Thursday, December 31, 2009

Beverly Hills schools to boot outsiders

The very uneven quality of tax-funded schools again

Threats on Facebook, name-calling, security guard escorts -- tempers are running high around schools these days in this normally sedate enclave of ostentatious wealth. The reason: The Beverly Hills school board is preparing to boot out 10 percent of its students as it ends a decades-old practice of allowing out-of-district pupils to attend city schools on "opportunity permits."

The move has upset many so-called "permit parents" -- mostly middle-class families living in the tonier areas of Los Angeles who are loath to send their children to the beleaguered Los Angeles Unified School District, where more than a quarter of high-schoolers drop out. "Every family on permit is outraged," said Simy Levy, a Los Angeles resident whose two daughters attend school in Beverly Hills. "It's incredibly unfair."

The plan, which is expected to get final board approval next month, comes as the Beverly Hills Unified School District switches to a budget plan financed directly by the city's well-to-do tax base instead of with state money based on enrollment. The change results from steep cuts in state education funds that has left several affluent communities across the nation paying more school taxes to the state than they receive.

Beverly Hills is the latest to consider the self-financing model, in which the district would keep its school taxes and forgo the $6,239 the state sends for each nonresident student. Without the financial incentive of enrolling outsiders, district officials are concerned their taxpayers would be subsidizing nonresidents' education.

"What is wrong with me saying, 'We have to save our resources for residents?' " said Lisa Korbatov, Beverly Hills school board vice president. "Our police do not respond to neighboring cities if someone is mugged or assaulted."

As education dollars dry up, districts across the nation are taking a closer look at nonresident students. In Tonganoxie, Kan., school officials are considering charging outsiders tuition if state law allows them to do so. Many other districts are aggressively weeding out illegally enrolled outsiders.

The students booted from Beverly Hills would leave schools that have won state and federal recognition for academic excellence. The district offers a rich menu of extracurricular activities, ranging from madrigal singers to water polo. Facilities include an indoor basketball court that retracts to reveal a swimming pool underneath.

Facebook pages have sprung up on both sides, with police investigating one posting that called for "machine gun machetes" to be used against those who favor ending permits. Board meetings have turned unruly with accusations that members were acting like Hitler. Miss Korbatov had a security guard escort her to her car after a recent session.


Politicizing Preschool

Universal health care may top the wish-lists of many liberals this Christmas -- but universal preschool isn’t far behind. President Obama is doing his best to play the role of Santa, bringing subsidized pre-kindergarten to a growing number of American families.

The president has called for $10 billion in new funding for preschool programs, and Congress is working to deliver. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $5 billion for preschool and childcare programs. In September, the House passed a higher education bill that included an $8 billion “Early Learning Challenge Fund” to provide grants to states to expand subsidized preschool. The Senate is expected to follow suit.

These proposals are based on the belief that “investments” in early childhood education yield significant long-term benefits for children served. As President Obama himself promised, “For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health care costs, and less crime.”

If the president is right, we should look forward to a safer, healthier, and welfare-free world sometime soon, thanks to our federal “investments” in preschool. In 2009, taxpayers will spend $25 billion on the federal government’s 69 federal preschool and childcare programs.

Unfortunately, little is known about whether these programs work. One might think that Congress and the administration would be focusing on evaluating these programs’ effectiveness before spending another $8 billion on preschool. Actually, there is reason to believe that they are instead ignoring empirical evidence that undermines the case for a new federal preschool program.

Consider the saga of the Head Start program and its national evaluation. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson created Head Start, the first national preschool and childcare program serving low-income children. Nearly 45 years later, the federal government has spent more than $100 billion on it. With annual funding of approximately $7 billion, Head Start currently spends at least $7,300 annually on each of the 900,000 low-income children served.

For more than a decade, Congress has been trying to figure out whether Head Start has provided lasting benefits for participating children. In 1997, the GAO reviewed the available literature on Head Start’s impact and concluded that body of research was inadequate for drawing conclusions about the program’s effectiveness. This finding led Congress in 1998 to mandate a national evaluation of Head Start’s impact on participants.

Seven years later, the Department of Health and Human Services released the preliminary findings of the national impact evaluation -- comparing the development of children served by Head Start with their peers who didn’t participate in the program. In the critical area of cognitive development, the evaluation found that Head Start’s participants experienced modestly positive benefits compared to their peers who weren’t served by the program. Head Start children outperformed their peers in four out of the six cognitive constructs: pre-reading, pre-writing, vocabulary, and parent reports of students’ literacy skills.

But the 2005 evaluation looked only at children’s developmental progress after one year in Head Start. It didn’t address the $100 billion question: Does Head Start provide lasting benefits?
This question would be addressed by future evaluations of the performance of former Head Start students and their peers through the end of first grade and third grade. Data collection for the initial study of first graders’ progress was completed in the spring of 2006.

Three years have now passed. According to the HHS Web site, this project was supposed to be completed by March 2009. But the findings of the congressionally-mandated evaluation have never been made public.

One can’t help but wonder: What’s causing the delay? Former HHS officials have told me that they were briefed on the results of the first-grade evaluation in 2008. They report that the evaluation found that, overall, Head Start participants experienced zero lasting benefits compared to their non-Head Start peers by the end of first grade. These officials expressed little surprise that the report’s release had been delayed.

Is the Department of HHS burying a damaging study? Perhaps there’s a good explanation for the delay. But without raising the question, we won’t know the answer. Before taxpayers “invest” another $8 billion in another preschool program, we deserve to know whether programs like Head Start are, indeed, making a lasting difference.

President Obama has said that his administration’s only test for deciding what education programs to fund with our “precious tax dollars” will be whether it “works.” It’s time to find out whether he will keep his word -- even if it means bad news for one of liberals’ favorite initiatives.


Jewish literature a no-go area on U.S. campuses

The Modern Language Association is famous for the provocative titles of sessions at its annual meeting. But the provocative title of one session Sunday night -- so surprising to several MLA members that they expressed disbelief when told about it -- contained no sexual wordplay or trendy literary buzzwords. The title: Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?

One reason the question is such a surprise is that there is no apparent shortage of Jews among those who study or teach literature. But the problem defined and debated here wasn't about Jews as students or professors, but about experts in teaching Jewish literature (a group by no means limited to Jews).

The underlying premise of the panel was that English departments that would never allow themselves to be without experts in the literatures of many racial and ethnic groups in the United States don't think twice about failing to have a knowledge base in American Jewish literature. Further, the view of many here is that discussions about multicultural literature that ought to include Jewish writers simply don't.

Joshua Lambert, an assistant professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, kicked off the discussion with an analysis of the top 20 English departments (as judged by U.S. News & World Report, a source that he acknowledged was flawed, but that he used to get a group of programs at highly regarded universities). He found that at these departments, every one has at least two and typically more specialists in African-American literature. All but two have at least one scholar focused on Asian-American literature. All but five have a Latino literature expert. All but 9 have an expert in Native American literature on the faculty.

Only two of the institutions have a tenure-track faculty member whose area of expertise is American Jewish literature, he said. (The University of Michigan, where Lambert earned his doctorate, is so ahead of the pack, with seven, that someone later referred to it with admiration as a shtetl.) Five other universities had at least someone with interest (as stated on departmental listings of faculty expertise) in Jewish studies, but Lambert said none of them have published on American Jewish literature or can read Yiddish. Six of the departments have experts in Holocaust literature and here, Lambert did not dispute the expertise.

But he did question why that one literature should be so much more present -- in literature departments in the United States -- than American Jewish fiction and culture. It is "fascinating and unfortunate ... that the genocide of Jews can seem more worthy of attention than the culture of Jews themselves," he said.

Looking at courses at these top 20 universities, he found 12 of them have offered courses on American Jewish literature, but only 4 have been taught by tenure-track professors (and one of those was last taught in 2001).

As another illustration of why Jewish literature is not necessarily valued (at least as Jewish), Lambert read this text from the Web site of one of the universities: The American literature faculty, the department boasted, "represent the full scope of ethnic American literatures: African American, Asian American, Caribbean, Chicana/o, Latina/o, Native American." Lambert said it was striking to see a department define "the full scope" in that way.

Lambert was quick to note that he was not alleging anti-Semitism or a mass "marginalization" of Jewish scholars. But he said it was clear that while Jewish literature is taught, it is "not a hiring priority" and "not considered a research specialty" that matters to many departments....

Several of the speakers said that both faculty and student attitudes are influenced -- unreasonably, they argued -- by the Middle East. Rachel Rubinstein, assistant professor of American literature and Jewish studies at Hampshire College and the author of Members of the Tribe: Native America in the Jewish Imagination (forthcoming from Wayne State University Press), said that students view Jewish issues as being solely about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, a subject that has become "fetishized." Meanwhile, she said, “Jewishness has been associated with Israel, white privilege, colonialism and racism."

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