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Okay, I’ve been miserably long in posting this (and it’s still not complete) but here is the first installment of a look at U.S. education.

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I recently finished the classic tale of The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Theodore Dostoevsky, as it’s sometimes anglicized). If the name didn’t tip you off, he’s Russian, and so are the brothers he writes about. The tale was written in the nineteenth century, about the scandals of nineteenth century life in a small Russian town … and yet I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece in every sense.

Once I came to that conclusion, I wondered why it was that my school-age self never got the chance to read him. Was, in fact, forced to slave through stories that were boring and verbose, like Last of the Mohicans, instead. How was Dostoyevsky dismissed (never even mentioned, actually) when Romeo and Juliet was crammed down our throats not twice but three times in high school alone? At least I heard about Tolstoy’s massive classic War and Peace, and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though neither ever had a place on our bookshelves nor in our library nor curriculum. So I began thinking about our education system. I began to wonder, what are students actually learning? When English class rolls around and pupils open their textbooks, what greets them?

From my own school days I recall curricula that rarely wavered from writings of the “Big Three” – the US, the UK, and Ancient Greece – with virtually nothing newer than the nineteenth century except for a handful of short fiction and poetry. It never really struck me at the time how little we read of international authors. Even my university literature classes – open to anything written anywhere, anytime – featured little outside the well-worn paths of American, English, and Greco-Roman classics. Just in case we missed them in high school, I guess. I recall only two exceptions: a piece by Voltaire, a Frenchman; and Metamorphosis, by German author Franz Kafka. For crossing borders, that’s a terribly poor selection. Not that those authors don’t have writings worthy of study, but they were the only representatives of the greater world. I had in fact read Kafka’s famous tale as a teenager without realizing he was not American, which seems an even poorer world lit choice. I expected a great deal more out of my “education.”

I expected my horizons to be stretched; I wanted to be introduced to all manner of thing new and exotic (to me, at least). Growing up in rural mid-America and attending a small public school, I understood they operated under certain limitations. There were few frills – no AP classes, no special college jump-start programs. It was a small school with only a handful of faculty and staff, with mostly older buildings and low district millage rates. It was considered a stretch of our horizons to read Antigone (the story of Oedipus was pretty scandalous for the youth of a town with one gas station, one bank, and five churches). But now our “small” public schools have budgets rivaling that of my university alma mater. So I wonder if the latest crop of students are more well-read than my antiquated little class.

I still live in a rural area, very much like the one I grew up in, and I’m going to use the nearest public school as my model. Its middle and high school sections (with adjoining campuses and shared buildings) serve less than 900 students with more than 100 faculty and major staff (not including higher school officials or secondary staff). The middle school includes thirty-five classrooms; the high school has more, though I’m not sure by what margin; and most of the buildings are less than ten years old. Students can compete in eight different sports and graduate with more than 20 college credit hours. Sounds good, right? So let’s see how they measure up via ye olde standardized testing (not the best judge but the most decent judge I have easy access to).

Let me pre-empt these numbers by noting that very little is available on post-8th grade rankings, and virtually nothing prior to 1998. So, for starters at least, I will have to settle for comparing the 8th graders of 2009 to the 8th graders of 1998 to get any picture of the system at all. Now, on with the show. Since we’re talking literature, tests in Reading and Writing seem the most relevant, and from 1998 to 2009, there was a whopping change in our 8th graders statewide. Writing showed an increase of 5% and Reading showed an astounding increase of … [drumroll, please] … 1%. Wow. Wait a second; let me pull my socks back on before plunging ahead. In 1998, 8th graders in the state ranked 29th nationwide in Reading; in 2009, they ranked 41st. In Writing, their ranking fell from 33rd to 36th. But those are statewide and nationwide numbers, not a representation of my model school. So let’s see what else we can find.

According to 2009 literacy test results, my local high school ranked 96 of 253; the middle school section ranked 102 of 299 – both solidly mediocre. Not bad, not good, but I find it very disappointing given the present funding. Compared to what my former high school worked with, this model school is rolling in money. For instance, my high school had unpaved parking lots, not ideal but certainly functional and low maintenance. The model local school recently spent $1,000,000 on one paved parking lot. Let me repeat that: they spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS to prepare and blacktop ONE LOT so visitors and employees could walk to the main building without getting dirt on their shoes. Never mind the curriculum, crushed rock is hell in heels. But maybe their test scores are fantastic and their budget is overflowing with surplus … which I’m presently researching and hope to include in the upcoming Part 2.

As an interesting aside, I checked the state requirements, and the language arts standards specifically mention only “American, British, and Greek/Latin” literature, with later mentions of “and/or other” literatures. No wonder our school featured nothing else; the Big Three were the only outside sources of literature specifically approved by the state.

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What to look for in Part 2:

Local school results
Teachers’ pay versus test scores
State and National test scores
and anything else I run across that looks juicy

Stay tuned.

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You may have heard about the plight of a small delta town called Jericho and its assistant fire chief Don Payne. It’s had a few mentions on the news networks and a couple appearances on the AP feed … and I dedicated a post to the story a couple weeks back (Holy Jericho).

For a quick re-cap of events: while in a court hearing over a traffic ticket issued to his son, Don Payne and at least one member of the Jericho Police Department got in an argument stemming from illegal traffic tickets issued to Payne and other residents of Jericho. A scuffle ensued and Payne was shot in the hip by Officer Eric Pharr of the Jericho Police Department. He was hospitalized in Memphis and underwent a five-hour surgery to remove the .40 caliber bullet which had lodged in his hip bone. He was recently released in good health but still requires the use crutches. Following the shooting, Jericho Police Chief Willie Frazier temporarily disbanded the police force and the entire department remains under investigation.

But no charges have been filed against Officer Eric Pharr, who fired on an unarmed Don Payne in front of six other police officers and presiding judge Tonya Alexander (who quickly resigned her post). The Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office, which began investigating other questionable Jericho police acts, has reported no progress in the investigation and has shared little of the information collected about the courtroom incident.

Unfortunately, a gunshot wound was only the beginning for Mr. Payne. Days after being released from the hospital, Jericho Mayor Helen Adams officially dismissed him as assistant fire chief. “As it comes to my attention of the improper behavior that you displayed,” she wrote in his letter of termination. “You have disgrace my name as Mayor.” And to top it off, arrest warrants were issued for his arrest. Let me repeat that: the police issued warrants for the arrest of Don Payne after he was shot by a police officer during court proceedings about the legality of the police department’s actions.

And Officer Pharr, who wounded another officer in the shooting, has not received so much as a reprimand. In fact, he’s back on the beat, writing tickets and patrolling the city as usual. Despite Police Chief Frazier’s promise to disband the police force until the investigation was completed, the department re-assembled after little more than a week apart and resumed their “duties.”

The decision not to prosecute Officer Pharr apparently fell to West Memphis City Prosecutor Lindsey Fairley, who supported the officers’ right to detain the former assistant fire chief. Apparently by whatever means necessary. It was also Fairley who decided to levy the charges on Don Payne. The charges – two counts of felony battery – allege that Payne assaulted Police Chief Willie Frazier by shoving him backward, and then reached for Officer Eric Pharr’s weapon. Which Payne vehemently denies. Thomas Martin, the chief investigator for the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Department heading up the on-going investigation of Jericho’s police force, confirmed not only that the warrants had been issued but that the police claimed Don Payne was reaching for Eric Pharr’s weapon when he was shot. Early reports noted that the bullet struck Don Payne from behind, which was corroborated in the wound as seen in this video (at the :30 mark). But that angle of approach would make reaching for the pistol improbable if not impossible, a particular of the case that no one in authority has yet commented on.

And although the arrest warrants have been issued, they have not been served. Jericho police are back on the streets and are clearly aware of Don Payne’s residence but have made no attempt to take him into custody. “I’m sitting right here just waiting,” Mr. Payne shared from his front porch during a short interview with one Memphis reporter. “I’m not a fugitive.”

Randy Fishman, of the Memphis law firm Ballin Ballin and Fishman, was secured as Don Payne’s legal counsel shortly after the shooting and maintains that the police were not acting in the public’s best interest. “I think an officer should be trained in not only how a weapon should be used but when a weapon should be used,” Mr. Fishman said. He reiterated that pulling a pistol on an unarmed civilian surrounded by police showed poor judgement, and that firing it was negligent at best. “If anyone should be charged with a felony here, it should start with the officer who pulled the gun.” He has also stated that they are prepared to fight any charges arising from this unfortunate circumstance.

And though he is no longer Jericho’s assistant fire chief, the rest of the Volunteer Fire Department fully support him. All 19 members quit the department en masse on hearing of Payne’s dismissal.

On September 9th, the mayor and city council had a “secret meeting” but none will speak to the press about that meeting, the incident, or even the original allegations of police corruption in Jericho. Various reporters have attempted to speak with city officials but met stiff opposition, including a police response.

With a bit of digging, I unearthed the phone number of Jericho City Hall and repeatedly rang it myself … to no avail. The same was true of the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office. (I hate to think if I lived in the county and tried to ring their offices with an actual problem.) But I take this as a good sign. Because if they aren’t talking, it means they are concerned, and if they are concerned then – just maybe – they have something be concerned about.

I intend to follow this case and update on it when news becomes available. And in the meantime, godspeed to Mr. Payne and Mr. Fishman.

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Related articles and information:

CBS News

Memphis ABC News

KAIT 8 short and video

Original AP article

Payne’s Wife Speaks

Jonathan Turley’s Blog

Jericho City Hall Phone Number: 870-739-3884

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Crackers Beware

Terrorist profiling isn’t just for Middle Easterners anymore.

A young whitebread American professional was recently held by TSA agents in the St. Louis airport. Did he mistakenly leave a screwdrivier in his carry-on? A pocketknife in his suit pants? He did verbally threaten someone or carry prohibited substances? No. Nothing of the sort. He was detained, his possessions searched, and threatened with arrest because he had roughly $4700. In cash.

Maybe you’ve already heard about this. But probably not. The news broke at least four days ago but I didn’t catch a whiff of it until today. There was no mention of it on Good Morning America, our local news broadcast, or even my Rueters and AP news feeds. And you may be asking yourself why you should care in the first place; what’s the big deal? My reasons for mentioning it here are two-fold.

First: I don’t find $4700 to be an exorbitant sum to be in the hands of a young professional. He was polite, compliant, well-dressed, a United States citizen, had proper identification … and yet they detained him. Why?

Second: Not long before this young man was detained, a state-and-federal joint organization had distributed a confidential report to law enforcement officials across the state, a report which “depicted Christians, anti-abortionists, advocates for protecting our borders and supporters of certain political candidates as potential ‘threats’ to public safety,” according to Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder (the report, titled “The Modern Militia Movement,” can be read in full, as released, at the bottom of this post). Forgive me, but those delineations seem broad enough to condemn just about anyone.

The young man detained had the misfortune of falling into several of their “threatening” categories: being an aide to Texas Republican Representative Ron Paul, who was on the “certain political candidates” list; being the Director of Development in the politically-involved organization Campaign For Liberty; carrying “political paraphenalia” for both previous entities, in the form of fliers and bumper stickers; and possessing $4700 in cash. Trouble is, that report was supposed to be rescinded, its content disregarded. Though originally distributed as a sensitive “Law Enforcement Only” document, an unidentified officer leaked the report to the media on March 11 and the cat was out of the bag. The following public outcry led to apologies, public condemnations of the material, and supposed retractions of the report. And yet a young man who fell into several of the categories outlined in that report was detained, with no explanation except that the cash he carried somehow made him suspect.

I’m sure a lot of shady drug and/or terror-related deals go down between the St. Louis underworld (mafia, Al Qaeda, etc.) and a twenty-five year old Christian Republican who is well employed and politically active. Yes sir, I believe someone fitting that description proves a threat to our public safety. Sounds like a terrorist to me. Looks like one, too …

Yup, that’s the face of evil if I ever saw it.

His name is Steve Bierfeldt. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 2006 and then spent two years in Virginia working for a non-profit and an election campaign. Prior to the TSA intervention, he had been in St. Louis helping at a Campaign For Liberty convention where they had sold tickets and merchandise, with roughly $4700 in cash transactions. Yes, yes, I see a threatening pattern emerging … It is my belief, ladies and gentlemen, that his problems stemmed from being a conservative, working for another conservative, supporting a conservative organization touting the need for antiquities like Freedom and Liberty. Oh and he’s a Christian, too.

Tie him to the stake! Light the kindling!!

This sounds eerily like a witch-hunt. During questioning, he repeatedly asked the TSA agents if he were required by law to answer. It seems a legitimate question to me, especially if they are looking to peg me as a militant extremist of some sort, but none of them responded except with condescension, threats of arrest, “going downtown,” and confrontation with the DEA and/or FBI.

Witch! Witch!!

Bierfeldt recorded much of the interaction on his cell phone, part of which can be heard on the embedded video at the bottom of the post. And while he was eventually released, catching his plane without further hassle, I still find this story very compelling. The fact remains that he was singled out and held without good reason. It was, purportedly, because of the cash, but on no flight rules list or FAA regulation anywhere does it even hint that cash is an article to be carried in limited quantities, or that substantial quantities of it could make you suspect and a likely candidate for detention. (And what would be considered a “substantial” quantity? Where do they draw those lines?) Young Bierfeldt would have been arrested, or at least held for further questioning, if not for an apparent plain-clothes FBI agent who ordered his release. Without once checking his documents, asking him a single question, or even inspecting his possessions.

A government document advised that someone like Bierfeldt – a Christian, a Republican supporter, a political citizen – could be a threat to public safety and so he was pulled aside. I’ll be honest with you … this kind of stuff scares me. Our rights and liberties and freedoms have been so thoroughly stripped away that, truly, nothing remains but their memory. And this is only the beginning. Tighten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a long, hard ride.

A few parting thoughts and links…

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“I realize that there are people who will dismiss this kind of story as insignificant. They shouldn’t. This is very serious and should be treated as such. Anyone who knows anything at all about history knows that before a state or national government can persecute – and commit acts of violence against – a group of people, they must first marginalize the group from society’s mainstream and categorize it as dangerous. Rome did exactly that to Christians, as did Mao’s China; Hitler’s Germany did the same thing to Jews; Stalin’s Russia did the same thing to political dissenters, etc…
…This is very serious business! We are not talking about private opinions. We are talking about law enforcement agencies. And remember, most law enforcement agencies share these types of reports; therefore, how many other state police agencies have similar reports floating around?”

A quote from Chuck Baldwin’s article Missouri State Police Think You And I Are Terrorists.

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“The show-me state made the news recently when the Missouri Information Analysis Center, a state-federal law-enforcement partnership, released an inflammatory report alleging that libertarians, constitutionalists, supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and other people skeptical of powerful government should be considered as potential terrorists-in-the-making.”

A quote from the Examiner article Political activist detained by TSA for carrying cash.

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“We believe that freedom is an indivisible whole, and that it includes not only economic liberty but civil liberties and privacy rights as well…”

A quote from the Campaign For Liberty website.

You can also visit Steve Bierfeldt’s profile page and weblog on their site.

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