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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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I wanted to check up on Jericho, Arkansas. If you recall, I wrote about the town a few times last fall because the unarmed Assistant Fire Chief was shot by Jericho police during an argument between himself and the police chief in court. Jericho has a reputation as a speed trap, an over-abundant and over-eager police force for the town’s size, large gaps in its fiscal reporting, and a mayor accused of gross corruption. I was unable to reach legal counsel concerning the affairs of Jericho and was trying to locate news pieces about it when I ran across the town of Turrell and found an eerily similar situation. Fasten your seatbelts, kits and cats; it’s about to get strange and deja vu ain’t the half of it.

Turrell is an Arkansas town in the Mississippi delta, just off Interstate 55, a few miles up the road from Jericho and home to some 900 people. Though it’s too small to support it’s own school (it had to consolidate with the larger Marion school district), it’s problems are massive. In December, WMC-TV 5 out of Memphis, Tennessee, reported that three Arkansas towns were being investigated for the mishandling of money, including both Turrell and Jericho. This investigation was prompted by last autumn’s events in Jericho, which pointed to various corrupt and fraudlent activities being perpetrated by the mayor and police of that town.

Crittenden County, home of the three towns under investigation, put the Jericho matter in the hands of Prosecuting Attorney Lindsey Fairley, who issued warrants against Assistant Fire Chief Don Payne, the victim in the shooting. Fairley charged no one else. His inaction prompted media to alert state officials and Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden began investigating the events with the state police. Less than three weeks after the WMC-TV article was published came a new and strange twist in the story: Turrell Police Chief Greg Martin entered the home of city councilman Floyd Holmes and threatened him at gunpoint. Just to be clear, yes, that was the chief of police, sworn to protect and serve, pulling a gun on an unarmed councilman, and his wife, in the councilman’s own home. Why? Good question. The answer is long and complicated but essentially comes down to one thing: money.

Just as in Jericho, Turrell’s mayor Franklin Lockhart is accused of hiding city funds and moving them at his discretion instead of allowing the city council’s involvement. It’s not the first time Mayor Lockhart has shut out the council. In fact, in October 2008, he fired them en masse … despite lacking the authority to do so. Floyd Holmes, among those “fired” in 2008, asserted that state law gives the council control over city finances. Mayor Lockhart reportedly contended that the council had no such power but, either way, Turrell entered the new year without a budget and suffered city service interruptions due to lack of information about the town’s financial status. Councilman Holmes said Mayor Lockhart had moved Turrell funds several times, even “across state lines in[to] Tennessee.” The mayor admits he moved the funds but so far won’t say where. According to one source, the city’s budget records have not been complete since 2006. Mr. Holmes said, “We’ve been begging for someone to do something for the last two and a half years.”

On the day of the Turrell incident, Mr. Holmes and other council member Emanual Harris showed up “unannounced” to city hall – with a couple reporters in tow – to retrieve their $100 paychecks as members of the city council. While there, they also asked for the city’s financial records which, as councilmen, they are supposed to be able to access. The records were not made available to them, though no one seems able to say why, and they were denied their paychecks, purportedly because the city did not have enough funds to pay them (according to Mayor Lockhart).

Their request, coupled with the presence of reporters, “rankled” other city officials, including the mayor, and after their appearance Mayor Franklin Lockhart reportedly issued a memo to the council members specifying when and why they could appear at city hall. Lockhart then reportedly directed Police Chief Greg Martin to deliver the notices in person. When Chief Martin arrived at the home of Councilman Holmes, an argument ensued. Chief Martin followed Mr. Holmes into his house and the argument apparently culminated in the police chief drawing his weapon on both Mr. Holmes and his wife while two interior decorators looked on.

Warrants were issued for Chief Martin and he was taken into police custody, charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault. He was released later the same day on a $2500 bond. (As a side note, I wonder what my bond would be if I were charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault against a city official? I’m willing to bet $2500 wouldn’t come close.) Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden, who took up the Jericho case, also stepped in for Turrell. “It’s my understanding, it stems from this ongoing dispute that’s been running between the city council and the mayor’s office,” he told Fox 13 News of Memphis. Mayor Franklin Lockhart has had little to say except that he stands by Chief Martin and describes him as an “outstanding” officer.

An ABC news article also provided this interesting little tidbit: “This comes just two months after Mayor Lockhart asked a judge to place a lien against the members of town council in the amount of $600,000. The mayor claims council members owe the town because they haven’t performed their duties.” Which seems deliciously rich since, by all other accounts, he has prevented them in their duties at every turn.

But then, things get really strange. (Because, yeah, everything’s been right as rain to this point.) Another article reports that Turrell is not supposed to have a police department. At all. The city council has never approved or budgeted “any money for the police department but they’re still up and operating every day,” said Emanual Harris. Co-councilman Floyd Holmes agreed. The men said they have no idea how the police officers in Turrell are being paid or how the force is operating without a budget. They went on to state that Chief Martin had been fired by the council months ago. So how is he still in uniform? Martin was re-hired by Mayor Lockhart. The re-hire was subsequently overruled by the council but was never acknowledged by the mayor or police chief. Harris says, “I want to see something or somebody come in and do something; it’s not right.”

Hopefully, prosecutor Mike Walden is the man for the job.

After bonding out of police custody, and while still under investigation, Martin remains acting chief of police for Turrell. And in relation, the town of Jennette, also in Crittenden County and also under investigation, exemplifies the gross malfeasance at work in the area. It has a population of less than 150 and cannot account for $24,000 dollars in taxpayer funds.

Something, dear readers, is badly amiss.

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Amber Waves of Gain

Let me preface this statistic-rich post by noting the following: 1) most of these numbers were derived from two online sources, so if they were incorrect then I am also; and 2) if you are caught genuinely breaking a law, you deserve to be fined, ticketed, booted, or otherwise reprimanded as defined by local law (with a few exceptions, which may or may not be discussed below). Now, on to the good stuff (it’s long, but it’s worth it).

If the preface didn’t spill the beans, let me do it here by stating that this is a post about our city governments and parking violations.

For instance, in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, New York City brought in revenues of $624 million from parking infractions alone. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2001, the city has hired nearly 800 new “traffic enforcement agents” to help maximize this revenue opportunity, and 200 of those new agents were hired this year. These agents write, on average, 40 tickets per shift (according to an MSNBC news article), which equates to roughly 40,000 new tickets written every week. If the amount fined averaged $20 per ticket, that’s an additional $800,000 every week, per shift, for the city’s piggy bank. Not bad, eh? And that doesn’t account for extremes, like the super-agent who wrote 227 tickets in a 5-hour period on Black Friday 2007, when 41,000 citations were issued across the city in one day.

Boston visitors and residents face a rise in fines, a 75% increase on parking more than a foot from the curb and an increase of more than 112% for parking on a crosswalk. In similar fashion, Sacremento tacked an $8 surcharge onto its parking fines with the express intention of collecting an extra $1.5 million … or more … to ease a budgetary shortfall. Meanwhile, Seattle implemented a camera ticketing system which issued 58,000 tickets in its first three months, totaling some $5 million in fines to be collected. And last year in Colorado, Denver’s ticket revenues jumped $4 million, to a total $20 million from parking violations. Is it me or does this seem a bit extreme?

In cities like Louisville, Kentucky, a minimum of two outstanding parking violations will get your car booted. Boots are usually removed by police at their discretion … after you pay your fines, of course. But if you’re in a hurry and happen to be in Montgomery County, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.) or in Baltimore, you can use your cell phone to unlock the boot … after paying your fines … and a $115 fee, apparently for the convenience of a quick de-booting. (The system isn’t confined to Maryland; it is used in a dozen cities, including New Orleans.)

Some cities have begun using a camera-equipped system that allows meter agents to drive at normal speeds and simultaneously scan license plates for outstanding parking violations. Nifty, huh? Nab two birds with one stone and boot previous violators for extra money even if they are currently legally parked. But that’s just the beginning. Have you heard about the new parking meters in production? They text message local police as soon as your flag goes up. (Better hope there’s not a meter agent in the area.) And several large cities have issued electronic ticketing machines to their agents, allowing them to ticket 30% faster. Oh good, their antiquated tools and multi-million dollar annual revenues had me concerned about reduced productivity. Whew. That’s a real load off my mind.

One New Yorker said he’s seen drivers get ticketed for double-parking while waiting for someone to pull out of a space on the street, an almost universally accepted act especially common in areas of concentrated population and limited parking. In a similar stretch of the law, an attorney was ticketed for parking “somewhere between one second and 59 seconds too soon” in an alternate-side violation. He fought the ticket and won; the citation was dismissed by a judge. Which brings us to a whole new sub-topic: how many of these charges are legitimate?

In the Bronx, a dozen residents accused a traffic agent of falsely citing them for double-parking, some arguing they were not even in the United States when the tickets were issued (at the time of the article, no charges had been filed against the agent, who the city defended and who remained on duty). A retired Navy veteran said he was ticketed while dropping off his wife in a bus zone. One reader commented that he was sent a parking ticket, complete with late penalties, without having been in the city for twenty years. (Despite the two decade absence, ownership of a vehicle that did not remotely resemble the ticketed car, and a letter he sent to authorities with a copy of his registration, the ticket is unresolved.)

Another reader said, “the New York City parking signs have purposely been made so confusing that even police officers cannot tell you if it is okay to park.” He went on to note that many signs were damaged, illegible, or missing altogether but agents still ticketed in the effected areas. In some areas, he also shared, “we have Muni-meters, where you have to park your car then walk to the meter several yards away to buy a receipt…to place in the windshield. Meter people will watch you walk to the meter and give you a ticket before you can get back to the car with the receipt. This is NYC government-sanctioned mugging.” Posters from other cities shared stories of similar abuses and I have no doubt that thousands more could easily be included, everything from unlawful ticketing and conspiracy to purposefully mass-ticket all the way to outright harrassment.

And not just in New York City. People from Columbus, Ohio, and Santa Monica, California, share the same stories, as do citizens from Fort Worth, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. Obviously, these are not isolated incidents but a general trend among cities with the primary goal of raising funds. By any means necessary. Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, it makes no difference, and the more tickets written, bogus or otherwise, the more revenues will increase. (For a disgustingly blatant example, visit my previous post, “Holy Jericho”.)

I will take this opportunity to reiterate that those legitimately breaking the law deserve to be fined … but only those breaking the law, and they should not be fined unreasonable amounts.

I’ve had three parking tickets over the years and I paid every one of them without complaint. Even though the last two were tenuously legal at best, I paid, took my receipt, and walked away without a word. Because it wasn’t worth fighting. For $40 I retained the ability to work a full schedule instead of missing days to fight the tickets in court. I retained anonymity and did not bring down the wrath of meter maids and law enforcement everywhere I went. (If you think that’s not important, you’ve never lived in a smaller town.) I avoided the costly unpleasantness of hiring a lawyer. I learned when and where I could push the law, and when and where I couldn’t. I learned that legality has absolutely nothing to do with decency, common sense, or common courtesy. And all for the low low price of only $40.

I’m not denouncing parking tickets. I am denouncing the growing practice of manufacturing falsities and extorting money out of a populace to fund government greed and idiocy. And so should you. It makes me wonder … what else are they falsely accusing us of? How many innocent people are being ruined by similar practices in other disciplines? Like taxes, for example. If the IRS came calling, could you prove your financial statements to their specifications? There is no statute of limitations; what if they ask for files from a decade ago, or two? Or how about the Department of Homeland Security accusing you of terrorist activity, seizing your property, and denying you trial? It’s perfectly legal and they can sell any seized property for profit without ever formally charging you. Local police have the same authority for drug-related activities and can gleen millions annually from the sales of seized items. Why? The short answer is money. But, really, is that all? Is that why are our freedoms are being pared down to nothing while government payrolls balloon and hoover up any dollar they can find?

These are questions we should be asking.
These are questions we should be asking every day, because this country is feeling less and less like ours.

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Cash For Clunkers seems like a pretty good program. Bring in a not-so-great vehicle and get up to $4500 in credit toward a new vehicle, a value virtually no one would get from a traditional trade-in program. There are a few stipulations but nothing outlandish. And it’s helping both the consumer and the economy, right? What could my beef possibly be?

The long-term result. But even the short-term isn’t exactly pretty. Right now, this program is “helping” people buy cars that get “better” mileage than what they had. But $4500 isn’t a great discount on a new car and I don’t know whether most dealerships will allow it to be paired with other incentives or not. If not, buyers are getting screwed. Secondly, the mile-per-gallon average is grossly overestimated and has decreased the last five years or so. Which means buyers get less bang for their buck even when they try to make the best choice. On top of that, until an amendment to the program passed today, August 1, 2009, the cars being turned in were to have their engine blocks “killed” at the time they were traded (officials recommended water glass, a sealant and bonding agent, be run through the engine in place of oil; the damage would be total and irreparable) … except that, at the time of purchase, many buyers do not know if their old vehicle will be accepted into the program. Some dealers required buyers to sign waivers and release forms to indemnify the dealership against damages. Because if the old car wasn’t accepted, or if the new car didn’t meet your standards, or you decided you couldn’t really afford it, or if you needed to back out of the deal in any other way, your old car was already toast. Sorry, Charlie, you said you didn’t want it anymore.

And the long-term outlook is worse.

If you hadn’t noticed, used vehicles are going pretty cheap at the moment. They have been for about, oh, the last eight months or so … since the stock market fell and the country began to worry about ridiculously bloated banking corporations. My biggest beef with this program is how it will take thousands and thousands of perfectly decent used vehicles out of the market. Just how many? Well, using a bit of fuzzy math, I’m going to take the total Cash For Clunkers budget (including the new increase) of $2.95 billion and divide it by 4000, since some people will get a $3500 credit and some get $4500 … and for the sake of brevity I’m going to assume it’s a pretty even split. Okay, now if even 1 in 3 of all those vehicles being turned in were potentially re-salable (I think the average would be much higher than that, but I’ll play devil’s advocate and remain conservative in that respect) that means roughly 245,000 re-salable vehicles will be crushed or shredded by time the program ends.

Want to see a few examples of the “clunkers” being traded in? Here’s a random group provided by the owners themselves.

(Click here to view full-size.)

Yup, those look like total and complete piles of shit. I don’t know how the owners managed to get them to the dealerships for trade-in.

Sarcasm aside, that’s almost a quarter of a million perfectly good cars and trucks, including those above, permanently and irrevocably destroyed. How is that bad? Well, for some sellers it won’t be, because the price of un-crushed used cars will go up. But, ultimately, all those cars and trucks permanently removed from the market will have an effect on prices. What happens when demand remains constant (or increases) but supply diminishes? The price goes up. And that means higher costs for people who can’t afford new cars. It puts one more burden on an already overburdened class and will result in real clunkers getting driven for longer periods because owners can’t afford to replace them. It means greater hardships and fewer choices for low-income owners. And not only will the price of used cars increase, the price of many parts will increase because those hundreds of thousands of vehicles were crushed or shredded with their drive trains intact. (By law, the scrapyards are not allowed to part them out.) So millions of perfectly usable parts will be wasted, salvage operations face a shrinking pool of resources, and low-income car owners foot the bill.

Granted, Cash For Clunkers will probably get some junkers off the road and likely help a section of lower-middle class consumers sign on for a car they couldn’t otherwise afford. But it seems to me that the “cons” here outweigh the “pros.” By far.

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