Saturday, April 18, 2009

To Slay a Hydra in Bridgeport: Teachers versus choice

“I perpetuate the creation of an underclass every day I open my classes up…” —Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch.

The monopoly on education held by public schools in Connecticut may be starting to crack. One brave mayor has decided to buck the hydra-like education establishment and advocate for school choice, risking his political skin on behalf of needy urban students. And if he succeeds, it may portend the beginning of the end of the union's stranglehold in the education community.

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch believes that the Connecticut Supreme Court will rule that Connecticut's schools are separate and unequal, that they discriminate against blacks and Puerto Ricans—and that the solution for this is school choice.

The Mayor shocked the education and political establishment of the state with his statements in favor of what is usually too often portrayed as a conservative issue. “I think we need public school choice in the cities,” Finch said. “I wasn't planning on this being my coming-out party, but I believe, certainly, in public school choice for all the troubled cities. We have to strengthen and increase our charters. We have to work with the private schools.”

Flying in the face of NEA-union dogma, the Mayor pointed out that the urban students could attend private schools for a “fraction” of the cost of sending them to public schools. He noted that the public schools are overcrowded, that the private schools are not, and that both would benefit from an arrangement if students had a choice to attend private or parochial schools.

Needless to say, Finch won't have an easy row to hoe. In Connecticut, public education advocates have dominated the state legislature for decades. To them, deeply in thrall to the NEA, school choice is an anathema, routinely condemned as a threat to the public education establishment. And, in fact, it is. But that is because public education, dominated by union dictates, invariably skyrockets the cost of education, while protecting inferior teachers, and lowering academic standards.

Mr. Finch has evidently caught on to the deterioration of the system. But he has an uphill battle. And he will need aid. The public teachers unions, with a boot on the throats of state legislatures across the country, have guaranteed tenure and other benefits that have produced a culture of “clock-watchers” wholly unaccountable for failing students. Moreover, they are a potent political force in state and local elections, and Mr. Finch will undoubtedly find himself in the crosshairs of the Connecticut education establishment. He may also find himself subject to a political challenge when he next comes up for election.

And what of the students and parents, who presently cannot afford private schools? At present, law does not permit them to dedicate the money they pay in taxes to private or parochial schools, whether through vouchers or tax credits. They therefore have no choice but to continue sending their kids to the failing public schools.

Mr. Finch is adamant about helping the students. And he believes the out-of-control costs of public education are to blame. “We're going to have to figure out, all together, how to work to fund this problem… I perpetuate the creation of an underclass every day I open my classes up because I can't catch up. I can't get my kids to catch up.” It is this that the Bridgeport Mayor views as the injustice. As well he should. But to help the children he must first slay the multi-headed hydra that is the NEA-union establishment.


Routine violence in British schools

Teachers in fear of violence ‘are paying for body armour’, vaccinations

Teachers in some special schools have been forced to have vaccinations before going into the classroom and to wear the kind of armguards used by police-dog trainers — both of which they had to pay for themselves — it was claimed yesterday. They are being bitten, kicked and punched daily and left with debilitating injuries, the NASUWT teaching union conference in Bournemouth was told.

Special schools, struggling to cope with restricted budgets, are refusing to provide staff with the right equipment or training. Teachers are asking their doctors for preventive injections against tetanus and hepatitis B, which have cost some up to £80.

More than 20,000 teachers and 30,000 support staff work at schools for children with behavioural or learning difficulties or at pupil referral units for children repeatedly excluded from mainstream schools.

The union voted to challenge the view of some parents and heads that being assaulted and being the subject of complaints and allegations was part of the job. It will now conduct research into assaults and abuse. Suzanne Nantcurvis, who proposed the motion, said: “I sat in the staff room of a special school listening to teachers nonchalantly talking about the number of times they had been assaulted, their daily experience of being kicked and bitten and their visits to the hospital outpatients department.” The most common forms of assault are punching, kicking and biting. Our members question the method of restraint in use because of its effectiveness, especially with older, bigger and stronger pupils.

“Access to training is needed each year. The training is expensive and, where budgets are cut to the bone, the costs may prohibit all members of staff from attending. “I know of members buying their own arm guards. Due to the nature of the assaults they face, often teachers in special schools have to have vaccines such as tetanus and hepatitis B. For some colleagues this has come at a personal cost of around £80.”

Mark Perry, a teacher from Flintshire, told delegates he had been bitten so hard that blood was drawn through his shirt. A pupil had scratched his face, leaving marks on his eyelids. “I have been punched and kicked on numerous occasions and suffered a flying kick from behind . . . which did lots of damage to my back.” Mr Perry said that he had also been subjected to false allegations, which caused harm, torture and pain.

Geoff Branner, of the union’s executive, said that one teacher he knew had her arm broken by a teenager who punched and kicked her; another had a student jump on her back, push her to the floor, put her in a headlock and punch her in the face. The first teacher said that she wanted the pupil reported to the police, but was told that the head was shocked by her response and believed that it was part of her job.


Louisiana State: A crooked university

LSU ouster of Ivor van Heerden removes most honest appraiser of city's levee failures

Ugly doesn't change, even when you see it coming. Neither does stupid. I'm talking about the decision by LSU to fire Ivor van Heerden, the head of the LSU Hurricane Center who earned world-wide renown for his work before and after Hurricane Katrina. This move had been rumored and threatened almost since van Heerden began his post-storm work, but it was no less repulsive for its inevitability.

As someone who covered that story, I always thought the state should be rewarding van Heerden, not chasing him away, because metro area residents -- indeed, citizens of any U.S. community currently relying on federal levees to keep them safe -- owe Van Heerden a huge debt.

Here's why. In the days immediately after Katrina, the world thought New Orleans had been ravaged by a huge storm simply too large for the high-tech flood protection system built at great cost by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And according to some members of Congress and many media commentators, that's just what we deserved for living here, below sea level. In fact, that was the official story being put out by the corps.

But about a week after the storm, as van Heerden and engineers on his staff began inspecting the deadly breaches in that system, the story began to change. They were expecting to see evidence of over-topping, signs Katrina was just too big for the system, the very scenario the center had predicted the day before the storm came ashore.

What they found was something else: Signs of catastrophic engineering failures. In other words, the floodwalls and levees failed not because they were too small, but because they had been either poorly designed, poorly built -- or both.

The world's media immediately gravitated to van Heerden not just because this was shocking news, but also because it came from a hurricane expert with a staff of geotechnical engineers qualified in the science of flood protection. And he was the only person from this area even talking about the issue.

Incredibly, the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans -- the two political entities most grievously damaged by the disaster -- showed no inclination to launch their own investigations. They were content to leave the examination of the tragedy to the same outfit that built the system in the first place: the Corps of Engineers.

Thankfully, van Heerden wouldn't let this happen. He put together a group of engineers and scientists from LSU and the private sector and convinced the state attorney general and the Department of Transportation and Development to give "Team Louisiana" official status.

You'd think the university would take pride in one of its own leading such important work. Just the opposite happened.

From the start, van Heerden was pressured by LSU administrators to go easy. At one point he was issued a gag order. It seemed the more problems Team Louisiana uncovered, the more intense the sniping from Baton Rouge.

Some of that was due to classic campus politics: jealousies, rivalries and professional disputes. Some of it was self-inflicted; even van Heerden's admirers admitted he could be difficult to work with, due to an often uncompromising style and a penchant for going public with results before final drafts were approved.

But van Heerden's real danger to LSU was his threat to funding. The federal government is the largest source of research funding for universities, and LSU was lining up tens of millions of dollars for coastal and wetlands work -- much of which might be partnered with the corps. Having one of its professors lobbing bombs at the feds made some at the university fear for the LSU pocketbook.

That's why members of Team Louisiana, as well as researchers from other universities, were warned to shut up or risk their careers. Fortunately for all of us they decided their ethics -- as professors, engineers and citizens -- compelled them to continue to work for the public good.

Anyone who thinks I'm overstating the case need only look at the Interagency Performance Review Task Force Report, the corps' official explanation of what happened during Katrina. After spending $20 million over eight months, the first page of the report states it found "no evidence of government or contractor negligence or malfeasance."

Please. How about ignoring information that the structures they were building were as much as two feet lower than claimed? Or skipping over alerts that its storm modeling was outdated? Or failing to inspect projects as required by law? Or a mandatory review process that was so sloppy, it missed obvious mistakes by subcontractors?

And how about this verdict: If the project has been built properly, some of the flooding would not have occurred, and much of the rest would have been reduced to the point of nuisance instead of disaster. That's just the start of a very long list.

Team Louisiana pointed the way to early exposure of these mistakes and many more. Van Heerden was the only Louisiana official to speak on the record, and loudly. If he hadn't persisted, who knows what the corps would have failed to find out, or how much more dangerous our lives would be today.

Now, rather than build on that very significant accomplishment, LSU has decided to clean out those who made it happens. That's ugly and stupid.


Update: Comment below received from a La resident:

This author just gets a lot of the levee issue just plain wrong:

1 No way Ven Heerden was original in his criticism. NOLA and other sources have been beating this drum for years - that there were serious design and maintenance issues.

2 Much of the "design flaws" were from many years ago, and local, state, and federal officials didn't fix the system for a number of reasons, including cost.

3 "Inside" sources tell me that Levee Board was much more guilty than th Corps - Federal money for maintainence was diverted to building roads and casinos.

4 Proposed project years ago for Category 4 protection was rejected because those with lakefront property didn't want their views obstructed by higher levees.

5 As I recall Van Heerden was a darling of the Press because he trashed the Corps - fitting in with the Left's trashing of everything Federal while Bush was President, and giving the mostly Democratic City and Governor a pass.

And this author is a part of the problem. Wanting to blame it all on the Corps.

No comments: