Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tax Rates

Not to be overly political, but ...

I do not agree with lower tax rates for dividends and capital gains. My feeling as a voter and a citizen is that it is all income, and it should be taxed as such. And, of course, while there is a ceiling for tax rates, there is also a floor.

Thus, rates of 10/20/30% with fewer exemptions in the top rate ought to do it. The lowest rate should begin above the poverty level, and exemptions should be greatest at the lowest level. Of course, that would give some people lower rates on dividends/cap gains, while it would not discourage investment at any level. Additionally, the cap on FICA should be lifted to $250K, and both Social Security and, especially, Medicare should be means tested in terms of payout.

That should about do it. And, I can't imagine the arguments against it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Open Enrollment in Colorado

Apparently, this week was National School Choice Week. In Colorado, this was celebrated and promoted in Castle Rock with the "Restoring American Exceptionalism" event put on by Hugh Hewitt and featuring consultant Dick Morris.

Reports from the event revealed the presentations to be a not remotely subtle attack on teacher's unions and public education in general. That's not surprising considering the location. Castle Rock is in Douglas County, one of the most affluent and conservative parts of the country, as well as the location of school board approved private school voucher program that was halted at the start of this year by the courts. Strangely, the event was introduced as "not a political evening" because it was simply about parents being able to make the best choice for their kids.

Well, clearly, a call to weaken teacher associations and provide vouchers to allocate public funds to private religious schools is, in fact, a political evening. But that's OK. School choice is an issue that is timely and important and must be resolved in a prudent and effective manner. And that process is clearly in place in Colorado.

The prudent answer is, obviously, open enrollment policies as a state law.

In Colorado, a student is allowed to enroll in any school he wants as long as seats are available. This condition has been key in the rise of charter schools in the state, and made it a pioneer in charter and magnet education. The caveats are that the school must be "open," as in not at capacity for seating and staff, and if the school is outside the kid's "home school" he is responsible for transportation. There are some hurdles, bussing being a big one. In urban areas, students have a lot of access to public transportation. In rural areas, not so much. And, of course, Colorado's budget is strained and public transportation is taking a hit.

Additionally, some of the top schools are "closed," meaning their neighborhood constituents already take up the seats. My school - Cherry Creek High School - is one of the top schools in the state, and it's located in a rather affluent area. However, at 3600 kids, it's at capacity, and students are not allowed to "choice in." That's a condition that is troubling for some.

Ultimately, though, open enrollment is the perfect compromise solution for school choice advocates and public school defenders. It allows for freedom while maintaining a core of neighborhood schools and seeking to improve them. My long-standing opinion of education reform is that our policies should be "whatever works."

And open enrollment works.

Monday, January 23, 2012

University of Colorado a Great Investment

(NOTE - the following is a reprint from my Greenwood Village blog)

The University of Colorado's men's basketball team weren't the only ones playing strong defense this weekend - though their battle with the Arizona Wildcats was exciting and memorable. The other strong Buffs defensive move came this weekend on the Denver Post op-ed page, as university president Bruce Benson offered a well-argued public relations piece identifying the CU-Boulder school as "a model of efficiency." His thesis was intended to and should encourage Colorado voters to support their state university - and yes that means financially.

Some Coloradans who seem to think they are living in tax-heavy Sweden should be enlightened to learn that only 5% of CU's budget comes from the state. However there is a downside that must be mentioned:

Over the past two decades, [students] have had to pay a greater share of the cost of a college education. State funding used to pay about two-thirds of the cost; now tuition accounts for two-thirds. Colorado ranks 48th nationally in state funding per resident student. Still, CU produces the most degrees for the lowest amount of state funding per degree. CU's administrative costs are 44 percent below those of our national peers. With minimal state investment, CU provides the highly educated workforce crucial to Colorado's economic success, competitiveness and quality of life.

Clearly, CU-Boulder is a first-class academic institution that should be the pride of the state. However, it is struggling to get by as state support for higher education is further strangled by the economy and some harsh and narrow-minded ideology. Each year, I encourage students to consider becoming a CU Buff and supporting this fine institution. However, rising tuition is putting that out of the reach of more students. Colorado needs to reverse that trend.

Go Buffs.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Start Later to Ensure Educational Progress

My high school begins at 7:10 a.m.

Yes, that is incredibly early.

When I was in high school, we started at 8:00 and let out about 3:15. When I first started teaching, the school started at 7:50. My second teaching job was at a school which began at 7:35. I thought that was as early as it could - or should - get. Then I moved to Colorado and discovered the school day began at 7:20. I was shocked, but I got used to it. Then several years ago, the recession led to serious budget crunches, and in a move to cut funds, but keep cuts out of the classroom, the district manipulated bus schedules to save cash ... and shifted the start time to 7:10. And, that, in my opinion, is just crazy. And nothing good comes from it. We let out at 2:50 everyday.

Nothing in education research supports earlier start times - especially for high school students. And, yet we persist. I would prefer and have even promoted an 8 - 4 schedule. In fact, I'd like to see an 8 or 9 to 4:30 or 5:00. And while people protest about the impact on sports and activities, I'd argue that we could and should move many practices to before school. Let the football team practice from 7:00 - 9:00, and then start school. That way, after kids are done at 4:30 or 5:00, they are literally "done." It would promote a return to home life and I truly believe ease a lot of pressure on kids.

In response to my rants about this at school, one of my seniors in Intro to College Comp, wrote a research paper on school start times, and then responded to my suggestions by creating a Facebook page devoted to later start times. So far, in a school over 3500 students, roughly 40 have actually joined the discussion. This is despite the overwhelming support among most students for later start times. It's tough to change the system.

I am so tired of school schedules being "driven" by bus schedules, sports, and child care concerns. Later start times make sense on every level. And there is little support for the alarms of high school kids going off at 5:00 in the morning.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Best Companies to Work For

The yearly list by CNN/Money of the best companies to work for is always worth a look - though it can simply generate envy for how good other people have it. If nothing else, it seems like a great site for business execs and owners to take a look at and evaluate how to make a better company - one that employees want to work for.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Obama's Record

As the GOP stumbles to some degree of consensus that the best choice for a not-Mitt candidate to take on Obama is, in fact, Mitt Romney. And, as the conservative media amps up its portrayal of the President as a quasi-European socialist, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan's reflective and informative piece on Obama's long-game deserves reading. There is much to debate in the next ten months, but hopefully the debate will be as accurate as possible.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Dark Side of Steve Jobs and Modern Technology

Several months ago, amidst all the praise and fond remembrance of Steve Jobs following his death, monologuist Mike Daisy revealed the dark side of all our new technological toys after he flew to China and uncovered the apparent atrocious working conditions at the FoxConn factory where much of our Apple products are assembled. Recently, Jon Stewart has spotlighted the story after a CNN crew followed up on Daisy's accusations.

Stewart's commentary, of course, was in response to GOP calls to restore jobs to America, and Rick Perry's strange comment connecting "jobs" and Jobs. And, his expose obviously generates a bit of controversy and uneasiness, as Americans seek to reconcile the products they use with the labor used to create it - the type of labor which they would never seek themselves or for their children or perhaps even force upon people they don't like.

Certainly, I understand the awkward situation that labor plays in the price of products we love. And I understand different countries and cultures and standards of living. But the human being in me just has a problem with stories like this coming out of these factories. And, I just don't see how we can endorse it or condone it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Soft Bigotry of "College-Not-For-All"

Clarice McCants of the Closing Gaps - Education Blog for Parents takes on the recent shift in education that argues too many kids are going to college. McCants wonders whether this idea - which may subtly imply that poor kids should become plumbers - as Newt Gingrich quipped - while middle and upper class kids should be engineers, doctors, and businessmen is nothing but soft bigotry, perpetuating a class system.

The area where I challenge this point of view is in assuming that the "College-is-not-for-all" be applied only to poor, minority, and urban schools. In fact, that is what killed vocational education and career prep in the 70s and 80s. The poor and black kids were funneled into shop class while the white kids took literature and physics.

So, instead of fixing that disparity, we cut voc ed across the board and decided to re-engineer society with the college-for-all mentality. But, among our middle class white population, there are still plenty of kids who shouldn't be going for bachelor's degrees. And the reason is that the economy neither needs it or can support it.

Only 29% of the US population has a bachelor's degree - and clearly that's all we really need in terms of productivity and sustained growth. It's simply wasted credentials, and that results from a logical fallacy - that a bachelor's equates with more wealth and well-being. For the business and public sector, more education equates with higher pay, though that is often a dubious distinction. The market often, and should, decide who rises to management. Not a pay scale based on college degrees.

Granted, more middle class suburban - and yes white - kids are going to have the leg up based on their early childhood education. That's the key we are not talking about - the incredible burden on catching up if a child enters kindergarten not knowing his letters and numbers and lagging other kids by a vocabulary of up to 1500 words. Statistically, it will be hard to catch up - and it can take generations. Once a family has one college educated parent, then it moves to two, then to a stay at home parent or one with flexibility and the funds to support effective pre-school, not just daycare/babysitting.

Clearly, it comes down to equal opportunities. And it comes from decreasing the stigma of associate degrees and skilled labor.

Or, at least, that's my two pennies.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sugar is the Devil

Coming off the winter holiday gluttony fest, I've been pretty much off sugar for two weeks, and the difference is so noticeable it's frightening. Most notably, and surprisingly, is the relation to the mild arthritis in my knees. And, I'm coming to the conclusion that white sugar - and its evil stepbrothers white flour and empty starches - are the source of much evil in the world of health.

My sugar consumption dropped significantly about nine years ago when I moved to Colorado and made a fresh start with diet and exercise. The first thing to go was high fructose corn syrup. That was followed by the elimination of more processed foods and sugars, especially white flour. Within six months, I had lost nearly twenty pounds and felt better than I had in years. Later changes involved a move to more all natural and organic foods.

However, my wife is a former - still occasional - pastry chef. And she's damn good.

Thus, during the winter holidays when there are a hundred dozen cookies in the freezer, I quickly regress into sloth and gluttony. And, during the past few years on a two-week winter break, I've gained 7-10 pounds while eating more sweets and starchy carbs. This year was no different, and as always after the first of the year, I cut the sugar leash. This year, however, I noticed a difference for the first time in my knees. In the past five years, I've developed tenderness behind my kneecap that our school trainer says is bursitis or pre-arthritis. As a runner this is frustrating. Several years ago when I switched to running on the balls of my feet, the pain was greatly lessened, and I thought I'd figured it out. Running that way doesn't bother the knee.

Yet, each winter my knee - especially the right one - flares up. The pain is greatest going down stairs, though even sitting down and standing up can be tender. I had attributed it to the cold weather, especially here in Denver. However, the pain really flared up in December, and has been lessening to almost an unnoticeable level in January. Yet, it's still cold and still damp, and I'm exercising more.

And, now I'm guessing the sugar was a key ingredient.

The basics of far too many health problems is inflammation. And sugary, starchy, empty carbs are a key factor in inflammation. So, consider doing a little sugar busting if you're looking for a way to ramp up the healthy living.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Twinkies Go Bust

After busting waistlines for decades, Hostess Brand has finally busted through the seams of its own earning potential. The maker of some of the most processed and unnatural foods in the history of gastronomy, filed for bankruptcy today.

In the most delicious of ironies, the company claims its pension and, of course, retiree health care costs have outpaced its earnings. The company's earnings - long predicated on Americans complete dismissal of health concerns surrounding processed foods and sugary snacks - have taken a hit in recent years as consumers have finally woken up to the role of diet in health.

It's about time, and despite the problems of more people losing their jobs, the closing of this chapter in America's food history is a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Reforms for Good Government

David Brooks argues effectively today about the decline of liberalism in a country and at a time when the forces should be gaining strength. The problem, of course, is that as much as Americans are outraged at Wall Street excess and the rise of oligarchy, they don't trust government solve the problem. Despite favorable opinions of many parts of government - such as Medicare, Social Security, Public Safety and Health - Americans don't see it as a force for positive change in society. In essence, Brooks argues:

There is no Steve Jobs figure in American liberalism insisting that the designers keep government simple, elegant and user-friendly. Sailors scrub their ships. Farmers clear weeds. Democrats have not spent a lot of time scraping barnacles off the state.

However, there are some voices in the wilderness. And one who could provide this leadership is currently the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper. The Denver Post reports today that Hickenlooper is trying to do just that with a plan to remove a lot of the red tape that bogs down job growth in the state. This is just good policy, as the Post reported when Hickenlooper was asked about supporting a tax increase for the strapped budget:

"Before you turn around and put your hands out to voters and say you want more resources," the governor said recently, "you better be able to demonstrate that you're running your ship as efficiently as it can be run."
Hickenlooper for months has said citizens have to believe government is operating as efficiently as possible before that could happen.

So, hopefully there are some leaders on the horizon who can preserve the value of government without exercising the unnecessary vitriol unleashed in the GOP primaries.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Crisis in Capitalism?

In the inimicable way that RSA-Animate has of presenting information, social critic David Harvey ponders the issue of the recent economic crisis, and he wonders if perhaps a new model is on the horizen.

Certainly, the prominence and success of capitalist societies is indisputable, and no society has presented a viable alternative for progress and improved quality of life. And, of course, we are always talking about mixed-market capitalism in which the free exchange of goods and ideas is regulated by democratic governments to ensure the safety of all and the continued trust in and prosperity of the system.

I think the issue comes down to a simple concept, effectively characterized by William Golding in his classic novel Lord of the Flies. Golding's conclusion - and in many ways his theme - was that the success of any society depends more on the ethical nature of the individual than on any political or economic system, no matter how logical or rational.

It's who we are - individually and collectively - that will determine the quality of living in our society and communities.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rosen on Lobato

Conservative radio host Mike Rosen takes aim at the Lobato case in the Denver Post and offers some valid perspective and unique insight into the case of Colorado school funding. Rosen is responding to and criticizing the ruling by Judge Rappaport that the state's current funding is unconstitutional as a result of its inability to provide "a thorough and uniform system of public education." The issue of funding and the ability of the courts to legally force increases in state funding has drawn the protest of many in and out of state government. The problem for schools in Colorado is that all tax increases must be presented to the voters, who have resoundingly rejected the most recent attempt to increase education funding.

Rosen focuses on the conflict between the voters' constitutional right to vote for any and all tax increases, and the order from the court to increase funding. Ultimately, some argue that education would have to consume the entire budget to meet Judge Rappaport's expectations. Or the budget would need to be expanded. Clearly, a conundrum. Rosen also points out that the state constitution requires a public education system "within budgetary means." Thus, the argument might be that public education needs to be restricted to meet the available funds. That should raise some eyebrows.

Despite Rosen's unnecessary and ideological shots at school unions and school administrations, and some ambiguous claims about the link between education funding and student achievement, he poses some legitimate questions about how schools must be funded and operated.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Magical Magic Tree House

I now have a second child who is completely captivated by Mary Pope Osborne's incredibly popular and well-written Magic Tree House book series. Several years ago, my son and his friends were introduced to the series at school, and they devoured them in a near manic race to finish "the next book." Now my daughter is in first grade and she is equally enamored. I can literally not buy and/or check them out of the library fast enough, and I am thrilled to see her so engaged in reading.

While my son turned into a rabid reader early - and to this day reads everything, including the ingredients on the cereal box - my daughter was a little slower to get engaged. She was reading EasyReader books such as Fancy Nancy pretty quickly. But she was never really motivated to read them often, regularly, and independently. Thus, I wondered if she would become "a reader." So, when we introduced the Magic Tree House and she began reading them in a single setting, I knew there was something truly "magical" about these books.

In addition to reading the books, cover to cover in a single setting, my daughter loves to talk about the books and the adventures. Clearly, she is engaged and meta-cognitive when entranced in the world of the Magic Tree House. I am incredibly impressed with and thankful for the work of Mary Pope Osborne. For the ability to engage children in the written word is a special gift, and it is unavailable to far too many.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Play Some Games

The holidays already bring a fresh supply of board games to our house, and I love to promote playing games. In fact, the country would be in much better shape if Americans regularly played games as a family, rather than scheduling the occasional "game night" when they turn off the computers, iPads, TVs, and electronic gaming systems. Some of our old stand-bys that we've been able to play since the kids were in pre-school are:

Apples to Apples
Monopoly (with various incarnations and age levels)

Additionally, we have become big fans of games like:

Who Knew

And we recently added an old favorite with the return of Rummicube.

So get your game on in 2012.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Lesson Plans

On this first day of 2012, a time when people re-evaluate their goals and purpose, I am thinking about the issue of lesson plans. When friends ask me about the profession of teaching, they are often surprised to hear how much autonomy teachers have and how little guidance new teachers receive when beginning a new job. That's always bothered me, too.

The idea that teachers are hired, given a schedule of classes, maybe a list of books, a few guidelines on exit goals, a convoluted copy of the curriculum, and a couple weeks to plan, is quite frankly absurd. Some schools are better than others in preparing teachers for stepping into the classroom. But for most the pattern - and lack of any real guidance in lesson planning and expectations - is serious shortcoming for the profession. Of course, many teachers I know would resist such talk out of fear they would be forced to incorporate canned lesson plans purchased by their principals and school boards. And I support that sentiment. For I have rarely run across mass-produced lesson plans that have any value for me in the classroom.

Still, the lack of guidance most new hires receive in lesson planning is problematic. And at times, I am not sure the gift of autonomy is the best approach.

Blasphemous as that may sound.