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7.7.05

With thinking like this, no wonder we educationally underachieve

Today’s letters page of The Times provides us an acute demonstration of why there’s a long way to go with education in this state.

On the learner side, there appears a letter complaining about price differentials between different areas. The writer wonders why a product costs 35 cents more here than there and seems unable to grasp the simplest principles of economics, complaining, “I just know it doesn't cost 35 cents per bottle to get the syrup from Dallas to here.”

Has this guy never heard of the fluid, dynamic nature of the free market, supply and demand setting prices, and the idea of competition? Casting aside the notion that it may actually cost that much to get a product from its presumed production point to its imagined distribution point, and also assuming he chose exactly the same retailer from which to buy the product, the absolute easy answer is that market conditions at this moment are much tighter for the product (not as much supply to meet demand) that they are here.

The uneducated would imply that there’s some price fixing going on but that so rarely happens in the real world (something about which a majority of our Louisiana Legislators are ignorant), especially in the hypercompetitive world of groceries, that it is incredibly farfetched to accept. If left to itself, the market does a superb job correctly pricing everything, contingent on the characteristics of the markets themselves. Yet this very basic fact of life seems to have eluded this correspondent, which, if he votes, in part explains why we keep getting so many Democrats, liberals, populists, and good-old-boys elected to office.

But it takes complicity to produce this lack of education, and another letter by (presumably) a teacher shows why we allow it to fester. This woman first argues that “Teachers are not opposed to high standards” and then goes on to show why in fact some are:

They are simply aware that requiring all students to reach the same standards, regardless of their abilities, is more harmful than many realize. Indeed, since schools now are being held accountable through a system of standardized testing, the immediate reaction is to provide these students who are in danger of not performing at the required level with a set of tools designed to help them pass the test.

In other words, we are teaching these students to become better test takers at the expense of meaningful educational experiences.

This remarkable misunderstanding of education is tragic coming from somebody seemingly involved in it. Simply, in today’s world of ever-increasing complexity and escalating demands in knowledge and skills, there is a basic level that students must have in order to have any but the slimmest hopes of just getting by in life. The accountability standards now enforced by the state, as acknowledged by experts, do an excellent, although perhaps not perfect, job of elevating students to this level.

This person, however, despairs that such basic knowledge (mind you the current passing grade on the LEAP tests is 40 out of 100) can be learned by all non-developmentally disabled children. Instead, apparently she would get rid of the tests and teach “meaningful educational experiences.” Now what could these be exactly, because whatever they are they sure won’t equip a child to exist in all but the most menial fashion in today’s world. I wouldn’t call that “meaningful.”

Of course, one might expect this illogic if you can’t even come up with an appropriate syllogism in the first place:

Imagine if Major League Baseball players would all be arbitrarily expected to hit 20 homeruns each season to be able to play the following season. This would not make a lot of sense because there is much more to baseball than hitting homeruns.

First of all, this comparison equates “testing” with “homers.” Obviously, in baseball the overall worth of a player is judged on many factors. But, as mentioned above, it is absurd to think that testing does not capture very well knowledge that students should have learned. In other words, no other indicators really are needed to capture the worth of a student’s knowledge.

Not only does she fail conceptually here, but empirically as well. Now, let’s see, at any given time there are 780 major leaguers on rosters, or about .00027 percent of the entire American population (and about a quarter of these players are not even Americans). Last year, one of several recent homer-happy years, 93 managed to get 20 – or about .00003 percent of all Americans.

Accountability standards are not asking that everybody perform in the top 99.99997 percent of their class. The better baseball analogy to be used would be everybody would be expected to participate in T-ball, and be able to hit one off the tee 4 times out of 10.

With attitudes like this among educators, again it is little wonder why we lag so far behind in quality of education.

6.7.05

Hightower ready to turn sludge into lead at our expense

Questions about Shreveport’s foray into the sludge and sod business have increased from just concerns about the connections that Mayor Keith Hightower has to the enterprise to include whether it represents another attempt for the city to get into a business costly both to its private and public sectors.

From the private sector, you have some operators in the business perturbed that the city has tried to enter this business. Government-run enterprises in almost all cases are exactly the opposite of what Hightower and too many politicians on both sides of the Red River believe and try to sell to the public: they are “lose-lose” operations which allow an inefficient, subsidized producer (government) to push out the more efficient producers (business), sapping both the economy and lifting money out of taxpayers wallets that could have gone to more helpful purposes.

But also some officials in government are rightly apprehensive of this project. City Councilman Thomas Carmody has it right when he questioned whether the marketplace for such a huge quantity (12-15 tons a day) exists and its financial impact to the city.

Part of the answer, the Hightower Administration admits, comes from the fact that the city was under the gun from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to stop producing such a volume by treating it differently. Apparently, entering into a 25-year contract at $2 million a year, minus any revenues made from the product (in the form of costs savings to the city in getting its own sod, $600-700,000 per year), was considered more cost effective than paying for waste treatment upgrades at $26 million.

Why is beyond me. Just do the math – at a net value of $1.3 million per year cost (assuming this stays the same), the contractor would have gotten in 20 years the same amount it would have cost to improve the facilities – and there were another five years left on the contract and the problem would not have had a permanent solution after it was ended, unlike with the facilities improvement option. And does anybody seriously think the city could have made anything but a pittance off the rest – just where’s the market for as much as 3,650,000 tons of sludge a year?

In other words, Hightower would rather shell out hundreds of million of dollars to build money-losing convention centers and hotels that probably will have a net harm on both private and public sector finances than pay a fraction of that to accomplish the unglamorous task of building infrastructure to have a cleaner city. It’s just another example that everything (stadium renovations and impacts on contractors, the Red River Entertainment District, the convention center and hotel, community development grants, etc.) the Hightower Administration seems to touch, as far as economic development goes, turns to lead.

5.7.05

Reducing public broadcasting subsidies will improve it

The federal government looks poised to cut subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I’ll believe it when I see it; the then-new Republican Congress in 1995, after saying the same thing, didn’t cut a cent. But a decade later, it’s an issue worth reviewing.

The amount being discussed, $100 million, sounds large but in fact represents only a little over 4 percent of the entire government corporation’s budget. Over 80 percent of its money comes from non-federal government sources. If we use a uniform cut of 4.33 percent, in practical terms for Louisiana that would mean about $138,000; uniformally across the state, for example, Shreveport would lose less than $7,000. In other words, it’s just not that much – one good pledge drive, even one generous gift, could make it all up, locally.

Of course, opponents have trotted out the well-worn playbook saying the cuts would impact the best-received, most popular programs. Right; I’d like to see station mangers cut these and then expect the pledge drives and business commitments (over 40 percent of total funding) to do as well. No, they are sensible folks, and, if any scaling back of programming occurs, it will be with the deadweight.

A good place to start would be opinion shows that consistently display a liberal bias. Finally running Bill Moyers into retirement is a great start, but more work can be done, as evidenced by the CPB’s own objectivity surveys (they are required to produce such reports annually). Over a fifth of consumers of its television (PBS) and radio (NPR) say there is a liberal bias (much smaller proportions chip in they actually think there’s a conservative bias – must be Howard Dean fans).

The CPB’s pollsters try to spin this argument by pointing out major news networks are seen by their respondents as even more liberally biased, so they argue their focus groups show:

There is a core segment of the population that will always contend that all news media is biased no matter what. In other words, many people are simply “jumping on the bandwagon” and saying PBS and/or NPR are biased only because they believe all news media are biased and they do not distinguish between specific news organizations and the news media in general.

Only in an era of grade inflation in education could somebody come up with such a backwards conclusion. If people “do not distinguish between specific news organizations and the news media in general,” then why is it that they do differentiate between the CPB and others by giving different very scores (one-third compared to one-fifth)? Doesn’t it make far more logical sense to say the people who say there is bias do so because it’s really there? What if they polled the public and found a third disliked Coke and while a fifth disliked Pepsi? Would it then be logical to conclude that at least 20 percent of the country dislikes all soft drinks?

Or an even easier solution is to just cut off all subsidies to Pacifica Radio stations. Much of what they broadcast is so horrendously slanted and contrafactual that it’s worthless yet $1.2 million a year has been going to this arm of the kook left (and now that it has Dead-Air America, why should taxpayers’ dollars support this lunacy?).

Don’t be fooled, with so many other greater priorities out there, as Congress has made clear, it’s about time to trim the fat from the CPB represented by its politically-biased content anyway. If the public really supports public broadcasting, no doubt it will step up during pledge time.

4.7.05

Confirming Blanco hypocrisy about teacher pay raises

Let me get this straight – a couple of months ago when Louisiana’s revenues got revised upwards, Gov. Kathleen Blanco argued that this one-time money should not be plowed into teachers’ pay raises and instead we needed to hike taxes on cigarettes to cover such an increase (later revised to we need to hike taxes on cigarettes to pay for health care but then some health care bucks would be shifted over to the raises)?

Now, speaking of another anticipated bonus coming down the line later in the year, Blanco is saying this extra money can be used for these raises. Help me out here, the reasons are the same potentially for the future as they were in May why there’s this “windfall” – higher-than-expected sales tax receipts but mostly oil revenues. So why then was this considered not applicable to recurring spending, but in a few months it will be?

Answer: because then there was a bloated budget out there to be passed, and Blanco did not want to give the impression that certain priorities needed to be shelved, some efficiencies could be wrung out of state government, or that the state did not need to reach deeper into the people’s pockets. Now that this budget awaits her signature, suddenly we hear no cautions about the Blanco Administration about spending this money on a recurring commitment; indeed, we get pledges that it will be.

What makes this hypocrisy almost comical is the intended beneficiaries, teachers who have yet to prove they’re worth what we pay them at current levels, are not enthused with this raise. “We’re concerned somewhat as to the specifics” says one union thug; another says they’ll be disappointed if it’s not meaningful as defined “at the beginning of the legislation [sic] session.”
Once again, the Blanco Administration demonstrates while it is not that serious about pay raises for teachers, it is serious about using teachers as political pawns to swipe more money from the people.