Sunday, November 16, 2008

Obama's School Choice

Democratic politicians like to see themselves as champions of public education; but when it comes to picking schools for their own children to attend, their support disappears. President-elect Obama is no different than hundreds of other Democratic elected officials across the nation, from members of Congress to big-city mayors and city council members. The president-elect's daughters have been in private schools in Chicago -- and all indications are that they will enroll in one of Washington's elite private schools when the family makes its big move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

That's too bad because it insulates the Obamas from what other families must deal with: a failing public school system that resists genuine reform. And in Washington's case, it deprives a courageous new school chancellor of what would be her most powerful constituents, the First Family.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee could use the Obamas' help -- especially in taking on the teachers union. Rhee has proposed a dramatic reform package aimed at removing incompetent teachers and rewarding excellence.

She wants to get rid of tenure -- a job protection that is no benefit to students and helps keep some of the worst performing teachers in the classroom. And she is willing to pay top dollar to teachers whose students make real progress. What's more, she will use private dollars to fund the increases. The extra money for Rhee's proposal would come from private foundations, which have already pledged an additional $75 million a year for five years, much of which would go to raise teacher pay.

Rhee's bold plan encompasses a voluntary, two-tier track for teachers. Each teacher could choose whether to enroll in the green plan or the red plan, both of which would increase pay but with strings attached. Teachers who choose the green plan could potentially double the pay they could earn, but they would have to give up tenure for a year and would then need a principal's recommendation to keep their job or face dismissal.

Those who choose the red plan would get smaller pay increases but would lose their seniority rights so that they could not bump more-junior teachers for school assignments if their own school closed or was reorganized.

The idea behind the plan would be to weed out the poor performers from those who were doing a good job, and reward merit rather than longevity. In other words, public schools would begin to operate like most other segments of our society: Those who failed would feel it in their paychecks and those who succeeded would be rewarded there. But unions don't cotton to merit-based pay, insisting that seniority is what really matters.

The unions' interest is solely in filling their own coffers with dues and maintaining their political power. An incompetent teacher who pays dues is just as valuable to the union as an excellent teacher, and the bad teacher may be more beholden to the union to protect his or her job. No wonder, then, the Washington Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is resisting Rhee's plan.

The union is refusing even to put Rhee's proposal to a vote of its membership, reportedly because of pressure from the AFT's new president, Randi Weingarten. Rhee and Weingarten have locked horns before when Rhee worked for a nonprofit education group in New York City, where Weingarten also leads the local United Federation of Teachers.

Weingarten won her battle against reforms Rhee proposed for the New York schools -- but Rhee has a powerful ally in Washington's mayor Adrian Fenty. Now if only the Obamas could be enlisted to her side, Rhee might actually prevail in D.C.

President-elect Obama wants the best education for his girls -- what parent doesn't? But as someone whose own children attended D.C. public schools, I know what it means to push for reform of public education from within. The Obamas could send a powerful message if they were to enroll their daughters in the D.C. system, either in a regular or a charter school. And it would certainly give them a window into the problems those schools face.

But I won't hold my breath. Democratic politicians' support for public education usually amounts to spending other people's money and keeping their own kids out.


The President is Black, Hide the Confederate Flag

A few weeks ago, as I was walking across the campus of UNC-Wilmington, I heard an old familiar sound. A rap song was blaring from the general vicinity of the university amphitheater. I heard the n-word broadcast loudly (from over 100 yards away) so I decided to walk over to investigate the source of the racial epithet.

I must confess that I had an ulterior motive for seeking the source of the offensive epithet. The last time I heard an offensive word coming from the amphitheater it was an "Obama 2008" group that was playing profanity-laced rap music. I was hoping they were back so I could ask them to change their music to something other than the tired old songs about bitches, niggas, and hos. Like a crack addict voting for Obama I was hoping for a little change. And, of course, I was hoping for another chance to rib them in the wake of the Reverend Wright scandal.

Regrettably, when I got there, I saw that the source of the music was a university group called "ACE" that sponsors various events on campus - sometimes comedians, sometimes musical artists. So I turned around and walked to the university union to get a cup of coffee. That's when I ran into Craig (not real name) who is president of the Alpha Epsilon Sigma fraternity (also not real name and, hereafter, referred to as the As).

Craig and I spend a few minutes talking about the latest free speech scandal at UNCW. It all began when the As were playing another fraternity called the Alpha Kappas (also not real name and, hereafter, referred to as the AKs) in an intramural football game. Because the As and AKs were both founded in the South around the time of the Civil War, they occasionally try to "out-Southern" one another. That was the case during their intramural match and that is when the trouble began.

When the As decided to parade around the football field with a banner - an activity taking only a couple of minutes - they gave little thought to the small Confederate Flag that was displayed along with their fraternity crest and fraternity name. Again, lest there be any confusion, the kids were not carrying a Confederate Flag - an activity, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment. They were carrying a large banner a small part of which was covered by a representation of the Confederate Flag.

Regrettably, a lower-level administrator at UNCW decided to reprimand the As for parading around with a "symbol of hatred." The As were told in no uncertain terms that the Confederate Flag was not protected free speech, presumably because it violates one or more of our university's unconstitutional (read: illegal) speech codes.

It never really mattered to the constitutionally ignorant UNCW administrator (please pardon any redundancy) that there were no blacks who were present and offended by the "symbol of hatred." Nor did it matter that no AKs were offended. Nor did it matter that the AKs later offered to write a letter to the university explaining that they were not offended. Nor did it matter that ACE (remember, the group that broadcast the n-word?) was given exactly $60,000 of public funds by the university to be spent on a concert. They used the $60,000 to hire a rapper to call women bitches and hos and to use the n-word. Five years later, no administrator has been punished for promoting racial hatred.

But the As were punished. They were banned from participating in intramural sports for the rest of the academic year. Their student activity fees will go to other groups who use it to broadcast the n-word while they are banned from engaging in certain student activities. This is all happening at a university with a chancellor from New York who is too ethnocentric to understand fully what the Confederate Flag means to Southerners.


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