A Little Judgment, Please

The tale of Hunter Yelton is a small story about a small boy in a small town, but it may just teach us a large and important lesson about modern America.

Hunter is the six-year-old boy in a Colorado school district who had a crush on a girl and kissed her on the hand during class.  Their classmates reported it, and the school district determined that Hunter’s action constituted sexual harassment under the school district’s policy, which defines sexual harassment as any form of unwanted touching.  Hunter was suspended and the charge of sexual harassment went on his school record.

The word got out, and the reaction was swift and overwhelming.  People were outraged that a six-year-old boy could be accused of sexual harassment for a peck on the hand, and Hunter’s story became news throughout the country.  Now the school district has dropped the sexual harassment charge and has classified his behavior as “misconduct,” and Hunter is back in school.  He says he’ll try to be good.

The large lesson to be learned from this small incident is that judgment is needed — by the school district, by parents, and by the media.  The school district has a policy that defines sexual harassment so broadly that a six-year-old’s kiss on the hand apparently falls into the same category as a high school senior’s pawing of a freshman classmate.  Obviously, they aren’t the same thing, and school districts shouldn’t treat them as the same thing.  “Zero tolerance” policies can be a problem when they don’t permit teachers and principals to exercise judgment and distinguish between Hunter’s kiss of the hand and conduct that is much more serious and needs to be dealt with much more severely.

At the same time, a knee-jerk depiction of this incident as another ridiculous example of Big Brother run amok isn’t quite right, either.  The mother of the girl whose hand Hunter kissed has now been heard from, and she says that Hunter has tried to kiss the girl repeatedly without permission, and she has tried to teach her daughter how to respond when that happens.  She appreciates the school district acting to protect her daughter — and wouldn’t you feel the same way if it was your little girl?

The upshot of this story is that school districts should have rational policies that recognize distinctions in behavior, but also that discipline and order in the classroom is important.  When I was in grade school, pestering behavior would be treated by the wrongdoer standing in the corner and, if the misconduct didn’t stop, a trip to the principal’s office, a call to the parents of the misbehaving child, and a stern talk about proper conduct.  It seemed to work just fine back then.  Why shouldn’t it work now?

Having Class Outside

Today was a beautiful day in Ohio.  The sky was bright, the sun shone down with friendly rays, and it was unseasonably warm.  Looking longingly out the window from the conference room of an office building, I was reminded of grade school and those fabulous days when you convinced your teacher to hold class outside.

It usually happened on the first warm day of spring.  You would walk into your classroom through a landscape reeking of grass and growth, with flowers starting to bloom and birds chirping.  One of the kids in the class would raise the possibility with the teacher, and then other kids would join in.  Soon the pleas would build to a crescendo:  “Please, Miss Tibbles?  Please???  We promise we’ll be good!”  And then the teacher, who probably was dealing with a touch of spring fever herself, would relent, and we would go outside and sit on the asphalt of the playground to listen to the day’s lessons.  And, because we appreciated the gesture and didn’t want to get our nice teacher into trouble, we actually would try to be good.

I always had a soft spot for teachers who agreed to hold class outside.  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it showed some real flexibility — and real confidence in their ability to control their class.  And when it happened, it made those rare spring days that much more special.  Who doesn’t look back fondly on the days when they got to have class outside?

Issue 2 In Continental, Ohio

According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, Ohio’s Issue 2 — the issue that addresses collective bargaining and pension and health care benefits for public employees, among other matters — will get trounced at the polls.  Nevertheless, we are still getting blitzed by fliers and ads about Issue 2, so the campaigns apparently still think the outcome is in doubt.

One of the anti-Issue 2 mailings features a fresh-faced young teacher named Kyley Richardson of the Continental Local Schools.  She says “Issue 2 takes my voice out of my classroom.”   The mailing explains that “Issue 2 takes away the voice of teachers to negotiate for things that keep our students safe and successful — like smaller class sizes, up-to-date textbooks and safe classrooms.”  It also says that Issue 2 “could force teachers to do even more standardized testing” and “could mean more teacher layoffs.”

According to the school website, Ms. Richardson teaches Spanish at the Continental Middle School.  Continental is a small town in rural northwest Ohio.  Its website says it is a “very stable community” made up principally of farm families “with excellent work ethics.”  It has a population of about 1,100.  Given these circumstances, how often do you think Ms. Richardson, or any Continental teacher, has had to engage in hard-fought negotiations about class size or safe classrooms?  And if Issue 2 passed, do we really think that Ms. Richardson would be “silenced” — or do we think she could go to the next Board of Education meeting and they would listen respectfully to whatever she might say about “textbooks,” “standardized tests,” and “teacher layoffs”?

With all due respect, Ms. Richardson’s views about what Issue 2 “could” do don’t have a lot of credibility with me.  I remain convinced that most public employees oppose the measure because they know it will affect their pay and benefits, and not because of these other issues.  Why don’t they just come out and say it?

Knowing When To Get To The (Exclamation) Point

If, like me, you were schooled in the proper use of the written word by a stern, ruler-wielding English teacher who applied her red editing pen with liberal glee, it’s been a tough few years.

The advent of email and texting and Twitter have stretched the old rules for written communications past the breaking point.  If my old teachers read some of what passes for writing on those new media, they would loosen their hair buns, put their heads down on their well-worn copies of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, and weep bitter tears.

Consider the exclamation point.  We were taught that the exclamation point was a form of punctuation to be used rarely, if at all.  It might, potentially, be useful to highlight an expression of surprise or a forceful statement, but mostly it was dismissed as a crutch for a poor writer who couldn’t drum up excitement with the story itself.  When I got to journalism school, our acerbic, chain-smoking faculty advisor instructed that exclamation points were never used in a news story.

But now, exclamation points are ridiculously common.  If you look at your recently received texts or emails, you’ll likely see dozens of exclamation points — sometimes even double or triple exclamation points (as well as emoticons, made-up-on-the-spot abbreviations, and other recent linguistic developments).  In fact, at times not using an exclamation point can be interpreted as rude or sarcastic.  You can’t just say “Thanks.”  It has to be “Thanks!” or maybe even “Thanks!!” — or you’re viewed as a surly jerk who isn’t sufficiently appreciative.

For a guy in his 50s, the trick is to avoid sounding like an over-excited teenager (“OMG!!!!”) while at the same time not inadvertently giving offense because you adhere to outdated strictures that used to govern the King’s English.  Where’s the rulebook?  For now, I’ll loosen my use of the exclamation point — but I’m drawing the line at emoticons or substituting numbers or single letters for words!

No Teacher Left Behind

President Obama was in Columbus recently to tout his “jobs bill,” which would spend large amounts of federal money for teacher jobs and school building repairs.  According to the United Federation of Teachers — which, not surprisingly, supports the idea — the President’s proposal would spend $35 billion to preserve teacher jobs and another $25 billion fixing schools.

Why is it always teachers who benefit from these bills?  A lot of lawyers have lost their jobs recently — how about a costly federal program to spur the hiring of more briefcase-totin’, lawbook-quotin’ attorneys, so they can realize the American Dream?  Journalists also could use a hand.  Many newspapers have gone under or radically cut their staffs because nobody reads news the old-fashioned way anymore.  Or what about accountants?  Sure, they’re boring, and perhaps the recession just served as an excuse for companies to unload deadly dull bean-counters because nobody could stand to share a table with them in the cafeteria, but they could use our help, too.  So could insurance salesmen, and tugboat operators, and lumberjacks, and milkmen.

Perhaps President Obama justs walks into the West Wing every morning whistling Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.  Or maybe he’s heard the taunt about teachers that goes “those who can’t do, teach” and believes that our erstwhile educators won’t be able to find work if they lose their teaching gig.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like teachers — but there’s no reason why they should be favored over everybody else.  What about stimulus spending and jobs bills for every profession, craft, and trade?  It’s become the American Way!

When Teachers Cheat

From Atlanta comes a deeply disturbing story about a massive cheating scandal to achieve higher scores on standardized tests.  In this instance, however, the cheaters weren’t students — they were teachers, principals, and administrators.

In Georgia, as in many other states, student and teacher performance is measured by scores on a standardized test.  In this instance, the test is called the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.  In recent years, Atlanta schools reported increases in scores on the test, winning accolades for the Atlanta school district and its superintendent, who was named “U.S. Superintendent of the Year” in 2009.  Now investigators have unearthed evidence of a massive conspiracy in which teachers, principals, and administrators not only changed answers to achieve better scores, but also worked actively to cover up the cheating.  The report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation names 178 teachers and administrators who participated — 82 of whom have confessed to their misdeeds — in a scandal that took place at 44 different schools.

According to the Christian Science Monitor article linked above, reports of teacher cheating have been increasingly commonplace across America.  Atlanta’s scholastic scandal is just the largest example of a growing problem.  Educational advocates say the reports show that standardized testing is not a panacea, because tying school district funding and individual teacher compensation to higher scores just provides an incentive to cheat.  So, they recommend that school districts implement much more involved auditing of the completed standardized tests.

The Atlanta scandal is a black eye for the many dedicated and selfless teachers in America, and it raises a very basic, troubling question for public school parents across the country:  What kind of people are teaching my kids?

Protest, And Response, In Wisconsin

We are learning a lot about a changing America, and a changing political landscape, from watching the ongoing story in Wisconsin about legislation that would affect collective bargaining rules for public employees.  The story began with public employee unions flexing their muscle.  They prevailed upon their members — many of whom apparently called in “sick” — to flood the state capitol in protest.  They also prevailed upon Democratic state senators to flee the state and bring the legislative process to a halt due to lack of a quorum.

But then something surprising happened.  Yesterday, a counter-demonstration occurred, as thousands of “Tea Party” activists and other citizens came to the state capitol to support Wisconsin’s Republican Governor in his budget-cutting efforts.  In all, police estimated that 68,000 people came to the state capitol to either support or oppose the collective bargaining bill, and they did so peacefully.  Even more interesting, police report that there were heated arguments between the opposing sides, but no violence.

It is not surprising that teachers and public employees would turn out to protest; their pay and benefits will be directly affected by the outcome.  What I think is extraordinary, however, is that thousands of citizens whose interests are not directly affected were motivated to spend a Saturday outside, advocating in support of the budget-cutting efforts of Wisconsin’s governor.  It says a lot about the deep level of alarm about out-of-control spending that thousands of people would spend their precious weekend hours at a counter-protest.  Wisconsin’s governor, and his Republican allies in the state legislature, must have been encouraged by the strong show of support — which probably is the tip of a much larger iceberg.

It also says something that thousands of people could turn out to support competing sides of a hotly debated issue without violence.  The teachers, public employees, and citizens who went to the state capitol to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly look a lot more adult than the Wisconsin Democratic Senators who turned tail and ran out of state rather than participate in the political process as they were elected to do.

The Bloom On The Education Rose

In Ohio, at least, a common charge by Democratic candidates is that their Republican opponents would cut spending on education, resulting in the layoff of thousands of teachers.  Governor Strickland’s supporters have made such arguments about John Kasich, and similar charges have been made against the Republican candidate for the Ohio House District that includes New Albany.  I expect that, at some point, focus group testing indicated that, if you wanted to oppose spending cuts, a safe way to do so was to claim that the cuts would hurt teachers and education.

I wonder whether that perception still holds true.  We know that teachers are highly unionized and very active politically.  We know that, at least in some areas, teachers receive subsidized health care benefits and pension benefits far beyond what is available to most employees in the private sector.  We know that, for the most part, adding more teachers apparently hasn’t resulted in any meaningful improvement in how the children who are the product of public schools perform in science and math.  We have heard about incompetent and disinterested teachers, and we’ve read about the so-called “rubber rooms” in New York City where teachers who have been accused of misconduct draw paychecks while doing nothing.  (More recently, the bad publicity about the “rubber rooms” has caused the teachers to be assigned to menial clerical work, for which they will nevertheless be paid their full salaries.)

I wonder whether these kinds of stories, coupled with the crushing budget deficits that are looming in Ohio and many other states, have taken a bit of the bloom off the education rose.  When significant cuts must be made to bring the state budget into balance, why shouldn’t education and teacher positions be on the table just like every other budget item?  And given the oppressive budget reality, is it really advisable to elect candidates who are so beholden to teachers’ unions that they won’t even consider such cuts?

 

 

Our Apple-Polishing Congress And President

On Friday the Washington Post carried a good editorial about the latest “stimulus” bill to wend its way through Congress.  This one allocates $10 billion to avoid teacher layoffs.  The “stimulus” argument, of course, is that the teachers who would otherwise be laid off will now have money to spend, and their spending will stimulate the economy.  That bogus argument has already been disproved by the utter failure of the earlier, larger stimulus to deliver the job creation that was promised.  What’s more, that argument could be used to justify subsidizing every industry facing layoffs and using federal dollars to prop up every job.  Has our country’s economic policy really reached that point?

The Post clearly is correct in characterizing this latest stimulus bill as a sop to teachers unions.  The President and congressional Democrats want to leave a big polished apple on the teacher’s desk — and they hope to get campaign cash and votes in return.

The eye-popping statistic in the editorial is that, in the last school year, more than five percent of the funding for primary and secondary education jobs came from the federal government.  The threshold question that people should be asking is:  why is the federal government involved in funding local education in the first place?  Education historically has been, and should remain, a local issue decided by the voters in municipalities and states.  We should not be using federal dollars to prop up school districts that are overstaffed or underfunded due to the choices of the local voters in those districts.

No one wants to see anyone laid off, but it happens in every industry.  Education should not be immune.  Indeed, given the stories about teachers twiddling their thumbs in “rubber rooms” while drawing full paychecks, it seems likely that school districts have room to make cuts.  If school administrators have to make tough choices because that is what local voters have decided, then they should make those tough decisions — without a toadying Congress throwing money their way.

Let “Cuts” Be Cuts

How often have we seen this kind of story?  Congress needs to pass an important measure by a deadline.  As it becomes clear that the bill will pass, somehow, new provisions, unrelated to the purpose of the original bill, get added in hopes that they also can ride the train to enactment.  And when the additions involve new spending, as they often do, and deficit hawks insist that the new spending be paid for by offsetting “cuts,” Congress somehow finds precisely the amount of “cuts” that are necessary to make up the difference.

So it is with an Afghan war spending bill now working its way through Congress.  Democrats in the House have added $10 billion in new spending to help local school districts avoid teacher layoffs.  According to the linked article, the $10 billion would be “funded” through multiple “cuts” in prior spending bills, including last year’s dismally unsuccessful “stimulus” bill.  Other “cuts” would come from defense spending, community development, and rural internet projects.

As a matter of policy, I don’t think the federal government should concern itself with local teacher layoffs.  Those matters should be reserved for local government entities, which are best positioned to decide whether to seek additional tax revenues and, if such efforts fail, to make judgments on how to respond in accordance with their budgets.  Teacher layoffs are not necessarily a bad thing, particularly in districts where the growth in teacher hiring has been disproportionate to the growth in student population, and are certainly not a matter of federal concern.

More fundamentally, I’d like to see the $10 billion in “cuts” that would “finance” the new spending under this proposal be implemented as real cuts.  If there is $10 billion in savings to be had, let’s just actually save that money, rather than dreaming up new ways to spend it.

R.I.P., Professor Ginsburg

I was very saddened to learn today of the death of Professor Martin Ginsburg, an extraordinary teacher and intellect.  For many years Professor Ginsburg taught Tax Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, and I was privileged to learn from him.  I took my first tax law course from him not because I had any interest at all in tax law, but because other students said his course was not to be missed — and they were right.  Having Professor Ginsburg teach you tax law was like having Michelangelo teach you painting.

Professor Ginsburg’s standard question to his students began “If you were king . . . .”  He emphasized that the federal tax code simply represented a series of policy judgments.  He taught us the existing laws on things like the “hobby loss” and “like kind exchange” provisions of the Code, of course, but also urged us to go beyond the bare language of the federal tax laws to consider the broader social engineering issues lurking underneath.  At some point in the past, Members of Congress had made the policy judgments that led to the Code in its current form — but were they wise judgments?  If we were king, would we have done it differently, or at all?

Professor Ginsburg’s keen sense of humor, enthusiasm, and obvious love for the subject matter made what could have been a dusty or rote learning exercise into something that was enormously stimulating and satisfying.  Although he was a giant intellect in the field, he was neither arrogant nor aloof, and he seemed genuinely interested in what his students had to say.  He was one of those rare teachers who could have taught anything and made it a memorable experience.  He will be sorely missed.