was shutting us down and re-opening a bunch of small schools in a "multiplex" at our building. This is a process done--badly so far--at a few other schools in the district. I hear from teachers and former students that there is not a lot of success so far, and the teachers, especially, feel jerked around and treated unprofessionally. (My board member, Joe Dannecker, believes the opposite to be true, but what are you gonna do?)

The superintendent is not going to multiplex my school, it turns out. This is good. However, he wants to close the school to new ninth-graders next year--meaning in 2006-2007, we'd have only 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students. In many respects, having no ninth-graders would be great; frankly, I'd be happy to get rid of some of the ones I'm teaching right now. But the loss of those students would devastate our staff--we would lose a quarter of our teachers, including all the young, enthusiastic, most-likely-to-embrace-innovation teachers. This would not be good. Where would those 15 or 16 teachers go? How could my English department survive on just four-and-a-half teachers?

Then I read about the recommendation to close Juneau, and it hit me: They are softening us up for layoffs next year.

When the 900 students from Juneau need a place to go, and the 400 freshmen who would have been at my school need a place to go, the district can be careful to spread them out among the remaining large high schools and the struggling small high schools so that the student counts are just right to justify eliminating 100 more high school teaching positions. Just wait.

And rather than following the pattern of the past couple of years wherein they let attrition take care of the cuts in teaching staff, I would not be surprised if this coming year the cuts come in the form of layoffs. Our enrollment is not significantly down--about 7000 students since 1998--and yet more than 800 teaching positions have been cut in recent years. The next cuts will be devastating.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Friday Random Ten

The It's a good thing I have tickets to see Dar Williams next weekend since the iTunes really, really wants me to go, apparently Edition

1. "Alleluia" Dar Williams from The Honesty Room
2. "Shape I'm In" The Band from The Last Waltz
3. "For the Story" Darryl Purpose from Travelers' Code
4. "It's a War in There" Dar Williams from Mortal City
5. "Sylvia Plath" Ryan Adams from Gold
6. When I'm Up" Great Big Sea from Road Rage (Live)
7. "In a Hurry" Christian McBride from Gettin' to It
8. "Paint Box" Pink Floyd from Early Singles
9. "Spring Street" Dar Williams from The Green World
10. "My Buffalo Girl" Bill Frisell from Good Dog, Happy Man

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Carrrrrrrrnival . . .

Aaron has some fun with the Carnival of the Badger this week. I bet he typed it with this keyboard:

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

MPS takes more of your tax dollars, because it didn't settle the contract

The Milwaukee Board of School Directors' finance and budget committee approved an increase in the tax levy:
The levy accepted by the committee Tuesday night is $214.1 million, an increase of $6.7 million from the previous year and $4.8 million more than the levy approved in May. The estimated tax rate would decrease somewhat from last year because property assessments have bumped up the average home value. [. . .]

The property tax levy rose from spring to fall because MPS will be allowed to spend more under the state's system of revenue limits than it had projected, but state aid fell somewhat below spring estimates. "The revenue limit rose faster than state aid, and the gap is the property tax levy," said Michelle Nate, MPS director of finance.
While Nate is not lying--state aid still came in slightly under the Tommy Thompson-promised 2/3 even after Doyle's vetoes--the reason why MPS needs more money, in this teacher's humble opinion--is because over the last year the district wasted an estimated $1,000,000 every month because they refused to settle the teacher contract, locking the district into a more expensive health insurance plan for months longer than necessary. In addition, when the arbitrator selected the district's final offer in arbitration back in August, he selected the health insurance plan more expensive to taxpayers. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the district's--specifically, the superintendent's--intransigence is driving the need to squeeze more money from the taxpayers of Milwaukee.

DPI cracks down on delinquent voucher schools

No, I didn't miss this story from yesterday; I've been ungodly busy and stressed and even a little sick. Anyway, the story reports that Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction, emboldened, perhaps, by the legislature's codifying some small enforcement authority a while back, has started the process of shutting down some of the "schools" sucking up your tax dollars in a vacuum of standards and accountability:
State Department of Public Instruction officials are questioning whether academic programs at three schools in Milwaukee's groundbreaking voucher program meet minimum standards set by state law to be considered schools.

Two of the schools have been notified they will be dropped from the program, although officials of the two say they expect to reverse that decision. The third has been formally asked to document aspects of its program, but no decision has been made on action.

In addition, state regulators said Monday they had ordered Ida B. Wells Academy, a voucher school that received more than $94,000 in state funds last year, out of the program because it had not met several requirements. Two other voucher schools have not received checks this fall because they have not met financial reporting requirements.
The witheld checks are not a new story, but the booting of Ida B. Wells is. The three schools being questioned for possibly not meeting the paperwork definition of a "school" are the Dr. Brenda Noach Choice School and the L.E.A.D.E.R. Institute, both of which have been in the program for some years; and the new Northside High School. The Dr. Noach school, of course, was started by Dr. Noach, who has "three doctorates and a Ph.D." L.E.A.D.E.R. (which stands for . . . ?) wouldn't let a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter in last year because they weren't "ready" for outside visitors--maybe because they couldn't explain why 50 kids left their program between September 2004 and January 2005. Northside was started by Ricardo Brooks, the oblivious administrator of the now-closed-due-to-riots Academic Solutions who said, "We have a safe school" just before that school was shut down.

It's hard for me to believe that it's taken this long to crack down on some of these schools; it's harder for me to believe that now the Milwaukee Public Schools will find themselves responsible for catching the displaced students up to grade level without any state funds to pay for it--Third Friday is long past.

I again renew my call for some intrepid legislator to propose that all voucher schools be accredited by independent agencies (many already are) and that any new schools to the program operate for a school year without state voucher money to prove that they can offer a real, attractive curriculum to students. It's easy--just those two things would be all it would take to ensure, to a much greater degree, anyway, that your tax dollars aren't being wasted on schools like these.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A reminder to my Waukesha County readers: Vote Today

And remember that you can vote either for that one Republican, or you can vote for that other Republican.

Ain't Democracy grand?

UPDATE: Whaddyaknow, the Republican won!

Monday, October 17, 2005

F. Jim up for a Diddly!

Sadly, the Republican misrepresenting Wisconsin's fifth CD lost to Rick Santorum. But here's what got him the nomination for the Diddly, described as "The Aaron Burr Award for Constitutional Devotion":
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) lost his temper during a summer hearing on the Patriot Act. In the midst of sworn testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, he denounced the proceedings as “irrelevant” and angrily gaveled the meeting closed, in violation of the “unanimous consent” rule. As the floor erupted with protests from witnesses and opposition party members, Sensenbrenner’s staff turned off the microphones and then walked out.
Of course, I'm sure F. Jim feels it was an honor just to be nominated . . .

Another Week, Another Weekly

Some of us measure out our lives in coffee spoons, others in how often we sit down and read that whole pile of journals. It might be easier just to measure it by the new Advocate Weekly. Another nice set of reads, Joe. Thanks.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

WI-Gov: Race to the bottom

Craig Gilbert picks up on something I noted months ago, that Mark Green will have a hard time in the Wisconsin governor's race because--as a Republican member of the House--voters are dissatisfied with the way things are going:
But that restive mood also could complicate Green's own path to higher office. That's because Green is a sitting congressman whose party governs the country amid flagging political fortunes.

In the same Wisconsin poll, the public was even more negative about the direction of the nation than the state.

That poses challenges for Doyle and Green both, said Jim Miller, head of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, the conservative-leaning think tank that conducted the statewide poll.

"You may be having a race here: Who do the voters really dislike the most, D.C. or Madison?" Miller said.

Political analysts caution that national factors are often secondary in contests for state office. And with the election a year away, public sentiment could change.

But if the president and Congress remain unpopular, it is clear the Democrats' battle plan against Green would be to use voters' unhappiness with Washington against him. Green, who represents Wisconsin's 8th Congressional District surrounding Green Bay, is one of two Republicans hoping to oppose Doyle; the other is Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. Green and Walker face off in a highly competitive primary next September.
There are enough people on the internet who can tell you why you shouldn't vote for Doyle. Mark Green's association with Bush and his refusal to return more than $30,000 of money from Tom DeLay that he transferred to his campaign for Governor should tell you where his campaign is going. Add to it Scott Walker's insistence on crapping where he eats, and we may have a race to the bottom next year. What fun!

WI-8 Dem Primary: Obey Endorses Wall

I've been following the race in Wisconsin's eighth CD, though not with any kind of microscopic scrutiny. So I was surprised to see Friday morning that seventh CD representative Dave Obey was planning to endorse Jamie Wall in the primary.

Apparently, though, the endorsement was not a surprise to insiders in the race. Wall and Obey are friends, and Wall supposedly did not raise as much as he wanted to this quarter. To deflect from that story, Obey endorsed nearly a year before the primary. So this turns out not to be as big a deal as it could have been.

Other candidates in the race include Steve Kagen (profiled last month here) and Nancy Nusbaum.

Good thoughts for Chippewa Falls

I can't imagine how devestating it would be if something like this happened to my high school.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Friday Random Ten

The Vance Gilbert live tonight at the WSSS Edition

1. "Red's Song" The Jayhawks from Tomorrow the Green Grass
2. "The Last Stop" Dave Matthews Band from Before These Crowded Streets
3. "I Thought You Should Know" Steve Earle from The Revolution Starts Now
4. "Peter Pan" Patty Griffin from A Kiss in Time
5. "Waiting For Gilligan" Vance Gilbert from One Thru Fourteen
6. "Amaze Me" Girlyman from Remember Who I Am
7. "Child of Fall" The Common Faces from Gimme Live
8. "Galileo" Indigo Girls from 1200 Curfews
9. "Flying" Willy Porter from Dog Eared Dream
10. "Dracula from Houston" Butthole Surfers from Scrubs Soundtrack

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Harold Pinter gets the gravy

All that work on my Nobel acceptance speech, and for nothing. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

My Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Speech

The announcement will happen any minute now and--while, no, I haven't gotten a phone call or anything yet--I am sure I will win this year. I mean, that's the next logical step after all the other awards I've won this year. So, here's the acceptance speech I plan to give:
Friends, honored guests, relatives of the dude on the medal--thank you.

This prize is, as you know, the highest honor a writer can achieve, with the possible exception of being a punchline in "Get Fuzzy." And authors traditionally use their acceptance speeches to advocate for some worthy cause, to make some larger ideological point. This speech will be no exception. I would like to speak to you about the growing epidemic of shoe porn.

Shoe porn? you ask. Yes, shoe porn. Let me explain.

I teach high school. This is no secret; I'm sure that the Nobel committee considered my writings on Milwaukee's voucher program and the finer points of apostrophe abuse--all borne from my experience in the Milwaukee Public Schools--in making this decision. As a high school teacher, I frequently come into contact with high school students. I notice that many of these high school students have a fetish for the shoe porn.

These students carry around shoe porn magazines. They spend all their free time on shoe porn websites. (How this shoe porn makes it past the school district's filtering software, I don't know.) This addiction--for you know that it is as easy to become addicted to pronography as it is to become addicted to gambling or crystal meth--afflicts students of all ages, races, and it affects boys and girls equally. There are a couple of months in the spring when girls look at prom dresses, too, of course, but the shoe porn is everywhere at school.

My students, besides just looking at the shoe porn, also know far more than children their age should know about shoes. They know and debate the finer differences between textures, styles, prices, release dates, and so on. It unnerves me to hear them talk about tongues, about slipping into and out of these shoes of theirs. Sometimes, in what may be the most disturming and reckless behavior I have ever seen among students, children will trade shoes, wearing each others shoes for minutes or even hours at a time.

I cringe in horror at the thought of what might be passed around among their feet.

I cannot offer a solution to the problem of shoe porn; I cannot even offer hope that a solution might be found. All I can do is draw attention to this debilitating epidemic, this growing planter's wart on the heel of society. Better minds than I will have to seek answers. In the meantime, I will continue to use my voice--my Nobel-prize winning voice!--to sound the alarm.

Thank you again for this honor.
There you go. Now, I just sit back and wait for the phone to ring . . .

Missed Drinking Liberally

Because tonight was my school's open house--the kind of long day that makes me wish I did drink.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I have no idea what the editors are talking about

In an odd, rambling (yeah, yeah, who am I to complain about rambling), and eventually pointless editorial today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel describes but doesn't endorse a massive school spending program in Massachusetts:
The purse strings have been tight in education this decade in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and retrenchment has been the rule. Even as schools have striven to boost academic achievement, budget woes have driven them to scuttle such "frills" as art, music, driver's ed and library service.

That's why a costly, ambitious education plan that crossed our desk (or, rather, our computer screen) from another state the other day caught our eye. Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is proposing to give every middle and high school student in the state a laptop computer. He would also add 1,000 new math and science teachers and give the state's best teachers $5,000 bonuses. The tab for the plan: $46 million next year, $143 million the year thereafter.

Romney's plan holds lessons for industrial states like Wisconsin, which is trying to make a transition to a knowledge economy. Massachusetts is a leader in the knowledge revolution, and the governor is taking steps to ensure that it remains in the vanguard. [. . .]

Massachusetts boasts more personal wealth than does Wisconsin in part because the knowledge economy is so robust there. The trick now is to better invigorate that economy in Wisconsin--a goal that entails stepping up the investment in education, whence much of knowledge hails.

We don't necessarily endorse the specifics of Romney's plan, but its expansiveness against a backdrop of austerity is worth pondering.
I'm sure that J-Dizzle is pleased with the ego-stroking, but I have a hard time understanding why they wasted the editorial space on a program that "caught their eye", especially when the program is utterly unfeasible in Wisconsin.

Worse, though, this editorial plays into the hands of those whom Jim Horn warns us against:
Now, fifteen years later and well advanced into an era of testing hysteria that has left America’s children and parents edgy and anxious and our educators demoralized and exhausted, comes another education summit in February 2005, again in Virginia, and this time with the world’s top technocrat, Bill Gates, delivering the keynote. In the sights of the test-based reformers now is the American high school, as flabby it would seem as America’s school children and totally unprepared to insure the continuance of America’s economic predominance in the world. The high schools are so bad, it would seem, that students are leaving in droves, creating an embarrassing dropout rate for the world’s bastion of equal opportunity and economic success.

Those that are not leaving, according to the now-familiar narrative, are entering college without the basics that will assure their success in the high-tech jobs of the future. These students are so unprepared, says the familiar refrain, that corporations are looking to other countries to fill the need. Not mentioned is the fact that those high-tech and low-tech jobs are being funneled offshore into foreign job markets by people like Mr. Gates and the other CEOs at the Virginia summit who are unwilling to pay American workers a fair wage.
Horn's full essay--which I linked to a few weeks ago, so I know you read it--is a near-complete history of how technocrats have blamed schools for failures in America's business acumen over the last century. Mitt Romney and Bill Gates are the latest in that line, hoping to turn schools into training grounds for private enterprise rather than places for students to become actual human beings. They overlook failures in America's business model to instead blame me teachers.

The editors don't go that far (though they are about due for a teacher-blaming editorial), choosing instead to leave an open-ended question about the inadequacy of Wisconsin's schools to prepare students for the "information economy." Their solution--be more like Massachusetts?--is incomprehensible.

Teaching Tuesday: Rethinking Schools and Jonathan Kozol

Rethinking Schools is having a 20th anniversary party with Jonathan Kozol next month. RS is probably the leading progressive school reform organization in the country, with a fantastic magazine, outstanding publications, and an unflagging dedication to authentic learning experiences for children. You may recall that I relied on them heavily for my series on small school reform earlier this year. I will be at this fundraiser. I hope you can make it, too.
Twenty years ago, a group of Milwaukee-area teachers had a vision. They wanted to improve education in their own classrooms and schools and reform the public school system in the United States.

Today that vision is embodied in Rethinking Schools.

We are proud to celebrate 20 years of
• Covering issues of urban education and race
• Addressing key education policy issues
• Publishing groundbreaking education materials
• Fighting for justice and equality in our classrooms and the world

Join author Jonathan Kozol* and Rethinking Schools Editors for the
20th Anniversary Rethinking Schools Fundraiser

Cocktail & Appetizer Reception, 4:00-6:30 PM
Sunday November 13, 2005
2225 North Lake Drive
$50 per person


* Jonathan Kozol is the National Book Award-winning author of Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, and Amazing Grace. He has worked with children in inner-city schools for more than 40 years. His newest book, Shame of the Nation: Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America has already drawn national praise and attention from the New York Times and Harper's Magazine, among others. Copies of Shame of the Nation will be available for sale at the event along with many Rethinking Schools publications.

Help us continue the important work of Rethinking Schools another 20 years: Please consider co-sponsoring the event! Contact us for more details.

For more information please call or email us: 414-964-9646 or SupportRethinkingSchools@gmail.com

For your Tuesday reading pleasure

Joe's done another superb Advocate Weekly. Thanks, Joe.

And, apologies to Belle, I totally spooged and forgot to link last week's Carnival of the Badger. D'oh!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Campaign Finance and the Culture of Responsibility

Right Cheddarsphere denizen Lance Burri picks up on the Brian Burke Goes to Jail story, with a focus on calls for stricter campaign finance laws. He's against 'em:
We’ve already got laws on the books, and in [Burke's] case, those laws did their job. But never mind that. A pittance. A trifle. Not worth mentioning. No. We need more laws.

True, there may be episodes like Burke’s that go unprosecuted and unpunished. For example, this dreadfully underreported story: Wisconsin’s state government gave a travel contract worth $750,000 to a company that didn’t earn it, after the company’s owner gave $10,000 to Governor Doyle’s campaign.

Chicken feed, compared to the $700,000 the Indian casinos spent on Doyle’s 2002 campaign. But then, their payoff was supposed to be bigger.

Was pay-to-play involved? It sure looks that way. According to Madison’s Channel 27, at least 5 out of 7 members of the committee responsible for choosing a bidder preferred another company – the one that gave them the lowest bid.

But, when the smoke cleared, the state gave the contract to the Governor’s contributor.

It’s not likely we’ll ever prove pay-for-play. Linking a criminal act back to Governor Doyle and his administration would be next to impossible. So: that’s proof that the laws we’ve got aren’t enough. Right?

I suppose you could make that argument, but consider: in Burke’s case, a District Attorney aggressively pursued allegations of wrongdoing, which resulted in serious consequences for a powerful State Senator.

In the Governor’s case, a news team is aggressively pursuing a story. A story that looks dirty, even if all involved are really as clean and white as a Christmas Day snowfall. A story the voters deserve to hear.

End result? We – the voters – can make up our own minds when election time rolls around again.

Legal consequences in the first case. Potentially, political consequences in the second case. Because our legal system did its job, in the first case. Because our professional journalists did theirs, in the second.
To a real extent, Lance's argument makes sense. If what Burke (and Jensen and Foti and Chvala and so on) did was illegal, there are legal consequences that can be applied. If the voters disapprove of J-Dizzle's pandering (or that of Gard or others), they can vote him out. In traditional Republican parlance, this might be considered the "culture of responsibility"--when people do wrong, punish them.

I, on the other hand, take a more traditional Democratic position; I would rather see the motivation to do wrong reduced or eliminated. Take the war on drugs, for example. Republicans salivate at the thought of imprisoning addicts and dealers, while Democrats would rather bring jobs to drug-addled neighborhoods and heal, rather than punish, addictions.

In the realm of campaign finance, the Democratic solution is to eliminate the culture of corruption that led Burke (et al.) to break the law, and led J-Dizzle (and Gard) to skirt the law in his deals. Public financing of campaigns--a system like Arizona's, maybe--would eliminate the constant need to trawl for more money, stopping before they begin the kinds of crimes or ethical challenges that Doyle (and Gard) and Burke (and friends) were doing that led to prosecution or journalistic scrutiny.

Right now, Madison is so deeply mired in the business of campaigning, rather than the business of governing, that the people's business is not getting done. Republicans are too busy posturing for the Pro-Life Wisconsin crowd to effect real change, for example. Every day I get an email from some Democrat asking for money. While I could remind them that I am a humble public servant and can't afford it all, I'd rather remind them that they were elected to govern, not solicit.

So, there you have it, Lance. I'm not looking for more laws for the sake of more laws; I'm looking to change the culture of corruption in Madison. And that's not a pittance.

Two related schools stories

First, we have the Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance's annual hand-wringing over public school spending:
School spending statewide rose 4.6% last school year, the largest increase in three years, according to a new report by a non-partisan taxpayers group. [. . .]

Last year, Wisconsin school districts spent an average of $10,367 per student, or $477 more than the year before. Public schools enrollment dropped 0.3% last year, making the per-pupil increase slightly higher, at 4.8%.

Because the state's share of school costs for that year increased only by 0.5%, most of the additional money came from increased property taxes, which were up 7.2% last year, the alliance says. [. . .]

The majority of the school spending last year went for instructional costs, which went up 5%, to $6,068 per student. Spending on teacher salaries and benefits rose 4.6%. The rising costs of health insurance have spurred some districts to call for a referendum so they can spend more than they are allowed under state law, [WTA president Todd] Berry said. "One of the things putting pressure on districts in terms of cost is that the state revenue cap often doesn't grow as fast as the salary and fringes grow," he said.
One thing not mentioned in the article, or the WTA analysis, is that most school districts settled their 2003-2005 contracts during the last school year, resulting, in most cases, in both raises and back pay for staff. That alone would account for a good chunk of the increase over the previous year. Beyond that, what Berry noted about the increasing cost of benefits is true. I will come back to that in a moment.

Before I do, we have the second story, which is all about how the high cost of energy is squeezing schools' budgets:
With tax increases limited by state revenue caps, Wisconsin's public schools are wrestling with a question felt throughout the nation: how to pay unexpected higher energy bills.

Like many districts, the Kenosha Unified School District has cut programs. It raised class sizes, cut school counselors and eliminated some district secretaries and administrators in order to budget $500,000 for the expected increases.

"It's like someone on a fixed income," says Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. "How do you afford that increase in gas prices? It cuts into education services--and everything else."

Milwaukee Public Schools face bus fuel prices $1.5 million higher than expected, said Gretchen Schuldt, a fiscal policy analyst for MPS. The district doesn't anticipate a problem with heating bills, she said, because it pre-purchased natural gas at a budgeted rate. But that won't be the case next year.

"We are expecting a multimillion-dollar hit next year," said Michelle Nate, finance director for MPS. "Every million dollars is the equivalent of $11 per student that could otherwise be used to buy teachers. The more we have to spend to heat the building, the less we can spend on classrooms."
Part of me wants to just say, "Welcome to George Bush's America--where the oil companies make record profits and school districts fire teachers to buy gas." But I know that that kind of attitude isn't helpful.

Instead, note the common thread here between these stories. School districts are being asked to provide consistently better performance (No Child Left Behind requires "Adequate Yearly Progress") on revenue-capped budgets bedeviled by spiraling costs outside the district's control. On the one hand, the cost of health care keeps increasing at many times the rate of inflation, forcing districts to choose between making a difficult job that much less attractive to good teachers and siphoning money out of the classroom. On the other hand, the price of energy is also increasing at far above the rate of inflation, again forcing a choice between teachers and comfortable classrooms. There is no wiggle room in school budgets for this kind of unreasonable and unexpected inflation in costs.

All of this points to something I have believed for a long time about "tax freezes" or TABOR idiocy: It is nonsensical to arbitrarily tie government spending to inflation (like the CPI), because what governments buy is very different from what consumers buy. While yes, consumers buy both energy and health care, those costs make up a vastly greater proportion of school district budgets (for example) than household budgets.

What you end up with is the kind of mess you see in current municipal budget proposals, from Tom Barrett's fee-increase laden budget tin the city of Milwaukee to Scott Walker's decimation of services in his Milwaukee County budget proposal. No one wins under either scenario.

The answer, of course, is not higher taxes. The answer lies in a national health care policy that takes insurance costs out of the hands of employers--including municipal employers whose budgets are paid by taxpayers. The answer lies in a national energy policy that encourages conservation and alternate, renewable energy instead of handouts to energy companies. Neither of these things can happen without a national will to make them so. And what's frustrating to me as an informed citizen--and as a municipal employee for whom "greater efficiency" means teaching 40 students in a class--is that all of the various governmental entities facing these crises haven't raised a collective howl, to force the political will to make these changes. Taxpayers, too, should be screaming bloody murder, since they are hit both in their personal pocketbooks and in their tax bills.

And yet the political will remains absent.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

My biggest problem with SCOTUS nominees

I'm just going to lay it out for you all. I have big, big problems with new Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice nominee Harriet Miers. But my biggest concern, the biggest issue for me, has nothing to do with ideology or qualifications, or anything of the sort.

It's about apostrophes.

I'll level with you: Apostrophe abuse and misuse is perhaps the single greatest threat facing the blogs. And I won't close my eyes and pretend that George W. Bush hasn't sold us down the river on this score. He has made it much, much worse for bloggers to do their jobs, and he's made it much, much harder for punctuation sticklers like me to read the blogs without throwing things in frustration.

Repeat after me: All singular nouns take apostrophe-s to show possession. Period. Full stop. End of sentence. With the exception of some traditional fudging for historical names (as in the famous "for Jesus' sake" example from Strunk & White), every singular noun--including proper nouns that end in s--needs apostrophe-s if you are using the possessive.

So, it's now Roberts's court. The Senate will consider Miers's nomination. Got it?

And jeebus help you if I see Robert's or Mier's on your blog.

All Hat, No Cattle: a cycle of bluster, blunder, and blame

I'm clearing out some of the things from the last week that I wanted to write about but haven't had time to, including this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial from yesterday:
President Bush spoke before a Washington, D.C., audience this week at a time when many Americans are growing weary of the war in Iraq, uncertain of success there, confused about our country's military and political strategy and nervous about the high and continuing cost in U.S. lives and dollars. If the speech was intended to provide the basis for optimism about the war and, as consequence, improve Bush's sagging political ratings, it didn't work. [. . .]

Bush's speech displayed little awareness of what has happened in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003. In fact, it was a speech that, change a few details, he could have delivered before the invasion began. It was a campaign speech, long on boilerplate, short on details and insights. Those who believe the U.S. is on the right track in Iraq probably came away from it more confident than ever. Those who have doubts about this country's strategy probably came away unsatisfied and bewildered.
I did not watch the speech because I, you know, have a job and stuff, and also because I can't listen to the man for very long without dissolving into an incoherent fit of profanity and spittle. But I read the reviews and the transcript, and cannot fathom how anyone could possibly take it seriously. Bush lamented how there's a "temptation in the middle of a long struggle to seek the quiet life, to escape the duties and problems of the world" when he vacations more than the French. Bush went into a long litany of evils the other side supposedly does:
Evil men obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience must be taken very seriously [. . . They] pretend to be in an aggrieved party, representing the powerless against imperial enemies. In truth, they have endless ambitions of imperial domination and they wish to make everyone powerless except themselves.

Under their rule, they have banned books and desecrated historical monuments and brutalized women.
This very list is everything Bush and the Republicans have become in the last five years. They exhibit naked political and world ambition; they get their way by playing the victim as often as possible. And let's not get into burning of books, desecrating monuments, and targeting women, okay?

But the point at the end of what I quoted--that Bush True Believers were strengthened in their resolve by the speech while the rest of us wondered what planet Bush was from--is borne out by Barbara O'Brien in a couple of pieces about the speech. In the first, she asks,
Have you ever noticed that, on a very simple level, righties support Bush because of what he says and lefties oppose him because of what he does?

For example, I'm sure at some point you've crossed paths with a rightie who is fired up about the "liberation" of Iraq. You know the dance. You make faces; the rightie assumes you oppose the war because you don't want the Iraqi people liberated. But in fact you oppose the war because the Iraqi people aren't being liberated. At best they're in a transitional phase between despots. Americans are fighting and dying to establish an Islamic theocracy, assuming civil war doesn't take down the "nation-building" process first. But the rightie won't even listen to this. Bush says we're liberating Iraq, and that's it. [. . .]

Here's an editorial in today's Los Angeles Times:
PRESIDENT BUSH SPOKE FORCEFULLY on Thursday about the threat from within to Islam, and what the United States is doing to protect Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia. Yet the president is strangely reluctant to take even the smallest step to protect Muslim prisoners being held by U.S. forces in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. His rhetoric will be exposed as even emptier than usual if he keeps squandering opportunities to back it up.
See? There's what Bush says, and then there's what Bush does; two elements that rarely inhabit the same time-space continuum.
She goes on to cite "Blog of the Year" Powerline and its fawning response to the speech:
Hinderaker's take is that the President was trying to warn us of the dangers of terrorism, and the news media won't listen. [. . . He] presents a paragraph from Bush's speech and challenges us lefties to argue with it. But I cannot argue with the paragraph. It's a fine paragraph. I agree with everything Bush says in that paragraph. The problem is not with what he says, but with what he does.
And this is where I think somehow, maybe, just maybe, the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court might start changing some minds on the other side. All week we've heard the criticism from the vocal right minority that Bush should have nominated someone more obvously on their side to replace centrist Sandra Day O'Connor. Never mind that Miers's much-touted born-againness means she is probably one of them; Bush's refusal to nominate another Scalia or Thomas--as promised--is a violation of the right's faith in him. Well, welcome to the club. The rest of us have been seeing for five years how what Bush says and what he does are often polar opposites, from changing the tone in Washington to being a uniter not a divider to keeping us safe.

Bush's speech again idiotically associated the current debacle in Iraq with terrorism. He explicitly links Iraq to the Beslan school massacre in Russia last year, a Chechen and al Qaida operation that included no Iraqis and was not linked to the US invasion. How can we take seriously someone who gets basic facts like that wrong? How long will he invoke 9/11 to justify his folly?

Barbara O'Brien's second post expands on the idea from the warrenterra to Bush in general:
Bush's style of "leadership" is to declare what he wants to happen and to expect his underlings to make it happen. This is essentially his approach to Social Security reform, for example. He wants to switch part of the program to private accounts but doesn't bother his smirky little head with the very thorny, and costly, process that would be required to accomplish this. Details are for the hired help to worry about. [. . .]

As I wrote Friday, the goals Bush presented in the speech sound just grand. I don't disagree with any of them. Who can be opposed to replacing "hatred and resentment with democracy and hope"? And, hey, I'm all for peace and freedom. But by now even a potted plant should have noticed that, with Bush, the gap between rhetoric and results is vaster than the Pacific. [. . .]

Although Bush does seem to care personally about Social Security "reform," if not enough to sweat the details, for the most part he uses issues only as a means to achieve power. Whether conservative policies are successfully implemented is a minor concern. Take (please) No Child Left Behind. He still likes to talk about it as if it were a marvelous achievement. But this NPR report says NCLB "has sweeping promises, irresponsible authority, and is more expensive than many school systems can afford." (Hmm, sweeping promises, irresponsible authority, too expensive. The quintessential Bushie program.) Although he seems proud of his program, Bush has shown little interest in dealing with the problems and making the program work as promised. As long as NCLB is a useful rhetorical device for Bush, it's a success as far as he's concerned.
NCLB is actually a very salient example, for it is the one that will probably be the most far-reaching in its domestic consequences. I myself have argued repeatedly that the broad goals of NCLB--including making plain failures that schools often try to hide--are valid and inarguable. But the methods used to achieve those goals, and the utter lack of support from the enforcement agency, are diriving schools, districts, states, and, most importantly, parents up the wall. It will not be very much longer until all the just-below-the-surface tensions surrounding NCLB come to the fore. Connecticut has already sued over underfunding; states as Republican as Utah and as close to D.C. as Virginia have considered similar radical action against the strictures of the law.

And yet, when anyone dares speak against the shortcomings in the implementation of No Child Left Behind, they are chided for wanting students to fail. Anyone opposing Social Security reform wants old people to eat cat food and die. Anyone opposing the war in Iraqi doesn't want Arabs to experience democracy. O'Brien again:
The Right's trump card is, of course, that questioning the "mission" amounts to helping the enemy. You know they're all set to blame us lefties if when the "mission" finally turns into a rout--as if the incompetence and blundering of the Bush Administration had nothing to do with it. [. . . T]he people who blame the Left for failure are the same ones who shouted down any attempt an meaningful debate before the Iraq invasion. Having hustled We, the People into war on false pretenses, now they scream that opposition to the war is unpatriotic. Sorry; democracy doesn't work that way.
This cycle of bluster, blunder, and blame is what the Republican agenda has been reduced to. They have taken the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and turned it into a sideshow, complete with barkers and con men looking at us as the marks.

Of course, the big question is, can Democrats make this clear to the people, can they capitalize on the growing dissatisfaction with the way things are going? Because if we can't take back at least one house in 2006, and the presidency in 2008, it won't be long until this whole country is an empty lot full of trash and bitter marks once the sideshow leaves town.