Monday, April 30, 2007

First Amendment for Christians too?

The following is quoted from the website of the Association of College Unions International:

Ohio Union Smudging ceremony

On Jan. 30, the Ohio Union at The Ohio State University closed its doors for the last time, but not before faculty, staff, and students gathered in the main lounge for a smudging ceremony, facilitated by the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio.

“Native American elders have taught that before something can be healed, it must be cleansed of negative energy and then purified with offerings of thanks,” said Heather McGinnis, assistant director of the union.

“The smudging ceremony was used as a way to purify the Ohio Union of negative energy as preparation is made for deconstruction of the current space and the future construction of the new building.”

During the ceremony, sage was burned to replace bad feelings with good ones and send up prayers with the smoke. A bowl containing sage was taken to each person and they fanned themselves with the smoke.

“Native American songs were sung during the entire ceremony. The audience was instructed to turn towards the different directions—north, south, east, west, sky, and ground,” McGinnis said. “A prayer of reflection was said and each person was given the opportunity to reflect on their own personal experiences in the building.” Around 200 people gathered to pay tribute to the union.

“Thanks to the Smudging Ceremony, the Ohio Union, empty as it may look, is now filled with positive energy and even more positive memories,” McGinnis said.

Where was the ACLU on this one? They made a point of protesting an event in which Christian groups wanted to bless a Columbus City school prior to the start of the school year. This event was to take place on Sunday, when school was not in session, but still the ACLU argued that it violated constitutional protections.

At Hilliard City Schools, Muslim students are permitted to leave class for prayer on the school grounds during Ramadan.

Why is it I am feeling oppressed?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

First Amendment: Protection FROM Christianity

The following story was published in Hilliard This Week, April 26, 2007:

Prayer in the schools became an issue recently when a resident questioned the "disruption" of it during a regular Hilliard school board meeting.

The only thing that surprised Darby High School Principal Dave Stewart about Jim Slubowski's concern that students were leaving the classroom in the middle of a teacher's presentation to pray was the timing. "It is during a very specific period of time," Stewart said, "at a very specific time of day."

Typically during Ramadan, he said, students who are of the Muslim faith, or believe in Islam, seek out a room at the school to pray.

"It's only during Ramadan," said Stewart.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Moslem year and a time for 30 days of fasting as well as prayer.

"During that period of time for Muslim students, it is much more critical, according to their faith, that they pray at very specific times," Stewart said. "There is only one time during the school day that happens. This is not something that goes on on an ongoing basis all day long or all year long."

Ramadan was in the fall. Stewart was surprised to learn that Slubowski, a resident of Packard Drive, attended a meeting in March to voice concerns about the "disruption" in the classroom because of students leaving for prayer.

Michelle Wray, school-community relations coordinator, said the school district can neither encourage nor prevent prayer in school.

"I think a lot of people think that with the whole separation of church and state, that prayer isn't allowed in school," she said. "That is not the case. We can't endorse it, and we can't require it. We can't discriminate against anyone either, so we need to do what we can to make sure we are meeting the needs of students without disrupting the education of themselves and others."

Stewart said he has never had a request from anyone of the Christian-based faiths for prayer time, but schools in the United States are typically scheduled around the religious holidays of Christianity.

"With the Christian religion, you could be praying now, and I wouldn't know it," said Wray.

Students sometimes participate in "See You At The Pole," in which they gather at the flag pole to pray, but, Wray said, that is usually held before school starts for the day.

In the practice of Judaism, she said, students are granted absences to observe their religious holidays.

The litmus test, Stewart said, is based around the word disruptive.

"We do retain the right for a teacher to say, on a given day, that it would be disruptive," he said, referring to examinations or other presentations. "The Muslim students, that's the give and take, they understand that and respect it."

Slubowski said she is not sure what is taking place at the school.

"There is a lot of hearsay back and forth," he said. "That's why I am throwing this out to you and saying maybe we should look into this."

If the program is causing a material disruption of classroom procedures, Slubowski said, it should be ended.

Stepping out of the classroom for approximately five to 10 minutes of prayer, according to Stewart, is less disruptive than having to excuse students for an entire day. He said it is not uncommon for students to go in and out of the classrooms to use the restroom, go to the office, see guidance counselors or attend other functions.

The Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators issued a legal note stating that students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers as long as they are not disruptive.

An example used in the legal note is that students may not decide to pray as the teacher is calling on them.

"It is a minimal number of students who ask to leave for religious prayer," Wray said.
Fifteen to 20 students, both male and female, ask to leave the classroom to pray during Ramadan, said Stewart.

Once the obligation of prayer is fulfilled, he said, the students return to the classroom.
While Davidson High School probably has students ask to be excused, Wray said Darby has more Somalian students, many of whom are Muslim.

"Dave has worked with it more," she said. "I have never heard of a request at the elementary school."

A room at the school is not specifically designated as a prayer room. She said it is generally a space which offers some privacy for a brief period of time, before returning to its designated use.


There are just a whole bunch of undercurrents in this article:
  • Thinking the best of him, we might believe Mr. Slubowski was be expressing concern that his child is being impacted by having the Muslim students leave the room. Except that Mr. Slubowski lives in the Davidson HS attendance zone now, and will remain there after the new attendance zones are put into effect. One cannot imagine he's trying to stand up for the Somali students and say their education is being negatively impacted by the customs of Islam. Thinking not so generously, it could be that Mr. Slubowski is simply objecting to the Somali kids getting what he perceives to be 'special treatment.' I can see a little of that. After decades of having their faith suppressed in school and government settings, it may be valid for Christians to ask if everyone is getting the same deal.
  • The school officials defend their actions (which I think are reasonable by the way) by saying that they have never been asked by Christians for the same kind of latitude. I think the situation may be that the ACLU has been so aggressive in their war against religion (in particular Christianity) in public schools that no one thinks there's any a latitude at all. Read this article to get a sense of what I mean: the ACLU thought that having a Christian group come on the school grounds on the weekend was a violation of Constitutional protections. Why would any Christian think it was okay to do anything in regard to their faith during actual school hours?
  • Ms. Wray's comment that "With the Christian religion, you could be praying right now, and I wouldn't know it" was perhaps not the brightest thing that could have been said. I'm sure her meaning was that it is impossible for schools to ban all practice of religious customs because one can pray without others knowing it. But it sounds more offensive to me, because it could be taken to mean that it is okay to ban visible Christian acts because we have a slealth mode available as well.
  • I'm surprised that it is generally acceptable for students to get up and leave class. I'm sure things have changed since 1970 when I was in high school, when it was very very rare for a student to be pulled from class, or to be excused in the middle of class. I don't know how a teacher can be expected to complete a lesson if kids are coming and going as they please. Is it truly as common as the school officials would have you believe, or was did they give that answer just to head off further controversy?
  • The reporter noted that this is an issue at Darby HS and not so much Davidson HS. This will only add fuel to the conversation that Davidson is better than Darby somehow. I tend to think the opposite by the way. The Darby kids are going to benefit from their exposure to and interaction with other cultures. And if we're not careful, the Davidson kids will develop a sense of superiority and of permission to discriminate which will not serve our country and our world well going forward.

The community of the Hilliard City School District now numbers over 75,000, with 15,000 kids attending school. Hilliard will continue to grow more diverse in terms of ethnicity and religion. We can either embrace that, or watch another cycle of 'white flight' in which the white folks who can afford it move out.

That's just what the developers would like to see happen by the way...

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Labor Unions: Solution or Problem?

I ran across this posting on the blogsite of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the union representing folks who work for various Ohio state agencies. The thrust of their post was a conclusion that Bob Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve had suggested that the American economy is suffering because we don't have enough unionized workers filling the middle class -- as though increased unionization of workers would solve the problems of our economy.

America seems to have become a nation of special interests. We don't know how to work for the common good anymore. There is an association for every big and little group, and they spend all their time carving out narrow positions that benefit their members, regardless of the impact on the whole. This writer for the public workers' union has become so polarized with his union rhetoric that he could grab these few observations from Bernanke and turn it into a call to embrace unions as the solution to our problem. Here is my response:

I believe you may be putting words in Dr. Bernanke’s mouth.

Another way to look at his statements is as an indictment of the unions. The failure of the unions to do their part to keep the American manufacturing workforce employed has resulted in the shrinking of the working class to the point that it is comprised mostly of public employees who now enjoy some of the best wages and benefits in our economy.

I grew up in a manufacturing town where many workers were members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. My father-in-law was employed by the largest company in the area, and he was a member of OCAW. Repeatedly through our life, the union went on strike for better wages and better benefits. Sometimes the strikes lasted many months. During one particularly long strike, the company simply moved a significant portion of its manufacturing operations to a non-union facility in Texas, never to return. Eventually the issues were resolved, and my father-in-law went back to work because he had enough seniority. But the jobs that had been relocated to Texas never returned, and the younger workers lost some of the best jobs they could ever have.

Unions have a role; I'm not anti-union. There is little question that had the unions not fought for worker safety and decent pay and benefits, our country would be worse off. Nor do I deny that I individually benefitted from growing up in a union town, where my Dad could make a comfortable wage and have excellent benefits.

There aren’t many middle-class manufacturing jobs left in my hometown. My father and my grandfather both had 40 year careers with the same employer, but nearly all the kids of my generation had to leave to find work. So now instead of a viable manufacturing economy, my hometown has rich folks (mostly bankers, lawyers and doctors), poor folks (both the African-Americans of the inner city and those living in rural poverty), and lots of unionized public employees and health workers in the middle class.

The key to prosperity in any economy is the ability to bring in money from outside the economic zone. A city prospers when its commercial entities can sell a product outside the city. Not only are people put to work, but the public facilities and public services can be funded by reasonably taxing revenues on the sales of good shipped outside the region. That revenue is money from outside the economic zone – Other People’s Money.

To sell products outside the economic zone, the prices have to be competitive. During the first thirty years following WWII, the US had a virtual monopoly on the combination of manufacturing capabilities, a skilled work force, and the capital needed to be a global supplier of manufactured goods. We could charge premium prices for our exported products and in turn pay premium wages to our workers.

But in the last twenty years, other countries have developed all these things as well, and their labor force is willing to work for a lot less than the prevailing wage here. We also got sloppy and let other countries take our product quality edge away as well. Consequently, most manufactured goods can be made overseas with both higher quality and lower cost.

So we have a choice to make: regain our competitiveness in terms of quality and cost, or continue to shrivel into a welfare state where the only people working are those employed by the government.

Welcome to the Soviet Union. That worked out well. One would argue that the most successful communist country ever, the People’s Republic of China, understands that full employment for its workers still means being competitive on the world market. The middle class in China and India may never have the material wealth of the Americans of today. But they are coming from such poverty that even a low-paying job creates a huge lift in economic status.

The Golden Age for the US is over unless we step up to the challenge of competing with the Chinese and the Indians. American labor unions can either help lead our country back to manufacturing competitiveness, or drag us to third world status. It’s either take the pain now, or leave the mess for our children.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gun Control

In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, the debate is once again raging about handgun control. Here's what I think on that topic:

The framers of the Constitution wanted to ensure that no government, at any level, could enslave the people. Exactly what kind of weaponry the people need at any given time to achieve that protection can be debated. Back in the 18th century, the King's soldiers were equipped with pretty much the same weapons available to any citizen: rifles, pistols, swords and horses.

Not so today. If the Governor orders the National Guard to roll into my town with tanks so he can force us to work in the license plate factory, then I'd like to have some RPGs, or at least a little C4 to rig an IED... all the stuff we gave Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviets.

I suppose the next best thing is a deer rifle with a good scope. I'd much rather pick off the oppressors from a distance.

Some of our troops are issued handguns, but rarely as a primary weapon (e.g. tank crewmen are issued pistols, but their primary weapons is, well, a tank). A handgun is useful only for close proximity fighting, with the primary objective being to put the other guy down before it comes to hand-to-hand combat.

Does the limited utility of a handgun in warfare mean that we can ban handguns and satisfy the protections intended by the 2nd Amendment? I'm not ready to go concede that point. I think that if I wanted to be prepared to go to war with a government that intends to enslave me, I'd like to have that handgun. After all, they get to use tanks, helicopters, mortars, assault rifles, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers and all kinds of stuff that are already banned from private ownership.

I can have a semi-automatic rifle, a semi-automatic shotgun and a handgun. Oh, and a crossbow. Doesn't seem like a fair fight. I'm going to have to fight dirty (like the Minutemen hiding in the trees vs the Redcoats), and so I'd like to keep the handgun.

And yes, the consequence is that bad things can happen when handguns are broadly available.

But lots of people are killed by cars, maybe more than are killed by guns. In fact, I was almost wiped out on my motorcycle last night when a girl talking on her cell phone made a left turn right into me, stopping only a few feet away from the collision. My personal experience is that a driver talking on a cell phone while driving is way more dangerous to me than someone with a handgun.

Yes, 33 people died in this one incident, and that's a tragedy. How many were killed yesterday by impaired drivers?

We don't even care anymore. It's not newsworthy.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

School Vouchers & Economic Segregation

I have watched my community be systematically harvested by residential developers and the politicians on their payroll, and a couple of years ago decided to do something about it. As a business executive, the first thing I wanted to understand was money flows -- where did money come from, and where was it going. It was only then that I understood the complex relationship between suburban development and school operations.

It comes down to this: the public school system has the authority to suck up money from the local taxpayers to build a school system which is has sufficient quality to attract more people to the community. That creates the demand for more houses, and the developers get rich. In fact, they get so rich that they spend a lot of money supporting the local politicians to make sure the developers are granted all the zoning and infrastructure support they need. Every anti-development politician in our community has been ridden out of town on a rail.

The trouble is that this is a Ponzi scheme. People build houses in our community because they love the schools, not knowing that their incremental tax contribution doesn't come close to paying the full cost of the demands they place on the school system. So the school board keeps coming back to the same taxpayers over and over to get more money to cover the funding shortage. Meanwhile the developers are getting richer all the time.

Having read and studied the proposed amendment language a couple of times, I'm quite sure that it will cost me more, and our school system will get less. The clue is one sentence in the amendment which says something like "no district will get more than it needs." I'm confident that it means districts like our will be capped, just as we are under the current budget.

If the stereotype is that right-wingers like big business and left-wingers like big government, then I’m as centrist as one can get. I think both are bad because all big entities seek self-preservation above all else, including their reason for existence.

My recommendation is to transform to a pure voucher system, where the money follows the kids. The vouchers are paid for by tax dollars, and every kid gets exactly the same dollar value assigned to their vouchers. Only accredited schools can turn in vouchers to the State for cash. To be an accredited school, the school must accept any student from Ohio, accept the voucher as 100% of tuition, and operate as a not-for-profit entity (ie no shareholders and no distribution of ‘profits’). The staff of the school must consist of licensed teachers, and the curriculum must meet the current state requirements. The kids must be able to pass whatever standardized testing is administered today. The State would have the responsibility of providing a transportation system which would take a kid from their home to any school within a reasonable distance at no cost.

I think we would end up with a combination of multi-building systems and individual boutique schools. Some would offer broad curricula and others would specialize. I envision the current school administrators running these schools (with some tune up of their business skills) under the supervision of a Board of Directors elected by the parents of the students who attend the schools.

I don’t understand why we give kids and parents a choice where to send their kids for post-secondary education, but not for primary and secondary education. Do we suddenly become better consumers of educational services when our kids graduate from high school? Why don’t we dictate where kids can go to college?

And finally, we have to recognize that public school systems in Ohio remain segregated, despite several decades of desegregation laws. But we do it in a more subtle and nefarious way than the days of explicit racial segregation. Our line today is: “anyone can attend our schools as long as you can afford to live in our neighborhood.” Consequently, the urban schools are poorer and less White than ever. Of the three largest districts in the state, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, the non-White population is 71%, 84% and 76% respectively. And they have among the largest per-pupil spending in the state. Blue Bexley did a beautiful analysis showing that there is no positive correlation between per-pupil spending and standardized test scores. Sending more money into these school systems won’t make the kids any less poor or the schools any less segregated. What we need to do is give those inner city kids a chance to attend the lily white suburban schools.

Sadly, as our own school district (Hilliard) has grown larger, the same kind of implicit segregation has crept into our community. While we are only a suburban district, our population is now over 75,000 and there are 15,000 kids in our schools. The affluent neighborhoods are in the northern part of the district and the multi-family and low-income housing is in the south. With 22 neighborhood school buildings, they are beginning to take on differing profiles that match the economic geography. With a third high school scheduled to come online in three years, our community is now engaged in a reassignment of neighborhoods to schools. Some, including me, want to use this opportunity to rebalance the demographics across the three buildings. Many, particularly those of the most affluent neighborhoods, want the attendance boundaries drawn simply on the basis of proximity. One person even got up and said that “those people” live in “those neighborhoods” because they want to! Like if a poor black family hit the Lotto they would say “hey, let’s stay here in the ghetto.”

If I wanted the state to spend more money on anything, it would be by creating affordable housing in the suburbs. I’m not talking about another generation of ‘The Projects’ but rather a community development policy which says that x% of any new housing development must be dedicated to affordable homes, interspersed through the whole development. Of course, this has zero chance of being implemented. Most of our suburban neighbors would gladly pay more and more taxes to make sure the poor blacks folks are kept in the ghettos where they belong. When we want to help the black folks, we’ll go to their community and work in the soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Then we’ll go back to our safe affluent neighborhoods, go into our big house with two cars in the garage, and set the alarm just in case we were followed.

We can’t keep feeding money into the same old system and expect it to get better. We need a new system. We need to let Americans – all Americans – do what they do best: Have a choice.