Monday, July 30, 2012

The Project School debacle

Posted By on Mon, Jul 30, 2012 at 3:00 PM


"Meet the new boss," The Who's Pete Townshend once sang. "Same as the old boss."

Those lines have been roiling through my head in the days since Mayor Greg Ballard announced he wanted to close The Project School, one of the city's charter schools.

The Project School has had more than its share of problems. Of its 311 K-8 students, only 28.9 percent passed the latest round of ISTEP tests — one of the poorest showings of any school in the state. Financial management has not been a strong point, either. According to media reports, The Project School is millions in debt; it is alleged to have improperly used $63,500 in federal grant money to cover salaries and operational expenses.

Although The Project School disputes the interpretation of some of these numbers, they remain serious issues; they demand scrutiny and open the school's administration to criticism. At the very least they raise questions about whether the school, under its present leadership, is sustainable.

But the mayor's decision to bring the hammer down on The Project School only weeks before the school year begins is just as questionable. It's an all-too familiar example of the reductive, authoritarian streak underlying the reform rhetoric put forward by such seemingly enlightened groups as The Mind Trust, the non-profit organization charged with improving the city's public schools.

If you've ever been the parent of a school-age kid in Indianapolis, you've heard this kind of talk so much it should make you want to reach for a hot-air sickness bag. That's because you've been told ad nauseum about the importance of school choice. And that's not all: You've also heard about how eager school principals and teachers are for you to be involved in your child's education. Your input and participation have been eagerly solicited to the point where it is strongly hinted that one measure of parental competence is based on the extent to which you are willing to lend a hand at school events and programs.

The problem is that, in too many cases, your ideas are the last thing school administrators want. Parental involvement is fine as long as you do whatever educators want you to do. But raise a question like, for example, why a high school kid with no demonstrable aptitude for math should be made to continue taking math courses when she might more successfully study other subjects and you hit a brick wall. You'll hear that the state has requirements and that those requirements are set in stone. It's your job to get with the program.

When NUVO decided to present a Cultural Vision Award to The Project School, we did it, in part, because of the stories we were told about parents who had seen their kids fail in one school after another. These kids had often been expelled from previous schools or had been held back from advancement. What these kids were learning was that they were losers who couldn't fit in. As far as these kids and their parents were concerned, schools — regardless of whether they were public or private — were not on their side.

And that's the way it is for a lot of kids in Indianapolis. Schools seem to be run for somebody else — politicians and business leaders, bureaucrats and policy wonks — kids and their parents are treated like so much raw material. The No. 1 lesson taught is learning to do what you're told.

The Project School, whatever its failings, has made no bones about being on the side of the kids who go there. Its stated commitment to "heart, mind and voice" has provided a sense of community for kids, enabling them to begin understanding themselves as participating citizens. Over the past four years, the school claims that only one student has been expelled, making The Project School the court of last resort for many desperate parents.

Under these circumstances, you would think that the mayor and his brain trust would welcome the existence of a truly alternative school — and would go about trying to save this singular example of school choice, not close it down.

Apparently school choice ain't all it's cracked up to be. Not when it comes to The Project School and not, for that matter, when it comes to those parents, at The Project School and elsewhere, who earlier this year began exploring the possibility of having their kids simply sit out the ISTEP test. They question the test's validity and the outsized importance state bureaucrats have attached to it, including the way test results can affect a school's very existence. The funny thing is it turns out the bosses at the State Department of Education are so used to having people do whatever they say, they haven't quite figured out how to respond to this exercise in passive resistance — yet another form of choice. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the mayor enlisted his former communications director Robert Vane and Angela Smith-Jones, an official with the city's Chamber of Commerce, to set up a "school enrollment fair" for potentially dispossessed Project School students. Of course, these kids and their parents thought they'd already made a good school choice. Too bad for them the boss thought otherwise.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Trash talking about Obama

Posted By on Mon, Jul 23, 2012 at 2:00 PM


When George Washington was just a lad — a teenager in the days before people used that term — he is said to have copied a list of 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." These rules date back to 1595, and were first compiled by French Jesuits. Among them: "Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present;" "Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile;" and "Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice, ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexterously upon it ..."

Today, many observers mourn what they consider the lack of civility in contemporary American life. Just when civility started going down our collective drain is difficult to pinpoint, although I would say I started noticing a marked turn toward the coarsening of public discourse during the 1980s, when the presidency of Ronald Reagan seemed to grant talk radio blowhards like Rush Limbaugh a newfound permission to babble on about grudges and resentments dating back to the New Deal.

This commercially profitable trash talking presented itself as a truth-telling counter-weight to what its practitioners liked to call "political correctness." Voices on the left eventually answered in kind and today's polarized political scene is the result.

Under these circumstances, civility is easy to mourn. But, given this country's investment in its rebellious roots, it is just as easy to mock. Civility, after all, is a benign form of hypocrisy, a pulled punch more akin to aristocratic decorum than telling it like it is. What we might lose in terms of our ability to transcend differences, we gain in the ability to express our true selves, regardless of what others might do, or who might be hurt.

No public figure has inspired as far-reaching an assault on civility as the sitting president of the United States, Barack Obama. This is ironic in that Obama made bipartisan cooperation one of his administration's priorities. As Ryan Lizza wrote in The New Yorker, Obama went so far as to meet with conservative pundits shortly after his election, displaying what turned out to be a misplaced confidence in his opposition's commitment to a civil political process.

But that's not all. From promoting a health-care-reform package espoused by conservative think tanks and test-driven by Republican governor and Obama's presidential opponent Mitt Romney, to the bailing out of Wall Street bankers, the aggressive use of drone weaponry and the expansion of domestic oil drilling — not to mention an unsettling willingness to use Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as bargaining chips in budget negotiations — Obama, like the previous Democrat president, Bill Clinton, has demonstrated a penchant for appropriating positions and policies with Republican pedigrees before Republicans themselves were awake enough to fully claim them.

Obama, it can be argued, has driven Republicans farther to the right in their increasingly manic effort to differentiate themselves from his center-right agenda. When people knock Republicans for their failure to come up with ideas of their own, this is why: Obama has beaten them to most of the practical stuff on their to-do list.

Just as Republicans, in their vexation over Clinton's hijacking ideas like NAFTA and the dismantling of financial regulations, turned his presidency into a running battle having to do with his hedonistic, 1960s-derived character, launching fishing expeditions over old real estate deals and a seemingly endless string of bimbo eruptions — so have they tried to make Obama's identity the primary issue of his presidency.

But this is where things get complicated, even for the most civility-challenged among us. That's because Obama is our first African-American president.

Many of us, myself included, considered Obama's election in 2008 a watershed moment in American history. A country that, at its founding, had an economy greatly dependent on African slave labor, allowed and enforced Jim Crow laws into the 1960s, and continued to wrestle with racial inequality, could still elect Barack Hussein Obama its president seemed on the verge of a new era.

But while our society's remaining sense of civility has made openly hateful rhetoric about African-American people taboo in supposedly polite society, deep anxiety and suspicion about race remain. Nothing chills some white people like the news that, according to the U.S. Census bureau, black, Hispanic, Asian and mixed-race births made up 50.4 percent of American babies born in the year ending July 2011. America the beautiful can no longer be confused with America the white.

While the remaining shreds of our civility are still enough to keep many of Obama's foes from openly attacking his race, these vestiges have not prevented a disgruntled chorus from questioning his national origin, his religion, or even the validity of his Harvard education. Unwilling to speak directly to the demographic inevitability they cannot bring themselves to accept, they cloak their latent racism in conspiracy theories and accusations that Obama is somehow other than the rest of us.

From the tone of the more rambunctious of these attacks, it seems Obama's haters would squash him like a deer tick if they could. The rest of us are watching, though — so far civility prevails.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Jim Irsay's blackout gambit

Posted By on Tue, Jul 17, 2012 at 4:00 AM

There's no such thing as bad publicity, as Keith Richards likes to say

"There's no such thing as bad publicity," Keith Richards likes to say. Colts owner Jim Irsay, who counts one of Richards' guitars among his prize possessions, appears to have taken these words to heart. How else to explain the ripple of offseason theater Irsay treated Colts Nation to last week when he had his minions announce the team would blackout local TV coverage of home games unless they are sold out.

The odds are, of course, that by the time you read this, Irsay's threat will have produced its intended result: The Colts will be able to boast a sold-out season for the debut of their new-look team — and its Golden Boy quarterback, the felicitously named Andrew Luck; Colts home games will be televised after all and an unearthly quiet will, like one of great grandma's quilts, settle over Indianapolis neighborhoods on autumn Sunday afternoons.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

For years the National Football League enforced a television blackout rule that was as nasty as it was wrong-headed. If the home team did not attract a sell-out crowd, its game would not be locally televised. This idea conformed to a rather dim form of business logic that made television broadcasts a kind of community reward for selling tickets. If sales fell short, the community was punished.

But as years went by and the NFL turned into the corporate juggernaut it is today, it became clear that the real money wasn't in ticket sales, but television rights. Colts games are generally the highest-rated shows in the Indianapolis market, which should come as no surprise since the average cost of an NFL ticket, at about $75, is the highest in professional team sports.

At 75 bucks a pop, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must have realized his sport was on the brink of losing its carefully honed image as a populist spectacle in which all classes of fans (at least those with plenty of disposable income), outlandishly bedecked in rigorously licensed merchandise, might come together in braying exultation.

The steady stream of stories about players suffering from debilitating concussion-related injuries must also have weighed on Goodell. Given what we're finding out about the long-term consequences of head injuries, even the most football-crazy fan would have to be, well, crazy to encourage his or her kid to have their formative bell rung in what we quaintly used to call a "pee-wee" league.

Rather than risk losing the next generation of fans for his sport, Goodell decided to act. He rescinded the NFL's blackout rule, allowing games to be locally telecast even if ticket sales were only 85 percent of capacity. In so doing, Goodell, whether he knew it or not, struck a blow for abundance over scarcity — the idea that a thing's value actually increases the more it is shared.

How else, for example, to account for the legions of middle-aged Cubs fans? Prior to the cable-TV era, local Chicago station WGN televised every Cubs home baseball game. The team was famously lousy, but by beaming its games into every home in Chicagoland, Cubs management succeeded in building a practically unprecedented loyalty among the team's fans.

Hence football fans across America applauded Goodell's decision to largely separate the sharing of NFL games from ticket sales. And, by extension, it was no surprise that Indianapolis fans cried foul when Irsay announced his team would ignore Goodell's new policy and blackout Colts games anyway.

Unless, that is, ticket sales picked up.

The Colts appeared to take the negative reaction to their sudden embrace of fiscal austerity in stride. They said showing the games on TV wouldn't be fair to their paying customers, and that playing in front of a less than full house could handicap the team's millionaire athletes.

You'd think Irsay had spent his spring break perusing the Classic Comics version of the Republican budget dreamt up by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The one that would cut taxes on the rich and give old people coupons instead of Medicare.

What Irsay seemed to forget was that without all of us tax-paying, TV-watching folks, his team wouldn't have the problem of selling those extra seats in that big new stadium. The whole idea of using public money to finance a private enterprise like pro sports is based on the premise that, somehow, a pro team can become a community resource, which means it belongs to us on some level, whether we can afford to buy tickets for the games or not.

But the idea of what's public has been given short shrift lately, especially among the corporate-political class that would dismantle public services as being too costly to support. In this context, Irsay's threat to pull the plug on Colts broadcasts hits Hoosiers, with our lower-than-average household incomes, not just in the pocketbook, but in what's left of our pride. As a gambit to goose sales it may work. It also, unfortunately, reminds Colts Nation where it really lives: under Mr. Irsay's thumb.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Our firecracker-free Fourth

Posted By on Mon, Jul 9, 2012 at 6:00 AM

We Americans are serious about our fun. Maybe this stems from that line about "the pursuit of happiness" Thomas Jefferson snuck into the Declaration of Independence. In any event, we treat fun as if it were a God-given right.

It's no wonder then that there were howls of frustration a couple of weeks back as first one Indiana town and then another decided to outlaw the use of personal fireworks around the annual celebration of the Fourth of July. Lighting up all manner of explosive things and making them go boom is a time-honored kind of fun for many of us. So much so that, with the help of the Indiana Fireworks Distributors Association, the state legislature passed a law in 2006 forbidding local government officials from banning the blasting of fireworks between June 29 and July 9.

That's another thing about fun: It creates all kinds of opportunities to make money, which come to think of it, may be the biggest fun of all.

But this year presented pyrotechnic lovers with a special case. Hardly a drop of rain fell throughout the month of June and the entire state was in some form of drought.

The effects of this dry spell are easy for anyone to see. The grass in our parks crackles underfoot like tinder. A gentle breeze is enough to break branches off a tree. Birds sit in whatever shade they can find with their beaks open, as if they're short of breath.

The news about wild fires spreading out west probably didn't help matters. Every day throughout the month of June, when people turned on their TV sets, they saw images of large tracts of land, including housing developments, going up in flames.

So officials in towns and cities throughout Indiana began having second thoughts about the wisdom of encouraging folks to buy and detonate explosive devices in such conditions. The state's fire departments are stressed as it is with property tax caps and other government-busting measures cutting into their budgets. As one fire marshal told The Indianapolis Star, he was already going to have his hands full responding to serious emergency calls over the holiday, without having to send a truck chasing after every fireworks-related incident.

At this point, the Indiana Fireworks Distributors Association could have demonstrated that they deserved the special attention legislators lavished on them in 2006. They could have taken one for the team and said they wanted to do their part to make sure a heat-stressed holiday didn't turn into a disaster.

This kind of response, of course, would have been startling. Many businesses — and not just fireworks businesses, either — have come to see themselves as standing somehow apart from the communities that support them. They talk about providing jobs but, just as often, fail to mention the fact that without the community and all it provides, including schools, infrastructure, and public safety, they would have nothing.

Instead of saying, "How can we help?" the association first accused communities choosing to forbid the use of personal fireworks of violating state law. Drought or no drought, the fireworks lobby threatened to sue.

Apparently, someone convinced the group that lawsuits are only fun for lawyers because they dropped the idea like a hot sparkler. Then somebody else had a notion that maybe taxpayers would reimburse fireworks sellers for their lost revenue - an idea that should be put in the "Doesn't Hurt to Ask" file and forgotten.

We'll never know how many accidents local governments prevented by overriding Indiana's fireworks-promoting law during this historic drought. Under the circumstances, it seemed a no-brainer. But without this government intervention, there is no reason to think that the businesses selling fireworks would have voluntarily done the sensible thing and encouraged their customers to find safer, more responsible ways of having fun over the Fourth of July holiday.

Sometimes good public policy is bad for one business or another. Sometimes it gets in the way of having fun. The fireworks episode underscores, on a micro level, larger issues facing us regarding climate change. Something is happening here: According to the July/August issue of the Sierra Club's magazine, this past March set more than 7,700 U.S. daily high-temperature records. More than 90 cities set monthly-high records. What's more, the 12-month period from May 2011 to April 2012 was the hottest in U.S. history. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are now 391 parts per million, or the highest in they've been in 800,000 years.

Arguing about who or what's causing this situation should, by now, be academic. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

Libertarians and those least inclined to favor government interventions should feel the greatest urgency about finding collective solutions. As our drought demonstrates, the more extreme our weather, the more likely we are to feel the intrusive hand of government, rationing water, fuel and other resources. The worst possible scenario will be to find our freedoms degraded because we fail to take responsibility for ourselves until crisis overtakes us. If this means finding some new ways of having fun, so be it. Doing what we've always done will be no fun at all.

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Justice and judicial restraint

Posted By on Mon, Jul 2, 2012 at 10:00 AM


Some people rise to an occasion

Some people rise to an occasion. Others are run over. Take Congressman Mike Pence, for example.

Upon learning the Supreme Court had voted to uphold Obamacare, the president's health care reform legislation, Pence fumed into a meeting with his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill and compared the high court's decision to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Now we know how Pence, the man who would be Indiana's next governor, handles pressure. He unleashes his inner 2-year-old.

John Roberts, on the other hand — the Chief Justice of that same Supreme Court and the man who cast the deciding vote in favor of Obamacare's constitutionality — put principle ahead of politics and, for the moment, reinvested our three-headed system of government with some sorely needed dignity.

Roberts, who grew up in Long Beach, Ind., along Lake Michigan, is a Republican, appointed by George W. Bush. Then Senator Barack Obama voted against Roberts' confirmation. Speculation had it that Roberts would be one of the justices who would find Obamacare unconstitutional.

Following court decisions awarding the presidency to George W. Bush after the 2000 election, and citizenship to corporations, skewing political campaigns in favor of the big and the rich — not to mention the public hobnobbing of justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas with highly partisan political cronies — there was concern the Supreme Court was becoming more legislative in its rulings than judicial.

But in voting to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Roberts lived up to the promise he made during his confirmation hearings: to serve as an umpire, calling the constitutional balls and strikes as best he saw them.

Roberts' vote is valuable for a number of reasons.

It is difficult to overstate how certain the so-called experts were that the court would overturn Obamacare. It seemed all anyone wanted to talk about in the days leading up to the decision was how the Obama Administration would deal with the blow the court seemed about to deliver. So sure were the media's talking heads about the outcome that CNN even got the news, when it came, wrong. It first announced the individual mandate had been voted down when, in fact, its rationale under the Constitution's Commerce Clause was what had been debunked.

In restoring an element of unpredictability to Supreme Court deliberations, Roberts has resuscitated the court's judicial credibility. If everyone believes they can read the court in advance, that means the court's interpretation of the Constitution is calcified. This may be how a judicial traffic cop like Antonin Scalia likes it — reducing principles to right and wrong, instead of the balls and strikes of Roberts. But this reduces the court to an ideological rubber stamp. Roberts' decision was a vote for judicial independence.

It was also a vote that recognized that the court exists — its Supreme appellation not withstanding — within a larger social context. Most of us will likely never know how Chief Justice Roberts feels about Obamacare. It's possible he can't stand it. But, in effect, Roberts' vote reminds a society that's ready to sue anyone and everyone for all kinds of slights, real and perceived, that just because you don't like a law doesn't mean that it's illegal.

The debate over health care reform was contentious, to say the least. The Obama administration did an awful job of explaining it. And Republicans weren't above lying about it in order to score political points in the 2010 elections. Remember Death Panels?

But health care reform is essential to assure the personal security of millions of Americans. Years of hoping the private sector would make health care accessible and affordable have only made matters worse. Government intervention was necessary and though Obamacare's impact remains to be seen — the law, after all, has yet to go into effect — it was voted in through the legislative process. The Roberts decision says, "You know what? The process was valid." If we are to be a country of laws, then it's time for everyone to suck it up and move on.

Perhaps the most welcome thing about the Roberts' decision was the way it calls Obamacare by its proper name: a form of taxation. It's a sad commentary, not only about our politics, but our collective citizenship, that Americans refuse to engage in constructive debate about the necessity of taxes and what we do with them. President Obama resorted to use of the word "mandate," a term derived from the insurance industry, because he said he could reform health care without a tax increase. This was dishonest, but probably necessary, given the public's refusal to face what it actually costs to have a First-World quality of life. It's a large part of why the creation of a single-payer system was never really up for discussion.

Chief Justice Roberts' decision will doubtless play a part in November's election. Republicans have vowed to repeal Obamacare, although they may reconsider this, since it will provide Democrats with fresh opportunities to explain the bill's virtues. The more people know about Obamacare, the more they may come to want it. Which, come to think of it, is rather like the lesson in cool-headed judicial restraint Roberts taught last week.

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