March 2006

Woo-Hoo! Great news —

HB3180 (McCormick) has been withdrawn, meaning that the only bill which specified a change to the BEP, mandating conversion to the TACIR prototype system-level fiscal capacity model is now dead for the year.

It’s always possible, I suppose, that existing pieces of budget legislation might be amended to do the same thing, so those of us concerned about the prospect of harming some school systems to help others will need to remain vigilant.

We need to support reforming the way Tennessee funds education, but we need to do so in a way that helps all school systems and harms none. I am proud to live in a community where the residents value education both with their checkbooks (via property taxes) and with their votes for like-minded City Council members, but I do feel sorry for educators and school boards in communities that are not as supportive.

Which comes first — support because a school system is high performing, or support to enable that higher level of performance? In the case of Oak Ridge, it’s hard to say. The school system was set up by the Manhattan Project (military) leadership during WWII, and well-funded specifically because the scientists and engineers that were needed for that effort were concerned that their children’s education be first-rate. As the City privatized, citizens chose to continue that to which they had come to expect.

Similarly, Kingsport has higher expectations due to the presence of Eastman Chemical (and the highly-educated parents who value education). But what about Greeneville — third on the list of cities who contribute the most per pupil from the City General Fund (and with the third highest ACT scores in the state)?

It’s not just genetics, and it’s not just money. It’s a combination of community and parent expectations of students, of teachers, and of themselves — with a will to invest both time and money for someone else’s immediate benefit.

But for today, I’ll celebrate this one small victory.

Trends in Education Services

The News-Sentinel reports this morning on a Knox County Schools proposal to “cluster” students who are learning English as a second language:

Knox County school officials are considering busing hundreds of immigrant students to a small number of schools rather than having teachers travel around the county to teach them English.

The difficulty is that 16 ESL teachers serving 76 schools means that the teachers spend a large portion of their time traveling between schools rather than teaching. There is no question that more instructional time would result in more learning, and it would seem a better use of limited funds to pay these teachers to teach rather than drive.

I admit to have struggled somewhat with the issue of instruction for ESL students, because “immersion” is unquestionably the fastest way to learn a new language. As an exchange student in Venezuela at the age of 14, it took only a few weeks before I was quite comfortable conversing only in Spanish. Why, then, are so many of our immigrant students struggling?

It was a colleague’s comment last week that caused me to look at it in another way: she lived in France for two years just out of high school, working as an au pair (having studied Spanish rather than French). Although she quickly became fluent in spoken French, she did not similarly master the written word, because French, like English, is not spelled like it sounds.

Spanish is much simpler; each letter has only one sound, and therefore, the written language is not very different from the spoken word once one has mastered what sound is produced by each letter.

Thus, students learning English from any other language may learn to converse, but still not meet the standards we expect and demand in our core curriculum.

There will inevitably be debate on the advantages and disadvantages of clustering these students into just a few schools. Maximizing instructional time would be a huge benefit, but the loss of “immersion” through primary interaction with English-speaking students could be a detriment, depending on the amount of time spent with others who spoke their primary language.

It will be an interesting challenge for the Knox Co. school board to decide, but at this point, clustering the students in need of these services seems like a better use of resources.

Choose your words carefully…

OpinionJournal, the WSJ’s online op-ed page, has an interesting piece from John Fund entitled “You’ve Got Mail (it’s from Yale)” that primarily covers the ivy-league university’s silence regarding their admission of a former Taliban official (with a fourth-grade education) to the ranks of their elite freshman class.

Putting aside for a moment the primary topic, an item that caught my eye (and ire) was the following:

[Alexis Surovov, assistant director of giving at Yale Law School] anonymously sent scathing emails to two critics calling them “retarded” and “disgusting.”

It is the use of the word “retarded” that angers me. It means, according to Mirriam-Webster, “slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress.” My children know that there’s no quicker route to swift and memorable punishment than to use that word as a synonym for stupid or thoughtless, usually in an epithet hurled at a sibling.

My sensitivity is this: my next younger sister is mentally retarded due to brain damage she suffered at birth. There is no nice, neat, medically-appropriate term for her condition (such as Down’s Syndrome or autism)… just brain damage that left her unable to learn to speak, read, write, or reason as most of us do.

We’re not sure, even at age 40, exactly what she knows and what she doesn’t. Basically, she comprehends about what a two-year old does, except that she does seem to understand the concepts of death and work ethic (although the latter is limited to work that she is actually interested in doing).

That a Yale alumnus and high-level administrator at Yale Law School couldn’t think of a better descriptor for his feelings (disgraceful, short-sighted, maybe even ungrateful or selfish) than to use a word that applies to a person who has no control whatsoever over their condition is at least as bad as whatever feelings he had toward the alumni he was lambasting.

If he’d said “crippled” or “niggardly” (which actually means miserly or spendthrift, having nothing whatsoever to do with race), someone would have filed a civil rights complaint already.

Aside from the university’s disgraceful and short-sighted decision to harbor and educate a known terrorist, unqualified by anyone’s most liberal affirmative-action admissions standard, this demonstration of inadequate communications ability is reason enough for firing Mr. Surovov immediately. Given the institution’s current track record of decision-making, any disciplinary action will probably hinge on whether contributions really do suffer.

And I hope that they do. March is Mental Retardation Month — send whatever you could have sent to Yale to the ARC instead.

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Afterthought:
Maybe the terrorists aren’t as scary as our own state’s political bloggers. To wit, VOLuntarily Conservative reported on the straw poll for the 2008 Presidential race:

1427 votes were cast. Out of his vote total, 81.7% of Frist’s votes came from Tennessee voters. Out of all voters from Tennessee, 42% chose a candidate besides Senator Frist.

The Tennessee Politics blog had a decidedly different tone, stating that Frist was “tepidly received.” Of course, that post was made before the results of the straw poll were in, so perhaps they should have been kinder… the whole hindsight thing, you know.

I’m not much better at predicting political races, but I’ve learned to stay away from making forecasts unless it’s qualified as a WAG.

Terror at twilight

Some days we surf for sunshine and find sharks.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (hat tip, Jihad Watch) has posted a threat purportedly found on Islamic websites:

Purported “Al-Qaeda Undercover Soldier, U.S.A”: Last Warning to American People – Two Operations Will Occur; Your Homeland Security Agency Must Surrender; States Far Away From Washington, D.C. Such as Arizona Will Be Hit; We Await Orders From Our Commander Osama Bin Laden; America Will Be Brought to its Knees

MEMRI has the full scope.

I really try not to dwell on the latest terror news; to do so functionally grants them victory. However, there are bits and pieces that tug at my mind — among them, people studying at our universities who may not be carefully screened, as well as converts to terror from among our own people.

The former is a relic from my college days, having encountered way back then someone who came to this country with the intent of taking home (to Palestine) knowledge of nuclear engineering “to fight the infidel.” The latter, I suppose, is the realization that some of those among us are as crazy as the Sept. 11th hijackers, and some of those convert to Islam (often in prison) and actually join the dark side.

I’ll still live each day as I otherwise would, but some days it’s worth the time for an extra hug from the kids, and extra kiss for the hubby, and a myriad of other things I ought to do anyway.

Uncivil War

It is most unfortunate that Tennessee’s inadequate method of funding education leads to warring between neighbors — one community fighting for a change that would grant it more money, while taking it from the community next door; or Anderson County’s drive to supersede the sales tax rate adopted earlier by all but one of the cities within its borders.

Yesterday, the Oak Ridger reported that a May 2 sales tax referendum is unlikely, as the petition-filers are 300 signatures short and the deadline looms early next week. The County Commissioner-turned-superintendent of Anderson County Schools who is spearheading the petition drive insists that the signature-gathering continues… but if they don’t have the required number of signatures by the May 2 deadline, there are two consequences:

  1. the odds of a vote to supersede decrease in a higher-turnout election (as would be the August County General and State/Federal Primary);
  2. if the measure is not passed before July 1, then the County could not begin collecting the additional revenue until July 1, 2007.

This move is seen as hostile by the cities, all of whom depend upon that revenue for municipal operations. Although Oak Ridge would require a lower property tax increase (12 cents) to make up the difference than Clinton (20 cents) or Lake City (38-41 cents), it is particularly sensitive to the move because Oak Ridge voted to raise the sales tax just a couple of years ago to fund a complete makeover of Oak Ridge High School, with a “gentlemen’s agreement” from County officials that the County would not supersede for five years.

Neighboring communities depend upon one another, and success or failure in one inevitably impacts the other. Working together, we could help one another succeed… but it isn’t happening.
As a wise State Senator once told me, the unfortunate truth is that people come to Nashville asking, “don’t tax you, and don’t tax me; tax that man behind the tree!”

Or, in the present case with either fiscal capacity or superseding the sales tax “my neighbor is taxing himself so much, he must be wealthy beyond belief. Give some of that money to me instead!”

Letter from the School

While Leadership classes in Knoxville and Chattanooga were in Nashville yesterday, they heard from the Governor that an overhaul in the way Tennessee funds education could come in a year or two. The News-Sentinel notes that there is not universal agreement on changes proposed to date:

The issue has become controversial in the Legislature. Proposed changes backed by Knox, Hamilton and other more urban counties are opposed by officials in areas that stand to lose state money if the changes occur. Oak Ridge is among the latter.

Controversy also stirred over a recent letter sent to 36,000 student households, urging parents to contact the Governor in support of the proposed BEP funding change. The letter compares Knox County’s BEP funding to that of Williamson County (Williamson County gets $328 more per student), deriving from that that Knox County is shortchanged by more than $17 million.

Bill Nolan, lobbyist for the City of Oak Ridge (and father of a talented ORHS student) accurately pointed out that if Knox County compared its funding with Hancock County, it would appear that they’re overfunded by $10 million.

The neighbor-against-neighbor fighting is unfortunate, because it’s almost certain we could agree on the basic, underlying issues:

  1. State funding for education is not adequate. (adequacy defined)
  2. If state funding were adequate, we wouldn’t have all these discussions (and lawsuits) about equity.
  3. We would ALL benefit, economically and in quality of life, from raising the standard of education statewide. But that takes money, and we have to be willing to pay for it.

The big, bad, hairy monster in the closet is that the few communities in Tennessee that ARE ALREADY putting a priority on education are those with high local property tax rates. That’s where the money comes from. Municipal systems in particular benefit from city governments that agree on that priority and fund it, despite the fact that neighboring areas tout their lower tax rates to lure businesses and residents.

You can’t have it both ways.

PostScript:
James W. Guthrie, director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy, has an excellent editorial in Tuesday’s Commercial Appeal.

Etc.

HB3180 was deferred in the House K-12 Education Committee until March 13 — next Tuesday.

Fiscal Note: Such increase in state expenditures is estimated to be approximately $43,818,000

Local Elections –
Oak Ridge attorney Judith Whitfield makes a good point in her letter to the editor today (it’s the third one down). The present District Attorney is campaigning for Chancellor on his promise to handle criminal matters in addition to “matters of equity” such as divorce, custody, and adoption.

Ms. Whitfield brings up a valid concern, in addition to my own reservations about a DA who doesn’t prosecute cases — or allow his staff to do so — as it is.

City Council Meeting?
Knoxpatch has a peculiar report on Monday’s City Council meeting… I have to admit I’ve been in too much of a hurry this week to find out if there was any basis for this post. It certainly didn’t make the daily; maybe the Observer will have something tomorrow.

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Math & science are worth more? No surprise here; check out the article in the Times-Free Press.

Counties Waking Up…

In a meeting today with school board members from across East Tennessee, I was heartened to hear from some County board representatives that, although the proposed system-level fiscal capacity model for BEP funding would benefit them intially, they realize that it would be harmful to them in the long run.

How? Because it would cause the City school system in their county to fold, consolidating with the County by default. At that point, the County would be responsible for matching the City system’s higher salary and benefit levels, in addition to assuming responsibility for the buildings, students, transportation, etc.

It’s encouraging that at least a few people are thinking beyond what looks like the immediate windfall. Unfortunately, there are others that believe this scheme only takes from “rich” school systems — those that are taxing themselves to fund an adequate education — to give to those who do not, and have not yet realized that there are many smaller, less affluent county systems that lose funding under the ill-contrived formula.

HB3180 is scheduled for the House K-12 Subcommittee tomorrow.

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