Saturday, March 05, 2011

VA: Old-fashioned courtesy penalized

There is an old legal principle that says the law does not concern itself with trivialities. And I suspect that it happens that way most of the time. Here it did not and the punishment could presumably be overturned in the courts on that ground

A local middle school student held open a door at school, reportedly because someone had their hands full. But after that, the student was suspended.

All schools in Southampton County have tight security at the front door, and students are told not to open the door for anyone. But Superintendent Charles Turner tells NewsChannel 3 that the rule was disobeyed when the student opened the door for the woman with her hands full.

The school system recently spent thousands of dollars upgrading door security at all of its schools. Once the construction was complete, administrators said that no students would be allowed to open the doors for anyone, with safety being the reason.

Any visitor who tries to get into the school during school hours is going to find out that all of the doors are locked. If they want to get in, they are required to press a button and someone inside the school will decide whether to let them in.

"We are very protective of our teenagers and it allows us to make sure that the people coming in to the door come into the office for help," Principal Allene Atkinson says, "Parents have been overwhelmingly supportive of this system because our whole objective is to ensure that our children are safe."

But some parents like Billy Haydu say they have mixed feelings about the student's suspension. While they understand that the student broke policy, they do believe the student is being unfairly punished for trying to do a good deed. Haydu says, "My personal opinion, I don't think that was fair. I would think they would talk to them, explain the situation, but I think suspending them was just a little bit harsh."


America's College Obsession

Andy Ferguson, one of America's most engaging and perspicacious journalists, has not -- as Andre Malraux said of Whittaker Chambers -- returned from the hell of college admissions with empty hands. In "Crazy U," his chronicle of his son's senior year of high school -- a year of college visiting, application, essay writing, open-house attending, interviewing, financial aid seeking, and waiting, waiting, waiting -- is by turns hilarious, shrewd, and revealing.

The "crazy" in the book's title refers to our national obsession with college -- a little piece of insanity to which Ferguson is more prone than most. Preoccupied by his son's prospects of being admitted to a good college, Ferguson devours advice books, college guides, and, in weak moments, websites like College Confidential, prompting this reflection about anonymous advice websites:

"I'd been bewildered by [too much information] before ... Before a business trip I'd go online to find a recommendation for a rodent-free hotel or a reliable restaurant. Half a dozen websites would be waiting to help ... From them I learned that the local big-chain hotel was in fact a good bargain, with pleasant service and an excellent location, and also a hellhole staffed by human ferrets, with overflowing toilets and untraceable smells that had ruined the honeymoon of vox-12popula and iwantmyrum, who were now exacting their revenge by abusing the hotel on every website they could find."

But along with the confusion and the profusion of contradictory advice he found on the Web and elsewhere about getting into college, Ferguson notes the dismaying effects of following the advice. He quotes an expensive "consultant" who advises "'Early on in high school your child should find a teacher they like and go that extra mile. They should ... cultivate that relationship ... be enthusiastic in class ... and spend time outside of class with the teacher, if that's possible.'" The aim, Ferguson summarizes, is to "release" at recommendation time "a gusher of praise."

In other words, Ferguson interprets, the process "turned them into Eddie Haskell . . . It guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive . . . It coated their every undertaking in a thin lacquer of insincerity."

If the process encourages a certain amount of obsequiousness and even dishonesty in America's youth, it also elicits more than a dollop of deceit by the colleges themselves. Fixated on their US News & World Report rankings, colleges "fudge" numbers like the SAT scores of incoming freshmen, the graduation rate, and average class size. Wall Street Journal reporter Steve Stecklow compared the data schools submitted to US News with the data they submitted to bond rating agencies. "(I)f they lied to a rating agency, they might go to jail; if they lied to US News they might make the Top Twenty. Reviewing credit reports for more than one hundred schools, he caught one in four fudging the numbers."

The college admission rigmarole reflects in so many ways the cultural and political preferences of the liberals who run the vast majority of these institutions. A "sample" college essay Ferguson purchased online reflected the fashion:

"There was no question our hired hand thought he knew the magic words that would make an admissions committee coo: 'I would be proud to work collaboratively with diverse populations to solve problems ... my readiness for greater challenges in the diverse learning environment ... my enthusiasm for history, diplomacy and cultural diversity...'"

Just as gag-inducing is the spiraling cost of this four-year excursion into diversityland. The annual cost of a typical private college went from $3,663 in 1975 to $34,132 in 2009. (Many are above $50,000 now.) Ferguson analyzes it succinctly: "It's the same problem that afflicts health care (the other sector of the American economy that has seen skyrocketing costs in the past few decades), a large portion of the people consuming the services aren't paying for the service out of their own pocket. The costs are picked up by third parties." No one has the incentive to cut costs.

But even paring away the layers of folly that surround the quest for college does not, in the end, disillusion Ferguson. A year's research and experience has revealed that the application process is needlessly complicated and stressful, that college admission is marred by many injustices, that college itself is perhaps a "bubble" investment that has been way oversold, and that the costs are completely unrelated to the value of the product.

But when his son is accepted at the school of his choice, Ferguson and his wife rejoice. They've drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid. We all have. But after reading this hugely entertaining book, we at least see it more clearly.


Bad news for free schools in Britain

The Financial Times reports that the Department for Education is not going to meet its target date for relaxing school building regulations. This is bad news for the government’s ‘free schools’ agenda.

The idea behind free schools is a great one: expand the supply of good school places by encouraging private organizations to set up their own schools, which will then receive state funding on a per-pupil basis. This expansion in supply will allow British parents to exercise choice over where their children go to school. That choice will, in turn, bring competitive pressures to bear on the state education system: popular schools will be able to expand, bad schools will wither and die. Standards will be driven up across the board as a consequence.

But there’s a problem. For this to work, you need lots of new providers entering the market. And that’s not going to happen if you’ve got very strict building and planning regulations, which allow local authorities to obstruct the process.

The government always planned make it easier for schools to be set up in pre-existing buildings, like office blocks or empty shops. That’s what has happened in Sweden, where ‘free schools’ have been a huge success. It bodes ill that the government has fallen behind schedule, so let’s hope they can get things back on track quickly.

But there’s another big problem with the government’s free schools agenda, and that’s that they’ve decided to prevent providers from making a profit out of running the schools. But without profit-making chains entering the free schools market, it is unlikely that enough new schools will be established. The whole thing risks ending up a damp squib.

Overall, I have to question the government’s tactics. They’ve got good ideas and good intentions. But they are being too timid. Their opponents are going to make a huge fuss about anything they do to liberalize public services, so why bother attempting to placate them? Be radical and get it over with, I say. Otherwise, it’ll be 2015 before you know it, and you won’t have done half the things you set out to do.


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