Saturday, October 01, 2011

Public schools eat too much at government trough

Soon after his boss introduced the American Jobs Act, Vice President Joe Biden held a conference call to get teachers' unions behind it.

It was an easy task, with American Federation of Teachers honcho Randi Weingarten promising to "do whatever we can" to get the legislation passed. And why not? It's teachers and other politically potent interests, not kids or the economy, that the Act is really about.

That teachers' unions are gung-ho about the proposal — which would furnish $30 billion for education jobs and another $25 billion for school buildings — doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad thing. Kids need teachers and classrooms, right?

Sure. But we all need food, too, yet we can eat too much, or scarf down the wrong things, and end up sick as dogs. And for the last several decades public schools have been throwin' down Twinkies like they're going out of style.

Look at staffing. According to the federal Digest of Education Statistics, between 1969 and 2008 (the latest year with available data) public schools went from 22.6 students per teacher to 15.3. District administrative staff went from 697.7 students per employee to just 363.3. In total, students per employee dropped from 13.6 to 7.8.

And what happened to achievement? Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the "nation's report card" — flatlined for 17-year-olds, our schools' "final products."

But those employment figures are just through 2008. Haven't the last few years truly devastated education employment? We don't have perfect numbers, but what we do have says no.

The 2009 "stimulus," recall, included $100 billion for education, most of which went to elementary and secondary schooling. A year later, the Feds allocated another $10 billion to keep education employment intact. Oodles of education jobs probably were created or preserved.

Unemployment rates support that. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for April — a month when most schools are in session — show that the rates in "education services" (which includes K-12, colleges and other training) were 4.8% in 2009, 4.2% in 2010 and 3.8% in 2011.

Education unemployment has been falling, and has been below not just overall unemployment, but unemployment for people with college degrees. In April 2011, the unemployment rate for the latter was 4.5%.

Assuming that staffing has been roughly constant since 2008, what would the magnitude of the cut be if the Obama administration's worst-case scenario — 280,000 lost positions — came true?

Small, especially since the administration is talking not just about teachers, but also "guidance counselors, classroom assistants, after-school personnel, tutors, and literacy and math coaches." Most of those positions are considered "instructional" and "support" staff, and in 2008 there were 6,182,785 such employees. Losing 280,000 would be just a 4.5% trimming. And that's the worst-case scenario.

So much for employment. How about crumbling schools?

Many public schools are in terrible shape, but not for lack of funds: Public school spending rose from $5,671 per student in 1970-71 to $12,922 in 2007-08. Much of that went to pay for all the new employees, but facilities spending ballooned as well.

Where'd the money go? It's hard to know for sure, but too often not dull maintenance. Instead, it went to glory projects such as the $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in Los Angeles, which boasts such educationally essential features as talking benches that explain the site's history (Robert Kennedy was shot at the hotel that once stood there), and an auditorium that mimics the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.

Politicians simply don't star in golden-shovel groundbreakings when bathroom stalls are replaced. They do get such free publicity when opulent buildings are erected. And while the Jobs Act wouldn't fund new buildings, it would bail out districts that long traded function for flash, and would pay for spiffy new science labs and other glitzy additions. And naturally, all the work would have to be done at union rates.

This makes no educational sense. It also makes no economic sense: Taxpayers would ultimately have to pay for the Jobs Act, meaning money would be taken from the people who earned it and given to infamous squanderers. That almost certainly means a net loss of jobs.

But this isn't really about education or job growth. It's about politics. At least, that's all that the evidence allows you to conclude.


Teenage girl beaten by classmates in Canada on 'Kick A Ginger Day'

A CANADIAN schoolgirl with bright red hair was kicked repeatedly by up to 20 classmates today as part of a bullying day inspired by US animated TV series South Park, The Windsor Star reported.

Gwendolyn Russell, 14, called her mother in tears soon after getting to school and had to go home mid-morning as she was targeted by fellow Grade 9 students during "Kick A Ginger Day."

The event was invented in a 2005 "South Park" episode, in a bid to satirise discrimination. But unfortunately, the cartoon comedy's attempt to make a point appears to have backfired in real life.

Gwendolyn's mother, Samantha Russell, told the Star her daughter suffered bruises to her legs after being kicked more than 20 times, and at least four other red-haired girls were also assaulted.

"I'm infuriated. There should be zero tolerance for something like this," she added.

According to the paper, school administrators have already suspended four male students from taking part in a football game after they were seen on video kicking the girl. Up to 20 students in total could face discipline.

"This behaviour isn't acceptable," Joe Picard, superintendent of human resources for the French Catholic District School Board, said. "As such, steps and measures will be taken. Above that, you need to be proactive in teaching empathy to the kids and social responsibility."

Ms Russell said her daughter had problems on "Kick A Ginger Day" when she was at elementary school and was forced to stay home during the day last year.


Course Instructs Journalists to Take Note That Jihad 'Not a Leading Cause of Death'

A new online journalism course on Islam appears to downplay the threat posed by global jihad groups, suggesting reporters keep the death toll from Islamic terrorism in "context" by comparing that toll to the number of people killed every year by malaria, HIV/AIDS and other factors.

"Jihad is not a leading cause of death in the world," the online course cautions studying journalists.

While that is technically true, researchers at the Culture and Media Institute who examined the online program took exception to that and numerous other claims made in the Poynter News University course.

Dan Gainor, vice president at the institute, said the course is sweeping these threats "under the rug," while watering down the section on jihad with inappropriate comparisons.

"Infectious disease, we have government structures to prevent that, and that's great ... in radical Islam we have not even one organization but several organizations that are constantly seeking to kill Americans and others too," he said. "It seems like journalists should not be involved in trying to downplay that."

Gainor's group released a report Thursday morning on the course.

The Islam reporting program is supported in part by a group, the Social Science Research Council, which has received funding from organizations backed by billionaire George Soros.

In the section on jihad, the course informs readers that the word merely means "struggle" in Arabic -- this is something White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has sought to remind the public of in the past. The course notes that terrorism in the name of jihad has "failed to mobilize Muslims outside of a few territories."

But to illustrate this point, the course references the number of people killed by various causes, implicitly suggesting journalists change the way they report on jihad-related deaths.

"Of the hundreds of murders that occur each day, journalists are far more likely to report on jihad-related incidents than other violence. As a result, news consumers have developed a skewed impression of the prevalence of jihad, relative to other forms of conflict. Context is essential in covering this global story in a way that does not amplify fears of jihad," the course says.

The Poynter course estimates jihad groups have killed about 165,000 people over the past four decades, mostly in Iraq. It notes the biggest toll in the United States was the approximately 3,000 killed on Sept. 11, 2001.

"To give those numbers some context, the FBI reports that approximately 15,000 people in the U.S. are murdered each year. All around the world, more than half a million people are murdered annually, according to the World Health Organization," the course says. "At its peak, jihad organizations have accounted for less than 2 percent of this toll -- in most years, they account for well under 1 percent. (A half-million individuals die each year from nutritional deficiencies, more than 800,000 from malaria, and 2 million from HIV/AIDS.)"

Gainor noted that murder victims mostly are killed in separate incidents, whereas victims of Islamic terrorism often are killed in larger-scale attacks. Also, murder victims typically are not killed in the name of an ideological war against a country.

The online course, which is broken into several sections, also discusses "right-wing activists" bent on linking American Muslims to terrorism. The section includes the good-journalism tip that reporters should check to see if experts they're interviewing "have a bias or a stake in the story you are covering." But then it only cites examples of anti-Muslim groups.

The course also addresses Shariah law without including information of instances where the law is interpreted with harsh consequences.

"In countries governed by strict adherence to Islam, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Shariah is the law of the land. But in many other Muslim countries, such as Egypt, there are separate civil and Shariah law courts, with the latter governing issues such as marriage and family law, while civil courts decide the rest," the course says.

But the Culture and Media Institute, part of the conservative Media Research Center, noted that in strict countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, people can be stoned to death or flogged for non-violent crimes. In Iran, a pastor who refused to renounce his Christian faith was facing execution after his sentence was recently upheld by an Iranian court -- though an attorney now says he is likely to be acquitted.

The Poynter Institute said in an email to that it created the course "as a tool for journalists who want to be accurate in educating their audience about the religion and culture of Islam, Muslim communities in the U.S., and the distinctions between Islam as a political movement and the radical philosophies that inspire militant Islamists."

"We believe there is a need to better understand the complexities of Muslim societies and the online course offered by Poynter and Washington State University is a vital resource toward that end," the Poynter Institute said.

"The values underpinning the course are truth, accuracy, independence, fairness, minimizing harm and context -- the core journalistic values on which we build all our teaching here at Poynter."


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