Sunday, September 30, 2012

New Contract Earns Chicago Schools 2nd Credit Downgrade – In One Quarter

Sound financial management clearly wasn’t a concern to any party involved in the recent contract negotiations in Chicago Public Schools.

They were warned that new labor expenses might result in a credit downgrade for the financially-strapped school district, and they chose to ignore it.

Now it has comes to pass. The credit rating agency Moody’s has downgraded the school district for the second time in one quarter.

Moody’s wrote:

“The negative outlook reflects the school district's budgeted depletion of reserves to fund ongoing operations in fiscal 2013; the moderate additional unbudgeted salary costs of labor contract negotiations, which have not yet been ratified by CTU; an estimated $1 billion budget deficit for fiscal 2014; and the sizable increase in pension contributions following a three-year relief period. Significant budget adjustments will be necessary, but the demonstrated power of collective bargaining suggests that future budget controls may be difficult for the district to implement.”

Chalk one up for the Chicago Teachers Union. It’s insistence on pressing for higher wages at a time when the district could not afford it has pushed CPS even closer to financial collapse. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel doesn’t deserve a pass. He didn’t have the guts to stand up to the union, and now schoolchildren and taxpayers will pay.

The downgrade will, of course, make it more expensive for the school district to borrow money, complicating an already messy financial situation.

As has previously stated, it’s baffling how a business-savvy Board of Education could seemingly check its brains at the negotiating room door. How could people who run successful multi-national corporations allow such poor management of taxpayer resources? “The negative outlook reflects our view that the district will be hard-pressed to make the budget adjustments necessary to close an estimated $1 billion budget gap for fiscal 2014. In particular, the duration of the recent CTU strike demonstrates that labor issues may continue to be a ratings factor,” Moody’s wrote.

A word to the wise in Illinois, and particularly Chicago: Look at your neighbors to the north in Wisconsin. They solved the collective bargaining problem, and their schools are getting by just fine.


Look Out For Eroding of Parental Authority

It’s been an eventful week at the intersection of parenting and politics, that busy corner where decision-making often is affected by the onslaught of traffic from social engineers, liberal educators, public health experts, and civil rights activists who know better than parents what’s best for their kids.

Several news stories seem to indicate that America’s moms and dads are losing ground in the effort to raise their children as they see fit. To wit:

In Rhode Island, the Cranston school district announced it was banning father-daughter and mother-son events because a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union indicated they violate state law. The civil rights group filed on behalf of a single mother who said her daughter suffered discrimination because she doesn’t have a daddy with whom she can attend the daddy-daughter dance.

“This is 2012 and [public schools] should not be in the business of fostering blatant gender stereotypes,” Steven Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU was reported to have said.

Take that, parents.

In nearby New York City, the public school system quietly launched a pilot program in 13 schools called CATCH, or Connecting Adolescents To Comprehensive Healthcare. This progressive health care initiative has schools distributing abortifacient drugs — also known as “morning-after pills” — along with the free condoms they already hand out to any student who wants them, no questions asked.

Parents learned of the program through a letter advising them they could opt their students out of the program. According to an article at, Deborah Kaplan, assistant commissioner at the city health department’s Bureau of Maternal, Infant and Reproductive Health, said, “We wanted to make sure young people who are sexually active have easy access to contraceptive services and general reproductive health services.”

This is because, Ms. Kaplan said, “In any given year, there are about 7,000 pregnancies to girls ages 15 to 17 in New York City, about 90 percent of those are unintended.”

Obviously, since NYPS is trying to solve such a serious problem, undermining the rights of parents to know about the prescriptions their children are taking is not relevant.

Meanwhile, in faraway La Porte, Texas, stay-at-home mom Tammy Cooper was arrested and held in jail for 18 hours overnight for neglectful parenting based on the complaint of a neighbor. Ms. Cooper’s children had been riding motorized scooters in front of their home (situated on a cul-de-sac). She claims to have been watching them from a lawn chair.

Charges against Ms. Cooper were dropped. Not surprisingly, she is suing the city’s police department, the arresting officers and her neighbor.

What do these seemingly unrelated stories have in common? If, like me, you read the news for evidence of eroding parental authority, quite a lot.

The rights of parents to engage in activities they choose for their children, such as a daddy-daughter dance, are under attack by the purveyors of politically correct social policy. Now, an ACLU lawyer is deciding what traditions — or as he calls them, “gender stereotypes” — may be permitted for other people’s children.

(Good luck to the parents who came together to ask the school board to recommend a change in state law that will allow a daddy-daughter dance exception to anti-discrimination statutes.)

The rights of parents to even know about the medical care being administered to their minor children are completely undone in New York and other states, where “reproductive rights” for teens and preteens now trump the rights of parents.

And that’s not to mention the rights of parents to impart their moral and religious values in raising their children, some of which would influence their decisions with respect to contraception and morning-after pills.

Heck, even the right of a mom to decide when and where it is safe for her children to play with certain toys is abridged in America in 2012.

Though, if anyone can stand up for her rights, I’d put my money on a Texas mom named Tammy.  You know what they say: “Don’t mess with Texas.”


History is about stories, not facts

The British PM failed David Letterman’s test, but facts alone are a fool’s way to learn our story

'So, Mr Cameron, where was Magna Carta signed?” There’s no doubt about it: David Letterman was trying to wrong-foot the Prime Minister when he asked this on live television. What the PM should have answered was: “At the bottom. Hah!”

But if someone asked you where the Magna Carta was signed, what would you say? Runnymede? Young readers who are familiar with my Horrible Histories series may come up with a different (and surprising) answer. We’ll come to that later.

First, it’s worth posing this question: what is the point of history tests? If education is about preparing us for “life”, then knowing that Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede doesn’t really pay the gas bill, does it? Knowing that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 doesn’t improve your parenting competence, your ability to cook, your proficiency in driving or any of the other essential skills you need to survive these days.

A Tory politician once snorted at me: “In history teaching, all that matters are facts, facts, facts.” He had no idea that he was echoing Charles Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” But Mr Gradgrind is a parody – an appalling, pompous and preposterous dimwit. And I’m afraid that Mr Tory Politician is a very senior one. This gentleman had been a minister for education at the time when the National Curriculum was evolving. Mr Gradgrind is a comical, fictional character; Mr Gradgrind in charge of our schools isn’t funny at all.

Newspapers, too, get hot under the collar about facts. “Only one 18-year-old in 10 can name a single Victorian prime minister,” railed one report recently, though it didn’t explain why knowing dead prime ministers matters. The story quoted an indignant Welsh professor, who blustered: “Levels of ignorance among the young are an outrage that should be intolerable.” He went on: “One student thought Martin Luther was an American civil rights leader!” (He was, but we’ll let that one pass.)

Now David Cameron has been sandbagged by a smug, devious US interviewer. “Who wrote Rule Britannia?” Do you know, and would it qualify you to run the country? I didn’t know till I read the answer. And I have instantly forgotten it. Does that earn me the derision heaped on the PM? He “suffers a history failure”, said one headline yesterday. A failure? He wasn’t even allowed to phone a friend.

I’m not offering Mr Cameron my sympathy – he is well paid to play the buffoon on American TV. The trouble is that the US public will tar you and me with the same brush. “Gee, those Limeys are so ignorant,” they’ll say. (I think they talk like that.) So thanks for nothing, Mr Cameron.

Apart from high-ranking politicians, who needs facts? History teachers today claim to teach “understanding” as well as facts, facts, facts. But understanding of “what”, exactly? When I trained as a professional actor my drama tutor had a mantra. He said: “The aim of drama is to answer one question, and one question alone: why do people behave the way they do?”

For “drama” read “history”. The joy of history is like the joy of reading fiction – stories about people. The way they behaved is a model of how we could behave now.

Here’s an example. At the moment I’m looking into the story of a man called Harry Watts from Sunderland – a forgotten hero who died 100 years ago. Last winter, a fire service crew refused to wade into an icy lake to reach a man because health and safety rules said that they shouldn’t if the water came over their knees.

Harry Watts rescued 40 people from drowning, by jumping into cold and filthy rivers around the world. If I walk by the River Wear tomorrow and see someone struggling in the water, where do I turn to decide what to do? The answer is history. What would Harry Watts have done? History provides role models and prompts the great question, “Who am I?”

Horrible Histories, meanwhile, show how real people behaved under trauma. So the reader can ask, “How would I behave?” and “Who am I?” in a different sense.

Who wrote Rule Britannia? Who cares? He’s dead and it’s a nasty, xenophobic, outdated rant anyway. (A bit like Star Spangled Banner, Mr Letterman. Remind me: who wrote that?)

So: where did King John sign the Magna Carta? Glad you asked. King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta. Historians say he probably couldn’t write – the idle bloke had clerks to do that sort of boring stuff. King John placed his seal on it. On behalf of my fellow immature Britons (my readers) can I just say, “Nurr-nurr, Mr Letterman”?


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