Friday, December 11, 2009

An Open Letter To President Obama, Senators Webb And Warner, And Representative Scott

Loyal reader, you know how often in the past I railed at President Bush and the Republican Congress for their borrow and spend operation of the Federal Government. I attacked them repeatedly for nearly doubling the national debt during the years of the Bush Administration. You also know that nearly two years ago I warned then-candidate Barack Obama about making promises to the voters that we as a nation couldn’t afford to keep. (I’m Sorry Mr. Obama—No You Cant. You also probably noticed that I pretty much stopped talking about the national debt after Mr. Obama was elected president.

Well, this morning I was reading the nearly full-page editorial in the Richmond Times Dispatch criticizing President Obama for being a hypocrite on the issue of debt. My thought was, “How amazing that you now attack Mr. Obama for increasing the national debt when for the eight years of the Bush Administration you kept silent.” As this thought crossed my mind I realized that I was as guilty as the RTD for not discussing the debt issue since Mr. Obama took office. To the extent that my silence was caused by partisanship on my part, I apologize. The following is long overdue.

Dear President Obama, Senator Webb, Senator Warner and Representative Scott:

Let me begin by telling you that I am a life-long Democrat. I voted for all four of you in the two most recent federal elections. And it is likely that I will vote for you again when you next face reelection. Therefore, you can be assured that in writing this letter I have no partisan objectives.

Mr. President, in the nearly eleven months you have been in office the federal government’s debt has increased by $1,452, 862, 303, 218.05. That’s an increase of nearly $1.5 trillion dollars in less than one year—more than 13.5%. I realize that much of this increase can be attributed to the one-time (hopefully) rescue of the banking industry from the results of their own mismanagement and the economic stimulus package that was enacted at the beginning of your administration. However, debt is debt. We owe it regardless of the purposes for which we incurred it.

Mr. President, I understand that most of the current national debt was incurred during the administrations of your predecessors. I also know that when you started your campaign to be our president you could not have known of the economic crisis that would soon affect the United States and the world. Without that knowledge you made promises to the American people, which, in normal circumstances we could have afforded. Unfortunately, the recession has increased federal spending considerably while it has also reduced revenues below anticipated levels. We no longer can afford everything we want.

What does it mean to have a national debt of $12 trillion dollars? For one thing it means that we have a huge annual debt service. In fiscal year 2009, for example, the United States government spent just over $383 billion in interest on our debt. That amount is actually a decrease from previous years because during the current economic downturn Treasury is able to borrow money at depressed interest rates. But even if the debt service were to stabilize at the current amount, think of all the money we are wasting on interest payments. $383 billion would pay the entire yearly budgets of the Departments of Education, Transportation, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, State, and Homeland Security, as set forth in your 2010 budget, with almost $10.5 billion left over. Even if we were able to bring our annual budgets into balance, which your budget doesn’t project as happening anytime in the next ten years, we would still be paying at least six department's budgets worth of interest every year indefinitely into the future. Mr. President, “that’s real money,” and it will keep the government from doing many things that are required for national security or are desired by the American people.

Mr. President, you have promised to cut the annual federal deficit in half by 2012. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. Cutting by half means we will still be spending nearly half a trillion dollars per year more than we collect in revenue. That will be an additional increase of over two trillion dollars in our national debt by the end of your current term. It will require the Treasury to borrow that amount of money to keep the United States from defaulting on its debts.

There is only a finite amount of credit available. The United States has already borrowed more than $12 trillion of it and we will have to continue to increase our borrowing so long as we spend at a deficit rate. Every dollar the United States borrows means that there is one dollar less available for other borrowers. Further, there has to be some point beyond which our creditors will be very leery of lending us more. What happens on the day that the Treasury needs to borrow a few billion dollars to meet our obligations and nobody is willing to lend it?

Senators Webb and Warner and Representative Scott (my representative), you are a big part of the problem. It is the Congress that passes the appropriations acts that permit much of the government to operate each year. Each year that we have a deficit is a year in which you in the Congress have appropriated more than our revenues will cover. It is your votes on appropriations bills, either in committee or on the floor of your chamber, that fuel the annual increase in federal debt. It is you and your fellow legislators who must stop our overspending addiction by stopping the practice of appropriating more than we can pay for. You have to sift through those appropriations bills to make sure that every appropriation is necessary and will benefit the country as a whole rather than just one locality. Although you may feel secure in your reelection in seeking or approving more spending, the national interest requires that you have the courage to say "no."

There is only a short amount of time left to bring our spending under control. Each year that we procrastinate will make it harder to ever balance our budgets. At some point our total debt will become so great that our children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren will never be able to pay it off. Mr. President, you and the Congress need to make the difficult decisions that will enable us to eliminate our annual deficits and begin the process of paying off our debts. You need to do that now.



Thursday, December 10, 2009

Charter Schools, New Buildings And Other Panaceas (Part II)

Well Mayor Jones proposed it, the School Board accepted it, the City Council approved it and the Richmond Times Dispatch gave it its blessing. The “it” I am referring to is the plan to spend $175 million of our money to build a new high school, a new middle school, and two new elementary schools in the City of Richmond. The mayor proposed the construction plan at a meeting with Richmond’s School Board on October 20. On November 16, the board voted to substitute the mayor’s plan for the construction plan it had approved last year. And, on November 23, the City Council went along and approved the new plan. All of this despite the fact that the new construction plan will cost us $25 million more than last year’s plan. The mayor said he will find the extra money. Hey, it’s only a 20% increase.

Members of the School Board and the City Council as well as the mayor are ecstatic about the new building construction. They all seem to think that building new schools will fix what ails Richmond Public Schools. And our beloved RTD agrees. In their editorial dated November 13 the RTD editors state:

Physically attractive plants can help to lure families who live in the city but whose children attend schools outside the local public system. The Jones plan offers Richmond an opportunity to rise to the occasion not only academically but artistically. 1

Gimme a break, RTD. Do you really think that parents are opting out of Richmond Public Schools because of the absence of physically attractive plants? You need to give Richmond parents more credit than that. The fact is that Richmond parents are opting out of RPS because they do not believe that their children can get an adequate education in city schools. As they should be, parents are more concerned with what goes on inside the schools than with what they look like. If RPS were educating Richmond’s children at the level they deserve, if Richmond’s students were performing at a high level rather than just passing (that’s what accreditation means, dear reader, just passing), if the bulk of our students were graduating from high school, if our graduates were all being accepted to the country’s best colleges or all getting the best jobs, I assure you that Richmond parents would not care if it was all happening in old schools.

Reader, I received a wonderful public school education in New York City. All the school buildings I attended were 20 or 30 or more years old and it didn’t affect the quality of my learning. And you know, my elementary and junior high schools, with renovations and upgrades, are still operating today when they are obviously much older. Last year, when I was vacationing in Edinburgh, Scotland, I saw students attending schools that were considerably older than any school in Richmond and they seemed to be doing quite well.

Look, I have nothing against new school facilities. If we can afford them, we should build them. But we must not think for one second that new schools will solve RPS’s problems. Sure, our new schools will make us feel better when we see our richer neighbors in the counties building new schools. But they will not give our children the superior education that we owe them. That will take a lot of fixing of what goes on inside our schools and what goes on in RPS administration.

Mr. Mayor, members of the City Council, members of the School Board, it is time to seriously tackle our public school problem. We have to stop the constant abandonment of our city by parents who believe that there children can receive a quality education only in Chesterfield, Hanover or Henrico counties. And we need to do that on a school-by-school basis. First we have to make sure that each of our public schools is, in fact, providing at least as good an education as the schools in the counties. Then we need to go into our communities and sell parents on their local neighborhood school as the best choice for educating their children. And, we need to do it now.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Charter Schools, New Buildings And Other Panaceas (Part I)

Yesterday, in its lead story the Richmond Times Dispatch revealed that Virginia “gets F on charter schools in report.” I know that Monday is a slow news day but, come on, is this the most important event that took place in the world over the weekend? It wasn’t until I read past the headline that I realized that this wasn’t even news. The F that Virginia received was from the Center for Education Reform, an organization that is a strong advocate of (you guessed it) charter schools. If the Center had rated Virginia higher than an F, that would have been a real news story. Let’s be honest. The Center’s rating is based on the sole fact that Virginia has a small number of charter schools.

Which brings us to today’s RTD editorial. The RTD editors agree with the Center’s conclusion that Virginia’s charter school law is “abysmal.” As evidence the editors go back to the simple fact that Virginia has only three functioning charter schools, much less than other states. The editors then switch to their other hand and acknowledge the argument by the Virginia Education Association that Virginia has so few charter schools because it has other types of innovative schools. However, they reject this argument as “risible.” (For those of you who are vocabularily challenged risible means laughable or ludicrous.)

Now the editors come to the meat of their argument:

The Center's report follows closely behind a new poll showing that most Virginians think highly of their public schools; all the same, a majority also would like to see more educational choices available. Regardless of political party, most Virginians would support tuition tax credits and even school vouchers.

Stop! Dear editors, what poll are you referring to that shows that “most Virginians” would support tax credits and school vouchers? Well this maven may have been born and raised in the past century, but I have learned to do Internet research. So, it didn’t take me long to find out about this poll. I found a RTD article on November 17, 2009, which begins with, “Virginians like their public schools but would still like more public options.” It relies on a poll “sponsored by several organizations supporting school vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs.” 1

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that this fight was fixed. But to rely on a self- serving poll “sponsored” by organizations supporting vouchers and tuition tax credit for the conclusion that most Virginians support vouchers and tax credits is like relying on a poll sponsored by foxes that concludes that most chickens want to be eaten. RTD editors, I find your reliance on this poll to be itself risible.

Trusted reader, I am not opposed to charter schools. Our public schools are not doing as good a job educating our children as they should and every type of innovation must be considered. What I do object to is those “true believers” who tell us that charters schools are the only way to save our children. They want us to believe that merely because it is a charter school, rather than a normal public school, such a school must necessarily perform better. I was having a facebook discussion with a friend (I’m sorry to admit, dear reader, that I do use facebook on occasion) about charter schools. I asked what benefit the children in my neighborhood school would gain from the opening of the Patrick Henry charter school in Richmond next fall. He replied that we could also make our neighborhood school into a charter school, as if that would automatically make it better.

I’m not sure whether Virginia’s charter school laws need to be fixed. After all, it’s not as if there are hundreds of people in line to open charter schools in the Commonwealth. Nor do I see evidence that school boards across Virginia have conspired to deny charter applications. If there is such desire to open charter schools in the Old Dominion let’s see some people put in the hard work that the proponents of the Patrick Henry school put in and let’s see them file their applications for charters. If after that happens we see evidence that school boards are routinely denying charter applications then the law needs fixing.

The charter school “true believers” are always reminding us that charter schools are public schools. And they certainly expect that public moneys, both state and local, will be made available for them to operate their schools. Yet they object to school boards, which are accountable for those public funds, having any authority to decide whether their application for a charter has merit and from reviewing their operations to assure that public funds are being properly spent. I know that if Richmond Public Schools misuses public money I can hold my school board representative accountable and vote her out at the next election. But who do I vote against if a charter school misspends public funds? I have no representative on its managing board.

(To be continued)