Friday, November 30, 2007

Richmond Public Schools are Pretty Damn Good

Let me be the last person in the River City area to talk about the Crupi report. I thank the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce for laying out the big bucks to pay for Dr. Crupi’s study. I also thank the Richmond Times-Dispatch for providing a copy of the report to all its readers.

I will not mention the amazing coincidence that a report paid for by the business community came back with the observation that only the business community is able to save Metro Richmond. Some people might be suspicious about the self-serving nature of the report. Not this maven. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, “I guess they’re just lucky.”

I will also not mention that this report deals with a nonexistent Metro Richmond. Oh, of course, it exists on census maps. But lets face it, some of us live in the City, some live in Midlothian, some live in Mechanicsville, some live in Short Pump. But none of us respond to “where do you come from?” with “I’m from Greater Richmond.”

What I will talk about is the part of Dr. Crupi’s report that deals with the Richmond Public Schools. We are all used to hearing how bad Richmond Public Schools are. The Richmond 26, in their letter to the mayor in July, indicated that the state of RPS was an “emergency.” Our leading cheerleader, Uncle Doug, is constantly telling us how our schools are failing and that the School Board and RPS administration are wasting millions of dollars. So it is not surprising that Dr. Crupi in listing Metro Richmond’s weaknesses included “Weak City Public Schools.”

However, before I can agree with all the critics of RPS, I need to look at the facts. In 2003, only 19% of Richmond’s schools were accredited under the Commonwealth’s Standards of Learning (SOL). Also in 2003, only 23% of Richmond’s schools were meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. By 2006, however, 86% of Richmond’s schools were SOL accredited and 84% of the schools were meeting AYP requirements. That doesn’t sound like an emergency situation or a failing school system to me. Perhaps the Richmond 26 and the mayor are looking back at 2003 statistics in making their assessments. I see RPS making exceptional progress. It is clearly not a failing school system.

Let us go back to Dr. Crupi’s report. In discussing the City of Richmond and its public school system, Dr. Crupi points out these facts about the city:

•19 percent of the population lives in poverty – rates that are over twice as high as Henrico, ten times as high as Hanover and four times as high as Chesterfield.
• 25 percent of its children (0-17 years) live in households at or below 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level [i.e. below $20,650 annually].
• More than one of every two parents in Richmond is a single parent.
• Median income is less than 60 percent of the Greater Richmond average.
• 74 percent of students receive free/reduced price lunches.
• It has the highest rate of food stamp distribution in the state.
• Foster care rate is about three times the metro area’s rate.
• 50 percent of children are dependent on Medicaid or FAMIS [child health insurance program].
• 30 percent of kindergarten children need additional reading assistance.
• 14 percent of children from 3-4 years old are in the Head Start Program.
• 19 percent of children have disabilities and receive special needs education.
• It has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the metro area.
• 51 percent of students drop out of school according to a 2005-06 report by the VA Department of Education.
• The high school absenteeism rate is 26 percent and 14 percent in the middle schools [2005-2006].
• It is the only locality in the state in which all seven community problems involving youth are rated as “very serious.” Problems include: “violence on TV, movies, or in music.” lack of affordable and quality child care, lack of after school supervision, and alcohol and other illegal drug use by children or adolescents.
• It lacks a coordinated, proactive approach to addressing a young person’s needs

Dr. Crupi puts all these facts in the section of his report entitled “Give Richmond Schools a ‘Product’ They Can Work With.” As Dr. Crupi puts it,

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the Richmond public schools are getting large numbers of children who are not ready for school, who grow up in single parent homes that don’t (or find it difficult to) reinforce education, require nutritional support, and live in a community environment that makes it very difficult to study and learn. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that much of the poverty is concentrated in 4000 public housing projects that are primarily located in Fairfield Court, Whitcomb Court, Gilpin Court, and Creighton Court. Were these problems in the counties, the schools would also have problems.” (Emphasis added).

Given the factors discussed by Dr. Crupi, it is really amazing that RPS is doing as well as it is. In the August article in Style Weekly, “The Real Problem With Our Schools,” Don Cowles of Initiatives of Change said that school systems with more than 50% of their students reliant on subsidized lunches “simply do not succeed.” Yet, with a subsidized lunch rate of 74%, Richmond Public Schools are clearly succeeding.

As Dr. Crupi points out, large numbers of students in Richmond start school without the skills necessary for learning. The Richmond 26 and the mayor clearly are making unfounded accusations about RPS. Imagine that the kitchen receives sour milk, moldy flour, rotten eggs and rancid shortening. These ingredients are baked into a cake. After tasting the less-than-perfect cake, would it be fair to conclude that it was made by a terrible baker?

I am not putting our students down. It is clearly not their fault that they come to the race with a ball and chain around their ankles. I see these children every week and almost all of them are eager to learn and they are making remarkable progress despite the difficulties of their lives. They have dedicated, hard-working teachers. Their schools are run by competent, demanding principals. I have seen RPS administrators at work. They are competent people dedicated to making RPS into a school system this city can be proud of. I have interacted with members of the School Board. They are committed to turning RPS into a world-class school system. They put in long hours trying to make RPS work despite real dollar budget cuts imposed by City Council.

Is RPS perfect? Clearly not. There is lots of room for improvement. But, I am really tired of all these critics with little knowledge attacking our public schools because they seem like an easy target. They need to stop complaining and do something to fix the problem. In the words of Dr. Crupi,

“Richmond’s leaders need to understand that concentrating on the output (i.e. what the school’s produce) without addressing the input (i.e. the condition of students entering the schools) is doomed to failure. It is a question of investing on the front end or paying on the back end. The time has come to design a way forward.”

Monday, November 12, 2007

Well Earned Awards

1- The Chutzpah Award for the first half of November is awarded to L. Douglas Wilder, our beloved mayor. In a TV interview last week Uncle Doug indicated that it was not his fault that he was the defendant in two law suits. He stated that he had sued nobody. He was just doing his job. It was the City Council and the School Board who sued him.

C’mon, Mr. Wilder. That’s like a bank robber who claims he is sitting in the defendant’s chair in court only because the police and the prosecutor chose to arrest and prosecute him. (It’s an analogy; I am not accusing the mayor of robbing banks). Mr. Mayor, you are a defendant in two law suits because you chose to ignore an ordinance enacted by City Council. The Richmond city charter indicates that you are to carry out the laws of the Commonwealth and the ordinances of the City. If you claim the power to ignore city ordinances, you are likely to end up in court.

2- The Neville Chamberlain Appeasement Award goes to City Council member Doug Conner for his November 10 letter to the editor in the Times-Dispatch. In his letter, Mr. Conner said,

“I offer the following to start dialogue: RPS should move from City Hall. The city should pay for the move and the rent on 3600 West Board for two years; talk of the mayor and Harry Black personally paying for the failed eviction should cease; drop the lawsuits and mediate; the mayor should lead education town halls that include the City Council and the School Board.”

I certainly agree with Mr. Conner that if the mayor gets his way in his dispute with the City Council and the School Board all will be quiet in the city again. All that is needed to bring these nasty little political disputes to an end is for the council, the board and the citizens of Richmond to concede that the mayor has all the power he wants. I am sure that if Uncle Doug is allowed dictatorial powers, we shall have “Peace in our Time.”

Monday, November 05, 2007

Undocumented Aliens and Loupassi’s Ad

A sloganeer submitted a comment to my post “Shame On You, Manoli (revisited)”. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against sloganeers. In fact I have been known to be a sloganeer myself, and I think I am quite good at it. Sometimes, however, slogans are not the best way of addressing issues. For example, my commenter began with “What part of the phrase ‘Illegal Alien’ don’t you understand?” Now that’s a pretty good slogan, but it doesn’t begin to address the complexities of the issue. The commentator, Anonymous, goes on to say he has nothing against aliens in general. He is bothered that the first act these particular aliens did on coming to America was breaking the law.

Anonymous is right. In fact, as these undocumented aliens were in the process of stepping across the border of our country they were violating Section 1325 of Title 8 of the United States Code. For violating this statute they can be prosecuted and if convicted they may spend some time in prison or pay a fine. They may also be deported from the United States.

So, this attorney turned maven certainly understands the phrase “illegal alien.” Moreover, as an attorney I am greatly bothered by laws that are not enforced. When any laws are routinely violated without consequences the commitment of our citizenry to obeying the law is weakened. Our country learned this lesson when we tried to outlaw alcohol about eighty years ago. By making booze illegal we created an entire class of “illegal drinkers” and a vast criminal enterprise to serve their needs. Tragically, we have not yet learned this lesson with regard to outlawing drugs.

Since the Federal Government has made entering our country “other than as designated by immigration officers” illegal, the Federal Government has an obligation to enforce that law. However, since there are many millions of individuals who have violated this law, the logistics of enforcement are mind-boggling. Understanding this, President Bush proposed a reasonable way to solve the illegal alien problem. (You may want to save that sentence. It is and will probably be the only time that I praise W). However, there are far too many politicians in this country who would rather use this problem as an election issue than trying to solve it. So, this problem goes on unresolved.

What Mr. Anonymous does not realize is that I did not criticize Mr. Loupassi for his views on the illegal alien problem. I criticized him for running an ad that naturally has the effect of dehumanizing people. I criticized him for engaging in hate-based politics. I criticized him for being a divider rather than a uniter. I criticized him for scape-goating. In sum, I criticized Mr. Loupassi for having such a low opinion of the intelligence of the voters in his district that he thought such negative campaigning would work.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Shame on You, Manoli (Revisited)

Well, this maven was wrong (in part) in my posting Thursday. And as my motto indicates, I am not afraid of being wrong and admitting it. In my post, I lambasted 68th district House of Delegates candidate Manoli Loupassi for his television ad. I said that at worst the ad was a lie and at best it was a distortion. After further consideration I must conclude that the ad is a distortion not a lie.

I am getting older. Sometimes I see and hear things strangely. Thursday I said that Mr. Loupassi’s ad criticized Delegate Katherine Waddell for having voted against a bill that would make undocumented aliens ineligible for in-state tuition rates at the Commonwealth’s public colleges and universities. As I pointed out in my post, Ms. Waddell voted in favor of that legislation. Thursday night I saw the ad again. Now I see that the ad criticizes Ms. Waddell for opposing a different bill, a year earlier, that totally bars undocumented aliens from our institutions of higher learning. I went back to the General Assembly’s Legislative Information Service and discovered that in 2006 Delegate Waddell did vote against House Bill 262 that made undocumented aliens ineligible to be admitted to Virginia’s public colleges and universities. Since Mr. Loupassi’s ad does not indicate that in the next year Delegate Waddell voted in favor of withholding in-state tuition rates from undocumented aliens, I view the ad as a distortion of Ms. Waddell’s record. I apologize for calling Mr. Loupassi a liar.

Confession should make me feel better, but I don’t. I still find myself very angry with Mr. Loupassi’s ad. I feel almost as angry as I did two years ago when I saw Jerry Kill-more’s capital punishment ads against Tim Kaine.

I am sure that this statement does not apply to all Republicans, but I see many of the GOP’s candidates running campaigns that appeal to the basest of human instincts. Just two weeks ago I was up in northern Virginia and saw a mega-sign for a candidate for chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors that read (I paraphrase) “He knows how to handle illegal aliens.” Now, it’s Manoli Loupassi that is trying to ride to office on the backs of undocumented aliens. I abhor this type of us-them politics. It triggers our inborn xenophobia and makes us fear and hate “the other”—those who have entered this country illegally. What is worse is that most of these illegal aliens speak Spanish. The stigma that is attached to them by this hate-based politics naturally transfers to all Spanish speakers. When we hear construction workers or the people behind us in the check-out line speaking Spanish we start wondering whether they are here legally.

Yes, illegal aliens are in this country without permission. Yes, illegal aliens have broken the law. But, they are not murderers or rapists or child predators. Their crime is that they came into this country to earn money because they are unable to do so in their home country. Things are so bad where they come from that they are willing to risk their lives in the often perilous journey across our borders. And, let’s not forget that they serve a very useful purpose in this country. They work at jobs for low pay that few other people would do. Without them in our economy the prices of much that we buy would increase drastically.

Mr. Loupassi and his fellow Republicans need to realize that these aliens are human beings. They are not vermin that need to be eliminated. Mr. Loupassi must understand that his ad creates animosity against these aliens. The words of the ad that speak of these “undesirables” taking the places of good American children in our colleges and universities can have no other purpose than to marginalize people. Marginalizing people leads to considering them less than human. This can lead eventually to such nice things as internment camps and even genocide.

Mr. Loupassi, my grandparents came to this country just before the First World War They answered the call of the Statue of Liberty to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I am therefore an immigrant. I assume that your ancestors came to this country at some time after the settlement of Jamestown and that you are also an immigrant. Manoli, if your ancestors were like mine they were not treated very well when they arrived here. They dressed strangely, they spoke foreign languages, they were different. They were considered undesirable by all the true Americans—those who had come here a few years earlier. Since we know what it is like to be the “other” we should be the last to cast aspersions on today’s others. In the words of Scripture, we must “love [the stranger] as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34)

Why do candidates rely on this type of extreme negative campaigning? Because they are told by the professional political salesmen that they have hired that it works. If Mr. Loupassi is elected on Tuesday, I fear that we will have more of this nasty campaigning in the future. If residents of the 68th District deplore this type of politics as much as I do they must show the political professionals that it does not work. They must vote for the reelection of Delegate Waddell.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Shall Never the Twain Meet?

On Saturday I had a delightful time at the dedication of the newly renovated media center at Westover Hills Elementary School. It was a great party. In addition to this maven and his maveness, the Superintendent of Schools, School Board members, community partners of the school, faculty, and about 200 children and their parents were in attendance. With music, arts and crafts activities, a dance contest, pizza and lemonade everybody really enjoyed themselves.

I found myself looking at the children at one of the tables. They were beautiful. Their eyes were alive with joy, their mouths were smiling or laughing, their faces were filled with the wonder of learning. As I watched them, my mind connected with the picture I saw on the front of Section B of the TD last week. It was a picture of a group of students at Tuckahoe Elementary School watching a Richmond Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan. The children in the picture were also beautiful. Their eyes too were alive with joy, their mouths were also smiling or laughing, their faces too were filled with the wonder of learning.

Two groups of elementary school children. Each having a great time. All of them alive with the joy and wonder of learning. Sitting in elementary schools located no more than five miles apart. Two identical groups of children . . . except that all the students in the Tuckahoe photograph had light skin, while almost all the children I saw at Westover Hills had dark skin.

The children in these two groups are not aware that the others exist. And, in all likelihood these light-skinned and dark-skinned children will not interact for at least the next ten to fifteen years, if ever. They will not have the opportunity to meet each other, to get to know each other, to play with each other, to learn with each other, to appreciate each other, and, perhaps, to love each other.

Will all of these light-skinned children at Tuckahoe and these dark-skinned children at Westover Hills eventually adopt the attitude held by their great-grandparents, grandparents and parents that the color of a person’s skin is a key factor in judging them? Will their ignorance of the other lead to these children acquiring, over time, a pigmentation prejudice?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think children are color blind. I think they notice that some people have light skin and that others have dark skin. However, if they’re young enough, complexion just doesn’t matter. Two examples—

1- I do some tutoring at Westover Hills School. My skin is light. Most of the kids have dark skin. Do they notice the difference? I assume so. But they also notice that I am older than them, taller than them, a bit pudgy around the waist, and because I am older that I have acquired greater knowledge than they have. Do they have any notion that because of our skin colors I am better than they or they are better than me? I think not, especially my second graders.

2- My four-year old granddaughter often asks me to take her to the Westover Hills playground to play with the school children. She is the only light-skinned child there. Neither she nor the other kids seem to care. I know she recognizes complexion differences. Once in Target she asked that I buy her a “brown baby” for her doll collection. When she plays with her doll house, she has both African American and Caucasian dolls. She plays with them interchangeably, often having white dolls with black offspring and vice versa. Skin color just seems irrelevant to her.

So how do we prevent these children from catching the complexion bias that most of us adults suffer from? I suggest that we institute community building in all of our public schools. We need to schedule opportunities for our urban and suburban children to get together. Maybe, instead of a field trip to some colonial ruin, we should schedule a field trip to each other’s schools. Maybe, we can arrange for them to interact through video-conferencing. I am sure that you have an idea that might work.

If we do this, maybe we will have reached one of the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe we will achieve a society in which we are all judged by the strength of our characters, not by the color of our skins.

Shame on You, Manoli

I guess this is what happens when a candidate has too much money to spend. I just saw the latest of Manoli Loupossi’s political ads, and it makes me mad. Manoli gets on at the end and says he approved of the ad, so the buck stops with him. The ad criticizes incumbent Delegate Katherine Waddell for voting against legislation that would make aliens not legally in the country ineligible for in-state tuition rates at Virginia colleges and universities. The ad stirs up animosity against Ms. Waddell with the conclusion that she wants to give away commonwealth revenue to illegal aliens.

Shame on you, Manoli, you should know better.

House Bill 2623 is described by the Legislative Information Service as follows:

In-state tuition for aliens. Provides that an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, and therefore ineligible to establish domicile pursuant to § 23-7.4, shall not be eligible on the basis of residency within Virginia for any postsecondary educational benefit, including in-state tuition, unless citizens or nationals of the United States are eligible for such benefits in no less an amount, duration, and scope without regard to whether such citizens or nationals are Virginia residents.
The LIS indicates that this bill passed the House of Delegates on February 1, 2007, by a vote of 74 to 23. Voting in favor of the bill was Delegate Waddell.

So, Manoli, the ad, which you approved, is a distortion at best and a lie at worst. I think that running an ad like this shows that you would do anything to get elected. Although I do not live in your district, I will have to endorse the candidacy for reelection of Ms. Waddell. If your campaign represents the type of delegate you will be, I hope that the voters in the 68th district reject your candidacy.