Vouchers and random thoughts on education reform

In Tennessee, we are experiencing renewed discussion on school vouchers.  Essentially, that’s taking State education dollars and allowing parents to use those dollars toward private school tuition instead.   The initial bill would apply only in the state’s four largest cities (Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville), and only to economically disadvantaged students.

At first blush, why not?  Shouldn’t poor parents have the same opportunity for their children’s success as well-to-do parents?

The heart of the matter is, that ‘s the problem that public education seeks to address in the first place.  Vouchers wouldn’t level that playing field, because the dollars they’re offering (about $5k/year) wouldn’t cover the tuition at most, if any, private or parochial schools.  If the parents are poor to begin with, it’s unlikely that they could come up with the difference.

Secondly, private schools don’t play by the same rules as public schools.  Getting in is not just a matter of paying the tuition, but being accepted in the first place.  Academic and behavioral records are a strong factor, as are things like the ability to pass an admissions test.  Of course, a strong athlete might be granted a waiver on those types of things if the private school was looking to beef up the football team.  However, since private schools aren’t held to the same accountability standards as public schools, who’s to say that little Johnny Quarterback is going to be any better educated when he gets out?

If you believe the generalization that public schools are failing and private schools are not, why not level the playing field and make the rules the same for both?  Require all to take (or not take) the same tests; require the same (or no) certification and evaluation of teachers.  Allow both (or neither) to use selective admissions criteria.

But if we did that, then what would be the distinction between the two?

*  *  *  *  *

This morning, I read in the Commercial Appeal that some schools are now offering supper (in addition to breakfast and lunch) to students enrolled in their after-school programs.  Granted, I understand that the only nutritious meals some children receive are those served at school, but at the same time, one of the key factors in a child’s well-being is the consistency of meals taken with the family.

If that’s not happening, what’s the value of going home at all?

One of the commenters noted that perhaps the school should simply become a boarding school, and just send the kiddos home on weekends for a visit.  Perhaps that comment was in jest or sarcasm, but… why not?  For kids in the worst inner-city schools, with the worst home conditions, that might very well be the best thing that could happen.

If the state and/or federal dollars that currently go to support those families (WIC, food stamps, welfare, housing subsidy) instead followed the children to boarding school, I’d bet that the kids could improve academically and socially a whole lot faster.   They would be in a stable environment where study and proper behavior was the norm.  They would be properly nourished, with adequate sleep and supervision.  They would not be subjected to the criminal environment that pervades their parents’ neighborhoods.

It sounds like a drastic change, but not unlike the drastic changes sweeping public education in Tennessee today.  We’ve added high standards and testing for students, as well as high standards and evaluations for teachers.  To truly succeed in reform, however, we need to address the quality of parenting.


Hometown Stew

A week or so ago, the news broke that a former losing candidate for State Rep has filed a recall petition against our Mayor, Tom Beehan.

Mr. Moseley is upset about several things, but those he mentioned were the 5-2 Council vote in July to opt out of the State’s new law permitting handgun carry permit holders to carry in parks — state parks, city parks, etc.  But, the law allows local governments to opt out.  Ours did.   The other hot-button issue was the City’s relatively recent (though before the most recent election) decision to use cameras for traffic enforcement  There are four areas now where you must obey the speed limit, and two where you have to also stop for red lights, or you’ll receive a camera-generated ticket.

Sheesh, the nerve of City Council expecting us to actually obey the law.

Jake had a good writeup over at Jakandybennu, so absorb that to get the full flavor.

Today, I learned that Moseley’s house is on the market.  Reportedly, he’s purchased property and is planning to build a new house off in the far reaches of the county, up by the Union County line.

So, if the guy’s bailing on the City anyway, why bother initiating a recall on our Mayor?  Particularly since he led the ballot in the election we just had in June?

Hate to say it (again), but it sure looks like a ploy just to get his name in the newspaper… and maybe a list of names and addresses to mine for fundraising purposes next year.

Though perhaps uncharitable, my first thought was, “don’t let the door hit you…”

Mountain Wisdom

This morning, Robin Smith — Chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party — kicked the Speaker of the House out of the GOP.  In doing so, she negated the party’s majority; worse, she sent a message that anyone not in lockstep with the hard right isn’t welcome anymore.

It wasn’t always that way.  It shouldn’t be that way now.

The Elizabethton Star said it quite plainly:

   The two-party system has served this country well. There is never going to be a time when everyone agrees on the same candidate. We all have different values, different views and different opinions on how government can best serve the people, and how people can best serve their government. To disagree is not wrong. Not every Republican agrees on every matter nor does every Democrat. Heaven help us if they do.

     Furthermore, we do not think that Republicans in Memphis and Chattanooga, where Ms. Smith is from, should be meddling in Carter County politics. We may live in the mountains, but we aren’t ignorant. We are learned enough in politics to vote. We don’t need the bright out-spoken lawyer from Memphis nor the "blonde" saleswoman from Chattanooga to tell us how to vote, nor do we need them to select our candidates. My gosh, our ancestors were the first to settle in Tennessee. They formed the first independent government west of the Alleghenies. Long before there was a Tennessee or a Chattanooga or a Memphis, our folks were living here in the Watauga Settlement. They were busy building a community and forming a government. I don’t know if they were Republicans or Democrats, but it really doesn’t matter. They were daring, brave and they sure didn’t let the British tell them what to do.

     Perhaps, Ms. Smith should know that when she kicks our representative out of the Republican Party, she has dealt a blow to every Williams voter in Carter County.

     And, what’s more, the members of the Republican Party will have shot themselves in the foot — they no longer will have the majority in the Tennessee House. It keeps getting worse for Rep. Jason Mumpower. First, he was shot out of the saddle as House Speaker. Now, if Williams is kicked out of the Republican Party, he will become chairman of the minority party rather than the majority.

Back in the 1990’s, it was productive and fun to be affiliated with the "big tent" party.  Today, I am ashamed of Ms. Smith and her short-sighted temper tantrum.  Congratulations on single-handedly losing the majority.

The Republican Glass:

Is it half-empty, or half-full?

Outrage abounds following yesterday’s election of Kent Wiliams, R-Elizabethton, as Speaker of the House in the Tennessee Legislature.  Williams is described as a moderate, and claims to have the best interest of the State at heart:

“Today is not about Kent Williams or Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, and it’s not about Jason Mumpower,” Williams said. “It’s not about Democrats and Republicans. Today is about change. … We need to utilize the talents of all the members of this General Assembly, not just the Democratic Party and not just the Republican Party. … For too many years, we’ve had talented representatives sit on the sidelines without any input into legislation. A lot of legislation we want to vote on we don’t get the chance. That’s going to change.”

There are plenty of places to get the spilled milk version, but consider for a moment whether there may be an upside:  under Mumpower’s leadership, might there be a possibility that the House would have operated in much the same manner as under Naifeh’s iron fist, but with favoritism of different individuals and issues?  Might such partisanship, coupled with too much change, too fast, have resulted in a backlash loss of majority two years from now?

In my view, it’s important to have some balance, because it’s going to matter much more that Republicans have a majority two years from now when redistricting occurs, and when we elect the next governor.  I’m willing to live with more gradual change, to prevent catastrophic losses in 2010.

Therefore, I reserve judgment on Williams’ speakership until I see what he does.  He is a Republican, elected by the people of his district with a substantial victory.  While his method may have been deplorable, it’s the same playbook used by John Wilder in the 1990s, which benefited Republicans in the Senate.


To the new majority

So-called pro-life Republicans took the balance of power in Tennessee this year, but I’m left wondering, are you really pro-life?

Or are you just anti-abortion?  Being anti-abortion is much easier.  With the push of a button and the stroke of a pen, you simply criminalize an option you don’t like.  Just be sure, in the fiscal note, to build in some additional prison space, along with some serious emergency-room costs for women driven by desperation to the unsafe and illegal.

The difference is simple: to be truly pro-life, one has to devote at least as much effort toward saving the babies already outside the womb.  As Aunt B. so eloquently notes,

One in five babies in that neighborhood did not live to see their first birthdays.  You have a better chance of celebrating your child’s first birthday in Afghanistan than you do on the south side of Nashville.  In Memphis, an infant dies every 43 hours (yes, those are tiny coffins).  Every other day a family loses their baby.


That’s not going to be an easy challenge.  It would mean funding access to birth control for people you think should simply abstain, putting aside the values you think they should have, in deference to the realities they actually live.

It would mean putting more resources into prenatal care for girls and women you don’t think should be procreating to begin with, whose children you will have to pay to feed, clothe, doctor, and educate for the next 18 years.

Are you really pro-life?  Your actions will serve as your answers. 

* * * * *
If you’re serious about success, Say Uncle sums it up nicely.

Charter Congratulations

Although most of the nation waited expectantly for news of who will be our next President, I fell asleep before even the local results were in.

It was a long day for me, campaigning for the ten candidates I supported for Charter Commission.  I couldn’t vote for all ten, obviously — and it was hard to narrow my choices down to seven.  But they’re a fine group of people, including some folks new to city politics that I hope to see on the ballot again someday.

Five of ours were elected: Gene Caldwell, Pat Postma, Leonard Abbatiello, Chuck Agle, and David McCoy.  Girlfriend pointed out in an early morning e-mail that the youngest one elected is 50-something… wondering if some of the town’s seniors bought into the idea spread by some of the opposition that the future of the Senior Center depended on election of the "right" candidates for Charter Commission.

That’s just silly, of course, but no sillier than some of the other half-truths or outright falsehoods spread during the campaign.

I’m also grateful for our five candidates who ran but were not elected: Mary Helen Rose, who is knowledgeable about the Charter; Ella DuBose, who served on the Charter Review Committee and is someone I’d really like to see continue in public life in Oak Ridge; Paula Flowers, a relative newcomer to Oak Ridge but with tremendous expertise and insight into the types of issues we’re dealing with; Scott Linn, a history teacher at Jefferson who is reasonable, personable, and brings perspective to our challenges; and Mike Mahathy, a health physicist who is a bundle of energy  with great ideas, and committed to the future of this City.

Everyone put in a great deal of work, with most devoting as much (or more) effort to the success of the whole as to their personal campaigns.  That, to me, is a tremendous statement of readiness for public office — a willingness to put the success of an idea or effort above one’s personal goals.

Folks, my hat’s off to all of you.

Liveblogging: Charter Commission Forum

First, the rules: no questions will be allowed that are directed to a particular candidate.  Questions are screened to eliminate redundancy.  Opening remarks are limited to two minutes, and answers to questions are limited to a minute and a half.  No video recording is allowed; the media is allowed to tape the forum, but are not allowed to permit the recording to be altered in any way, nor used for any candidate advertising.

Gene Caldwell, Pat Postma, and Dave McCoy had their opening comments read by representatives, as they were unable to be here.

Each candidate makes an opening comment.  Of the first six, Chuck Agle is the first to stay within his time limit, but finding time to remind the audience of our history with district elections — that candidates were elected with fewer than 100 votes, and that in 1971, more than half of the council races (seven of twelve) were uncontested.

Ella Dubose compares the city to a computer, with the City Charter as the operating system.  We’re charged now with determining whether an "upgrade" is needed, especially since all software doesn’t work with all systems.

Scott Linn, a history teacher at Jefferson Middle School, says it’s essential to be open minded and reasonable when considering changes to the City Charter.  District representation didn’t work — Oak Ridge can’t afford to experiment with failed policies.  We need to work together.

Mike Mahathy points out that challenges are opportunities, but the future of Oak Ridge rests in the results of this Charter Commission.

Mary Helen rose recalls that she was the recording secretary for the last Charter Commission, and served on the Charter Review Committee last year.  "When I’m unhappy with Council, it’s usually because I don’t like one of their decisions, but I doubt that I would be any happier if they were elected by district, or if there were nine instead of seven."

*  *  *

Questions from the local media are next on the agenda.  Stan Mitchell, publisher of the Oak Ridge Observer, asks first:

Because the current City Council is elected at large, it has been said that this leads to some areas being unfairly represented.

Abbatiello: Both forms of government are representative; it’s just a different technique.  Districts create yet another sub group.  It can work reasonably well, until you never have enough candidates to compete.  Our primary issues are citywide, and we need to find the technique that allows us to focus on these citywide issues.

Burns: Two recent decisions were on the mall, and on Crestpoint.  Council’s votes on those matters indicate that Council is not hearing, or not listening, to the people.

Agle: During Abbatiello’s term, our tax rate remained relatively stable.  If we changed to districts representation, there would be no hope of restraint in spending.

Dittner: The Woodland hotel issue illustrates that the current Council is not working, that Council is not listening to neighborhoods.

DuBose: I believe that our Council represents all of the city, and that they’re working on neighborhood revitalization.

John Huotari asks, why districts?

Fain: A broad opportunity for people to be listened to, strengthening the health of our democracy, would be supported by district representation.

Flowers:  There are pros and cons for district representation.  You can get into some one-upsmanship, with Council members refusing to vote for a project because another district council member voted against a different project in their own district.  "If you don’t like the way the coach is calling the game, you don’t change the rules."


Linn: what concerms me about district representation is that it takes away from the individual’s voting power.  Now, we vote for 100% of council members; under the CDAR proposal, one would only be able to vote for up to four of nine.  The Founding Fathers did provide for a blended government (districts for the lower house, at-large for the senate), but they also made the constitution very difficult to amend.  It is a concern how easily our charter can be amended.

Stan Mitchell asks if we need to raise the threshold for referendums.

Mahathy: I believe that the standard for a referendum should be raised.

Jones: Of course we need to have referendums.  We wouldn’t have this call for change if they felt like they were being heard.

Rose: I’m inclined to think that it should be a little more difficult to call for a referendum, especially for a Charter Commission.

Schramm: Referendums are absolutely necessary.  This is not the end of the process, it is the beginning.  If we elect a Charter Commission

Jjohn Huotari asks, what other issues do you think the Charter Commission ought to consider.

Abbatiello: the democratic process is designed to garner input in a respectful manner.  He outlines the sections of the charter, but does not answer the question.

Burns: only interested in the district question.

Agle: Need to point out the unintended consequences.  Recent court rulings indicate that we may end up with a ruling that we must also have a district or hybrid school board.  The charter is an opportunity to put into place some planning mechanisms.  We have no real plan for growth going forward, so every time there’s an opportunity — it’s a surprise!  We need to take the surprise out of the process.

Dittner: I got into this only to discuss districts and the number of council members.

DuBose: I think the things that should be considered is driven by the citizens.

Stan Mitchell asks, who do you think runs this city, and do you think a strong mayor form of government should be considered?

Fain: On the map of the city, there is a strong pattern of where Council members, as well as people who sit on city boards, live.  There are neighborhoods that are seriously out of balance int he amount of power.  (She didn’t answer the question).

Flowers: With the City Manager form of government, you have a strong separation of powers.  In a town this size, you’ve got to have someone whose administrative role is to attend to the day-to-day form of government.  I’m a strong proponent of the City Manager form of government.

Humphries: It should be the City Manager who runs the city, but Council meets only once per months.  Now, they have a meeting before the meeting, which is better, because the other way looked too much like rubber-stamping the City Manager’s proposals.  I have no personal feelings on the strong mayor form.

Linn: a balance of legislative policy with city council and with the city manager dealing with the business seems to work well.  I would be open-minded to look into something like that, but the current practice seems to work well.

Iskander: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But I think it is broken.

Mahathy: If you’re not happy with the results, vote for a new Council.  If elected, I will move to adjourn on the first meeting.

Jones: 26 cities in Tennessee have a mixed form of government.  She recalls that in Knoxville, a Council member named O’Connor favored at-large, and a council member named Cas Walker favored a mix of at large and districts.

Rose:  We keep hearing that we’re not represented, but I believe that our 7-member Council represents us well.  When we are unhappy, it’s not because the Council member doesn’t live in our district, it’s because we’re unhappy with some decision that was made.

Schramm: the previous charter commission didn’t even consider districts.  Running at-large takes a lot of time, and more importantly, a lot of money.  People who run are those with the deepest pockets.

*  *  * (5-minute break) *  *  *

Candidates have answered audience questions, but there wasn’t really any new information brought forth.


The Charter Commission

Jerry Marrow writes, in a letter to the Oak Ridger today, that "there is danger on the horizon with the election of this Charter Commission."
That is true — though it may be the only thing he wrote that is true.  Let’s take the rest of the errors one by one:

Like most small towns, our city has been run for the benefit of a few. The rest of us pay the highest taxes in the state and get the least amount for it. We’re number one.

Um, no.  We all pay the same tax rate.  Even businesses that receive tax abatements, like Bristol Place apartments, are still paying the same tax rate as everyone else… the abatement just defers taxation on the full value of their improvements for a few years.  So, they’re still paying a lot more in property taxes than they did before the development.  And they’ll pay even more after the abatement period.

We’re all taxed equally; businesses pay taxes on 40% of their assessed value, and homeowners pay taxes on 25% of their assessed value.  It’s all the same tax rate.

Secondly, our tax rate is not the highest in the state — see for yourself.  With a combined City/County tax rate of $5.45 (that’s the Anderson Co. part; the Roane Co. part is lower), compare that to Memphis ($7.29), Germantown and Bartlett ($5.63), Knoxville ($5.50), and others.  Yes, our tax rate is higher than most.  However, we get more than most — would you compare our schools, our police department, our refuse removal, to any of those places?

We get a lot of bang for the buck in Oak Ridge.

The term for a council member would be two years.  These people are like gym socks, you can’t change them often enough.

I challenge you to ask anyone who has served in local elected office — current or former — if their first two years of service were the most effective.  I’m confident that every one would concede that there’s a learning curve, and that they became more effective once they came up to speed.  So rather than gym socks, let’s use a little different analogy: would you change dentists every two years, because it’s better to have one fresh out of dental school than one with more experience?

Maybe not.

We should have district representation with the council member living in that district. I do not trust and neither should you trust somebody to take care of your district that doesn’t live there. As I’ve documented before, my area and your area is being cheated out of city monies.

Oak Ridge is small enough that people living in the various geographic areas (voting precincts?) have much more in common than differences.  The population of ONE Nashville City Council district is more than half the size of all of Oak Ridge — and they have 40 people on City Council, not counting the Mayor!

The last part of his blurb is one that you should think about very carefully:  in the previous paragraph, he complains about the tax rate.  Next, he wants more spent on his district.  Is it not natural to conclude that, if Council members were elected by district, each would want more spent in his or her district than in others — regardless of need or overall benefit to the City as a whole?  Think earmarks and pork-barrel spending.

Lastly, the allegation of some areas being "cheated out of city monies" is very serious, but no specifics are offered.  It’s instructive to note that the district (precinct) that has received the most in city expenditures during the term of this Council — Highland View — does not have a Council member residing in that district.

*  *  *  *  *
I could go on, refuting his errors line-by-line until the end, but the picture should be clear enough by now.  Early voting begins a week from tomorrow; visit www.OakRidgeCharter.com and get information on the issue and candidates.

You can vote for seven… it might be wise to make your list.

Sunday Browsing

Without question, Barack Obama has mastered new media better than any national candidate I’ve seen to date.  From an effective web presence to his own iPhone app., he’s clearly taking advantage of today’s communications technologies.

But, his online fundraising is raising some questions, as reported in the Toledo Blade:

Mr. Good Will – who lists his employer as "Loving" and his profession as "You" – has contributed 1,000 times to the Barack Obama campaign.

All the contributions have been in amounts of $25 or less. But they add up to $17,375 – far more than the legal limit of $4,600. That’s $2,300 each for the primary and general election campaigns.
Kenneth Timmerman, a reporter for NewsMax, a conservative Web site, discovered Mr. Good Will when he reviewed 1.4 million individual contributions in the latest Federal Elections Commission master file for the Obama campaign.
Mr. Good Will said he was from Austin, Texas. When I called directory assistance, they could find no listing for him.
Mr. Doodad Pro made 786 contributions for a total of $19,500. Like Mr. Good Will, Mr. Pro lists his employer as "Loving" and his profession as "You." Mr. Pro said he is from Nunda, N.Y. Directory assistance found no listing for him either.
Mr. Obama has raised a whopping $223 million in contributions of less than $200. Candidates are not required to disclose the names of those who contribute less than $200, and Mr. Obama has not. John McCain has made his complete donor database available online. …

We ought to be concerned about this.  Whether it’s simply a matter of circumventing the rules, or something more frightening like foreign investment in the US Presidential election, it’s clear that something is wrong with this picture.

*  *  *
During the whole bailout mess, we heard quite a bit from Congressman Bawney Fwank about why this is a good deal for America.  I still don’t think it is; at best, it’s good like amputating a gangrenous limb is good.  It’s going to be ugly and painful, even if necessary to save our economy (about which I’m not at all certain).

But everyone should also be aware of Bawney’s conflict of interest, and how he perhaps helped us into the mess to begin with.

*  *  *
RC brought up an interesting point the other day, before the House and Senate passed Bailout 2.0.  We’ve made loans to other countries for years, and nothing happens when they default.  So, what would happen if we defaulted on China?  Anything?

RC actually had her own bailout solution: ask the 500 wealthiest Americans (or 1,000) if they’d be willing to pitch in the capital for the bailout.  Give THEM the oversight control, and agree that any profits they earned would be 100% TAX EXEMPT.  I’d have a lot more confidence in Warren Buffet’s expertise to manage his way out of this mess than anyone on Capitol Hill.  And, since it would be their money, they could do whatever is necessary to turn things around.

I’m betting that the profit motive would work much better than a thousand miles of red tape.

Oak Ridge District Elections

Since some folks decided that we need to study and perhaps revise the City Charter again (it was just done in 2004, and updated last month), I thought it would be worthwhile to really study the political history of Oak Ridge. 

First of all, what did districts look like in Oak Ridge?  Not surprisingly, they looked a lot like our current precinct structure… except that we had a couple extra precincts then that we don’t have now, and we’ve added a couple that we didn’t have back then.  "Elm Grove" is now part of Glenwood, "Linden" is split between Robertsville and West Hills, and Oak Hills is now its own precinct — the city’s largest.  Hendrix Creek is made up of neighborhoods that didn’t exist back then, as is Lawnville (Rarity Ridge).  Cedar Hill was later split between Glenwood and Pine Valley, I think.

If that’s as clear as mud, perhaps a map would help.

Council members were elected only in the districts they represented from 1959 to 1974.  From 1975 to 1986,  council members were nominated by district (required to live in the district), but were elected at-large by voters citywide.

A couple of things caught my attention from those years: in the earliest phase, some candidates were elected to make decisions affecting the whole city with only a minimum number of votes — one with as few as 117, and quite a few with less than 200.  In the second phase, where district representatives were elected at-large, sometimes the candidate who won his or her district did not win the confidence of voters throughout the city, and someone else was elected to represent that district.

Presently, we don’t have districts.  Candidates run at-large, and the top three or four vote getters (depending on which cycle of staggered terms we’re in) are elected.  All are elected at-large, all represent all citizens.  On a positive note, if I call one city council member and don’t feel like my concern was given fair consideration, I can pick up the phone and call another one.  And another.  We get to pick the one we like best, not necessarily the one who lives closest.

Obviously, I think the present system works best.  I don’t see how makng it easier to elect someone with fewer votes could possibly be a good thing for Oak Ridge.  But I do remain interested in why some people feel unrepresented, and exactly what they would like our representatives to do differently.