Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Perhaps Segregated Schools Are Just Fine

This maven rarely responds to comments that are posted in response to my opinions. I see no purpose in getting involved in debates with those who disagree with me. However, sometimes I need to respond when I think that my views are being misrepresented. In response to my post last Thursday, RPS Strategic Plan, What Is Obviously Missing, Anonymous wrote:

Exactly what are you saying with your comments on race and class? Are you saying that Black kids are not as smart as White kids? Are you saying that schools with a majority Black population are not as good as schools with a majority White population? As long as funding, teaching skills and salaries are the same and special needs are met, what difference does race and class make? So what if a school's population is 100 percent Black? So what if a school's population is 100 percent lower income? Thank goodness you weren't elected! We need to ask what are the real problems in underperforming schools? Is it teachers? Discipline? Outside support? Whatever they may be, we need to address those problems - not race and income.

First let me make it clear. I did not say nor do I believe for a second that African American children are not as intelligent as white children. Nor did I say that majority black schools are not as good as majority white schools.

As to the rest of the comment, Anonymous may be right that it doesn’t matter if schools are 100% black or 100% lower income. Perhaps the Supreme Court of the United States was wrong when it said, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Perhaps people like Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill were wasting their time in trying to integrate the nation’s and the Commonwealth’s public schools. Perhaps those who are deeply concerned about the re-segregation of our public schools are worrying for nothing. Perhaps those who predict that a school system with more than 50% of its students receiving free or reduced lunches rarely succeeds are simply wrong. Maybe ethnically or economically public schools are just fine.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

RPS Strategic Plan: What Is Obviously Missing

A few months ago, Richmond Public Schools revealed that it is formulating a five-year strategic plan. It invited members of the community to get involved in the process, staging meetings in various parts of the city to gather public opinion. After the meetings, Dr. Yvonne Brandon, Superintendent of RPS, appointed a Strategic Planning Team, composed of about thirty people representing the school board, school administration and teachers, parents and community groups. After a three-day retreat, the Strategic Planning Team released its Draft Strategic Plan.

The plan is a short document setting forth the outline for the continuation of the planning process. The plan contains sections setting forth Richmond Public Schools’ mission and values, and objectives for students to meet. It also contains six strategies, and the process envisions that a separate action team will be created to flesh out each of the strategies. The six strategies are:

We will . . .
1. Develop and implement engaging, innovative, and rigorous curriculum that will optimize learning.
2. Adopt a systemwide approach to inspire and empower students beyond traditional academics.
3. Recruit and retain the highest quality faculty, staff, and administrators and maximize their effectiveness.
4. Design, develop, and implement new buildings and technology infrastructure that are adaptable to new curriculum and instruction and evolving needs of individuals and communities.
5. Engage all facets of the community as partners in accomplishing our mission and objectives.
6. Align people and resources strategically to maximize impact.

Four of the strategies are self-explanatory. The first relates to curriculum. The third deals with RPS employees. The fourth deals with buildings and technology. The fifth deals with community partnerships. The other two strategies, the second and the sixth, are vaguely written and the Strategic Planning Team needs to clarify them before the action teams for those strategies can do their job.

I have great confidence that the six action teams, which will begin their work in January 2011, will do excellent jobs in developing the details for each of the draft strategies. However, they will not be dealing with two of the most serious issues facing Richmond Public Schools. First is the fact that Richmond Public Schools is a segregated school system—both ethnically and economically. Second is the related fact that a significant proportion of middle-class parents in Richmond opt out of RPS either by enrolling their children in private schools or by leaving the city so they can enroll their children in suburban public schools.

These are certainly not new issues for this maven. I wrote about them extensively, and made them part of my campaign for the school board two years ago. I will not repeat my arguments here. However, you might want to look at the following:
You Got Trouble Folks! Right Here in River City; Am I Obsessed With Middle Class Parents?; Middle Class Obsession Revisited.

In the two years since I wrote these pieces, Richmond Public Schools has had slight progress. The percentage of white children enrolled in our schools has increased from 7.35% to 8.15%. The percentage of African American students has dropped from 87.82% to 85.09%. But, our schools are still overwhelmingly segregated. Our high schools, both general and magnet (Franklin Military, Open, and Richmond Community) have African American enrollments ranging from a low of 78% to a high of 98%. Our middle schools have African American enrollments ranging from a low of 72% to a high of 98%. And, our elementary schools, where most of our white children are enrolled, have most of them in 5 schools. Among the other elementary schools, we have seven schools in which the African American enrollment is 98.3% or higher.

It is more difficult to see whether there is any progress in the area of economic integration because RPS has not yet published statistics for the 2009-10 school year. However, for the school year 2008-09 we know that system-wide 73% of elementary school students, 77% of middle school students and 70% of high school students were eligible to receive free or reduced-cost lunches (a standard measure of economic need). Among individual schools the subsidized meals rate ranges from a high of 98% to a low of 15%. This is a clear indication of economic segregation in our schools.

The middle class flight from Richmond Public Schools to private or suburban school systems is hard to measure. We know how many Richmond children attend RPS; we do not know how many Richmond children have not been enrolled in RPS. We can get a clue from the total RPS enrollment numbers. If you remember, two years ago I pointed out that RPS’s total student enrollment was decreasing by about 500 students per year. Since that time, this is the yearly drop in RPS enrollment:
2006-07 to 2007-08: decrease of 476;
2007-08 to 2008-09: decrease of 569;
2008-09 to 2009-10: decrease of 208.

The latest statistics are encouraging, but it is not clear whether this is a one year anomaly or that we are actually trimming the annual drop in enrollment. So, I need to rely on anecdotal evidence. I can report great progress. Remember those neighbors that I said would never send their child to RPS? Well, they changed their minds after their daughter was accepted to William Fox Elementary (63% white, only 20% subsidized meals). That’s one Richmond child we have saved from banishment to the counties.

Even if we have seen slight progress in RPS in the past two years the related problems of segregation and middle class abandonment still plague our school system. So long as the strategic planning process does not deal with these issues, the final plan it comes up with will have little chance of making Richmond Public Schools into the excellent school system that our children deserve.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Mitch McConnell On Earmarks

Last week, after the voters in just a few states kept him from becoming the Senate Majority Leader in January, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced what would be the Republican agenda in the 112th Congress. You’re probably guessing that McConnell’s agenda would include cutting taxes, creating jobs, repealing the so-called “Obamacare” health reforms, or other of the proposals that Republicans ran on in the recent midterm congressional elections. Well, if that’s your guess, you are wrong. Instead, Senator McConnell announced that the Senate minority’s number one objective was making sure that President Obama was not reelected in 2012.

If Mr. McConnell were speaking as the head of a political party, his objective would be perfectly reasonable. Making Barack Obama a one-term president is a legitimate goal of the Republican Party. But as a government leader (although still in the minority in the Senate) one would expect that Mr. McConnell might have some more government-like goals. Senator McConnell’s single objective was questioned by many, including the next Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner. So, Senator McConnell announced a new objective yesterday.

In what was just a two paragraph blurb in Richmond’s great metropolitan daily, Mr. McConnell was reported to be willing to consider a ban on earmarks in appropriations acts. However, Mr. McConnell said that such a ban would be more complicated than it appears. He also acknowledged that banning earmarks would not cut federal spending, since earmarks only affect executive branch discretion on how to spend appropriations, not the amount of the appropriations. So, Mr. McConnell put to sleep the claim that earmarks increase federal spending.

Maven, wait, is that all you’re going to say?

Yes, beloved reader, that is all I have to say.

But, maven, aren’t you going to tell us that Senator McConnell is wrong, that earmarks do increase federal spending?

No, Senator McConnell is right. Earmarks are nothing more than statutory directives controlling how certain appropriations are used by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.

But, for two years the Republicans have been telling us that earmarks put in appropriations acts by Democrats are a major cause of budget deficits. They’ve told us that eliminating these earmarks would help balance the budget.

Reader, that was before the election. Besides which, they were only talking about Democratic earmarks. Since the Republicans will control the House of Representatives in the next Congress and will therefore be writing all the appropriations acts, we don’t have to worry about Democratic earmarks any more.

Maven, are you saying that Mr. McConnell’s announcement that he would consider a ban on earmarks is meaningless?

I’m sorry. Time is up. No more questions for today.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

It’s The Turnout, Dummy!

Do you remember voting on November 4, 2008? I sure do. That was the day my name was on the ballot as a candidate for the Richmond City school board. It was my first (and probably last) time as a candidate and I intended to make the most of it. I got up early to get to the polls before they opened so I could vote early and then do some last minute electioneering. I live in Richmond’s precinct 402, which votes at the Forest Hill Presbyterian Church. Guess what? I did not get to vote early. When I arrived at the intersection of Forest Hill Avenue and W. 44th Street it was 5:45 AM. I saw a huge line of voters circling around the church parking lot and then proceeding west down Forest Hill Avenue. It looked like the whole neighborhood was out there waiting for the polls to open.

Do you remember voting on November 3, 2009? I do. That day I was covering the 402nd precinct for my friend Betsy Carr (now Delegate Betsy Carr). I got up early to get to the polls and introduce myself to the election workers as the precinct captain. When I arrived at the intersection of Forest Hill and 44th it was pretty quiet; just a few people in line. And it stayed that way for most of the day. The voting line never got outside the doors to the church.

So, what’s this about, beside the memories of a not-so-young man? Well, it’s about all those voters in line in 2008 who found things to do other than voting on Election Day 2009. Those voters won the election for Barack Obama (and lots of other Democrats) in 2008. Those non-voters won the election for Bob McDonnell (and lots of other Republicans) in 2009. And, they did so without leaving the comfort of their own homes.

We in the Commonwealth elect our governors and other state wide officials in the year after the national presidential election. Although this partially immunizes our statewide elections from national trends, it also results in a significant drop in voter turnout in these odd year elections. The smallest turnout drop—from 77.6% to 66.5%, a drop of 11.1%--was from 1988 to 1989. The largest drop—from 74.5% to 40.4%, a drop of 34.1%--was from 2008 to 2009. (Hey, weren’t these the very elections I was talking about above?)

So, from 2008 to 2009 voter turnout in Virginia dropped 34.1%, the largest one year decrease since at least 1976. Why is this significant? It wouldn’t be if the drop in turnout was evenly divided between the two major parties. If the drop in turnout had been 34.1% of those voting Republican and 34.1% of those voting Democratic, then Creigh Deeds, Jody Wagner and Steve Shannon would be the top elected officials of the Commonwealth. However, the drop in turnout was not even close to being even. (At this point, I need to move from turnout percentages to raw numbers. Since we don’t register by party in Virginia we cannot know the turnout percentage by party.)

In 2008, Democrats Obama and Biden drew 1,959,532 votes in the presidential election, the most ever cast for president and vice president in Virginia.* The second most votes ever cast for president and vice president in Virginia was 1,725,005 for Republicans McCain and Palin in the same 2008 election.

A year later, Republican Bob McDonnell received 1,163,651 votes for governor. This was about 560,000 votes less than cast for McCain and Palin the year before. Democrat Creigh Deeds received only 818,950 votes in 2009, a drop of over 1.1 million votes from those cast for Obama and Biden in 2008. (The votes received by Deeds were the lowest for any candidate for governor since the 1997 election.) In percentage terms, Mr. McDonnell received about 33% less votes than the top of the Republican ticket in 2008. Mr. Deeds, however, received about 58% less votes than the top of the Democratic ticket in 2008. Looking at it another way, Creigh Deeds’ drop in votes from those voting Democratic in 2008 was about 540,000 more than Bob McDonnell’s drop in votes from those voting Republican in 2008.

So, dear reader, where were these 540,000 voters (who voted for Obama and Biden in 2008) on November 3, 2009? First, as I pointed out after the 2008 election, it was the Obama campaign that won the election, not the Democratic Party. Dems Heading For A Big Fall? That means that the Obama campaign did not attract a large number of new people who would vote Democratic in the future. Second, the Democratic Party in Virginia was very complacent after the 2008 election. As I pointed out then, the talk was of how easy it was going to be to capture the House of Delegates and make Virginia a fully blue state. Nobody even considered that the Democrats might lose the governorship. Third, the hard fought Democratic primary campaign in the Spring of 2009 produced a lot of anger in the losers that was not dissipated before the election. Further, many of those who voted for Moran or McAuliffe in the primary were personally loyal to either of those two but not necessarily to the Democratic Party.

So what does this mean for the upcoming election? If you voted for President Obama in 2008 but you stayed home last year, you need to remember that you helped elect the current crew in Richmond. If you voted for President Obama in 2008 and you stay home this year, you will assure that the Democrats you elected to the House of Representatives will be one term wonders. You will also assure that President Obama will face a hostile Republican-controlled Congress for the next two years and will have almost no chance of getting any more of his agenda accomplished. It’s up to you because this election will be all about turnout.

My thanks to former Richmond Commonwealth Attorney David Hicks for enlightening me about these turnout issues.

*The most votes ever cast for any candidate in Virginia was 2,369,327 for Mark Warner for United States Senate, also in the 2008 election.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Eric Cantor: The Arrogance Of Power

Perhaps it’s because he rose to the top so quickly. Eric Cantor was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000. After only one term, he was appointed Chief Deputy Republican Whip. This made him a major Washington insider while still in his thirties.

Or, it might be the fact that the Seventh District of Virginia was designed as a safe district for Republicans. Eric has been reelected four times, never getting less than 63% of the vote cast. The district has been represented in the Congress by Republicans since 1971. In the last three presidential elections, the district has voted Republican.

Or, maybe it’s because Representative Cantor has led a charmed life in Washington. Although he was closely connected with the corruption of Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay, Mr. Cantor came away unscathed. See The New Teflon Kid.

I guess it’s not surprising that Eric Cantor radiates an aura of arrogance. He is the golden boy. He is destined to rise to higher positions of power in Washington. And Eric Cantor is not going to let a little thing like an election get in his way. Eric isn’t really running to keep his Seventh District seat. He is running for House Majority Leader. And that election is decided by his fellow Republicans in Washington, not by the voters of the Seventh District.

When the Congress adjourns so that members can return to their districts to campaign, Eric Cantor stays in Washington. He has no need to campaign. Although other incumbent representatives participate in debates so that their constituents can make intelligent decisions on election day, Eric Cantor refuses to debate. As he puts it, he is much too busy in Washington working on creating jobs. He can’t be expected to take time out to debate. After all, it’s not like he can lose.

Of course, when Eric is through creating jobs he does come back to the district. But still, he will not debate. In fact, he is not in the district to campaign, but for a victory tour. Every other candidate (and athlete) waits until the race is over before taking a victory lap. Not Eric. He is so sure that his reelection is a sure thing that he is celebrating in advance.

I don’t want you to think that Eric Cantor doesn’t like to talk to his constituents. That’s not true. He will gladly talk with any constituent so long as he or she is committed to his reelection. Those constituents are bound to further inflate his ego. But he doesn’t want to see or hear from those who oppose him. First of all because anything they might say is obviously wrong. Second because he doesn’t want any of the real voters in Washington to think that he is anything but the most beloved favorite son of the Seventh District.

One other thing—because he is a golden boy and his constituents are mere mortals, Eric Cantor doesn’t expect anyone will notice if he says a few things that are not quite true in his reelection campaign. For example, Eric has the chutzpah to be running against Washington. Here’s a guy who has been a Washington insider for at least the last eight years and he thinks we won’t notice if he portrays himself as an outside reformer. Eric also portrays himself as a fiscal conservative. When exactly did this transformation take place? When he lusted for advancement in the party and therefore voted consistently with the Bush Administration, Eric Cantor voted to cut taxes and to significantly increase federal spending. During the years when George W. Bush was president, Eric Cantor voted to increase our federal debt by an outrageous four trillion dollars. See Eric Canter a Fiscal Conservative?—No Way

But, Eric Cantor is sure that no one will notice the inconsistencies. He is sure he will not only be reelected by his compliant constituency in the Seventh District but also that he will be elected House Majority leader in January. And if that happens, trusted reader, his arrogance will know no bounds. Is there something beyond intolerable?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Times-Dispatch Neutrality

Our beloved metropolitan daily made it clear today that it would not allow fairness to get in the way of influencing the “right” election results. In its Letters to the Editor it published three letters relating to the Third District contest between Democrat Bobby Scott and Republican Chuck Smith. All of them were pro Smith and anti Scott. I find it hard to believe that the TD didn’t have a single letter to publish that advocated Bobby Scott’s reelection. Oh well, I guess this maven expects too much from the editorial staff of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I Pledge Allegiance. . .

Well, there were two big celebrations in Richmond this week. One was the Richmond Folk Festival, in its third year, getting better with each version. Two was the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. The Folk Festival drew more than 100,000 people in three days. The Tea Party party drew over two thousand. Having attended only one of the festivities, this maven is unable to tell you which was more entertaining. The Folk Festival was mainly music. The Tea Party party was mainly citizens bad-mouthing the Federal Government.

Every Republican politician in the Commonwealth—those formerly in office, those currently in office and those hoping to soon be in office—attended the Tea Party party. These Republicans have a tough balancing act in dealing with the Tea Party Patriots. They are trying to encourage the Tea crowd to come out on November 2, and throw the rascals in Washington out of office, assuming they are Democrats. However, they certainly don’t want the Teas to throw any
Republican rascals out of office. That would totally defeat the whole purpose of Republicans creating and nurturing the Tea Party throughout the country in the first place.

Our own Republican governor, Robert (Bob) McDonnell, went to the Tea Party preparty party on Thursday. He encouraged the Teas to do the right thing (pun intended) on Election Day. To win them over he stated his support for a constitutional amendment—the Federal Constitution, that is—allowing the legislatures of two-thirds of the states to overrule any legislation or regulation issued by the Federal Government. McDonnell, trying to avoid being out-teaed by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, pledged to get a resolution to that effect through our General Assembly. (Cuccinelli considers the amendment too mild. He wants one granting state attorneys general the unilateral authority to strike down any federal law.)

I could sit here for a few hours setting forth the pros and cons of the suggested constitutional amendment. But, I’m sure there are many people out there quite willing to do so. I might just point out that such an amendment would have some pretty drastic effects. Some state legislatures would spend so much time voting on laws enacted by the Congress that they would have no time to legislate for their own state, which I guess might be a benefit. Also, it might be difficult to find candidates to run for Senate and House of Representative seats. Who wants to have all your work reviewed by a legislative body that you have already outgrown.

But, the greatest effect would be on the school children in our fifty states. They would have to learn a new morning ritual to start their days. It would go like this:

I pledge allegiance to the flags of the Friendly States of America, and to the republics for which they stand, fifty nations, under God, quite divisible, with liberty and justice for those whose legislatures allow it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Killing Teresa Lewis

Barring a gubernatorial change of mind or a judicial intervention, we the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia will be putting Teresa Lewis to death tomorrow night. Of course, we in the Commonwealth have terminated the lives of lots of people both before and after the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was not unconstitutional in 1976. So what’s so special about Teresa Lewis? Well, she is the first woman we have killed since Virginia Christian took her last seat in our electric chair in 1912. And that has been the thing that has been getting the most attention—the fact that we are terminating a woman. Style Weekly even had a cover with pictures of the two women and a lead article entitled “Blood Sisters.” That is not why I am writing.

So, what did Teresa Lewis do to merit our killing her? According to the record, Teresa seduced and induced two men, Rodney Fuller and Matthew Shallenberger, to kill her husband and his son so they could collect his life insurance. Fuller and Shallenberger used shotguns to kill the two men while they slept on October 30, 2002. The plot went awry and all were caught. The court sentenced Fuller and Shallenberger to sentences of life in prison, but sentenced Teresa Lewis to death as the “mastermind” of the plot. During the various appeals of Teresa’s sentence it has been argued that in a prison letter Shellenberger claimed that he, not Teresa, instigated the plot. It has also been argued that Teresa, whose IQ tests in the low 70s, is not intelligent enough to have masterminded the plot. I am not writing because of these claims.

Reader, you must know that this maven is not a proponent of the death penalty. (If you have a lot of free time, see 1 ). I’m not going to reargue that. What Teresa Lewis’ pending termination leads me to talk about is the arbitrariness and unfair way in which the death penalty is administered in the Commonwealth. To me the most troubling thing about Teresa Lewis’ case is that she confessed and pleaded guilty to the two capital murder charges that will result in her death. No jury has ever heard this case.

Usually, to impose the death penalty in Virginia three entities need to agree to it—the Commonwealth Attorney, the jury and the judge. Because of her guilty pleas, Teresa Lewis never benefited from trial by jury. The issue that bothers me is why Teresa Lewis’ attorney—I assume she had one— would allow her to plead guilty to capital charges. Did s/he, or the police, or the Commonwealth Attorney, or the judge ever explain to Teresa Lewis that she could receive the death penalty for pleading guilty? Did Teresa Lewis, with an IQ barely above what could be classified as mentally retarded, really understand that she would die because of her guilty plea? And, if Teresa Lewis had pleaded “not guilty” to these charges, who knows what might have happened at trial?

Yesterday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch used most of its cover page to talk about murders and penalties. In the right column was Teresa Lewis’ story. On the left, covering nearly two-thirds of the cover was an article with this headline: “McCroskey gets life term in four Farmville slayings.” For those of you with a short memory, it was only about a year ago that Sam McCroskey bludgeoned four people to death, including a professor at Longwood University. Now, for this rather grisly crime, Sam McCroskey will spend the rest of his life as a guest of the Commonwealth’s Department of Corrections.

So, what do these cases have in common, other than sharing the front page of the TD’s September 21, 2010 issue? Teresa Lewis pleaded guilty to capital murder and will die tomorrow. Sam McCroskey pleaded guilty to capital murder and will never have to worry about the death penalty. Was Teresa’s crime any worse than Sam’s? I don’t think so. Was Sam just lucky to have a “soft-on-crime” Commonwealth’s Attorney prosecuting his case? I don’t think so. Did Sam have a better attorney than Teresa? I’ll let you answer that one, trusted reader.

The difference in treatment of Teresa Lewis and Sam McCroskey argues strongly for a reevaluation of the death penalty in Virginia and how we administer it. I hope the members of the Senate and House of Delegates are listening.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Goodbye Westboro Baptist Church [sic]

I spent a solid ten minutes today looking into the faces of people whose hearts are infected with hate. It was a sorry sight. It was clear that they were performing a well-rehearsed script. The signs they carried argued that God hates the Jews, that God hates homosexuals, that President Obama is the Antichrist. Their chanting was of anti-Jewish lyrics set to Jewish and Israeli melodies. It is clear that their intent was to cause pain to those they hate.

Interestingly, the people who chanted the hateful words were all women. I guess women are not immune from being haters. What I found most upsetting is that they had a child with them carrying one of their hateful signs. Already they have spread the virus of their hate to another generation.

The job remains for all of us to counter their hate with a message of acceptance and love. We are all created in God's image and are entitled to be accepted and respected. I am so glad that those folks are gone from Richmond.

Friday, February 05, 2010

A School Board That Does Its Job

Something exciting is going on in Northern Virginia beside the more than a foot of snow that is expected to fall tonight. As reported in the Washington Post:

The Fairfax County School Board approved a spending plan late Thursday night that would increase its funding request from cash-strapped county officials by $24 million beyond Superintendent Jack D. Dale's request. 1

Just to make sure you understand this—the Superintendent of Schools proposed a budget based on revenues expected from both the County of Fairfax and the Commonwealth. In his budget, Superintendent Dale proposed to cut 600 positions, raise class sizes by an average of one student, pare down summer school offerings, eliminate freshman sports and an elementary foreign-language program, and close an alternative high school. He also proposed fees for athletics and AP and IB tests. Last night, the school board refused to accept the cuts proposed by the superintendent and passed a budget that will require an additional $82 million in funding from the county.

In explaining the board’s action, School Board Chair Kathy Smith said,

Our responsibility is to provide an effective school system. We know what it takes for us to be successful.

Although the board realizes that it might not get the added revenue it requested from the county, it decided that it would not be doing its job if it submitted a budget asking for less than it needed to operate the school system. It will now be up to the county Board of Supervisors to decide whether it will fund the school system at the higher lever asked for by the school board.

It is nice to compare the school board of Fairfax County with our beloved school board here in Richmond. For several years now, the Richmond School Board has been approving budgets based on a level of city funding imposed on it by the City Council. As I have said before, in submitting a budget based on anticipated revenues rather than the needs of the school system, the Richmond Board is abdicating its duties on state law. Who’s on the Side of the Kids?

State law requires school superintendents working with school boards to produce budgets based on the needs of the school system. The law requires the board to request from the governing body (City Council in the case of Richmond) the level of funding needed to operate the schools at the level it determines is proper. It is then up to the governing body, in approving the jurisdictional budget, to decide how much of the school board’s requested funding it will provide.

I am still digesting the proposed fiscal year 2011 budget submitted to the school board by Superintendent of Schools Yvonne Brandon. However, it is clear to me that in reducing Richmond Public School spending for next year, Dr. Brandon is budgeting based on the funds she has been told are available, rather than on the needs of the school system. In her proposed budget Dr. Brandon eliminates nearly 120 teachers from our classrooms. This cut will result in the student to teacher ratio in k-3 being increased by two students per teacher, and the ratio in the remaining elementary and secondary schools by one student per teacher. I can’t believe that these proposals are based on the needs of our students.

So, I compare two school boards. One carries out its responsibilities to its students under state law and prepares budgets based on the needs of the school system. The other abdicates its responsibilities and prepares budgets based on an arbitrary predetermined level of funding.

Back in 2008 I urged the School Board to go back to the drawing board and prepare a budget based on the needs of the children of Richmond. They chose not to follow my urging. This time I’m not sure that I should bother telling the members of the school board what their responsibilities are. They already know. This year it is up to the parents of Richmond to demand that the school board does its job and submits a budget based on the needs of our children.

The Debt Ceiling And The Republican Hypocrisy

On page 4 of the print edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch today I read about a “$1.9 trillion debt increase.” The first line of the story reads, “The House yesterday voted to allow the government to go $1.9 trillion deeper in debt. . .” The vote in the House (as the earlier one in the Senate) was mainly on party lines—every Republican representative voted against it. In the words of Republican leader John Boehner, “This debt is being piled on the backs of our kids and grandkids with no relief in sight.”

Well, beloved reader, you know that I have been ranting about our prolific deficit spending almost as long as I have been a maven. So you would think I would be happy with this show of fiscal responsibility from the Grand Old Party. Unfortunately, this vote in the House is all about party politics. It enables the Republicans to go into this year’s elections claiming that only they (not the evil “tax and spend” Liberals) care about the national debt. The trouble is that Mr. Boehner and all the other House Republicans are deceiving the American people. They full well know that the vote to raise the so-called debt ceiling has nothing to do with the size of our national debt.

Wait maven, how can you say that the debt ceiling has nothing to do with the national debt?

Well, inquisitive reader, here’s how it is. Under the Constitution only the Congress has the authority to borrow money on behalf of the United States. But, a long time ago the Congress delegated this authority to the Secretary of the Treasury. To make sure that the Secretary does not go too far, the Congress has set a maximum amount of borrowing that the Secretary may engage in. That is what we refer to as the debt ceiling. It is not really a debt ceiling but a ceiling on what the Secretary can borrow.

Maven, I still don’t understand what you are talking about.

Look, reader, the annual deficit (and cumulatively the national debt) is established by the tax laws, the permanent appropriations for mandatory spending and the annual appropriations for discretionary spending. Since Ronald Reagan began our deficit habit, each year the amounts appropriated by the permanent and annual appropriations acts exceeded the amount that the government received in revenues (with the exception of the last two years of the Clinton Administration). That’s what created our massive debt.

Another thing: Appropriations do not provide actual money. Rather they provide obligational authority, which allows heads of departments and agencies (or their delegates) to incur obligations on behalf of the United States. Only the Secretary of the Treasury (or government disbursing officers to whom he delegates authority) can disburse money to pay off these obligations. Making these payments is not a problem so long as there is a sufficient balance in the Government’s checking account to cover them. But, when the cupboard is bare, the Secretary of the Treasury must borrow money to cover obligations as they fall due. This is done through the issuance of bonds, notes, bills and the like. The Secretary can borrow enough money to cover the government’s obligations up to the amount of the debt ceiling. When the government’s borrowing reaches that limit the Secretary may no longer borrow.

So, the Congress MUST raise the debt ceiling periodically to allow the Secretary to get enough funds to pay off the government’s obligations. If they refuse to do so, nasty things, like the government defaulting on its obligations, may occur. As you might imagine, for the United States to default on its obligations would have disastrous effects on the world economy. For the Congress to refuse to raise the ceiling on borrowing when it has caused the deficit would be highly irresponsible.

This gets us back to John Boehner and his fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives. They can afford to vote against raising the debt ceiling only because they know that the House (as the Senate did earlier) has sufficient votes to raise it without them. Afterwards they will be able to accuse the Democrats of increasing the deficit.

And, here is where the Republican hypocrisy shows itself. For the eight years of the Bush Administration, these same members of the House when they were in the majority voted repeatedly to raise the debt ceiling. They also had a large role in increasing the national debt by about $5 trillion during those eight years. So, how come when the Democrats control the White House and the Congress these Republicans suddenly start worrying about the debt. To see the Republican record on accumulating debt, take a look at “Republicans Sure Ain’t Conservative With Federal Checkbook”.

And, it’s not only the Republicans that are deceiving the American public. The headline in the TD, as well as the first line of the story, is wrong. There is nothing that the House did yesterday that will allow the debt of the United States to increase. All it does is allow the Secretary of the Treasury to pay our bills. I would hope that the TD, and other members of the media, would learn the facts before they publish such blaring and inaccurate headlines.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

It’s No Longer Bush’s Debt, Mr. President

On December 11, 2009, on this blog, I wrote an open letter to President Obama and to my three representatives in the Congress urging them to show some fiscal restraint and to start dealing with our gargantuan national debt. It has been less than two months since I wrote that letter. Yet our national debt has increased by nearly $197 billion, more than three billion dollars per day. And, as the late Senator Everett Dirksen would have said, “That’s real money!”

How, you may ask, can this be happening? Why is the United States borrowing so much money? Well, the simple answer is that each year we are spending far more than we are receiving in revenue. But, that answer doesn’t tell you, my loyal reader, why this is happening. The more complicated answer has two parts.

First, there is mandatory spending. Over the years the Congress has enacted so-called direct spending or “entitlement” programs. Each of these programs contains permanent appropriations. Therefore, the amount that is spent on these programs each year is not controlled by the Congress in the annual budget cycle. Rather, the amount spent in these programs depends on the per-person benefit amount of the program and the number of people who are entitled to benefits. The only way that the Congress can reduce spending in these programs is to amend the basic program legislation to reduce the amount of benefits paid per person or to raise eligibility requirements so that fewer people receive benefits. Politically, this is very difficult.

Second, there is discretionary spending. These are programs which require annual appropriations in order to operate. These programs are normally funded by the thirteen appropriations acts that the Congress enacts each year. Spending on these programs is more easily controlled. All the Congress has to do is to reduce the amount it appropriates for these programs each year. Of course, this is also politically difficult to do because voters expect their representatives or senators to bring more federal dollars to their district or state. No member of the Congress is elected or reelected on a campaign promise to reduce federal spending in his/her district or state.

Although our national debt nearly doubled during the administration of George W. Bush, members of the Bush Administration were unconcerned. They argued that we could take care of our debt through growth of the economy. So, every year of his term, the President sent a deficit budget to the Congress and the Congress appropriated funds at a deficit rate.

The near collapse of the nation’s credit system in 2008 resulted in two major jumps in the national debt of the United States. The first was caused by the bank bailout of fall 2008. The second was caused by the economic stimulus package of last spring.

Both during his campaign and since he has taken office, President Obama has stated that, unlike Mr. Bush, he is deeply concerned by the magnitude of our national debt. In his recent State of the Union speech to the Congress, Mr. Obama said, “We can no longer afford to leave the hard choices for the next budget, the next administration or the next generation.” In the same speech Mr. Obama announced a spending freeze for part of the discretionary spending side of the annual budget, but not to begin until next year. This week Mr. Obama revealed his fiscal year 2011 budget. It projects a one-year budget deficit of more than $1.5 trillion.

In his speech the president said that he was creating a bipartisan commission to study the debt problem and recommend solutions to our generation-long spending spree. Now, this maven spent the bulk of his adult years in and around Washington, D.C. and I know that usually president’s propose bipartisan commissions so that they can delay having to deal with a problem. I certainly hope that this is not Mr. Obama’s motive.

In my opinion there is no need for a bipartisan commission. Mr. Obama knows how to balance our budget. We need to drastically cut our spending and increase our revenue (i.e. taxes). There is no other solution. A partial freeze on discretionary spending is only a drop in the bucket. Nor will Mr. Obama’s campaign promise to go through the budget page by page and eliminate programs that don’t work have any significant effect. Like President Reagan’s promise to balance the budget by eliminating fraud, waste and abuse, eliminating only those programs that don’t work is like treating cancer with Band-Aids. Our national debt disease is so serious that drastic treatment is needed.

Mr. Obama must tell the American people the truth. The truth is that our monumental national debt is a serious threat to our economy and our national security. The truth is that we can no longer afford many of the federal programs that we have grown accustomed to, unless we are willing to significantly increase taxes to pay for them. We need to start cutting even those programs that work. If Mr. Obama is seriously concerned about deficit spending by the Federal Government, he must stop proposing new programs unless they are paid for in the budget (either by tax increases or elimination of other programs). He needs to reconsider his fiscal year 2011 budget and significantly cut the projected $1.5 trillion one-year deficit. Mr. Obama says that we must not leave the hard choices for “the next budget.” However, his fiscal year 2011 budget does exactly that. (See today’s Washington Post lead editorial that reaches the same conclusion. 1

I voted for Mr. Obama because I believed that he would make a better leader then would Senator McCain. To me a leader needs to be totally honest with the people (within the bounds of national security) and to make the hard choices necessary to maintain the United States that we all love. A leader does not set up a commission to make those choices.

During his first year in office President Obama has often deflected criticism by reminding everybody that he inherited a significant debt and annual deficit from President Bush. That was a good excuse for year one. Now Mr. Obama is proposing a one-year deficit significantly higher than any proposed by Mr. Bush. By doing so, he is transforming Bush’s debt into Obama’s debt.

Mr. Obama recently said that he would rather have one good term in office than two mediocre terms. The implication of that statement is that he intends to make the right decisions even if they are politically unpopular. Now is the time for him to start.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Patrick Henry School Must Be In Budget

This maven was a bit perplexed by the lead story in today’s Times Dispatch Metro section. It said that the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, to which the Richmond School Board granted a charter last year, is not included in Richmond Public Schools’ proposed budget for fiscal year 2011. 1 A similar story appeared in this past week’s Style Weekly. Well, says I, both the TD and Style must be wrong, because how can Richmond Public Schools choose not to fund one of the city’s public schools?

So, I downloaded the recommended budget of the Superintendent of Schools and started searching its 305 pages. I found the introductory page to the section on elementary education and looked at the list of Richmond’s elementary schools. Now, there are 28 elementary schools listed on that page but none of them is named Patrick Henry. Then I went page by page through the school-by-school proposed spending for fiscal year 2011 and again I find no mention of the Patrick Henry school. Can it be that the TD and Style are correct? Well, the Style Weekly article says funding for Patrick Henry will be added later. The TD article says that School Board Chair Kim Bridges indicated that the Board is still looking at the question of charter school funding. Ms. Bridges also indicated that funding decisions had not yet been made for any of the city’s public schools.

Well, says I, that makes it clear—funding for Patrick Henry will be added later. But, is it so clear? I mean, why would the Superintended not even mention Patrick Henry in her budget? It is true that as a charter school Patrick Henry is not subject to operating control by the Superintendent. However, since part of its operations will be funded by the Richmond school district, shouldn’t there at least be a blank line for Patrick Henry in the RPS budget with an asterisk saying “to be determined later?” More important, where exactly is the School Board going to find the nearly $1.5 million that it will have to add to the budget when it gets around to including Patrick Henry?

The Superintendent has presented a balanced budget to the School Board. She made the tough choices and found a way to deal with the school district’s estimated $17.8 million funding gap. As I look at the proposed budget, the Superintendent has matched the school system’s expected $245.8 million of revenue with $245.8 million of expenditures. She has not included a “to be determined” line for Patrick Henry. She has not set aside $1.5 million to fill in later. So, although Chairwoman Bridges indicates that we shouldn’t worry about funding for Patrick Henry school, I am still a bit worried. Where is the money going to come from?

This maven can understand how the Superintendent could leave Patrick Henry out of her budget. She might have assumed that because it is a charter school its funding need not be provided for in her budget. However, her budget is one for the entire school system, not just for the schools under her control. Patrick Henry, as a public charter school created by the Richmond School Board, needed to have been included in her budget. The School Board should have made clear to the Superintendent that she had to set aside funding for Patrick Henry in the budget and that she should not have allocated all of the school system’s revenues and left nothing for Patrick Henry.

The Times Dispatch article indicates that the Patrick Henry school is on the School Board’s agenda for tomorrow night (February 2). This maven strongly suggests that at that meeting the School Board instruct the Superintendent of Schools to provide funding for the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts in the school system’s budget for 2011. They should also direct her to plan to continue funding the school in her future budget submissions.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goodbye Alex, The World Will Miss You

The human community lost a great soul this morning. Alexander Lebenstein, of Haltern-am-See, Germany and Richmond, Virginia, USA, died at the age of 82. We will all miss Alex, even those of us who never had the joy of meeting him.

Alex was eleven years old the night of November 10, 1938, when the nation-wide anti-Jewish riot in Germany commonly known as Kristalnacht reached his town. He and his parents were driven from their home and were able to survive by hiding in a depression in the Jewish cemetery. After the violence subsided, the few remaining Jews in Haltern were moved into a small ghetto. In January 1942, the Lebensteins and the other two remaining Jews in the town were shipped by cattle-car to Riga, Latvia, a trip that took more than five days. Alex spent the rest of World War II in various slave-labor and concentration camps. Neither of his parents survived the war. Alex immigrated to the United States in 1947. He established a career and a family. However, he spent the next thirty-five years filled with anger and hate for all things German.

In 1987, Alex discovered that the government of Haltern-am-See was trying to contact him, the only survivor of the town’s Jewish community. Apparently, they wanted him to return to Haltern so they could make amends. Alex told them he would never return to Germany. In 1994, however, when the children of Haltern wrote to Alex, asking him to come help them learn about the Holocaust, he reluctantly agreed to go. And that was when he found his calling. Working with the children of Haltern helped him to overcome his anger. It also began his campaign against hate, which lasted for the rest of his life.

I met Alex a couple of years ago when my wife started working at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Here was this big line-backer sized guy that you really expected to be mean and tough. But, out of his mouth came only love and gentleness. Alex was a whirlwind going from school to school, both in Richmond and elsewhere, spreading his message of tolerance to our young people. He also used his life story to help some schools deal with racial conflict, teaching what happens when we let hate control us. His late-found gift of communicating with young people made Alex one of those people that the world can use a lot more of.

I last saw Alex less than two weeks ago. He came onto the second floor of the museum (Alex always used the stairs, not the elevator) but without his usual broad smile. I asked him how he was and he replied “Not too well.” I didn’t know it but Alex was suffering from acute abdominal pain. An aneurism was badly leaking blood into his belly. Yet Alex continued with his plan to attend a meeting of teachers at the museum. After the meeting I took a group of those teachers on a tour of the museum, not knowing that I would never see Alex again.

When I was training to be a docent at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, I was lucky enough to shadow Alex on a tour. He was amazing. Afterward, I told him that I was afraid that I would never be able to tell the Holocaust story as well as he could. He replied that we each had to tell the story in our own way. He reminded me that it was important that I continued telling the story when he was no longer able to. He also told me to make sure that I found others to continue telling the story after I could no longer tell it. Now, when I end tours of children at the museum, I stress to them that they have two responsibilities—to tell the story and to speak out against oppression.

Alex left us with one unfinished goal. He wanted to start a program of hate-free schools, starting in the Richmond area. Under Alex’s idea, children at a school would be taught the message of tolerance and acceptance. Then their school could display the “hate-free school” sign next to their “drug-free” or “crime-free” signs. We need to implement Alex’s plan.

To learn more about Alex’s amazing life journey, see the videos at http://www.thegazebobook.com/dvd.htm
(especially numbers 5 through 7).