Federal

Stimulus and Schools

State Rep. Harry Brooks, Chairman of the House Education Committee, has opined via WSMV in Nashville that school systems should not use the federal stimulus funding for personnel.

That money can only be used for certain things, and lawmakers said since the money disappears in two years, it shouldn’t be used for personnel.
"If you were to use the money for a staff person, that staff person goes away in two years or you have to find the money to continue it," Brooks said.

 

That falls into the usual philosophy — with which I wholeheartedly agree — that it’s bad practice to use non-recurring funds for recurring expenses, as it just delays the problem — or creates a bigger problem in the future.   

But in this case, the stimulus is needed because tax revenues for the schools are down, due to the economic recession.  In Tennessee, schools are funded in large part by sales taxes, which are the first to fall in a recession.  What if the stimulus funds were used not to create new jobs (for which we would have to find a supporting funding source two years from now), but to avoid job losses among existing staff?

That, it seems, would fit with the intent of the stimulus — to keep people employed, so that they continue buying groceries, appliances, cars, and houses, which in turn strengthens the economy.

Most of the federal stimulus funds are designated for economically-disadvantaged students, or those in special education.  Thus, it seems to me that the most appropriate use would be to use those funds to continue programs like extended contracts, where teachers are paid a small stipend to do extra things like before- or after-school tutoring (of particular benefit to special ed or economically disadvantaged students).

This year, the State has already advised that 100% of extended contracted funding will be cut.  If the stimulus funds would allow us to continue these programs through two years until the state and local economies begin to recover, would that not be an acceptable use?

Politiconomics

The January 19 issue of the Frontline Weekly Newsletter points out a dangerous undercurrent of the year’s political tide: tinkering with the federal reserve for political gain.

In summary, the appointment of President Bush’s two nominees for the Federal Reserve Board are being held up by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT. Dodd has also announced that he will not allow confirmation of a third member, Randy Krozner (whose expertise is in mortgage markets) when his term ends.

Why would Dodd do this? He has made it clear that he is not happy with Fed policy, as has his counterpart in the House, Barney Frank; so some of this is just personal pique. They want the Fed to respond to their political goals. But some of it is clearly partisan. If there is a Democratic president, they would be able to immediately nominate three new governors, and would not have to reconfirm Ben Bernanke as chairman, which means he would leave and the new president would appoint the chairman.

Dodd clearly wants a say in this, and wants a Fed that will pay attention to his politically driven needs. This would mean the Fed would be short-staffed for at least another 18 months, which is not a good thing. The Fed does more than just hold eight meetings and set monetary policy. They have real work that needs to get done.

Whoever the new president is, they will get to nominate who they like as governor terms come to an end. But to act as Dodd is currently doing threatens the independence of the Fed, which is a critical part of the economic world. You can criticize the Fed and their policies, and I often do, but every right-thinking person agrees that Fed policy should not be set in Congress and subject to political whim. The last time we had a Fed chairman who let politics suggest policy was William Miller under Jimmy Carter, and that did not turn out well.

Politics is a merry mess, as evidenced by any day’s viewing of the continuous news channels in this election year. However, the security and prosperity of this country is far too important to be used as a pawn by those who wish to promote their own (or their own party’s) political future.

I remember the economy of the Carter years, and the prospect of a politicized Federal Reserve is a frightening one.

Iowa

Wow — Iowa brought some semi-surprises.

I wasn’t so much shocked as disappointed in the Republican results; Iowa is known to have a strong evangelical Christian base, and therefore, voted with the Baptist preacher. What did really surprise me was their endorsement of Obama. The media are calling it a "desire for change," which gave the young, relative newcomer the nod.

New Hampshire will be a new day. Historically, the state has been more concerned with fiscal than social issues, so I’m guessing that the results will be somewhat different.

*  *  *

However, I found a neat electoral map with each state’s electoral votes and primary dates.  Enjoy.

Primary Colors – a first look

Waking up at 3 a.m., I used the expanse of free time to begin some serious research on the presidential candidates.  Our primary is only about 35 days away, and it’s been years since I waited this late in the process to begin my analysis of the choices. 

The issues that I feel are most urgent are our energy policies, strong but smart national defense, education, and intelligent fiscal policy.  The social conservatives tend to disown me because I really don’t see abortion or marriage definitions as the issues that have the greatest impact on our well-being as a nation, or things that the federal government ought to be distracted by.

Immigration policy is on everyone’s list, but that’s a post of its own for another day.

Energy Policy
Fred Thompson says "America must rise to the challenge and take the steps necessary to become more energy independent before this becomes a crisis."  In my mind though, it’s already a crisis — every time some towel-headed fool blows himself up, gas prices jump a dime.  That increases the cost of getting kids to school, of groceries (which must be delivered to the stores), of virtually everything we do.  Although he states a commitment to promoting alternative fuels and other energy sources, the word "nuclear" or other details are glaringly absent.

Mitt Romney rightly ties energy independence to national security, and specifies detailed research areas for which he would promote federal investment:

  • Basic research in key technologies like improved energy storage
  • Bringing clean energy technology to market through commercialization of large-scale renewables and advanced nuclear technologies
  • Improved smart-grid technology for power distribution
  • Clean, efficient uses of existing fossil fuels, e.g. clean coal, coal-to-liquids, carbon sequestration

Mike Huckabee also makes the correlation between energy dependence and terrorism and lists a few technologies (nuclear, wind, solar, hydrogen, clean coal, biodiesel, and biomass) that he wants to support, but what shook me was this:

The first thing I will do as President is send Congress my comprehensive plan for energy independence. I’ll use the bully pulpit to inform you about the plan and ask for your support. I’ll use the bully conference table to meet with members of Congress until I have the votes.

Please don’t tell me "I have a plan…" unless you’re prepared to tell me, here and now, what that plan is.  First of all, I question whether there really is a plan (versus a plan to make a plan, which is much different than actually having one), and secondly, I’m afraid to vote for a man with a plan if I don’t know what the plan is.  What if I don’t like it?

On this issue, Romney gets the edge, although I still feel that Fred would still have some connections at ORNL from his Senate days that would help out.

Whew — kids are up and making their morning demands, so the next batch will wait for another post.

Grinch pays a visit to Hillary

One has to be careful when recruiting campaign help. It seems that Hillary has named a couple of previously prominent Dems with a bit of history…

No Child Left Behind (really!)

I’ve had a virtual gumbo of thoughts simmering this week, but this news piece provided the shrimp, if you will.  I’m fired up for Fred Thompson for many reasons, but this one really pleases me.  It goes back to the basic Republican philosophy of "the government closest to the people is the best."

*   *   *
The side effects being caused by the penalties for failing to meet ever-increasing standards are showing up in ways that most people wouldn’t have imagined.  For example, if Podunk School System expels Bubba for drinking moonshine in the locker room, then he won’t graduate and they might miss the ever-increasing graduation rate standard.

But they can’t take any more of Bubba’s nonsense, and have to do something.   So, they call Bubba’s folks into the office, and the conversation goes something like this:

Principal:  "Now we just can’t tolerate stuff like that going on in our school; moonshine’s a Zero-tolerance offense.  So, there’s going to have to be some serious consequences for this mess…  unless maybe you folks put Bubba in school over across the county line.  You can pay tuition and send him there, or you can move and send him for free."

Ma Bubba:  "They’ll still take him over there, even though he’s in trouble here?"

Principal:  "Well no, not if he gets expelled.  But it’ll take us a week or so to do the paperwork on that, so if he were to go over there and enroll, say, tomorrow, then we technically wouldn’t  have any record of  disciplinary action against him.

So  Bubba’s folks mosey on across the county line and enroll Bubba in a new school.  The new school calls back to Podunk County to get his records, and asks if he has any behavioral issues.  "Not that we know of" is the response from the Podunk County Principal, who then chuckles all the way to the lunchroom, knowing that he’s rid the school of its biggest troublemaker but hasn’t taken a ding on the graduation rate since he can document that Bubba enrolled in another school.

Don’t kid yourself; it’s already happening.

*  *   * 
The graduation rate bit of NCLB is one that needs to be clearly understood, for "graduation" in NCLB doesn’t really mean graduation; it means graduation in precisely four years plus a summer (if needed) with a regular diploma.

So, a developmentally disabled child who simply cannot — will not ever — perform up to the standards required to pass the gateway exams and graduate with a regular diploma, simply counts as a dropout.  Even if he or she stays in school until age 21 (as the law allows), works hard, and earns a special ed diploma, he or she is still a dropout on the NCLB scorecard.

And it’s the schools’ fault, of course, because everyone knows that every child is the same — each capable of the same mastery in the same time frame. There’s no such thing as mental retardation, after all.

Equally tragic is that a student who just screws up for one year, is denied the chance to repeat a year in high school (getting back on track academically) because he would count as a "dropout," even though he might graduate with honors (given that extra year) and go on to college fully-prepared.

The other thing that befuddles me is that a GED doesn’t count.  If it doesn’t count, why do we have one at all?  The answer, of course, is that there needs to be some avenue to demonstrate basic competence for those people who — for whatever reason — don’t get enough credits in high school.  When a student moves into a district at age 17 with only five high school credits, it’s just not possible to earn all the credits needed in the one remaining year.  But, of course, it’s the district he moves into that will suffer a hit to their graduation rate, not the school that failed him to begin with.

*   *   * 
That’s a lot of bellyaching over one pot of educational gumbo, I know.  Believe it or not, I am very much in favor of standardized testing and accountability for results.  I believe we have an obligation to provide students with the knowledge and skills to push the limits of their potential — whatever that potential may be.

Success for some will be a PhD and a brilliant research career; for some it may be certification as a plumber, and for others, simply the ability to dress themselves each morning.  People are not born with equal gifts and abilities.  To try and force all into the same mold is a gross disservice to all.

I like Thompson’s approach: get the federal government out of the way and let states and local governments do what we need to do for our students.

Patriot Act, revised

Interesting (from ZDNet):

A key portion of the Patriot Act is unconstitutional and violates Americans’ free speech rights, a federal judge said Thursday in a case that could represent a bitter setback for the Bush administration’s attempts to expand its surveillance powers.

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero said the section of the Patriot Act that permits the FBI to send Internet service providers secret demands, called national security letters, for customer information violates the First Amendment and unreasonably curbs the authority of the judiciary.

FBI agents can use NSLs to surreptitiously obtain logs of American citizens’ e-mail correspondence, a list of Web sites visited and queries submitted to search engines, without obtaining a judge’s approval in advance. NSLs can also be used to obtain bank and telephone records. They are supposed to be used only when an investigation is allegedly relevant to a terrorist investigation.

It was the letter that ran in the Washington Post that really made me think.

Adjusting NCLB

The Washington Post reports on proposed revisions to No Child Left Behind, the sweeping education reform initiative that was the hallmark of GW Bush’s first term.

NCLB brought to the forefront some of the closet issues in education, but as with many federal reforms of largely local initiatives, there are some problems.  Among those "closet issues" was the ability to mask the underperformance of certain demographic groups behind the overall test scores of the student body as a whole; however, the weakness in the legislation as originally passed is that states were allowed to define the size of sub-groups.

In addition, Miller proposed strengthening a rule that requires test scores to be reported separately for groups of students identified by ethnicity, race, family income and other factors. Currently, Maryland reports separate scores for groups in a given school if there are at least five students in the demographic category. D.C. schools report scores from all groups with at least 40 students in a given school, and Virginia sets the threshold at 50 students.

The proposal would require scores to be reported — and achievement raised — for all demographic groups with at least 30 students in a school. That could make it harder for Virginia and D.C. schools to reach academic targets.

Having a consistent subgroup size will at least ensure some equity in comparing one state’s progress to that of another.  That said, it’s inevitable that all states will eventually be doomed to failure under the current testing method, as human beings just aren’t 100% alike in our capacity to learn.  In particular, students who don’t speak English — the language of instruction and testing — and students with learning disabilities, may never meet the proficiency goals.

Another area that needs some work is the graduation rate standard:

Miller’s draft also puts new emphasis on high school dropouts, proposing resources to help schools with the lowest graduation rates have "data-driven decision making, improved curriculum and instruction, personalization of the school environment, staff collaboration and professional development and individualized student supports," according to a summary of the plan.

The graduation rate is defined as the percentage of students who graduate in four years.  Unfortunately, that has created an adverse side effect that is contrary to the best interest of some students.  Take, for example, a high school freshman who blows 9th grade in a big way.  Not failing, mind you, but not learning much, putting forth only the effort required to scrape by.  At the end of the year, the parents and student have a serious heart-to-heart, and both agree that repeating 9th grade would be in the student’s best interest.

So, they approach the school, which denies the request out of hand.  Why?  Because if they allowed it, then the student would take five years to graduate (even though it would be an extra year well spent), and the school would take a hit on their graduation rate.

One student can cause a school to miss the mark; it happened right here in Oak Ridge.  Not because of the aforementioned scenario, but due to a student who enrolled as a transfer but never actually attended a single class.

NCLB is a noble goal, but remains unworkable as written.  I hope that the tweaks are effective.

First Amendment Threat

David Hardy has the run-down on the latest threat to free speech: required registration of bloggers with 500 or more readers, who may comment on policy issues.

Say Uncle has the right idea on this one.

I sure as heck don’t have AT‘s readership, but I have exceeded the 500-reader limit (866 unique visitors, actually) over the past couple of weeks.  I’ve been known to take some heat over freedom of the press issues, but also to push the limits from the other side.  The difference, quite simply, is that when you own the media, you control what does (or does not) get published.

Bob Krumm wraps it up nicely, too:

I’m obviously not in favor of this mind-numbingly stupid and anti-constitutional idea.  Nor do I expect it to get any traction–especially once Sen. Reid discovers that his registration scheme would more adversely effect his side of the aisle.

Your Input Requested

Back in November, the NNSA had a “scoping hearing” in Oak Ridge on the subject of Complex 2030, soliciting public input on options for the future of Y-12.

If you don’t live in Oak Ridge, or don’t want Y-12 here, now would be a good time to go read something else.

Most of us probably didn’t make it to the public hearing back in November, being that most of us who aren’t in violent opposition to something have plenty enough meetings to go to without taking yet another evening away from our kids. But, the NNSA is still accepting public comments up until next Wednesday — January 17 — and you can send it in by e-mail. Please do.

So easy. So necessary, because you can rest assured that Sister Felonius Lensch (or whoever she is that always gets arrested on Hiroshima Day) and the rest of the tree-hugging NIMBY gang have already provided their input by the ream.

Three options are under consideration:

  • Alternative 1: No Action
  • Alternative 2: Proposed Action – Transform to a Responsive Nuclear Weapons Complex
  • Alternative 3: Reduced Operations/Capability-Based Complex

In short, option 2 is to expand Y-12’s capabilities with additional modernization, construction and cleanup, or send the jobs and investment elsewhere (Los Alamos? Sandia? Pantex?).

Y-12 has a better track record on security than the others, and generally has a more supportive home community than most. However, we’re closer to other population centers (e.g., Knoxville) than the others, so it’s critical that people who live here express their support.

To provide your comments, as I already have, send a letter via e-mail to Complex2030@nnsa.doe.gov. The letter should be directed to:

Mr.Ted Wyka

U.S. Department of Energy

National Nuclear Security Administration (NA-10.1)

1000 Independence Avenue, S.W.

Washington, DC 20585

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

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