Saturday, January 31, 2004



The Utah Legislature protested the spread of federal intervention into public schools Thursday when its education committee voted unanimously to turn down $103 million in “No Child Left Behind” funding.

I guess they meant there’s at least one state in the union that will fight the nationalization of public schools, and “this is the place.”

Could Nebraska follow suit? Interesting question. I’d love to see it.

The bold move, which would return about one-third of Utah’s federal K-12 education receipts, is sure to have a ripple effect in states like Nebraska, which counts $108.2 million in NCLB funding among its total $278.3 million in federal K-12 money.

“No Child Left Behind” is the Bush administration’s continuation and expansion of the federal education programming begun under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and formerly called the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”

Besides NCLB, local schools receive federal funding for Title I programming directed at disadvantaged children, and for special education. All are only partial reimbursements for actual expenses, but schools increasingly say they can’t get along without federal money. Nationwide, federal funds make up about 7 percent of a typical school district’s revenues.

Education observers say NCLB deepens and widens the nationalization of American schools that was started as Goals 2000, originally under President Bush Sr., then President Clinton. It is characterized by standards and assessments in schools which are essentially the same nationwide. Since curriculum and assessments are aligned to the standards, it amounts to de factor standardization of schooling around the country.

The federal funding is the “carrot” intended to get compliance from revenue-happy lawmakers and educrats. The standards are generally understood to be minimums; in practice, observers say, they have “dumbed down” K-12 education and been counter-productive to academic excellence.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune (www.sltrib.com), the effort led by Rep. Margaret Dayton of Orem signaled that the issue was state’s rights. The lawmakers also were protesting the fact that even when you take millions to institute a federal education initiative like NCLB, you have to divert even more millions from other state and local projects in order to pay for everything that’s mandated, but not funded.

One of the Utah lawmakers called NCLB “the Federal Education Blackmail Act,” since local education authorities give up control over important areas such as choice of curriculum to the feds in exchange for the money.

The move is reminiscent of a few years ago, when education reformers cheered as former Gov. Fob James of Alabama turned down the federal education funding of Goals 2000. He said it was an attempted takeover by the federal government of the public schools, which under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution are supposed to remain under local and state control.

The Utah lawmakers pointed to a study from the Jordan school district that estimated that remediation expenses in that district alone, required by NCLB, would total $41.8 million; reducing class sizes to the 18 per teacher mandated by the federal law would cost another $31 million; hiring more qualified teachers’ aides would cost $28.4 million, and “other” expenses such as training and mentoring would total $51 million.

Meanwhile, Utah’s pupils are consistently ranked among the top in the nation on standardized tests.

Federal officials protested that the Jordan figures were inflated.

The Utah vote echoes similar measures under consideration in states including Virginia, New Hampshire and Hawaii to turn back the money and come out from under NCLB edicts.

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Friday, January 30, 2004



A study involving a University of Nebraska researcher should figure in Wedneday’s hearing on whether Nebraska should ban the vaccine additive thimerosol from childhood immunizations and other shots.

The study points to a suspected link between that mercury-containing substance, and developmental disabilities such as autism and attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder.

If it is true that childhood shots containing mercury have contributed to the skyrocketing increase of autism (cases in Nebraska zoomed from 4 to 481 in the past decade), a ban would make sense to protect children’s health.

But if it would also help prevent learning disabilities, it would help reduce the skyrocketing cost of educating children with environmentally-created disabilities such as autism and ADHD.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (www.ncld.org), learning disabilities in Nebraska rose by 21 percent in the 1990s alone, to 16,299 children in that educational category in the 1999-00 school year. Rising costs of special education are attributed for much of the rise in public education costs.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning has said he is looking in to the possibility of joining a class action suit by states against pharmaceutical companies to seek compensation for the extra expenses of educating children who might have been harmed by neurotoxins in vaccines.

He discussed the matter late last year with former Nebraskan Linda Weinmaster of Lawrence, Kan., a national leader in the fight against autism and thimerosol-containing vaccines.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee will hear evidence at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Room 1510 on LB 1158, introduced by Sen. Dave Landis, to prohibit the use of the mercury-containing additive in immunizations.

The research study included N.U. professor Ruma Banerjee among 12 researchers from such schools as Northeastern University, Tufts University and Johns Hopkins University. It was published in Molecular Psychiatry 2004 (http://www.nature.com/mp). The conclusion refers to the “methylation” that heavy metals such as mercury create in the brain, interfering with proper growth and development linked to such disorders as autism and ADHD. The link is not definitive, however, and researchers called for further study.

Dr. Banerjee’s fields include enzymology, homocysteine biology and human metabolic diseases. She was in India and wouldn’t return until mid-February, a call to her office revealed.

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Thursday, January 29, 2004


There are two ways that military people can help Nebraska's schools: first, stay here upon retirement, and second, take teaching jobs.

There's an effort in the Legislature to inspire more of the first with LB's 880 and 881, which were discussed yesterday in the Revenue Committee. And in Nebraska as in other states, there are efforts underway to create alternative certification avenues for military people to qualify for jobs in schools.

Right now, an estimated 70 percent of the people who retire from Offutt Air Force Base move to other states. High taxes, especially the state income tax, are most often cited as the reason they leave.

Since Nebraska's fiscal problem is lack of people to pay for government services, it makes sense to do whatever it takes to keep more people here. The proposed new laws would forgive state income taxes for retirees after age 60. It is seen as an attractive measure to keep higher-ranking and thus higher-income retirees in the state.

Forgiving income taxes on active-duty pay for younger Nebraskans in the military is seen as more of a patriotic move, in recognition of all that they do for the rest of us.

Secondly, when we talk about the breakdown of discipline in our schools, and the lack of focus on excellence and diligence, the answer seems to be staring us in the face: retired military personnel would be an awesome addition to any school lineup.

As for retiring in Nebraska, here's the thought: if Nebraska would join South Dakota, Wyoming and other states in forgiving retired military people their state income tax, they might stay here after serving at Offutt Air Force Base and enjoy ''The Good Life,'' because it would make more financial sense than it does now. If they stayed here, they would share their wealth with our state's schools in the form of local property taxes, sales taxes and other forms of revenue to state and local government – that would be lost if they moved away to retire.

The fiscal impact for Nebraska's schools would be huge.

Now, it has been computed that the immediate loss of revenue to the state if military income taxes were forgiven, both for retired and active-duty military personnel, as envisioned by LB's 880 and 881, would total about $14 million.

But the increased revenue from keeping more military retirees here would far more than offset that. Plus, it would be easier to get people to move here from Colorado to join the Space Command, for example, advocates say.

Here's hoping the Legislature will see the wisdom of the proposal by the Military Officers Association of America--Heartland Chapter of America and its chief, Rick Savage. He knows better than anybody how important it is to keep taxpayers in Nebraska, supporting our schools: he's a former member of the State Board of Education.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2004


Merging the public schools of the tiny towns west of Omaha, Valley and Waterloo, was a good idea 30 or 40 years ago. The kids who went to school there knew it. So did many of their parents and taxpayers. It seemed to have been the paid staff who dragged their feet. And it just never got done.

Now, according to an article this week in the Douglas County Post-Gazette, consolidation looks to be even more of a necessity through reduced state aid, budget woes and declining enrollment. The districts are sharing a superintendent, seen as an important step. But the two school boards in the neighboring towns are having trouble launching the merger.

In fact, the Waterloo Board of Education unexpectedly voted Jan. 15 to try a special election to ask taxpayers to override the state’s spending lid. Waterloo would be asking taxpayers to give them an extra 20 cents per $100 in assessed valuation over each of the next five years, to try to make it as a solo act. This, in a tight and tough farm economy, and Waterloo is already spending $9,400 per pupil per year.

Voters in Valley rejected a similar override bid last year, and that’s why the merger overtures were made to Waterloo to try to get some economies of scale and more reasonable class sizes, although it will mean loss of jobs for some.

It gets extra dicey since March 9 is the override vote, but April 15 is the contract cutoff date to let teachers know whether they still have their jobs. If the override fails, Waterloo’s school board will have to decide fast what to do. Meanwhile, temporarily rejected suitor Valley has a budget shortfall of $135,000 to $180,000 looming before property tax receipts arrive in April.

If there’s ever been a no-brainer in Nebraska school consolidations, it’d be Valley and Waterloo. The fact that they’re having trouble shows what an agonizing process it really is. Here’s hoping a smooth and successful solution is found soon.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2004


Here's advice from a talented teacher in the Midlands, seconding the motion (Jan. 26 GoBigEd) about getting rid of government-driven writing assessment programs and going back to what works: teacher-driven writing assessment. This would be an excellent message to share with your school board and the N.U. Board of Regents, the people responsible for what's being taught (and NOT taught) in University of Nebraska teacher education classes.

The teacher writes:

''Writing instruction in K-12 is flawed for one main reason, thanks to the instruction that many teachers received in college: it's dumbed down. In college, I was taught (or asked) to 'disregard' spelling and grammar in correcting student writing, mainly because it damaged self-esteem and
inhibited creativity. Teachers are encouraged to give assignments that lead to less work for the teacher. Assign group work, we're told. I just wonder: how do you practice writing skills by writing in a group?

''In my opinion, high school writing should be geared toward preparing kids for college. Spelling, grammar, organization, and word choice should count more than ever during the high school years. Unfortunately, I find that many English teachers are more excited to award points based on effort rather than the presentation of the finished product.

''When I went to college, I was shocked to find that many of the girls in my dorm were unable to write simple essays or research papers because they were never taught how in high school. What are these kids doing during the four years before college?

''Writing skill also need to be a focus in ALL classes, not just English. Sure, papers are assigned in other classes, but they're usually just counted as busy work or a participation grade. Seldom do non-English teachers grade down due to the organization, spelling, or grammar in a paper.

''I've been out of college for ten years, and I've been repeating the same complaint for ten years: education classes in college need to be less influenced by liberal politics. I spent more time in college writing 'feel good' reflection papers and not enough time actually learning how to teach.
I've heard this complaint from nearly all my colleagues. Low college standards lead to teachers having low expectations of their students because they actually think the self-esteem movement is a good thing.

''Not this teacher!''

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Monday, January 26, 2004


The State Department of Education is inviting applications to be a rater for the Statewide Writing Assessment in 2004. The scoring site and all scoring sessions will be held at ESU#3 in Omaha.

Dates for when this rating of student writing will take place: Grade 4: March 18-20; Grade 8: March 25-27; Grade 11: April 1-3.

If the process is anything like what is going on elsewhere in the country, you might be hearing GIANT SCRUBBING SOUNDS soon thereafter. It seems that today's world of statewide tests, publication of scores, attachment of merit pay to student scores, and confused scrutiny by the general public of these highly subjective ''assessments'' is leading to more and more C-H-E-A-T-I-N-G.

Not by the kids. By the educators.

It's just another reason we should scrap the statewide writing assessment process as being 'way too expensive and 'way too open to tweaking and subjectivity. What we have created doesn't help students become better writers; it cheats students and parents out of the excellence in writing development that our hard-earned tax dollars are supposed to be providing. Instead, the writing assessment is wide open to bureaucratic manipulation. It has become a game.

Here's why: the more subjective the type of assessment, the more wiggle room there is for subjective grading. When you are grading a piece of student writing, the scoring is extremely subjective in comparison to other kinds of tests. In addition, the results are not anywhere near as accurate and meaningful as what the general public expects in the way of a true measure of how well the kids are writing.

You can tell that's true by the fact that most Nebraska high-school kids score well on the statewide writing assessment but their college professors are up in arms over how lousy they write. Check it out. I've scored student writing, I've taught college-level writing, and I know. Hoo boy.

It seems the process goes like this: two different people ''rate'' the student's work. Their scores are averaged.

You'd think that'd be it; that'd be the score. But nooooo.

After the first go-round, those assessments that are just a few points below passing are set aside. Then they are gone over again. This is when the S-C-R-U-B-B-I-N-G (a.k.a. C-H-E-A-T-I-N-G) takes place. Educators go back over those and ''find'' more points. Voila! The student ''passes.''

I can't prove it's going on in Nebraska. But educators in other states have admitted that it's going on.

Scrub-a-dub-dub, eh? I'd say we need to throw this writing assessment boondoggle out with the bath water – and give those educators and bureaucrats who foisted this on us a business bath.

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Sunday, January 25, 2004


A Go Big Ed reader sent a copy of a full-page ad in the local daily newspaper. It was asking people to submit nominations for the $10,000 Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award. The award is supposed to go to Omaha Public Schools teachers who are ''talented,'' ''dedicated'' and ''special,'' and have contributed to what the ad claims are ''the best public schools in America.''

In the second to last paragraph, though, is this:

''And don’t worry about grammar and spelling – these letters won’t be graded.''

No need to worry about grammar and spelling, when it comes to deciding what it is that makes a teacher ''talented,'' ''dedicated'' and ''special.'' So even if former students have ATROCIOUS grammar and spelling, their teacher could still be ''talented,'' ''dedicated'' and ''special.'' Because grammar and spelling don't matter.

Whutevrr itt taeks to git that 10$ thouzin, I em all 4 itt.

Send comments and nominations (with correct grammar and spelling, though, please, OK?) to: The Buffett Foundation, 1430 Kiewit Plaza, Omaha, NE 68131.

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Saturday, January 24, 2004


Fremont Middle School is having a cross-dressing day as part of its “Spirit Week” next week. On Wednesday, the young adolescents are all supposed to come to school dressed as the opposite sex, kind of like the seamiest streets of New York and Los Angeles.

Right. And the superintendent will dress up that day as a pimp, and the school board will all be pedophiles . . . hate to think how they’re making the lunch ladies dress.

It’s especially disturbing since a young cross-dresser near Norfolk was murdered not too long ago.

Hate to pick on Fremont, since this sort of thing is going on in schools all over the place. A lot of the other things on their website look good: http://www.fpsweb.org

But as the culture defines deviancy down, educators sometimes get mixed up about the importance of teaching children what is deviant, what is normal, and what is excellent in the realm of human conduct. They also may be forgetting that taxpayers expect them to educate our children, not necessarily keep them entertained and amused 24 / 7.

Schools all over are making “Pajama Day,” “Hat Day” and now “Celebrating Sexual Deviancy Day” yet another distraction to learning. And yet they come to us time after time clamoring for more and more money . . . so they can waste more and more of our children’s time with stuff like this?

Here’s what I think the Fremont schools should do for “Spirit Week” next week. No dressing up. Just:

Monday: English Day
Tuesday: Math Day
Wednesday: Science Day
Thursday: History Day
Friday: Art and Music Day

Now, THAT’S the spirit of education we want to see.

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Friday, January 23, 2004


Events in Omaha bring up the need to review how schools are marking Martin Luther King Day. In at least this case, they seem to have been doing the exact opposite of what he stood for. Schools and the community might want to put heads together to come up with innovative ways to make the points we want to make with kids about racism, without some of the abuses of time, money and meaning that we see with MLK Day.

Here’s what happened:

Four students were punished for putting up 150 posters on classroom doors and lockers at Omaha Westside High School this week, urging teachers to vote for a boy named Trevor for the school’s annual Martin Luther King Day “Distinguished African-American Student Award.”

Trevor is white. But his family moved here from Johannesburg, South Africa, six years ago.

The students claimed to be making fun of the hypocrisy of Westside’s eight-year practice of giving the award strictly to a black senior.

There are fewer than 70 black students in Westside’s enrollment of over 1,800.

At any rate, Trevor was suspended for two days for hanging the posters. Two friends were disciplined and a fourth was punished for circulating a petition in their defense the next day.

It’s possible that the parents have a case for violations of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression, unless Trevor and his friends violated a school policy about having posters OK’ed in the office before they go up.

It’s just hoped that this won’t go on their permanent records since that would stain their reputations as “racists.”

I don’t think they are. I think they “get it” that the spirit of Martin Luther King Day is about unity, not making one’s skin color the reason for either discrimination or an award. I think they know there were plenty of whites in the civil rights movement who got in there and did something about racism, and still do today.

I think those students understand what Dr. King meant when he said:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

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Thursday, January 22, 2004


The only public school in Omaha with systematic, intensive, explicit phonics, plus a good math program, and the excellent Core Knowledge cultural literacy curriculum, is having an open house at 7 p.m. Monday.

It'd be a great place for parents of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds to come and see, and then compare with other public and private options when it comes time to start their child in school.

The Millard Core Academy is within Willa Cather Elementary School, 3030 S. 139th Plaza east of the Oak View Mall. For nine years, it has been an innovative and successful alternative offered by the Millard Public Schools. It's everything kids need to become excellent learners, and it doesn't cost Millard taxpayers a dime extra.

Right now, there are two classrooms available for K-5 pupils, but you have to be a Millard resident. Others can option in if there's space. But there usually isn't. There are waiting lists for every grade level except fifth grade, and word has it that a lot of teachers have their children enrolled there, or on the waiting lists.

Ask to speak to instructional facilitator Jean Howard and she'll roll out the red carpet.

Thanks to Ms. Howard and to Marty Stacy of KCRO for an informative show on Core Academy Thursday on the station, 660 AM.

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