Friday, December 30, 2011

Payroll Tax Cut and Stability of Social Security

Critics of the passage of the payroll tax exemption are arguing that it portends a dangerous new direction for the one basic safety net that most Americans agree on preserving. The new direction weakens the entire premise of the program. And, while I do not pay into Social Security, I understand and at least somewhat agree with the criticism. Certainly, this extension is weakening the overall funding of the program, and I was surprised to learn this is the first ever cut in the payroll tax. The idea of using such a cut as stimulus is dubious at best. The same goes for the seemingly unlimited extensions in unemployment. There has to be a point at which the government ceases to continually fund unemployment - especially because there is no legitimate means testing for this benefit. Ultimately, Americans need to commit to precision surgery to save the limb of the basics of a safety net.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Waiting for the Huntsman Surge

So, it's now official. With the quick rise and fall of the Ron Paul campaign, and the recent rise in the polls of Rick Santorum, every candidate on the official GOP stage has surged to the front with the exception of Jon Huntsman. What gives?

Why are GOP primary voters so completely opposed to, or uninterested in, a strong conservative governor from one of the most conservative states in the union. Is it really about his two years as an ambassador to China under the Obama administration? Would it be that petty?

It can't be that they find him boring or un-engaging because even Tim Pawlenty was topping the polls for a while.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Don't Know Much About ...

It never seems to amaze Americans that apparently none of them knows much about anything, and they are outraged as they point fingers ... or they just laughingly dismiss it because they don't really care. Whenever new polls reveal how little students are learning or how many college students need remediation or how few Americans are really informed on the pertinent issues in an election, there is brief coverage and even cries of doom and gloom. And then Americans go back to their daily lives because they know as much as they need to know to live the lives they are reasonably satisfied living.

However, we are a curious people. And we sometimes want to know what it is we need to know. And this phenomenon has been quite lucrative to some innovative writers and thinkers over the years. Most notable is a man named Kenneth C. Davis, who twenty years ago published a book called Don't Know Much about History which spent thirty-five weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. Davis - a man who never graduated college - had a knack for distilling the complex details of the nation's history down into digestible tidbits written in a clever voice that gave people the basic knowledge they might want to know about the Boston Tea Party or the New Deal or Brown vs the Board of Education.

Of course, some will criticize Davis as being a hack who dummies down true liberal arts knowledge. And, in many ways, he may be the pioneer of the "For Dummies" books. Years ago, I got into a small spat with a fellow teacher after my freshman students were complaining about the notoriously heavy and convoluted American history text they had to lug around. I grabbed Davis' book off the shelf and recommended the school switch its required text because Davis' book had "all they were going to remember anyway." Probably an imprudent choice of words.

Anyway, these days, Davis has built himself a nice cottage industry of "Don't Know Much About ..." books. And I wonder how history should judge his contribution.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Teacher Contracts and Hours

If you are a teacher, do you consider yourself an hourly employee?

Most, if not all, public school teachers are salaried employees. Thus, they are not punching a clock each day. However, teacher contracts inevitably make specific mention of "contract time," and many teachers - and teachers unions - are particularly sensitive to rigid guidelines about exactly when a teacher must be "at work." This situation is problematic at times, especially in terms of management and administration. Certainly, teachers should not be expected to work constantly and always be available to students. They shouldn't have to attend all events or be on call at home. At the same time, teachers need to be accessible to students for a reasonable time before and after school. And it really surprises me when teachers are gone from school within fifteen minutes of the bell. I've always been troubled by the issue of contract time, and the idea that teachers supposedly do a lot of work at home and therefore don't need to stay at school.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Separate but Equal In Colorado?

According to District Judge Sheila Rappaport, the formula for school funding in Colorado is inadequate and, subsequently, fails the state constitution's mandate to provide a "thorough and uniform system of free public schools." The story behind her ruling has been brewing for years after a group of parents from the San Luis Valley filed suit against the state for negligence in guaranteeing sufficient funding to all school districts in Colorado. Eventually, the suit grew with the help of education advocates to include all school districts in the state. Last week, Governor Hickenlooper said the state will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Certainly, this is a complex and convoluted issue, as the discrepancies between schools statewide and nationwide is not disputed. Even within districts, schools are often inconsistent in not only the delivery of education but also the results. Without doubt, more affluent suburban districts always outperform poorer, urban, and rural areas. However, there is no clear or easy answer to solving the inconsistent results. While Colorado must provide a "uniform system," there is no guarantee of specific classes or textbooks or set levels of funding or education levels of students, etc.

On a post-note: it seems interesting that Taylor Lobato, whose parents were the originators of the suit, is now a successful student at the University of Denver - one of the top two elite academic schools in Colorado. Clearly, the discrepancies in her high school education did not inhibit her ability to gain admission to a top college, nor did it inadequately prepare her to be successful at a top school.

So, where does that leave us?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Break Means Break

As a rule, I do not assign homework over fall, winter, or spring break. To do so would negate the very nature of the word "break." Certainly, I hope students will pick up a book or engage their minds critically during the week or two off. But to claim they will "lose it" if they don't "use it" during a holiday is ridiculous. And the idea of a major project such as a research paper during a break is simply wrong. I'm not grading papers during breaks - though I am an obsessive lesson planner, so I am always doing something work related. But the idea of kids handing me papers on the first day back is nauseating. We already live and work in a country where we are terrible about actually taking vacations and being off the clock. So let breaks be breaks.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Teacher Retirement

Public worker pensions are in trouble across the country - and there's little sympathy these days for people who generally have a better gig than Social Security. Of course, remember that public workers neither pay into nor receive Social Security, so their pension is all they have. And in many places the public pensions are written into the state constitutions, so the state is constitutionally mandated to pay, regardless of what revenues must be raised to do so. And that can be a recipe for fiscal disaster.

I tend to get into trouble with public workers when I argue that the retirement benefits for many are untenable for the future. Retiring at the age of 55 and drawing 80% of salary for thirty years is a hell of a deal for workers, but ultimately not a sound financial strategy for the whole system. Workers will claim they made a deal to accept lower wages in exchange for better benefits and earlier retirement. Somehow, I don't see that as the official statement on the contracts over the years, though workers have accepted it as gospel.

The reality now is that public workers are not necessarily accepting sub-market wages in exchange for a nice retirement deal. Certainly, statistics show higher wages in the private sector for comparable education and experience. But that's not really the point. There is no guarantee that all public workers would be making more if they hadn't "sacrificed the big bucks" for public service. And, wages they "could be making" are really beside the point.

The point is no retired teacher should be drawing a $150,000 a year in pension for thirty years.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

High Teacher Salaries in Illinois

A high school physical education teacher in the Chicago suburbs leads the news of shocking teacher salaries by pulling in a yearly salary of $203,154.

I know, I know. It baffles the mind.

The contentious issue of teacher salaries and benefits is always controversial, especially in the current economy with state budgets strained. As a teacher, I've never had any complaints with my salary and benefits, and people have long explained how they feel teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated. However, as the latest release from Bill Zettler at Champion News reveals, that is certainly not the case for teachers in many of the Chicago suburbs. Zettler's website,, has published Illinois teacher salaries for years with his agenda of being a taxpayer watchdog.

Certainly, this type of information is nearly indefensible. $200K for teaching PE? I don't care how long he's been working or how successful he is or how high the cost of living is. And, I am sure that he is doing more than teaching kids to play hockey with those pathetic plastic sticks. He's probably coaching and teaching summer school and chairing the phys ed dept. But there's simply no way to justify this to taxpayers ... or other teachers in Illinois. And, of course, Illinois's budget and pension system are absolutely busted at this point. So, the thought of this man retiring by the age of 57 and drawing a $150,000 yearly pension for twenty or thirty years is simply beyond the pale. The same goes for the thousands of other teachers in Chicagoland who are drawing upwards of $180K. Teaching simply shouldn't draw that kind of cash in a budget strapped state.

However, I take exception to Zettler's website which disingenuously fails to distinguish these salaries and districts from the majority of teachers in Illinois. I taught for years in southern Illinois and made nowhere near that money. In fact, the pay scale for Edwardsville School District, near St. Louis, starts teachers in the mid-thirties and tops out at $69K. That top only comes with a Master's degree, plus 32 graduate credit hours, and thirty years of service. Most teachers are not ever topping out in a places like that. And that pay scale is fairly average for the state of Illinois.

So, while ChampionsNews is right to spotlight the extremes of teacher pay in some Chicago suburbs, most teachers are not rolling in dough.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tebow - All He Does Is Win

At this point, there is no counter argument because all he does is win. Maybe the whole state of Colorado should go to church on Sunday.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Perception vs Reality

Isn't it strange that as of last June, the United States has become a net exporter of oil. We're exporting more oil than we import. Kind of challenges that idea of more drilling ending the country's dependence on foreign oil. Cause it doesn't stay here, regardless of what people want to think.

And, isn't it strange that the yen is so strong right now, yet Japan's debt has been downgraded for years, its economic growth is in its second decade of stagnation, and its top company Toyota is scaling back profit projections and production.

That's the essence of complex systems and public mis-perception.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pujols and Baseball's Financial Madness


OK, now that I got that out of my system, I can express my profound disappointment in the decision by Albert Pujols to leave the St. Louis Cardinals - the best baseball town and team in America and one that revere(d) him - for more money in California.

He is, no longer, Sir Albert.

Certainly, every man has the right and the free will to pursue the best financial deal available for his services. And Albert's services are definitely among the most valuable in the game for going on a decade now. However, in a place like St. Louis where legends like Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Ozzie Smith finished illustrious Hall of Fame careers, baseball is more than a paycheck. Loyalty is paramount in the town where baseball is religion.

Interestingly, I recently re-read Bob Costas' seminal baseball treatise Fair Ball: a Fan's Case for Baseball and it perfectly encapsulates the problems with baseball. They are pretty much all about money, greed, the bottom line, the players' union's myopic focus on salary, and the problems this creates for what was sport's purist game. That it is all about the paycheck and nothing more is disheartening, and many in St. Louis naively and foolishly believed Albert was above that. I don't wish him well - I don't wish him anything at all. His wishes have all come true - I'm just surprised his wishes are so devoid of emotion. So, we're left with the memories, and I'll simply conclude that Albert has, for me, left the game, and it wasn't really "for love of the game." Am I wrong? Am I jaded? Is this unfair? Whatever.

The statue of Stan Musial outside St. Louis' Busch Stadium is inscribed - Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight.

Stan "the Man" remains the only one.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Leno Promotes Welders

Jay Leno - car enthusiast - has a video promoting the career of welding as not only a lucrative and fulfilling job, but as the foundation of the country and our rich industrial history. When will school leaders and reformers do the same?