Thursday, March 31, 2011

Could South Carolina ever be empowered to recall officeholders?

This is called progress. States in the Midwest and the West built into their state constitutions at their founding various provisions allowing for the recall of elected officials, even judges. The bar is often high. To recall a state legislator, the process usually requires a good percentage of the last election's voters in that district to sign petitions. In the case of statewide officeholders, the law may require a certain percentage of voters' signatures from each Congressional district. In any case, the process is often time-limited -- 60 days, for example, to collect the requisite signatures -- and once the petitions are certified, a new election is scheduled.

But recalls were largely a product of the Progressive Eras in American history. South Carolina, like most of the original 13 states and commonwealths, never included such provisions in our constitution in part because our original constitution was written before any such thing as a Progressive Era, and in part because for much of our state history, black citizens outnumbered white citizens. Once the U.S. Constitution was amended to provide for black suffrage, there was great fear that black voters could control state government.

Of course, this is history, not opinion. Read any of several histories of South Carolina and you'll find that black lawmakers outnumbered white ones during "Radical" Reconstruction, but by 1900 -- thanks to the re-implementation of voting restrictions -- whites once again controlled matters. So even if there had been a notion to include recall provisions in any of our constitutions, it would have required white lawmakers to overlook their fear of black voters, and that never happened.

Jim Davenport of the Associated Press reports, however, that our lawmakers may be ready to move into the twentieth century after all. It's about time; the rest of the nation left the twentieth century behind for a new one more than a decade ago.

South Carolina voters could get power to remove officials from office and create laws through ballot box initiatives under legislation a Senate panel discussed Wednesday.

Senators delayed action on three bills that would greatly expand the public's power - and cut into power that now rests mostly with the Legislature. All would require changes to the state's constitution.

The petitions to force the removal of a statewide officer would require 15 percent of qualified voters signing to set up a removal vote. Changing the constitution or repealing laws or constitutional amendments would also begin with a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the voters.

I am a huge fan of this idea. And I have to admit that (a) I'm surprised the idea has advanced to the point of a Senate subcommittee discussion and (b) and I doubt it will advance further. Lawmakers of any stripe are loathe to give greater power to voters unless they've gauged that voters can be sufficiently manipulated. That goes double for lawmakers in South Carolina.

John Crangle, director of Common Cause of South Carolina, seems not to hold high hopes for the plan, either. And if it were to pass, he foresees ugly outcomes.

"What I think will happen in South Carolina if we adopt initiative referenda and recall is crackpot tax groups and special interest groups will try to wreck the tax structure of this state," Crangle said. He said lawmakers might face recall efforts driven by political opponents, not anything they've done wrong.

If we think out-of-state right groups have too much influence over our state now, wait until their unlimited dollars can pay for surgical strikes against individual lawmakers through recall, and they can pay for the ballot initiatives they want. So far, there's no organization or coalition that can fight the corporate dollars pouring into South Carolina behind right-wing interests today.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Mike Rose of Summerville, says he only wants to establish statewide authority to do what voters at the local level are already able to do through petitions.

This is worth watching, for good and bad.

Charleston, Dorchester, Berkeley budget hearings scheduled

Those of you who live in the Low Country have great opportunities to speak up at local school board meetings about school funding. The Charleston Post and Courier published yesterday a schedule of some school budget hearings by in Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley districts, reprinted below. Keep in mind that educators are losing jobs across the state, class sizes are increasing and there's no political will among current lawmakers to raise the revenues necessary to keep the state's promises and obligations to its children. If you don't speak up for the children you teach and the colleagues you work with, no one else will.

Charleston County
What: Two district hearings
When: 6:30 tonight
Where: One at the district office at 75 Calhoun St., the other in the auditorium at West Ashley High School, 4060 W. Wildcat Blvd.

Berkeley County
What: Public meeting
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cane Bay Elementary School, 1247 Cane Bay Blvd., Summerville

Dorchester District 2
What:: Public input session
When: 6 p.m. April 13
Where: Location to be announced

What: Budget workshop
When: 4:30 p.m. April 25 (tentative)
Where: District Office, 102 Greenwave Blvd., Summerville

What: Budget workshop
When: 4:30 p.m. May 9
Where: District Office, 102 Greenwave Blvd., Summerville

What: Public hearing and budget presentation
When: 6 p.m. May 10
Where: Location to be announced

What: Budget presentation to County Council
When: May 16, time to be announced
Where: Summerville council chambers, 500 N. Main St., Summerville

Berkeley parents given false choice between academics, arts

The question that Berkeley County school leaders, namely Superintendent Rodney Thompson, is asking parents is this: In order to cover a projected deficit in school funding next year, choose which of the following options you'd like us to adopt:
(a) cut funding for art and music;
(b) cut funding for extracurricular activities;
(c) cut funding for sports program "that don't bring in money";
(d) cut funding for classroom supplies;
(e) increase class sizes;
(f) require teachers and administrators to take unpaid furlough days;
(g) charge fees for drivers education; and/or
(h) charge fees for participation in sports programs.

This, of course, is the wrong question to ask of parents.

The right question to ask of parents is a two-parter: First, what do you want your child's school to be? And second, are you willing to elect lawmakers who will fund what you want your child's school to be?

I discussed this already here, but it bears repeating often:

Does the state wants its public schools to meet the intellectual needs of its students -- to meet those students wherever they are, from wherever they've come, with whatever baggage they bring and whatever circumstances they suffer -- and to deliver such instructional services to those children as are necessary to help them, all of them, grow into bright, creative, curious, productive, critical thinkers and analysts, capable of reading with purpose, writing with clarity, speaking with confidence, collaborating and competing with the best minds of our global neighbors and partners, offering leadership for the next era of our state's growth and development?

If that IS what South Carolina wants from its public schools, then the next logical step is to examine what the state is investing -- not investing in our public schools alone, but investing in the lives of the children who haven't yet arrived at school -- and confirming that the investment is sufficient to bring those children to the schoolhouse door ready to learn.

This, really, is the question before Berkeley County's parents now, all those parents who want their children to have a music program available to them, and a "non-income-generating" sports program, and small class sizes, and sufficient classroom supplies, and a full complement of qualified, capable teachers and adminstrators, etc. The Post and Courier reports that more than 800 of them have attended budget presentations across the district, but what I understand parents have taken away is the menu of cuts I described above, not the fundamental principle that once you decide what you want, you have to elect leaders who share your commitment.

The newspaper identified a single family that will be adversely affected by any of the cuts that Superintendent Thompson outlined.

Carrie Wittchow is a sophomore at Hanahan High School who loves to play tennis and participate in the drama program. She's especially worried about tennis, which is a "non-revenue-generating sport," she said. "I don't want to see my favorite activities cut. They keep me going."

Her mother, Heide Wittchow, is a Berkeley County elementary school teacher. She worries at the mention of furloughs. "I live week to week," she said, adding that she's grateful to have a job in this economic climate.

What do we say to this family? Too bad, so sad, maybe you should move to North Carolina or Georgia? Or do we say to them, public education is a priority in South Carolina, and if it takes calling in some corporate tax revenues from mammoth corporations who pay literally nothing to South Carolina in taxes, then that's what we'll do?

The first option is easy: Our present legislature is adept at telling folks to take what they're given and be happy with it. The second option is harder, because we've dug a hole pretty deep and it's going to take time -- and an election cycle or two, or three -- to get out of it.

But God knows, now is the time to start that process. It's tough today, but tougher times are coming.

Thompson said that next school year will be tough, but the budget shortfall in the 2012-2013 school year likely will be worse. To compensate for that shortfall, the district might have to force employees to take multiple unpaid furlough days, cut some positions, place more students in each class and consolidate schools.

Survey yields low view of Spartanburg, despite great quality of life

A national survey of American cities by Gallup-Healthways reports that Spartanburg, South Carolina, not only ranks 188th in "contentment" but is among the 10 least-content cities in the nation. This bothers me.

I've spent a good bit of time in Spartanburg. Like everyone else in Spartanburg, I've driven past the tree-lined Milliken fortress and wondered what goes on in there, marveled at the trees that the late billionaire Roger Milliken contributed all over the city.

I've eaten at the Beacon, both when there were major political figures holding rallies there and when blue lights went racing up the hill behind it at night.

I've taken Sunday afternoon drives through Una and praised the freedoms that people have in South Carolina to live as they choose, park any furniture they like on the front porch, and fly the flags of their choice in the front yard.

I've read the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and been excited at the professionalism of the whole county's law enforcement, featured nearly daily in various reports of criminal activity.

I've visited Hatcher Gardens and Woodland Preserve, still so small and intimate, unencumbered by funding from the city or state.

I've felt a real spirit blanketing the city on Sunday mornings. I happened to be in Spartanburg on the morning after Election Day of 2008 and watched the pastor of First Baptist Church of Spartanburg kneel on both knees beside his pulpit, pleading for strength in organizing and leading his church.

I know of the educational leaders of Spartanburg and know that while there are pockets where teachers get little real support from their administrators, there are some really fine leaders, too. Superintendent Jim Ray of Spartanburg District 3 has been an examplar for his colleagues in Spartanburg and across the state, winning state and national awards by the armload for visionary support of school technology and his educators.

I've witnessed great efforts by non-profit organizations to revitalize Spartanburg's downtown area, so hard to accomplish without great public investment. Hub City Writers Project, for example, perseveres into its sixteenth year -- a small but committed group of artists, leaning on one another and their colleagues from North Carolina and elsewhere.

I know a bit of Spartanburg's history, and its pride in textiles and manufacturing; that Philip Weaver of Rhode Island opened the city's first textile factory in 1819, just 11 years after the state's first factory opened in Charleston, and I know that even though Weaver fled the state in 1826 because of financial difficulties and his opposition to slavery, he'd firmly planted manufacturing in the county for the next two centuries. And what a legacy: Dexter Converse was able to endow Converse College with the proceeds from his Converse Manufacturing Company, opened in 1866. And it was John Montgomery and C.E. Fleming, who opened Pacolet Manufacturing Company in 1882, who established an important relationship with Deering-Milliken of New York just two years later. Without these pioneers, Spartanburg would never have become a land of successful mill villages, offering opportunities to poor people across the region after the Civil War.

And I know the city is blessed with gifted and well-connected political leaders. When former Vice President Dick Cheney needed a place from which to watch former President George W. Bush's debate with Sen. John Kerry, he came to the home of then-Speaker Pro Tem Doug Smith in Spartanburg. When former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee came to South Carolina during the 2008 presidential campaign, he made a beeline to this city first, to speak at First Baptist Church.

I read the extensive coverage of last year's Congressional race, when Spartanburg's own District Attorney Trey Gowdy took on and defeated the ultra-moderate Rep. Bob Inglis in his primary. What could be better than having your member of Congress live in your own county?

And even when the state's most influential leaders don't come from Spartanburg itself, they now live only a stone's-throw away: both Sen. Lindsay Graham and Sen. Jim DeMint are from right next door in Greenville.

So, with these freedoms, this spirit, these leaders and this deep history, I cannot understand why Spartanburg ranks so low in a survey of contentedness.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index interviewed at least 1,000 U.S. adults every day in 2010. Nearly 353,000 people age 18 and older were surveyed.

Participants, selected and called at random throughout the year, were scored according to how they measured their emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment and basic access to necessities crucial to well-being, such as clean water, medicine and safety. Residents also were asked to evaluate their present and anticipated future life situation on an index of zero to 10, where “zero” represents the worst possible life and “10” represents the best possible life.

All but one of the categories for Spartanburg residents measured in the fifth and lowest quintile. Spartanburg's “healthy behavior” ranked 131st, putting it in the study's fourth quintile.

Spartanburg's lowest ranking was in physical health. The county's residents ranked it 181st in the nation. The physical health index includes information on items such as sick days, health problems that get in the way of normal activities, obesity and feeling well-rested.

The number seems to contradict the county's rank for healthy behavior, which factors in healthy eating habits, smoking, consumption of fruits and vegetables and exercise. Residents said they have poor physical health, even though they're making at least some attempt at a healthy lifestyle.

One local non-profit administrator offers a different, surely a rare, view of factors in Spartanburg's quality of life.

Trez Clark, program director for the PACE Center, a local nonprofit that provides mental health services, said a community's emotional health is directly related to other factors touched by the health and well-being survey.

People with poor physical health or a stressful work environment tend to be more depressed, she said. The study bases emotional health on factors such as worry, stress, depression and how much a person smiles or laughs.

“There's a part of me that's not surprised (with the survey) because we see so much (poor emotional health),” Clark said. “... So much is related. Physical, emotional, spiritual — it's related to the whole person.”

I can hardly see how Spartanburg's emotional and spiritual needs aren't being addressed. Its churches are generally large and regularly well-attended. It's a rare Wednesday night that the city's middle-class youth aren't keeping busy at the Hangar.

And I'm uncertain of how to interpret the survey's last point, as the language is not very clear:

Spartanburg residents ranked 177th on the well-being study for factors such as job satisfaction, their ability to use their strengths at work and how their supervisor treats them.

Perhaps it is the vagueness and ambiguity of the questions that yielded such poor results in this survey. If so, I hope that the sponsors will draft clearer questions if they intend to repeat the survey. Results like these are unhelpful in maintaining a sense of well-being about one's community.

New book examines Gullah culture on Cainhoy Peninsula

A promising new book has been published on the history of Gullah culture on the Cainhoy peninsula. I've not yet read the book but hope to learn if it contains any reporting on the earliest public schools opened in that region during and following the Civil War.

Gullah slaves on the Sea Islands, to the south of Charleston and off Beaufort's waterfront, became free when plantation owners fled in 1861, and the first free schools were established there for black children on St. Helena Island.

Copies of the book were distributed this weekend to Gullah descendents.

Author Herb Frazier signs a copy of his book “Behind God’s Back” for Thomas Venning Jr. as Richard Hendry, vice president for programming at the Coastal Community Foundation, looks on. About 200 signed books were distributed at the Keith School Museum Saturday in Cainhoy.

About 200 free, autographed copies of Herb Frazier's book were distributed Saturday to Gullah descendants from Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island and St. Thomas Island. The work has been a catalyst for family discussions of days gone by.

"I really applaud his effort," said Gail Carson of Huger. The book opened a door for Carson to explore parts of her parents' lives that she didn't know much about. "I think it created a wonderful opportunity for my parents to talk about things that we don't always talk about," Carson said.

She was surprised to learn in living-room discussions of the book that her father was so knowledgeable about the political system of the 1940s, '50s and '60s. She sent copies of the book to relatives in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

"Behind God's Back," a five-year project, began as a 75-page historical sketch of the Gullah people of the Cainhoy peninsula and their struggles from the time of Emancipation through the Depression and into the mid-20th century.

Frazier said he realized after initial research and interviews that the story was much richer than anticipated and better suited for a book. His subjects have thanked him for taking the time to tell their story. "It gives them a great sense of pride," he said.

Spearman: South Carolina cannot afford vouchers, tax credits

Molly Spearman, executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, published an opinion-editorial in yesterday's The State newspaper opposing the resurrected Sanford voucher proposal, now cast as the Haley-Zais tuition tax credit proposal.

Spearman says that after hearing high-paid consultants praise Florida's tuition tax credit plan for their impact on student achievement, she called Florida education officials to ask for their analysis. Their conclusion was that a list of factors led to student gains: "a state-wide comprehensive reading plan, intensive professional development for principals and teachers, reading intervention, more time on task for students, reading coaches..."

No mention was made of vouchers or tax credits. And here we are in South Carolina cutting those very programs while considering a plan to commit $400 million to a program that has no research-based support that is works.

Appearing before a Senate panel recently, Adam Schaeffer, a paid consultant from the Virginia-based Cato Institute, claimed his group wants to “help poor students in ‘failing’ schools who have no choice but to attend public schools.” But as Schaeffer has made clear elsewhere, what he and the Cato Institute really want is to “get control of education, wipe out your tax liability, so that you owe the state nothing.” (See Adam Schaeffer, Youtube Dec. 27, 2010).

Spearman is a sharp lady, and clearly did her homework.

She goes on:

Motivation aside, would students in rural South Carolina who are at-risk actually be accepted in private schools? I visited the websites of the private schools along the I-95 corridor. There are about 50 schools, and only 35 of them are accredited by the S.C. Independent School Association or the S.C. Christian School Association. Each of these schools requires an entrance admission test. Some state that they serve only “average or above average students.” Some require a statement of “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Others conduct entrance interviews with parents and students so that an admissions committee can “determine the authenticity of personal testimonies of faith.” As a Christian and an American, I defend the rights and liberties of any faith-based school to set requirements for admission, and of parents to choose that school. However, I seriously doubt that these schools will accept the very students whom the tax-credit legislation purports to help.

Finally, supporters argue that providing tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools would represent a “savings” to South Carolina. They define “savings” in the legislation as “equal to the amount of the student-based per-pupil state funding to each district less the value of tax credits taken” and tax-supported scholarships given. Well, that would actually produce a savings if all the students leave from the same class or the same school; then, a district could hire fewer teachers. The problem is, that’s not how it happens. The exodus might cause a class size to change by one or two students, but the teacher still has to be there, and the lights and heat still have to be turned on in the classroom.

That's a great point. Say that one student from every school in the state chose to leave and go to a private school, thanks to the new tuition tax credit. How does that save the state any money?

First, the loss of the one student would mean a reduction in funds available to that school by one per-pupil unit. But the other students remain, now with slightly fewer resources. No savings there.

Second, at the end of the tax year, now that student's parents get to take their tax credit as a deduction on state income taxes. That means the state's general budget for public education has that many fewer dollars to invest in the 1,100 public schools we've obligated one another to support. No savings there either.

So any discussion of savings, I've concluded, must be rooted in old voodoo economics.

Supporters get around the fact that tax credits don’t help poor children, whose parents don’t pay enough in income taxes to take advantage of the credit, by encouraging the creation of private, tax-supported scholarships. The tax support comes from allowing businesses and citizens to direct their taxes to these scholarship funds. Of course this “gift” is not really a gift. If you want to give and actually help, give generously to after-school programs, reading interventions -- things that have worked in Florida and communities across this great country.

This is yet another sop to right-wing corporate interests. Take Wal-Mart as an example, as it has funded scads of pro-voucher studies and programs across the nation. Now, I have no idea whether Wal-Mart even pays a nickel of corporate income taxes in South Carolina, but if it did, this proposal now gives Wal-Mart the option of designating an amount equal to its corporate income tax for the year to a "scholarship" program for children to attend private schools. Result: Wal-Mart gets to support private schools through vouchers, the state's general treasury is deprived of legitimate tax revenues, and the rest of South Carolina's public schoolchildren get fewer resources.

Who, exactly, do our lawmakers represent and serve?

Spearman makes a last point:

More importantly, South Carolina faces a $700 million deficit. The current level of basic state funding for students has fallen to nearly half of what our law requires. Our charter schools and traditional school districts are struggling to exist. State agencies are cutting basic safety and health services. Our roads are filled with pot holes. We are falling behind our neighbors in North Carolina and Georgia. We cannot gamble on this legislation.

Pretty straightforward statement, all in all. A cogent analysis.

But the Cato Institute analyst that Spearman mentioned in her column took issue. No, it's worse than that: He called her a liar and said she offered no evidence in her column.

Yes, I was shocked too, that someone from Washington, D.C., would come all the way to Columbia, stand on our front porch and ridicule the way we conduct our business, then go back home and call us liars from a safe distance. I Googled the young man and found that either Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia is overly liberal in handing out doctorates these days, or that this man collected no manners during his studies there.

Schaeffer received his Ph.D. in American politics, with a focus in political behavior, media effects, and coalitional politics, from the University of Virginia and his MA in Social Science from the University of Chicago. His dissertation assessed the potential for different combinations of private school choice policies and messages to expand and mobilize elite and mass support. Schaeffer has an extensive background in online survey development, messaging experiments, and the strategic analysis of message, policy, and audience interactions.

I also notice that the Cincinnati, Ohio, native matriculated at Colgate University in central New York and took his master's degree at the University of Chicago before coming to Virginia. So we are free to presume what we will from this.

We do not have to presume the fellow's intellectual pretenses. He lays them out for the reader himself in an online colloquy from some years ago about renaming "consequentialist libertarian" politics. Apparently being seen as, or called, Libertarian in the modern age is gauche. So Schaeffer offers an alternative. (Yes, it is a diversion from the point of this note, but it is a revealing one about the speaker. Indulge, get a drink, and read this part slowly. You might try reading it aloud to a loved one.)

I’d like to ask everyone to propose a name for this consequentialist libertarian approach—paying attention to stylistic concerns and possible associations that others may bring to the name, in addition to how well the name conforms to the ideas it represents.

I’ll get the ball rolling with a suggestion:


I think that the popularity of the word “post-modern” is due in large part to its ambiguity. “Modern” is a difficult bundle of ideas, movements, and impressions on its own, but adding “post” adds another layer of tantalizing and mysterious associations. In terms of general impressions, however, “modern” conjures up thoughts of the enlightenment, science, progress, power, and the triumph of reason. “Post-modern” in turn calls up darker, vague notions of loss—the loss of faith in God and reason and the human projects driven by belief in them—and the embrace of nihilism and relativism. It’s a sexy word, evoking images of intellectual super-men bravely shouldering a philosophical angst that would crush lesser mortals. Although Friedman’s approach does not referee competing values, it does rely heavily on a certain faith in reason. It seems, fundamentally, a return to modern thinking.

I think that anything with “libertarian” on the nameplate brings far too heavy a bag to carry. The associations cannot be severed—with the Libertarian Party, various think-tanks, and a large collection of traditional adherents, the word “libertarian” will not be remade easily. Best to do away with it entirely.

The prefix “neo,” like “post,” has the virtue of bringing a tantalizingly ambiguous flavor to “modern.” It makes “modern” less pedestrian, while also conveying that this is a new approach to politics and society. It suggests comparison with postmodernism, which is overdue for a downgrade in popularity, while echoing the now very popular, if imprecisely used, word “neo-conservative.” These two terms are also associated with different ends of the political spectrum, which means that “neo-modernism” should be politically ambiguous at first glance. “Modern”—modern things are good, but in need of revision—Postmodernism is old news, but “neo-modern” sounds like it just might have something interesting to convey.

Those are my initial thoughts—let me know what you think. Criticize away. And please post suggestions for other labels. This needs a good name.


Many Southerners prefer Georgian, for the record. It cuts to the chase.

Ironic that Schaeffer disdains the Libertarian label for its associations with "various think-tanks," given his present association with the Cato Institute and its pedigree. I've come to read Cato and Libertarian as synonymous.

I tell you, I spent an hour sitting with my dictionary on the side porch and nursing a third Coca-Cola in deep study of this young man's text. I did so because this is the person who upbraided Spearman at SCASA for offering no facts and no evidence in her opinion-editorial, as either lying or suffering from "ignorance." I wanted to get a sense of the man. And I did. The greatest discoveries I made are that he's enamored of his own prodigious polysyllabicism and he prefers to pump his own gasoline in New Jersey.

As for his ill-mannered treatment of Spearman, he whimpers at her charactization of him as a "paid consultant," then demonstrates that he's both "paid" and he consults. Clearly, he's become used to being called an "expert." We're used to experts in South Carolina. They often arrive from out-of-town with briefcases, some made of carpet. Our present governor professes to rely upon them, as reported in the Rock Hill Herald:

The state is bringing in "think tanks out of Washington to help see what's the best tax structure for South Carolina."

Having accused her of offering no evidence for her own conclusion, Schaeffer takes Spearman to task for seeking out evidence by "calling someone in the Florida Department of [Public] Education to ask them why they thought academic achievement in Florida has increased."

This is precisely why I question UVA's criteria for granting doctorates in these times. We are to take it that accurate facts and "evidence" comes only from printed pages and not from dialing up an expert and conducting interviews over the phone.

Yet Schaeffer, perhaps back at home in Arlington, marvels at how many "errors" Spearman could pack into "a piece under 700 words," and chides her: "Had Ms. Spearman done her due diligence on this education issue, or had she called me and asked, she could have avoided these embarrassing errors."

Good that she didn't, say I. Best not to get caught up on the phone in "the loss of faith in God and reason, and the human projects driven by belief in them, and the embrace of nihilism and relativism." We have children to educate down here. Yes, Schaeffer likely finds that public education "is overdue for a downgrade in popularity," and would exclaim "the now very popular, if imprecisely used, word 'choice'." But we've been beating that mule for seven years, and it hasn't moved a lick yet.

Deo ac Veritati, indeed.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ousting Moore nets national attention for Haley

Governor Nikki Haley's replacement of state icon Darla Moore with an unknown campaign contributor on the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees caught the attention of the Washington Post last week, as Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker weighed in with the solemn question, "Has Nikki Haley doomed her promising career?"

Has a breathless quality, doesn't it? I hear it in Vivien Leigh's voice.

For those who appreciate Parker's perspective, I'll get to it. But I can offer a fairly good answer to her question:

This is South Carolina. We elected Mark Sanford, twice. And Andre Bauer, twice. And Thomas Ravenel. And a laundry list of other lesser lights whose collective twinkle won't ever rate space in the firmament, and they variously embarrassed, humiliated, violated and defied themselves, us, common sense, the spirit and letter of the law, and the memories of our mutual ancestors. We continue to elect and re-elect men and women to our legislature whose chief attribute is mere consistence -- consistence in protecting self and allied interests, consistence in starving the least among us of vital services, consistence in vowing at home to do their best for all their constituents and in forgetting the vow by the time they've arrived at the Clarion on Gervais.

Haley has already made a smattering of stumbles and misjudgments, any three of which would have led another state's chief executive to beg forgiveness and demonstrate the lesson learned. But, like her predecessor Mark Sanford, Haley hails from a time, a place and a generation that wears self-confidence in abundance, righteousness by the bushel and superiority by the barrel. We average South Carolinians learned from the Argentinian saga of 2009 that it takes much more than mere stumbles and misjudgments to doom a promising career in South Carolina. Violent crime committed in broad daylight may -- may, I say, not will -- do it. Federal indictments may do it, after they've led to a conviction. The only thing sure and certain to do it is affiliation with the wrong side of the political spectrum.

But Parker asks the question in the Post's pages, and spends a bit of the Post's ink budget to answer it, so we honor the effort.

"This jaw-dropping move has created a furor," she writes, "prompting a statehouse protest and an anti-Haley campaign that has some talking about her political ruin. Others, such as former state Republican Party chair Katon Dawson, shrug and say that 'there’s a new sheriff in town'.”

With a tin badge, no doubt.

“I say there is a new governor in high heels doing what she told the voters she would do and willing to let the chips fall where they may,” says Dawson. “Elections have consequences.”

Ain't that the truth.

Parker has a flair:

As stories go, this one has, dare I say, good legs. It doesn’t hurt that both women are attractive — a Snow White and Rose Red pair of Southern sisters who are politely engaged in a war of, well, roses. In the nicest possible way, they are at each other’s throats.

She aims high:

Speaking to about 400 students on the University of South Carolina campus Thursday as she announced her latest donation, Moore began disarmingly: “While I quickly admit to enjoying the occasional opportunity to talk about the wonder of me, this is not about Darla Moore.”

And then she commenced, without mentioning Haley’s name, to shred the governor: “Neither you nor I need to be on the Board of Trustees to make this [improving higher education] happen. We need simply to hold our leaders accountable and tell them we understand that they may not help us, they may not be able to help us — but we demand that they not hurt us.”

But she takes Haley's talking points:

As Haley explains events, Moore lost her seat basically because she didn’t express sufficient interest in keeping it. She didn’t return Haley’s calls, as the governor tells it, and when Haley tried to meet with Moore, there was a three-week wait.

The governor told me she couldn’t wait. She has only one voting member on the board and, says Haley, “I have to pick one who will report to me and return my calls.”

That's the new sheriff talking. Don't take her calls, and she'll take your seat on the Board of Trustees. Don't care who you are. Or how much money you've given to USC. And to Clemson. Bottom line: You don't give contributions to the Haley campaign, you aren't owed a thing. Better be nice to the new sheriff.

Scores shows vouchers are no miracle pill, even in Milwaukee

Hold your hats. The Wisconsin Department of Education has just released test score data showing that students attending voucher schools in Milwaukee -- home of the nation's first and longest-lasting voucher program -- lag behind students in public schools.

That's right: Education Week magazine states plainly, "Students who received vouchers to attend private or religious schools in Milwaukee performed worse on statewide reading and math tests than their counterparts in public schools."

Of course, Milwaukee's former city administrator -- now Wisconsin's lackluster governor -- Scott Walker has issued his own decree that despite test score data, the voucher program in Milwaukee is "exceptional." Perhaps the beefaroni they serve in Milwaukee voucher schools is superior to the beefaroni served in public schools, and this is sufficient to counter any criticism over test scores. Walker is not specific.

But the larger point is informative to us, as our own lawmakers ponder a proposal by Governor Nikki Haley and Superintendent Mick Zais to scrap public education and move to a voucher scheme here.

The test results show that for all grades, 34.4 percent of voucher students were proficient or advanced in math compared to Milwaukee public schools' 47.8 percent average and the 43.9 percent average for low-income Milwaukee public schools students. Statewide, 77.2 percent of public school students scored proficient or advanced in math.

On reading scores, 55.2 percent of voucher students were advanced or proficient compared with 59 percent of Milwaukee public school students. Among Milwaukee's low-income public school students, 55.3 percent proficient or advanced. Overall, 83 percent of public school students in Wisconsin hit those marks.

Want to hear something else?

Our own leaders like to say that moving to a voucher program in South Carolina wouldn't cost anything, and would actually save taxpayers some money. But in Milwaukee, apparently truth is told aloud, and vouchers there DO cost taxpayers some money after all.

Private and religious schools that accept voucher students receive $6,442 from the state for each pupil. With about 21,000 students currently enrolled, the program has cost about $130 million in taxpayer money this year.

That's $130 million in taxpayer dollars this year alone, in just one city. That's a hefty price tag.

And one last thing: We only know this information now because a change in the law required that students in voucher schools take the same test as students in public schools. Comparing apples to apples meant that the test score data is a valid measure of voucher schools' effectiveness. But now, Wisconsin's governor wants to repeal that change in the law and let voucher schools go back to using their own testing system, so no accurate comparisons can be made in the future.

The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations tests, which began in 1992, were given to 430,000 students in third through eighth grade and 10th grade last fall. The test initially was required under state law, but beginning in 2002 was used to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind to determine whether schools are progressing as required.

Voucher students took the tests for the first time this year, as required under a law change approved by Democrats when they controlled the Legislature. That included about 10,600 students.

Walker has proposed doing away with that requirement and instead allowing voucher students to use any nationally normed test to measure a student achievement, a move that would not allow for direct comparisons with public school students' scores.

Watch, South Carolina. Doubtless our own governor and superintendent are taking careful notes of these developments and adding these facts to their calculation to dismantle public schools and return to a colonial system, in which the wealthy educate their own, and the poor do what they're told.

Attacks on public schools are echoes of 1920s

I suspect there are no teacher working today who were working in classrooms through the 1920s. If there are, God bless them; they'll make it to retirement eligibility under South Carolina's laws one day. Luckily, there are people who study the history of public education in America, and Mike Rose is one of them. Rose is on the faculty at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. In a Washington Post column, Rose reminds educators that what we're suffering today, our professional forebears suffered nearly a century ago.

I encourage you to read the whole column here. But here's a taste to whet the appetite.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, public schools came under severe attack, with magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal leading the way. Schools were assailed as being antiquated and inefficient. "[T]he American public-school system," wrote one critic, "is an absolute and total failure."

Modern business was in ascendance, and this was the era of scientific management and the efficiency expert. The nation was abuzz with talk of economizing and making more efficient everything from factory work to running a household to the practice of the ministry. So it was the notion of efficiency that shaped both the direction and language of the school reform of the time.

School administrators began to see themselves as "school executives." There was a call for "'educational engineers' to study this huge business of preparing youth for life." Precise standards and metrics were developed to help teachers determine their efficiency: "Having these definite tasks laid upon her, [the teacher] can know at all times whether she is accomplishing the things expected of her or not." Anyone falling short would be "unmistakably shown to be a weak teacher."

Sound familiar?

Fast forward to our time.

Once again, there is a powerful and concerted attempt assisted by mass media to portray public education as a catastrophic failure. Once again the business framework and business people play a huge role in contemporary school reform - actually, more so today. Once again reformers are equipped with what seems like the best new science - the economist's way of framing problems, cutting-edge statistical models - and a technocratic language that sounds precise, definitive, and action-oriented.

We will "incentivize", "scale up", "move the needle." Since teachers are - when it comes down to it - the problem, we are busy devising systems and techniques to direct them. And we believe we have objective statistical procedures to measure their effectiveness.

It would be a healthy thing for current reformers to look back at their early twentieth century predecessors. That is a history we don't need to repeat. Unfortunately, it is a characteristic of reform movements - especially with the kind of momentum this one has - for its participants to feel they are on the edge of history, solving with new ideas and new tools the problems that flummoxed everyone before.

Did Michelle Rhee's merit-pay policies and firings lead to test irregularities?

Michelle Rhee knows how to get attention. Yesterday, USA Today published a huge expose on the "testing irregularities" at several schools in Washington, D.C., that made rapid improvements during Rhee's short and tumultuous reign as schools superintendent in that city. Specifically, USA Today found large numbers of "incorrect-to-correct" answer erasures, meaning that someone -- maybe it was the students, maybe it was someone else -- marked standardized test forms incorrectly, then erased the answers and marked them correctly.

How many erasures are we talking about?

Erasures are detected by the same electronic scanners that CTB/McGraw-Hill, D.C.'s testing company, uses to score the tests. When test-takers change answers, they erase penciled-in bubble marks that leave behind a smudge; the machines tally the erasures as well as the new answers for each student.

In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.

On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

"This is an abnormal pattern," says Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied testing for 20 years.

But when did it become criminal for a student to erase a wrong answer and mark a correct answer?

There can be innocent reasons for multiple erasures. A student can lose his place on the answer sheet, fill in answers on the wrong rows, then change them when he realizes his mistake. And, as McGraw-Hill said in a March 2009 report to D.C. officials, studies also show that test-takers change answers more often when they are encouraged to review their work. The same report emphasizes that educators "should not draw conclusions about cheating behavior" from the data alone.

Haladyna notes, however, that when entire classrooms at schools with statistically rare erasures show fast-rising test scores, that suggests someone might have "tampered with the answer sheets," perhaps after the tests were collected from students. Although not proof of cheating, such a case underscores the need for an investigation, he says.

Hmm. Why would anyone have cause to tamper with test sheets? Could bonuses for principals in the DC schools have anything to do with it? Bonuses worth thousands of dollars, offered by Rhee and her lieutenants for rapid gains on standardized tests?

Sorry; those who know aren't talking. Most of them evacuated after Rhee lost her job last November.

In April, state superintendent [Deborah] Gist left Washington to take a job as head of Rhode Island's state school system. Her successor, Kerri Briggs, then dropped the request for D.C. public schools to investigate its schools. Both Gist and Briggs, now director for education reform at the George W. Bush Institute in Texas, declined to comment.

But others are singing like canaries.

From the start, Rhee emphasized a need to raise scores, restore calm to chaotic schools and close those with lagging scores and small enrollments. She paid bonuses to principals and teachers who produced big gains on scores. She let go dozens of principals and fired at least 600 teachers. Others retired or quit.

Turnover was brisk. Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater, a biography of Rhee, reported that Rhee hired 1,918 teachers during her three years in office –– about 45% of those on the payroll last October. Only 2,318 current teachers had been hired before Rhee took charge.

The pressure on principals was unrelenting, says Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal who is now president of the Council of School Officers, representing principals and other administrators. Every year, Jefferson says, Rhee met with each principal and asked what kind of test score gains he would post in the coming school year. Jefferson says principals told her that Rhee expected them to increase scores by 10 percentile points or more every year. "What do you do when your chancellor asks, 'How many points can you guarantee this year?' " Jefferson says. "How is a principal supposed to do that?"

Rhee churned through principals. The Washington Post reported that Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some left on their own, either resigning or retiring; other principals, on one-year contracts, were let go for not producing quickly enough.

Union officials say the pressure for high test scores may have tempted educators to cheat.

"This is like an education Ponzi scam," says Nathan Saunders, head of the Washington Teachers' Union. "If your test scores improve, you make more money. If not, you get fired. That's incredibly dangerous."

Dana Goldstein, a columnist for the Daily Beast, took up the issue yesterday and explained why Saunders is right, that incentives for high test scores are dangerous.

In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.

In the era of No Child Left Behind, Campbell’s Law has proved true again and again. When the federal government began threatening to restructure or shut-down schools that did not achieve across-the-board student “proficiency” on state reading and math exams, states responded by creating standardized tests that were easier and easier to pass. Alabama, for example, reported that 85 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2005, even though only 22 percent of the state’s students demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard, no-stakes exam administered by the federal government.

Simultaneously, instances of outright cheating were rising nationwide. The USA Today investigation on the probable cheating in Washington, D.C. is just one article in a must-read series based on student achievement data culled from 24,000 public schools across the country. The paper found 1,610 instances in which test score gains from year to year exceeded three standard deviations—a jump greater than that of 99.7 percent of all test-takers annually in any given state, the threshold at which statisticians agree that test results may be suspect.

The good news is that Campbell’s Law does not mean we should give up on assessing students and holding school systems accountable for their academic success. Research shows that certain kinds of exams—those that require essay writing on broad themes, for example—enhance student learning of key concepts. We can also assess students by requiring them to give oral presentations, or by looking for growth in portfolios of their work over the course of a year. Effective teachers produce students who excel when held to these more sophisticated standards, which are difficult to fudge or cheat.

Of course, creating better testing systems will be expensive, and implementing them will demand significant expertise on the part of school administrators. But as the Obama administration and national education reformers—Michelle Rhee chief among them—ask states and school districts nationwide to tie teacher evaluation scores and pay to student performance, it is crucial that we measure student academic growth in nuanced ways that encourage deep learning, not in over-simplified ways that create perverse incentives to dumb-down the curriculum and cheat.

"Superman" arrives in Australia, gets no respect

Back in November, the happy gang at South Carolinians for Responsible Government sponsored a movie night for South Carolina's lawmakers, and The State reported on it.

Just steps from the State House, a group of S.C. House members, mainly Republicans, crunched popcorn in the darkened Nickelodeon Theatre, watching the new education documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a group fighting for seven years to convince lawmakers to offset the cost of private school tuition, rented out the theater and invited the crowd to the private movie showing. SCRG’s hope: The emotional film, which throws stones at failing, public schools, paired with shifting political winds might spell success for their movement.

No word on whether SCRG charged the standard $18.50 for the large popcorn-and-Coke combo. If they didn't, does the popcorn and Coke count as a campaign expenditure?

No word, either, on whether the lawmakers were moved by the film -- did they laugh? did they cry? did they sleep through it?

But the film has now reached the shores of Australia. And from such an objective distance comes a review that bears note for its quizzical response to American right-wing critiques of public education.

The film tells the heart-wrenching story of five children in urban schools in the US and their quest to succeed in the public lotteries that stand between them and entry into privately run public schools, known in the US as ‘charter schools’.

It’s a seamless piece of neo-liberal propaganda that points to the deficiencies of the public school system, the demonic force that teacher unions represent and the capability of the private sector to save poor children from the fate-worse-than-death that mainstream public education represents. Like all good propaganda, there are a few assumptions that underpin the action that go unarticulated, and as it happens these are some of the big questions that we are currently grappling with on a global scale when it comes to education.

You know, critics in America called it 'propaganda,' too, but they were shouted down by the film's producers, and by Oprah Winfrey, as John Legend sang inspirational songs softly in the background.

Is it propaganda? Let's see: The dictionary definition of propaganda is "information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc." That about covers it. But the Australians explain why it's propaganda:

The first of these is that poor teaching is to blame for educational systems and structures that fail to prepare young people adequately for life.

The truth is that teachers are neither society's heroes nor society's villains. There are some life-changing teachers and some that should probably be on nil-by-mouth. Both of these groups are in the absolute minority. It's the same for GPs, accountants, social workers, shop assistants and lawyers.

The point is that what we need are structures that support all teachers to develop in their professional practice over the course of their careers, and structures that support the very small minority who are unsuited to teaching to exit the profession in a dignified manner. The best way to improve the learning of our children is to support the learning of the teachers who teach them. Blaming the kids or the teachers won't actually fix systems that are outdated or broken, and strategies that will fix the system are expensive and intensive and so it's far easier to go for the quick fix. Enter the next iteration of teacher standards and a series of administrative hoops for teachers to jump through that do nothing to improve the quality of their teaching but make it look to us all like something is being done.

The important thing is that our kids leave school with a passion for the acquisition of knowledge and the skills to make it happen.

Apparently, Australians have also heard of America's test-fetish of the past decade, and they are skeptical of its introduction to their own system.

The fact is that focusing on test scores isn't the way to make children better learners, or to equip them for life, either before or after they leave school. Teachers know that the most efficient way to get good results on standardized tests is to teach to them, sacrificing actual education to test scores. Unfortunately that's counterproductive when it comes to preparing students for life. The countries that do the best on the much-lauded OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores – like Finland – do so not because a ‘default curriculum’ has taken over schools as teachers teach to standardized tests (like it has in the US and is in danger of doing here: you might see this in your local school as NAPLAN season arrives upon us shortly) but rather because they put resources into teacher development, have very limited standardized testing and have a broad curriculum that goes out of its way to engage students and develop understanding.

And Australia apparently views its teachers differently from us:

It might not be common sense but believe it or not, good teachers have some knowledge of how to 'do' education that goes beyond what you pick up as a school student, even if you're at it for 13 years.

How many corporations pay no tax in South Carolina?

I'm curious about how much profit General Electric collected from doing business in South Carolina last year, and how much tax revenue South Carolina collected from General Electric. If reporting in the New York Times is accurate, GE paid nothin' to nobody last year, despite being the nation's largest corporation and earning $5.1 billion in American profits alone (out of $14.2 billion worldwide). In fact, far from PAYING taxes on those profits, GE got a REFUND of $3.2 billion -- from you and me.

That may be hard to fathom for the millions of American business owners and households now preparing their own returns, but low taxes are nothing new for G.E. The company has been cutting the percentage of its American profits paid to the Internal Revenue Service for years, resulting in a far lower rate than at most multinational companies.

Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore. G.E.’s giant tax department, led by a bow-tied former Treasury official named John Samuels, is often referred to as the world’s best tax law firm. Indeed, the company’s slogan “Imagination at Work” fits this department well. The team includes former officials not just from the Treasury, but also from the I.R.S. and virtually all the tax-writing committees in Congress.

While General Electric is one of the most skilled at reducing its tax burden, many other companies have become better at this as well. Although the top corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, one of the highest in the world, companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less.

The Times says that changes in tax laws have reduced the "corporate share of the nation's tax receipts" from 30 percent in the mid-1950s -- when times were pretty good -- to 6.6 percent two years ago. Sounds to me like we need a return to the tax policies of the 1950s if we want the economic boomtimes that occurred then.

Even so, corporate heads cry about today's high -- even "job-killing" -- tax rates. Shall we pity them?

Yet many companies say the current level is so high it hobbles them in competing with foreign rivals. Even as the government faces a mounting budget deficit, the talk in Washington is about lower rates.

What makes GE so effective at avoiding taxes in America? Lobbyists!

A review of company filings and Congressional records shows that one of the most striking advantages of General Electric is its ability to lobby for, win and take advantage of tax breaks.

Over the last decade, G.E. has spent tens of millions of dollars to push for changes in tax law, from more generous depreciation schedules on jet engines to “green energy” credits for its wind turbines. But the most lucrative of these measures allows G.E. to operate a vast leasing and lending business abroad with profits that face little foreign taxes and no American taxes as long as the money remains overseas.

Company officials say that these measures are necessary for G.E. to compete against global rivals and that they are acting as responsible citizens. “G.E. is committed to acting with integrity in relation to our tax obligations,” said Anne Eisele, a spokeswoman. “We are committed to complying with tax rules and paying all legally obliged taxes. At the same time, we have a responsibility to our shareholders to legally minimize our costs.”

The assortment of tax breaks G.E. has won in Washington has provided a significant short-term gain for the company’s executives and shareholders. While the financial crisis led G.E. to post a loss in the United States in 2009, regulatory filings show that in the last five years, G.E. has accumulated $26 billion in American profits, and received a net tax benefit from the I.R.S. of $4.1 billion.

Quick question: If GE is spending so much of its tax-deductible research and development budget on building wind turbines to harness and use wind energy, where is all the wind energy going? Why isn't the price of oil and gas dropping as wind energy becomes competitive? Put simply, where's the benefit to you and me for all the tax write-offs for GE's wind?

I don't hear an answer.

Did you know that GE has a "tax department," and that its 975 employees are paid to find ways to avoid paying taxes?

At a tax symposium in 2007, a G.E. tax official said the department’s “mission statement” consisted of 19 rules and urged employees to divide their time evenly between ensuring compliance with the law and “looking to exploit opportunities to reduce tax.”

This is exactly like electing a governor and paying him not to govern for eight years.

So, what do these tax experts at GE do?

Transforming the most creative strategies of the tax team into law is another extensive operation. G.E. spends heavily on lobbying: more than $200 million over the last decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Records filed with election officials show a significant portion of that money was devoted to tax legislation. G.E. has even turned setbacks into successes with Congressional help. After the World Trade Organization forced the United States to halt $5 billion a year in export subsidies to G.E. and other manufacturers, the company’s lawyers and lobbyists became deeply involved in rewriting a portion of the corporate tax code, according to news reports after the 2002 decision and a Congressional staff member.

By the time the measure — the American Jobs Creation Act — was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2004, it contained more than $13 billion a year in tax breaks for corporations, many very beneficial to G.E. One provision allowed companies to defer taxes on overseas profits from leasing planes to airlines. It was so generous — and so tailored to G.E. and a handful of other companies — that staff members on the House Ways and Means Committee publicly complained that G.E. would reap “an overwhelming percentage” of the estimated $100 million in annual tax savings.

Our government at work.

Here's a question that I'd love to see our state media investigate: How many corporations registered to do business in South Carolina pay no corporate income tax whatsoever?

If you're like me and would like to know how many of our mammoth corporate neighbors contribute nothing to the general treasury of our state in exchange for OUR investment in good roads, schools, public health and safety, clean water, etc, cut and paste this post into an email, sign your name at bottom and send it to your local newspaper and television news editors.

You and I have no political power individually, and I'm sure that asking Governor Nikki Haley's Department of Revenue for that data would leave us whistling 'til Judgment Day. But the media have a bit more power and could, if nothing else, file some Freedom of Information Act requests. Is anyone from the Associated Press listening? I smell a Pulitzer...

English teacher confesses: We've "failed miserably"

This is delightful. Randy Turner is an English teacher in Joplin, Missouri, but maybe acquainted with our election habits in South Carolina.

For a long time, I tried to fight it.

Whenever someone had the temerity to criticize public schools and schoolteachers, I stood staunchly in the corner of those who practice my profession. I noted that in my 12 years as a teacher, I have had the privilege of serving with hard-working, skilled professionals.

Prior to becoming a teacher, I spent the previous 22 years as a newspaper reporter and had the opportunity to observe dozens of schools doing outstanding jobs of serving their communities.

Sadly, I have finally had my blinders removed and I no longer have the same glowing view of public education.

It has nothing to do with test scores, considering most of the schools are taking poorly-worded tests from companies that are making a mint off selling tests and practice tests. After all, if the tests are any good, there would be no need for these practice tests, which have turned out to be a lucrative sideline for the companies.

It has nothing to do with lazy, incompetent teachers who received tenure and cannot be fired. On the contrary, that is a phenomenon of some large, suburban schools whose failures are then exploited by those who wish to see public education destroyed. From what I have seen over the years, many young teachers who are not cut out for teaching quickly discover that and move to other work. Others are encouraged by administrators to leave education, while others are removed before they can do more damage. Few incompetents receive tenure in Missouri and most of those are as a result of administrators not doing their jobs.

It has nothing to do with the stories about teachers misusing their positions of trust to take advantage of students. Some critics have targeted teachers because of these few who have brought shame on all of us. The reason those instances are so well publicized is because they are still thankfully rare.

It has nothing to do with out of control unions who care about teachers more than children. It has not been my experience that union members put anyone ahead of children.

It has nothing to do with teachers working 8 to 3 and getting three months off in the summer and Christmas breaks. I don't know many teachers who don't take their work home with them and most arrive well before first bell and work long after children have gone home. Summers are spent either teaching summer school or taking classes and attending seminars to keep up with the latest developments or to earn higher degrees. Of course, those higher degrees and the debt the teachers have run up earning them will be wasted once laws are passed, including one scheduled to be voted on this week in Missouri that will eliminate years of valuable experience and advanced degrees in favor of a system that relies on the same poorly written tests I mentioned before. Poverty, parents who don't care, children with no interest in learning (or allowing others to learn) -- none of those things mean anything. After all, if you believe the rhetoric from our politicians, the sole problem in American public education is horrible, inept teachers.

And that brings me to the sole reason I have changed my mind about the competence of American public schoolteachers -- if we were doing our job, somewhere along the line we would have taught the politicians who are systematically destroying public education, the greatest of all American experiments, something about decency, respect, and developing the mortal fortitude to resist the siren song of the special interests who are well on their way to making the U. S. into a world of haves and have-nots, where public education will serve to provide low paid feeder stock for non-union companies and taxpayer-financed private schools will continue to cater to the elite, with the middle class existing only in history books.

Public schoolteachers have failed miserably by producing the most incompetent, mean-spirited legislators in U.S. history.

I heartily apologize for my contribution to that failure. I wish I had done a better job for all of us.

All quiet in Florence, payroll process still in doubt

A number of parents attended the Florence District 4 school board meeting in Timmonsville last night, but the board went into executive session and kept the public in the dark.

Surely the board discussed the epic malfunction that kept school district employees from being paid on time last week -- receiving their once-a-month paychecks by bank deposit or by physical check -- but since no notes are kept of executive session, and no one is compelled by law to report what was discussed, there's no way to know.

Action is supposed to be taken though, once the board meeting is back open to the public. Some parents who showed up for the meeting Tuesday evening said they anticipated they would be allowed to listen in on the matters involving the education department and wanted to know exactly what was going on inside the district.

Clearly, those parents thought wrong.

"We're not fighting against them, we want to be able to come together and come to a quick resolution because this is a problem that's really escalating day by day fast," said concerned parent, Vernon Davis.

"We must keep showing up to let the board know that the community is dissatisfied with the direction they've taken, but we also have to make sure that we turn the tide around and make sure we head back in the right direction," said concerned resident Butch Hodges.

Plenty is already known about the problem at hand, namely the funding cuts that have led to layoffs, which led directly to last week's payroll mess.

In recent months, Timmonsville's school district has faced a series of problems stemming from a lack of finances.
The problems began in early March when the district announced that it would have to eliminate 19 positions in an effort to try to make up a large budget shortfall.

Those layoffs resulted in a reorganization within the district, where several school activities were combined and where in some cases, faculty took on additional roles.

On Friday, the layoffs resulted in another problem according to district officials, when paychecks were not deposited in district employees accounts because of what officials called a "timing error" that was the result of no longer having a finance director for the district.

That position was one of many lost in the layoffs in early March.

There may be a silver lining, however. Media reports suggest that Florence parents may be organizing themselves to take action. (If I might offer a suggestion for one such action: Electing new leaders that choose to make investment in public schools a priority is always a good start.)

They say that they realize now, more than ever, that any action taken to address some of the issues facing the district may have to be taken by them and have banded together to form a united front.

"We're just here to show them that we're still here, we're not dying, we're not going away we're trying to push forward," Davis said.

Those parents say that even though the process of solving the district's financial woes is a long and cumbersome one, it is a process that they will continue to be a part of and one in which they will not give up. A group of concerned parents is meeting to address many of the issues facing Florence School District 4 including the financial problems, layoffs, the matter involving payroll and possible consolidation attempts with Florence School District 1.

The group will meet at 7 pm Thursday in Timmonsville.

Location to be determined. Bring voter registration forms, y'all.

From Rock Hill, a rational view of high school graduation rates

Editors of the Rock Hill Herald published an editorial yesterday that sounded downright rational.

At present, when students don't graduate high school, we sound the alarm, raise the red flag, count numbers, hold press conferences and then, at the end of the torturous process, blame the teachers. If firing some of them is a viable option, then we fire some of them, too. Then we check the sports page to see if the local team is playing at home or away this Friday.

But the Herald, quoting in part York County's superintendent, takes a refreshing new view:

The American tradition of attending high school for four years and then walking across a stage to collect a diploma seems to work well for most students. Even in schools with relatively low graduation rates, most students earn a diploma four years after starting 9th grade.

But Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody says that while she understands why states compile records on graduation rates, the approach might be outdated.

"I am much more interested in how many students graduate - not when," Moody said. "What's magical about four years?"

But such a position is too rational for political discourse. There's no hook.

South Carolina's modern political rulebook is clear on this: For effective governing, there must be insult, then injury, then blame, then budget cuts and amendments, then teachers must lose jobs. When Johnny doesn't graduate high school in four years with a diploma and get a good low-paying job down at the plant, then the pattern can be followed: Johnny didn't graduate because he can't read, which is because he wasn't taught, which is because educators get paid too much, which means we have to cut the budget and amend the law, and fire a teacher. The system works. This is how people get elected to the legislature. Change any part of it, and the whole thing could fall apart. We will have chaos.

This is precisely what the Herald editors are unwittingly doing: changing a part of the pattern.

We think Moody also makes an important point. If some students can graduate in four and a half years of high school instead of just four, that shouldn't be a black mark for the school or the student.

The important thing is for students ultimately to learn the skills they will need to make their way in the world. For most, that will include going on to a two-year or four-year college or undergoing some special training beyond the high school level.

Skills needed to compete in the workplace have become more complex in recent decades, and, for most, high school no longer provides all a student needs to be successful.

We might be inclined to wring our hands about the dip in graduation rates across the state. But before we do, we need to consider all the factors involved in putting together the numbers.

In other words, declining graduation rates are considerably less worrisome if students are earning their degrees somewhere down the road.

I think it's safe to say the editors of the Herald will get an earful the next time they sit down with a certain new governor of South Carolina. Even-tempered, rational thinking of this sort is no way to shrink government and cut public sector jobs. Perhaps she will tell them that editors should stick to editing and leave the thinking to be done under the Capitol dome.

100 more educator jobs to be cut in Pickens: Speak up now

Elections have consequences.

Men (and sometimes women) file to run for public office, and they tell us in their canned speeches that they're for smaller government, less taxes, more personal responsibility. Who isn't?

So on Election Day, we elect these people and they drive off to Columbia. When they get there, they set to work cutting the budget, rewriting laws to make government do more with less -- which usually means making government do less -- and sending out press releases reminding constituents that they're doing exactly what they promised.

And so they are.

The state cuts taxes, appropriates less funding to school districts, and then tells the school districts to cut the fat from their budgets. And when all the fat is gone, cut some meat. When the meat is gone, shave the bone. Still can't balance the budget? Why not eliminate some of those bones altogether?

Which brings us to Pickens County, which gave 64.3 percent of its votes for governor to Nikki Haley just five short months ago. Today, it's having to cut 100 MORE educator jobs and close a school.

From WSPA in Spartanburg:

You will have a second chance to have your voice heard on a plan to eliminate 100 positions with the Pickens County School District. The district announced a new meeting will now take place Monday, April 4 at Liberty Middle School, at 7:30 p.m.

It comes after hundreds of people packed a school board meeting Monday night, to voice concerns over the cuts. The plan, proposed by Superintendent Dr. Henry Hunt, includes the elimination of 100 positions, from guidance counselors, to assistant principals and school resource officers at the county's middle schools. The plan also includes closing JT Simpson Alternative Education Center. If closed, those students would be dispersed among other district schools.

"What about the kids' education," asks Nancy Holcombe. She has three students in Pickens schools, and is concerned over the possibility of Simpson closing. "We'll stop them from closing this school," she says. "This school does not need to be closed, it needs to stay open for these students."

School Board member Jim Shelton says he doesn't want to see any cuts, but the district has to be practical. "We're going to have to make hard decisions," he says. Shelton proposed the board go back to the drawing board, using new figures from the state that increase student spending. Per-pupil numbers would jump from $1750 per student to $1788 per student. It could save at least $600,000 and a dozen positions, according to Shelton. "Don't put something aside, don't take those dollars and stick them in the backyard in a mason jar, let's use them," he says.

Yes, what about the kids' education, indeed?

I don't know if then-candidate Haley ever delivered her canned speech in Pickens County last year, but she delivered it elsewhere many, many times, and she told us about the kids' education. Clearly, not everyone was listening.

Or, perhaps 64.3 percent of Pickens County voters want to raise the county's unemployment rate and close schools there. It's a logical conclusion.

Crusade against ETV will impact rural, poorer public schools

Governor Nikki Haley's attack on South Carolina ETV and ETV Radio is likely to have negative repercussions on the state's poorest, youngest and most vulnerable. It's counter-intuitive that a governor elected to serve the best interests of all the people would begin her administration by knee-capping the least among us, but presumably, the knee-capping had to begin somewhere, and children can't fight back.

Thankfully, some educators can. Who would ever have pegged the state's media specialists as front-line warriors against despotism?

Educational television plays a large role in the curriculum at Crescent High School, says Deborah Jordan, the school’s media specialist.

Teachers there approach her daily for online and broadcast content from ETV, including archives of PBS programming such as “NOVA,” interactive lesson plans and educational videos.

“It’s a wealth of information,” said Jordan. “If we lose ETV, that would be devastating to public schools.”

As the Anderson Independent Mail reports, Haley wiped out the institutional wisdom of the ETV Commission in one fell swoop last week, replacing their combined experience and commitment to ETV with a collection of campaign contributors and reductionists.

Among those removed from the commission was its chairman, Robert Rainey of Anderson. The Rainey family has helped produce three major documentaries for the station, including the award-winning “Corridor of Shame” piece about failing schools along Interstate 95.

Rainey, reached at his Foothills Community Foundation office this week, said he had predicted that Haley would make some major changes in the commission. Her predecessor, Mark Sanford, had let every commissioner’s term expire, though the seven commissioners continued to serve.

Politically, the Rainey family is also at odds with Haley. Rainey’s brother John, former Board of Economic Advisors chairman under Sanford, has undertaken an investigation for several months into issues involving Haley’s employment and tax records.

Robert Rainey said his top concern about the removal of all seven commissioners simultaneously is the loss of institutional memory and continuity. ETV is a complex state agency, Rainey said, and its federal licenses require that ETV provide substantial services to education. In the absence of those, those licenses are at risk, he said.

“These new commissioners will be on a learning curve you just can’t believe,” Rainey said.

The new commissioners include a used-car salesman, a failed candidate for state superintendent of education, a campaign contributor, a former low-level political operative and three failed candidates for the legislature -- including former Rep. Joey Millwood, sports reporter for the Tryon (NC) Daily Record -- all of which "ran on platforms that espoused state-funded vouchers for private schools."

The Mail picked up this connective tissue too:

Combined, those candidates received at least $59,000 from school-voucher proponent Howard Rich of New York in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, according to state ethics records.

You'll recall that Haley instructed lawmakers in her State of the State address to eliminate state funding for ETV.

Those who travel in Haley's social circle and who breath the rarefied political air of Columbia will likely feel no pain. But children in South Carolina's public schools, particularly those in poorer, rural communities, far distant from the capital glow, will be left in the dark if ETV fails.

Since July 2009, Anderson County teachers, staff and students have used online resources from ETV 199,683 times.

Jordan’s rural school district, based in Starr and Iva, has streamed and recorded 34,000 programs since an ETV broadband portal was installed there two years ago.