Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Community (College) Organizer

In his Washington Post op-ed, President Obama announced his intention to graduate “5 million more Americans from community colleges by 2020.” If one sweeps past all the familiar Obama boilerplate, one sees that he is setting the stage for yet another massive government production, with all the aplomb of an early-20th-century Progressive rubbing his hands in glee at the number of youths to be processed. (The irony is that the costly, uneven, cumbersome systems of K-12 and higher education that Obama has pledged to reform are the legacy of those same Progressives.)

Yet absent from his column is any consideration of whether community colleges are generally effective or cost-efficient. Ah, well. Who has time to sort out such distractions? Obama is in a hurry to have the feds start “strengthening our network of community colleges” so that they can serve as “21st-century job training centers.” Is there evidence that most community colleges are equal to this task? Not really. Is there evidence that community colleges are especially well-run, or that they are a better option for prospective students than alternative vendors (such as private companies and distance-learning programs)? Not really. Do we know a lot about what good community colleges look like, or how to reduce waste and promote quality? Again, not really.

These are not picayune concerns. America’s 1,200 community colleges enroll more than 11 million students and account for more than 45 percent of all undergraduate enrollment nationwide. The sprawling enterprise is marked by some terrific institutions but also by broad pockets of mediocrity. Community-college systems were sometimes carefully crafted and sometimes jury-rigged to accommodate the explosion of college enrollment in the mid-20th century. One would think that an administration intent on building the educational infrastructure needed to support 21st-century adult learners might want to start by taking a hard look at what is already in place, rather than by rushing to supersize it. But such is not the Obama way.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has promised that his department’s policies will be guided by empirical evidence and hard data. Let’s hope he treats the community-college issue with far more care than President Obama did in his op-ed.


D.C. Council Wants Vouchers

It would rather help poor children than unions.

The life and death saga of the D.C. voucher program for low-income families continues. A majority of the members of the D.C. Council recently sent a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressing solid support for continuing the program. "We strongly urge you to stand with us in supporting these children and continuing the District's Opportunity Scholarship Program," says the letter. "We believe we simply cannot turn our backs on these families because doing so will deny their children the quality education they deserve."

Earlier this year Illinois Senator Dick Durbin added language to a spending bill that phases out the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program after next year. The program provides 1,700 kids $7,500 per year to use toward tuition at a private school of their parents' choosing. Mr. Durbin's amendment says no federal money can be spent on the program beyond 2010 unless Congress reauthorizes it and the D.C. Council approves.

The D.C. Council's letter shows that support for these vouchers is real at the local level and that the opposition exists mainly at the level of the national Democratic Party. Mr. Durbin has suggested that he included the D.C. Council provision in deference to local control. "The government of Washington, D.C., should decide whether they want it in their school district," he said in March. Well now we know where D.C. stands. We will now see if the national party stands for putting union power and money above the future of poor children.


VA: Coalition fights Islamic Saudi Academy expansion

A holy war is brewing in Virginia, where a controversial Islamic school is seeking permission to expand its campus and a group of residents is going all out to stop it.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing Monday night to consider a proposal to expand the campus of the Islamic Saudi Academy, a Saudi-owned college preparatory school. Critics of the plan point to former students of the school who have been convicted in a plot to assassinate former President Bush, and more recently, arrested for trying to board an airplane with a seven-inch kitchen knife.

And others say they oppose the move to expand the school for one reason only: "We're opposed to the operation of the Islamic Saudi Academy because it teaches and practices Shariah law," said James Lafferty, chairman of the Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force (VAST). "Shariah law is anti-constitutional and we feel that it is the ultimate improper land use here in the state where the Constitution was created."

Lafferty said his organization is a coalition with roughly 10 other groups that oppose the land-use expansion. By teaching Shariah law, Lafferty says, the school replaces the U.S. Constitution with a "very backward and barbaric" rule of law. "Shariah law advocates rights via gender and religion," Lafferty told "They allocate rights by gender and religion. If you are a male who is Islamic, you have rights. If you're not, you have no rights."

Founded in 1984, the Islamic Saudi Academy seeks to "enable students to excel academically while maintaining the values of Islam and proficiency with the Arabic language," according to its Web site.

Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the school's valedictorian in 1999, was convicted in November 2005 of joining Al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush. He was later sentenced to 30 years in prison.

More recently, Raed Abdul-Rahman Al-Saif, who reportedly graduated from the school in 2003, was arrested last month at a Florida airport when he allegedly tried to board a plane while in possession of a seven-inch kitchen knife.

Details of the proposed expansion remained unclear, but the proposal seeks to expand the school's grounds from 20 acres to 34, county officials told Calls to the school were not immediately returned.

Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity announced at the beginning of Monday night's hearing that no vote would be taken and that the record would be kept open to allow comment from those not in attendance.

Any vote on the proposal will occur — at the earliest — during the scheduled next board meeting on Aug. 3, Merni Fitzgerald, director of public affairs for Fairfax County, told late Monday. A total of 46 people have indicated they plan to speak during Monday's hearing, Fitzgerald said.


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