Thursday, April 10, 2008

Texas 8th-grader's project about illegal immigration sparked an attack by 21 students

If she had drawn a picture of a gun or sniffed a marking pen, the school would of course have sprung into action, but there seems to have been a marked lack of springing of any kind on this occasion

An Athens Middle School student is alleging she was attacked and beaten last week by 21 fellow students in response to a project for her history class regarding illegal immigration. Melanie Bowers, a 13-year-old eighth grader, arrived at school last Monday, March 31, with her U.S. History project - an 8 1/2 x 11 "protest sign" - that reads, "If you love your nation, stop illegal immigration." Students were asked to create "protest signs" dealing with a past issue and a current one by history teacher Janet Skelton.

According to Bowers' father, J.R. Bowers, Melanie was attacked in a hallway by a group of students on Friday because of the political message contained on the poster. Mr. Bowers said the attackers slammed her head into a brick wall and scraped her face down the side of the wall. The girl's grandmother, Layne Wilhoite, told the Athens Review in a statement sent Monday that the group attempted to drag Melanie into a restroom and threatened to "rape and kill" her. No teachers have come forward saying they witnessed the incident, according to Athens Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Fred Hayes.

After the incident, Mr. Bowers said his daughter told him she attempted to use an office phone to call him. Hayes said Assistant Principal Mark Castleberry looked her over and "did not see anything wrong with her." Castleberry did not allow her to use the phone, and she eventually used her cell phone to inform her parents she had been attacked.

Melanie did not attend school Monday. Shera Bowers, her mother, said her daughter was checked out by a paramedic Saturday. She suffered a swollen face, various scratches and bruises. "I'm upset that this happened to my daughter, and that she wasn't allowed to call us," Bowers said.

Hayes said the investigation into the alleged incident is ongoing. He said Monday afternoon school officials were not aware of any allegations students threatened to rape the girl. The effort to identify those students is part of the ongoing investigation.

Mr. Bowers said his daughter identified the 21 students - 17 boys and four girls - by using a yearbook. District police officers were on campus Monday as a measure of heightened security. District Police Chief Paul Reddic spent the day reviewing videos in an effort to catch a view of the alleged beating.

AMS Principal Louis DeRosa and Hayes acknowledge something happened to Melanie Bowers, but both have stopped short of saying she was assaulted. DeRosa says only a few students - rather than the 21 alleged by the Bowers - were involved. "There was an incident in the hallway after lunch on Friday, April 4, between two or three students," DeRosa said in a statement. "We have a camera system in the building. We are collecting information and statements from witnesses. This is all the information we have at this time."

Hayes said the incident occurred between two cameras and in "a blind spot." "What they told me that they see is a group of students leaving an area," he said, "and as they're leaving they see two students turn around and look at what's going on, but then they turn back around and keep on going. Typically what we have when we have a big fight is we have students who will run to an issue to see what's going on. I'm not saying there was no disturbance. What I am saying is that we don't know the extent of the disturbance at this point." He added that, based on his years in education, he thinks someone approached Melanie and said something inappropriate to "try to scare her." He said if they didn't hit her, they at least threatened to hit her.

When Melanie came to the office, Hayes said Castleberry took down information about the incident but refused to allow her to call home because he said it would "mess up the investigation.".

Hayes said Monday the district typically allows students to call their parents if they have requested to do so. "We could have kept in a lot of problems if we would have allowed that to happen," Hayes said of the decision to not let the student call her parents. "This was a student who was obviously distraught over a - whether she was jumped or not really doesn't matter - she was distraught and she should have been allowed to call her parents."

The Bowers family say they have contacted a lawyer and the FBI. A follow-up meeting between the family and school police officers was held Monday afternoon - a gathering that lasted two hours. "There wasn't really any new information," Shera Bowers told the Review after the meeting. "(Chief Reddic) did say he was adamant about catching the people who did this."

Several parents who contacted the Review Monday said they didn't send their children to school on Monday because of threats posted on a Web site, MySpace, discussing the incident. Hayes said attendance levels did not appear to be abnormal. Hayes also said the district will think twice about similar class projects in the future. "I think that probably what we ought to look at is, if it's a current issue we probably don't need a protest poster made on that issue," he said.


Dropout rate "catastrophe"

According to a new study by America's Promise Alliance, 17 of the nation's 50 largest cities had high school graduation rates lower than 50 percent. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose wife, Alma, chairs the alliance, calls it a "catastrophe." To fix the mess, education leaders have sprung into action. Yep, they're going to have meetings. Fifty state "summits," where local experts - you know, the ones who have reliably failed before - can chew the fat. And rest assured, teachers unions, the chief obstruction to progress, will seldom be mentioned by participants.

This catastrophe is predominantly about minority kids living in inner cities. Suburban schools perform well. Suburban parents have the ability to get involved - or to escape government-run schools altogether. Poor parents, most often, have no such luxury. In Baltimore, one of the shoddiest systems in the free world, over 81 percent of public school students in suburbs graduate, yet only 34 percent in the city. It may be even more than a generic "urban" crisis. According to Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University research scientist, there are approximately 2,000 high schools in 15 states that produce 50 percent of all the nation's dropouts. He calls them "dropout factories."

Either way, poverty is not new. Yet, dropout numbers, as well as proficiency in reading and math, have become increasingly problematic for poor students. More single-family households, more English-as-a-second-language kids and a lack of funding are cited by experts.

The urban areas most prominently featured in Alliance's study - you may not be surprised to learn - are also ruled by teachers unions. And these unions are indefatigable in working against any parental choice or competition. Or, rather, funding candidates, from national office to school boards, to do the dirty work for them. Teachers unions place culpability for education woes on a lack of funding and "cuts." This is a myth. Obviously, schools could always benefit from an infusion of cash but, in most of the failing systems, funding per pupil is at an all-time high. According to a study by the right-of-center Hoover Institution, in 1982 per-pupil spending was $5,930 and rose 60 percent by 2000 to $9,230 in inflation-adjusted dollars (in high-population districts, the number is far higher).

In Utah, a recent school-reform initiative failed after the National Education Association pumped $3.1 million (allied groups even more) into a campaign to mislead voters. What the NEA never mentioned was that the proposed initiative would have increased per-pupil spending. The sin? It would have allowed parents to choose where they spent the money. In America, you are free to choose your church, your hairdresser, your employer, your neighborhood . . . yet you're prohibited, in most places, from picking a school for your kids. For parents in urban areas, this can prove tragic.

Tragedy or not, the NEA argues that less service and poor results are grounds for higher pay and enhanced benefits. Unfortunately, taxpayers have no way to reward high-performing teachers, even if they wanted to, as the collective spirit of unions shuns individual achievement.

The Hoover study found that less than 1 percent of teacher pay in 1982 was based on performance; by 2001, that figure had not changed. (Modest inroads have been made in this regard.) In more than a dozen states, small-scale voucher programs, funded by private groups, have emerged. Elected Democrats in Milwaukee, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Newark and numerous other municipalities are supporting choice programs over union cash. These legislators are rare. And until there are more of them, neither 50 nor 5 million meetings will make a dent in the problem.


What If Public Schools Were Abolished?

In American culture, public schools are praised in public and criticized in private, which is roughly the opposite of how we tend to treat large-scale enterprises like Wal-Mart. In public, everyone says that Wal-Mart is awful, filled with shoddy foreign products and exploiting workers. But in private, we buy the well-priced, quality goods, and long lines of people hope to be hired. Why is this? It has something to do with the fact that public schools are part of our civic religion, the primary evidence that people cite to show that local government serves us. And there is a psychological element. Most of us turn our kids over to them, so surely they must have our best interest at heart!

But do they? Murray N. Rothbard's Education: Free and Compulsory explains that the true origin and purpose of public education is not so much education as we think of it, but indoctrination in the civic religion. This explains why the civic elite is so suspicious of homeschooling and private schooling: it's not fear of low test scores that is driving this, but the worry that these kids aren't learning the values that the state considers important. But to blast public schools is not the purpose of this article. There are decent public schools and terrible ones, so there is no use generalizing. Nor is there a need to trot out data on test scores. Let me just deal with economics. All studies have shown that average cost per pupil for public schools is twice that of private schools.

This runs contrary to intuition, since people think of public schools as free and private schools as expensive. But once you consider the source of funding (tax dollars vs. market tuition or donation), the private alternative is much cheaper. In fact, the public schools cost as much as the most expensive and elite private schools in the country. The difference is that the cost of public schooling is spread out over the entire population, whereas the private school cost is borne only by the families with students who attend them. In short, if we could abolish public schools and compulsory schooling laws, and replace it all with market-provided education, we would have better schools at half the price, and be freer too. We would also be a more just society, with only the customers of education bearing the costs.

What's not to like? Well, there is the problem of the transition. There are obvious and grave political difficulties. We might say that public education enjoys a political advantage here due to network effects. A significant number of "subscriptions," etc. have been piled up in the status quo, and it is very difficult to change those. But let's pretend. Let's say that a single town decided that the costs of public schooling are too vast relative to private schooling, and the city council decided to abolish public schools outright. The first thing to notice is that this would be illegal, since every state requires localities to provide education on a public basis. I don't know what would happen to the city council. Would they be jailed? Who knows? Certainly they would be sued.

But let's say we somehow get past that problem, thanks to, say, a special amendment in the state constitution, that exempts certain localities if the city council approves. Then there is the problem of federal legislation and regulation. I am purely speculating since I don't know the relevant laws, but we can guess that the Department of Education would take notice, and a national hysteria of some sort would follow. But let's say we miraculously get past that problem too, and the federal government lets this locality go its own way.

There will be two stages to the transition. In the first stage, many seemingly bad things will happen. How are the physical buildings handled in our example? They are sold to the highest bidder, whether that be to new school owners, businesses, or housing developers. And the teachers and administrators? All let go. You can imagine the outcry.

With tax-paid schools abolished, people with kids in public schools might move away. Property taxes that previously paid for schools would vanish, so there will be no premium for houses in school districts that are considered good. There will be anger about this. The collapse in prices might seem like robbery for people who have long assumed that high and rising house prices are a human right. For the parents that remain, there is a major problem of what to do with the kids during the day. With property taxes gone, there is extra money to pay for schools, but their assets have just fallen in market value (even without the Fed), which is a serious problem when it comes to shelling out for school tuition. There will, of course, be widespread hysteria about the poor too, who will find themselves without any schooling choices other than homeschool.

Now, all that sounds pretty catastrophic, doesn't it? Indeed. But it is only phase one. If we can somehow make it to phase two, something completely different will emerge. The existing private schools will be filled to capacity and there will be a crying need for new ones. Entrepreneurs will quickly flood into the area to provide schools on a competitive basis. Churches and other civic institutions will gather the money to provide education. At first, the new schools will be modeled on the public school idea. Kids will be there from 8 to 4 or 5, and all classes will be covered. But in short order, new alternatives will appear. There will be schools for half-day classes. There will be large, medium, and small schools. Some will have 40 kids per class, and others 4 or 1. Private tutoring will boom. Sectarian schools of all kinds will appear. Micro-schools will open to serve niche interests: science, classics, music, theater, computers, agriculture, etc. There will be single sex schools. Whether sports would be part of school or something completely independent is for the market to decide.

And no longer will the "elementary, middle school, high school" model be the only one. Classes will not necessarily be grouped by age alone. Some will be based on ability and level of advancement too. Tuition would range from free to super expensive. The key thing is that the customer would be in charge. Transportation services would spring up to replace the old school-bus system. People would be able to make money by buying vans and providing transportation. In all areas related to education, profit opportunities would abound.

In short, the market for education would operate the same as any other market. Groceries, for example. Where there is a demand, and obviously people demand education for their kids, there is supply. There are large grocery stores, small ones, discount ones, premium ones, and stores for groceries on the run. It is the same for other goods, and it would be the same for education. Again, the customer would rule. In the end, what would emerge is not entirely predictable - the market never is - but whatever happened would be in accord with the wishes of the public.

After this phase two, this town would emerge as one of the most desirable in the country. Educational alternatives would be unlimited. It would be the source of enormous progress, and a model for the nation. It could cause the entire country to rethink education. And then those who moved away would move back to enjoy the best schools in the country at half the price of the public schools, and those without children in the house wouldn't have to pay a dime for education. Talk about attractive! So which town will be the first to try it and show us all the way?


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