Digging the dirt on DPS

Besides nannying, mowing the occasional lawn and the seemingly full-time job that basketball and soccer demand, neither of us had really had a “real” job until this summer when we worked for a prominent Denver businessman and private investor. While the majority of college students were basking in the freedom that comes with summer vacations, we were inside an office doing research on the Denver Public School system. Although at first, the topic seemed dull and as arid as the Colorado weather, after digging in, we both started to become emotionally enticed by the subject. Did you know that almost half of DPS students do NOT graduate?

This figure came as shocking to us; we both attended private, religiously affiliated schools and graduating was the only viable option for us. While both of us had been exposed to the occasional troublemaker-type drop-out or the befuddled kid who didn’t take enough P.E. credits, neither of us had any idea that the chance of a kid graduating from is really a coin-toss. We were even more discouraged when we found that Denver has one of the best big-city public school systems in the United States. What has gone wrong in the public school system?

The passionately compassionate businessman we worked for believes that outdated and politically corrupt teachers unions are the culprits; they prevent individual schools from having effective control over their staff, abdicate the power of the principal to make informed decisions for their school, and protect the jobs of impassionate, ineffective, and just plain bad teachers. We both have been blessed to have many inspiring, zealous and talented teachers, who are probably one of the biggest contributors (next to our parents and the fear of being grounded) to our academic achievements. Teachers can motivate and encourage their students towards success- both in and out of the classroom.

So why the shortage in good teachers, we ask? The teachers’ unions are run by and for the benefit of the teachers that are late in their careers. Accordingly, they are motivated to pay the new teachers as little as possible, allowing the older teachers to get paid more and vest in larger retirement benefits at the end of their careers. It is also almost impossible to fire a teacher after they receive tenure, which happens after three years on the job. As a result, less than 1% of teachers in DPS receive unsatisfactory ratings each year, and only a handful of DPS teachers have been terminated over the last several years. See data here.

However, the blame cannot be thrown entirely in the teachers unions’ or even the bad teachers’ corner; parents and family life play a big role in a student’s success. John and Rama Pfannenstein never missed a single parent-teacher conference in either daughter’s entire academic career. When in high school, they recalled that one teacher even commented that they didn’t need to be there; “its usually the parents who should come that don’t show up.” Maybe they only liked to hear all the good things about their bright and charming daughter (says Kari Ann tongue in cheek), but we think the real reason they attended 14 years worth of conferences is because they genuinely care and take interest in their children’s academic pursuits.

Opening the car door or walking in the kitchen every day after school and being pummeled by questions like, “how was school today?” or, “did you learn anything interesting?” is really just an excited attention and the recognition of the importance of an education; even though they were usually answered with a curt, “fine” or, “no, not really.”

Roommates Rally is the byline of Kari Ann Pfannenstein of Denver and Corinne Smith of Virginia, sophomores at Washington & Lee.

California needs leadership, not evasions

Typically in the wake of disasters there is a mess to clean up. California’s interminable budget crisis qualifies as an ongoing disaster. On the maxim that those who make messes should clean them up, the politicians in Sacramento have no business following up their failure to exercise budgetary discipline by throwing the alleged solution into the laps of voters in the May 19 special election. The package of propositions 1A through 1F imposes budgetary gimmicks, raises taxes, puts more money into education, borrows money from the lottery, transfers funds from some programs to fund others, and delays officials’ pay increases in order somehow to end the annual gap between expenditures and revenues. But it suffers from two major defects: it derives from the same politicians who largely got the State into its current fiscal mess and it attempts to make up for their lack of prudence with constitutional and statutory tinkering.

When public policy is bad, surely it should change. But the best way to ensure change is to change those who made the bad policy. What the Democrat-dominated State Legislature needs is tough love, not enabling. Therefore, voters should turn down all six propositions, whatever the specific merits of any of them.

The strongest proof of the questionable paternity of these "save the day" measures is the deception in the first and most critical of them: Proposition 1A. Its aims, as summarized by the Legislative analyst in the Voter Guide (pp. 10-15) are to

* increase the State’s "rainy day" fund from five to 12.5 percent of the General Fund;

* dedicate some annual deposits into that fund for future economic downturns and the rest to fund education, infrastructure and debt repayment, or for use in emergencies; and

* require additional revenues above historic trends to be deposited in the "rainy day" fund.

A careful reader might wonder just where the "additional revenues" will come from. No answer to this question can be found in the summary (or in that provided on the sample ballot, either), but near the bottom of page 10 we read: "If this measure is approved, several tax increases passed as part of the February 2009 budget package would be extended by one to two years. State revenues would increase by about $16 billion from 2010-11 to 2012-13."

At the bottom of the next page and following, voters are reminded that the sales tax was increased from eight to nine percent, the vehicle tax rate was raised from .65 percent to 1.15 percent of a vehicle’s value, and the personal income tax rate was raised by .25, ranging from increases of one to 10.3 percent, depending on income.

The political advertisements I have seen on television stations mention nothing whatever about this "additional revenue," speaking only in glittering generalities about how great it is that finally something is going to be done to restrain the politicians in Sacramento who got us into this mess.

Propositions 1A through 1C and IF are constitutional amendments and 1D and 1E are revised statutes. Once again, California’s already incredibly long Constitution is being burdened with still more specific provisions which are designed to particularize the judgments our elected officials make rather than holding them accountable to the voters for their decisions.

The massive defect of such a constitution is that it defies the efforts of all but the most sagacious and interested parties from understanding it and blurs the distinction between the supreme law, which establishes the government, and the statutes which are intended to be consistent with its limitations.

Thus, constitutionally, as well as fiscally, California's political leaders are attempting to fix bad or inadequate decisions of the past with decisions cut from the same cloth. Rather than exercising fiscal and budgetary prudence as a constitutional duty, they are lurching from one crisis to the next without owning up to the primary cause of the problem, which is themselves.

Denying the Legislature and the Governor the power once again to cobble together a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to put a brake on their own insatiable desires to tax, spend and elect will do far more to promote fiscal discipline than this clever package, which conceals the source of the problem.

Instead, we should look forward to the implementation of the redistricting plan Californians passed last November that will, for the first time in years, permit the design of state legislative districts with greater attention to geographic and demographic realities and less to assuring safe seats that keep incumbents in office. The real need is for open and competitive elections, not more evasions.

Teacher's Desk: Hurray for Rhee

Heckuva week with grades due, service learning for a day, new students, training, ACT planning, substitute plans, coffee with a school board member, and oh yeah, teaching. I had planned on attending the event with Michelle Rhee, Washington school superintendent, discussing her shakeup of DC public schools, but the weather and the end of Passover caught up with me and I missed it. However has great reporting, including a video, of the Rhee event as held at the Denver News Agency last Thursday. Ms. Rhee, a Teach for America alum with no previous superintendent experience, made four major points about her DC reforms that should be looked at here and replicated. First, develop a teacher evaluation process that is non-political and can be used for training, as well as, assessing. She is making the evaluation non-political by having content and grade specialists do the observations several times a year. Next, terminate ineffective principals and teachers. Then offer teachers two different tracks. One eliminates tenure, but increases pay to over $131,000 per year. The other keeps tenure, but offers less salary. Close down ineffective district and charter schools, and finally, place private schools in the mix.

Washington, D. C. schools are 50% district schools, 30% charter schools, and 20% of the student population attend private schools on a district scholarship, or voucher. (Obama and the Democratic Congress are terminating the latter option, unfortunately.) When a poor D.C. student and a poor New York City student begin kindergarten, they are equal in skills, but by fourth grade, the D.C. student is is four years below grade level while the New York City student is two. Ms. Rhee knew she needed to take radical action and did so, to the dismay of many, and appreciation from D. C. families attending public schools.

Jill Conrad, the at-large member on the Denver Public Schools Board, and I sat down for coffee one morning this past week and spoke to many of these issues prior to Ms. Rhee’s visit to Colorado. She told me there was a committee looking into how we observe and evaluate teachers. They were looking at changes to make the observation and evaluation fair and not political. She agreed with me that we should discover what makes great public schools good and what makes great charter schools good and replicate it! We also agreed it begins with great leaders. Michelle Rhee certainly appears to be one of those!

Kathleen Kullback is a licensed special educator with an M. A. in educational leadership and a former candidate for the State Board of Education.

How relevant are Tea Parties to GOP?

What next? The Tea Party movement is simply not going to be co-opted by the Republican Party. It's not a creation thereof, and it'ssimply not made for the kind of team politics required by any political party.

In order to benefit from the movement, the Republicans will have to earn their trust, and prove that they mean to live by what we say are our foundational principles - smaller government, lower taxes, more personal liberty. The Republicans can benefit from the movement, but they can neither control nor direct it.

In any event, the next elections are over 18 months away, the next nomination assemblies almost a year out. What can the movement accomplish in the meantime?

This is a movement tailor-made for the initiative process. To push initiatives that clarify for an intentionally myopic State Supreme Court that TABOR means what it says; that retain our control over an initiative process whose purpose is to rein in the legislature; that reassert our state's prerogatives as a sovereign entity, not merely an administrative district for the federal government.

This answer will make Republicans uncomfortable, since by definition, it doesn't involve getting them elected. But it does involve teaching these newly-created activists how to organize for action, getting them savvy about the political process, and creating results that will get them taken seriously by those who matter right now. It's a valuable tool in the maturation process of a movement that should be the party's natural allies in showing - again - that our ideas, when present free of personal political ambition,win.

It's one reason why the Democrats - even now - are plotting to make the initiative process, the one process in state government they don't control - subject to as much rule-bound litigation as possible. They are co-opting Republican goodwill in cleaning up potential fraud, spinning it as a mutual belief that the citizenry needs to be brought under control.

At the end of the day, Republicans have enough institutional staying-power to be there when the movement has matured. Libertarians are simply not going to get elected to anything, although libertarian-leaning Republicans can. The party may have to wait to reap the benefits of this movement, and certain team members may find themselves uncomfortable with certain agenda items they have to sign onto. News flash: not all Democrats are socialists, although that's the agenda of the party.

Too many Republican office-holders and office-seekers will be unhappy with this answer. But if the party tries and fails to control the movement, it will be seen as irrelevant and meddling. If it tries and succeeds, it will only strangle the baby in the cradle. Colorado has one of the most open and welcoming citizen initiative processes in the country, for the time being. Let's make the best use of it for our ideas, and if we deserve it, the elected offices and day-to-day governance will come our way.

What I saw at the big protest

Many folks in Denver are mad and appear not ready to accept our government as it currently stands. More than 5000 people made it a point to congregate at the state capitol under a sunny, warm sky at noon on Wednesday, TAX DAY. The most accurate statement that can be made about the rally is that: Once again, the people “get it,” but the politicians and the media, still do not get it. Let me make my point:

The people really do get it: There were signs all over the place decrying the rise of socialism, higher taxes ahead, government bailouts, the loss of economic freedom, etc. There was even a sign saying, “I left a socialist country for this?”

Most notably there were constant calls for Tax Ritter to show up. A mom likened herself to a rattlesnake that warns its prey before its deadly attack. Politicians take warning was her final statement. Another man told the crowd how “pissed off” he was. To make his point, he repeated his chant as he listed all the ills of our current government policies. He did this to repeated cheers from the crowd. Another speaker called for a third party, as he reminded us that both the Dems and the Repubs got us into this mess. I loved the guy that opined: Kick all the bastard out!!!

Now we get to the media. I’ve got to call out the Denver Daily News. The headline read: Tea-d off over illegals” by Peter Marcus. Wednesday April 15, 2009.

I called Mr. Marcus who told me he had no agenda by highlighting the Illegal issue. When I challenged him, he told me he mentioned the tax issues in the second paragraph and that showed he didn’t have an agenda. Folks, this is the problem with the media today. For someone to take that stand; shows either complete disregard for reality or an agenda. That agenda being, let’s highlight the Illegal Immigrant issue rather than the real tax issues.

It has also come to my attention that many of the major media outlets treated the Tea Party rallies with the same approach. That being: This is just another right wing attempt to rally the Republicans for the next election cycle.

The media's approach just makes my point: The media thinks it makes the news and they hate the fact that they are losing power over the people.