Tuesday, January 11, 2011

CA: Lousy schools split some Democrats from union fold

Democrats soon will have to decide whether they are the party of the idle rich – i.e., the party of retired government employees, many of whom spend 30 or more years receiving pensions that are the equivalent of millions of dollars in savings – or the party of the poor, the downtrodden and the working class.

Fortunately, there are some Democrats who are serious about all that "helping the little guy" rhetoric, especially in the area of public education. In a recent article titled "Democratic schism opens on fixing schools," the Sacramento Bee detailed the "growing chorus [of Democrats] arguing the party must move away from its traditional allegiance with teachers unions in order to improve chronically low-performing schools."

We all know that many of this state's larger school districts operate as efficiently as Soviet-era bureaucracies, and their educational product is the equivalent of the former Soviet Union's consumer goods. There's a reason for those dropout rates of 20 percent to 50 percent, a human tragedy when you consider the typical futures of the students who are cast aside by the current system.

This isn't a slam on the many fine public schoolteachers, but it's clear what happens when unaccountable bureaucracies, protected from competition and reliant on taxes rather than the free choice of consumers, produce things. Unions make it nearly impossible to fire the worst employees and create work rules that stymie innovation and reform.

The late Albert Shanker, longtime leader of national teachers unions, once famously said, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren." Shanker was just being truthful about the purpose of unions. The rest of us need to be just as forthright about the need to tame those unions if we're seriously interested in improving education rather than simply in seeking more taxpayer money to prop up the same-old failed, bureaucratic system.

The story in the Bee profiled former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who last year lost her bid to become state superintendent of public instruction to a union ally, Tom Torlakson, but who now heads the California chapter of a political action committee called Democrats for Education Reform. Romero is a tried-and-true liberal who understands that union dominance undermines traditional liberal values. Several years back, she was one of only a handful of state senators from either party to take on the police unions over their unconscionable protection of abusive officers.

It's beyond me how Democrats can claim to be for education yet align themselves with those forces that oppose every serious reform that would help poor kids, just as I could never understand how Democrats could claim to stand for civil liberties even as they stifled open-government rules that would shine a light on police officers who abused people's rights.

Democrats for Education Reform released a report in October, "Busting the Dam," which succinctly captures the nature of the problem: "It is no secret that most of the efforts to reform K-12 public education systems in the last quarter century have been stymied by political gridlock. Although education pioneers like Teach For America and KIPP have demonstrated the tremendous potential impact of innovation, special interests (primarily but not limited to teachers unions) have built up symbiotic relationships with elected officials to the point that they are able to assert de facto veto power over the kinds of changes which could fundamentally alter the way education is delivered in our communities."

That's a politically careful way of spelling out what others have said more directly, with some Democratic leaders describing the struggle for education reform as the new civil-rights battle of our era. Conservatives have long championed market-based education reforms, but they have had little impact and they must now find new allies among the state's dominant Democrats.

This intra-Democratic battle is crucial given that the Republican Party has been shoved to the margins in California. Judging by the November elections, California voters apparently want this to be a one-party state, given Democrats' clean sweep of state constitutional offices and the passage of Proposition 25, which gives the majority party the power to pass budgets with a simple majority rather than with a two-thirds supermajority. There's not much the GOP can do other than watch from the sidelines.

Democratic political consultant Garry South wrote in a column recently that he had been offering Republicans advice for years – that they should nominate a more diverse slate of moderate candidates for statewide office. "This election year, the Grand Old Party took most of my free, unsolicited advice. ... But in the end, it didn't matter, every one got mowed down."

Although I question a lot of South's advice, I do agree with his conclusion: There is nothing Republicans can do at this point to become a viable statewide party.

That means solutions on all the big issues are going to have to come from the other side. Those of us on the right need to exploit this schism within the Democratic Party and side with reformers such as Romero.

Of course, the unions are gloating about their enhanced political power in Sacramento, with the election of Jerry Brown as governor. The Orange County Employees Association and Sen. Lou Correa (the Santa Ana Democrat who authored legislation that sparked a decade of pension-hiking), for instance, are hosting an inauguration party "celebrating the election of the People's Governor." I always associate talk about People's leaders and People's republics with places that have a decidedly authoritarian bent.

But while the union-dominated Left is celebrating, just maybe we'll see the beginnings of a serious debate about union power, thanks to those Democratic politicians who are interested in reform. That's a sliver of hope for the new year in a state that is starting to seem hopeless.


Welcome to Personal Responsibility 101

Mike Adams

Back in 2002, I decided to join the fight against campus speech codes because I considered them to be the principal threat against liberty in the 21st Century. I was also concerned that Abraham Lincoln was right when he said that looking at our schools today is a good way to see what the nation will look like in twenty years. I knew that speech codes had to be defeated in order to avoid a situation in which citizens were easily deprived of their rights because they were never aware of them in the first place.

At the time I joined this fight, it seemed like every public university had an unconstitutional speech code. Today, that number is more like 67%. One of the main reasons for the improvement is the efforts of a group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. And now, FIRE has crafted an ingenious plan that promises to build on its momentum and make unconstitutional speech codes the exception, rather than the rule, at America’s public universities.

FIRE has put hundreds of university presidents and university attorneys on notice that their wallets could be hit if they violate the free speech rights of students on their campuses. What they are trying to do is to attack the use of qualified immunity, which is used to exempt administrators from personal liability for monetary damages.

By sending nearly 300 certified letters to public university administrators across the nation, they are directly challenging the most dangerous problem in higher education today; namely, the continued shielding of those who knowingly violate the First Amendment in defiance of well-established law.

It is bad enough that public university administrators have been shredding the First Amendment for decades in order to ensure that their own political, social, and religious views will be advanced without challenge. It is far worse that the taxpayers have been footing the bill when they have been caught doing so. But that is all about to change.

Recently, some judges have been deciding that college administrators are not shielded from personal liability in cases involving gross violations of the First Amendment. The case of Valdosta State University student Thomas Hayden Barnes is illustrative. Barnes was expelled in 2007 after he peacefully protested plans by then-President Ronald Zaccari to use $30 million in student activity fees to build two parking garages. The court decided the infringement was so gross that a reasonable administrator could not have been unaware of the illegality of the expulsion.

The recent spate of letters sent by FIRE will ensure that other similar rulings follow. The legal doctrine of qualified immunity only protects government officials from personal liability for monetary damages for violating constitutional rights if their actions do not violate “clearly established law” of which a reasonable person in their position would have known.

For years, public universities have argued that their speech codes did not violate clearly established law regarding students' First Amendment rights. But for the past generation, we have seen one legal decision after another striking down these codes. Having seen registered letters informing them of the decisions, administrators will no longer be able to argue that “a reasonable person in their position” would not have known the law.

FIRE is now able to add another recent precedent to the long list of cases that will help undercut the doctrine of qualified immunity. In McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands, the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010 struck down policies banning "offensive" or "unauthorized" signs as violations.

FIRE is also citing these important decisions in its letters:

•DeJohn v. Temple University, where the Third Circuit invalidated a university sexual harassment policy for being overly broad and vague in violation of the First Amendment;

•Dambrot v. Central Michigan University, where the Sixth Circuit declared a university discriminatory harassment policy to be obviously unconstitutional;

•College Republicans at San Francisco State University v. Reed, where a federal court enjoined enforcement of a university civility policy that placed the supposed right to be unoffended above the First Amendment.

Adam Kissel of FIRE summarizes the position of FIRE nicely when he states that the organization has found an appropriate balance between the carrot and stick approaches to dealing with university administrators. First, they offer online suggestions for public universities that have at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. The suggestions show them what they need to do to comply with the law.

But if they will not listen, there is strong language in these registered letters meant to awaken their conscience to their duty to obey the law. For example, FIRE says: "You must be aware that maintaining university policies that prohibit constitutionally protected expression is an unlawful deprivation of constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 for which university administrators may be sued in their individual capacities for punitive damages.”

The letter continues: "Given the sparkling clarity of the case law with regard to the unconstitutionality of speech codes at public universities, please be advised that claims of immunity from personal liability put forth by individual university administrators will likely be unsuccessful."

The approach of FIRE will work in the same way that capitalism works better than socialism; namely, through reliance on private ownership and individual interest. In other words, it is a strategy that attaches real consequences to individuals with power, rather than to an esoteric and powerless collective.

Campus speech codes are no longer public property inherited by unknowing public servants. The speech codes now belong to those who oversee their maintenance. And they ignore them at their own peril.


Fired over 'elf n safety, British teacher who took two boys of 15 sledging as part of technology lesson

A teacher was sacked after letting children use his sledge in the snow as part of a lesson – because he failed to carry out a risk assessment. Richard Tremelling, 37, took the racing sledge into school to demonstrate design technology to his class of 15-year-olds.

As part of the demonstration, he tested conditions on two snowy slopes himself before deciding they were safe enough for two boys to follow suit. The boys were unharmed. But Mr Tremelling was sacked from his £40,000-a-year job as head of technology for breaching health and safety rules. Yesterday he appeared before the General Teaching Council for Wales at the start of a two-day hearing to decide his future.

Campaigners and MPs said the decision to sack him was ‘absolutely disgraceful’ and ‘ludicrous’. Nick Seaton, chair of the Campaign for Real Education, warned that the ‘heavy-handed’ punishment ‘would only succeed in discouraging good candidates from joining the teaching profession’. He added: ‘I don’t think too many people would consider sledging to be dangerous for children of the age of 15, particularly when under the watchful eye of their teacher.

‘Mr Tremelling should be commended for thinking outside the box and attempting to make his lesson more interesting for his class by introducing a practical element. That he has lost his job over it is absolutely disgraceful.’

Rosa Fernandes, presenting the case, said: ‘Mr Tremelling took the sledge to school without the authorisation of the head. ‘He failed to carry out appropriate risk assessments and failed to provide a written risk assessment. ‘He didn’t ensure pupils were wearing protective headgear and protective clothing.’

Mr Tremelling told the hearing he took the sledge into the 650-pupil Cefn Hengoed Community School in Swansea as a teaching aid to incorporate the weather conditions into a lesson. He said he discussed the manufacture and use of the sledge with pupils during a revision class. ‘A number of pupils stayed behind interested and excited,’ he added. ‘They wanted to see it in use and, giving it some thought, I agreed.’

The experienced teacher said he conducted a ‘mental risk assessment’ before sliding down a small slope, covered in two to three inches of snow, on the sledge. Two of the pupils, aged 15, then volunteered to ride the sledge, one after the other. Mr Tremelling said: ‘I told the first boy to follow the track marks that I’d laid out – which he did in a safe manner.

‘I wanted to demonstrate sledge control so I moved to a different slope. I went first – it was a bit fast so I was not happy for the child to go from the top. ‘He started from halfway down the slope and completed the turn correctly. ‘The whole process took less than ten minutes and I was sure it reinforced their knowledge.’

Tory MP Philip Davies said Mr Tremelling’s case was a perfect example of the ‘health and safety obsession’ in Britain today. He added: ‘What has happened to this teacher is absolutely ludicrous, even in this day and age. The school appear guilty of a ridiculous overreaction.’

Lord Young, the former Cabinet minister and Tory peer, completed a report into the health and safety rules surrounding classrooms and school trips in October. He recommended introducing a single consent form to cover all activities a child may undertake during their time at a school. Other recommendations include cutting back a 12-page risk assessment that teachers have to complete before each school trip.

He criticised the ‘enormous bureaucracy’ which caused many teachers to avoid organising such activities, depriving millions of children of a vital part of their education. All his recommendations are now being implemented.

Mr Tremelling was suspended following the sledge lesson after a snowfall in February 2009. He was dismissed in January last year. He denies unacceptable professional conduct and faces a reprimand on his record, suspension or being struck off if the allegations are proven.


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