Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Parents can tell if all-day kindergarten works for kids

'Was your daughter a bear when she came home from all-day kindergarten?"

I heard it nonstop last year from parents of kindergarteners, and I'm hearing it again from parents of new kindergarteners.

Yes, she was a bear in full growl. Yes, she was exhausted yet refused to nap because she gave up naps years ago. Yes, she begged to go back to half-day preschool, even though her favorite day was the one that she attended all day.

Still, she survived all-day kindergarten and loved it by the end of the year. She made new friends, she loved art class, she said 'Awesome!" in the same tone of voice as her teacher, she could read small books by the end of the year. All's well that ends well, I suppose.

But would I put her in all-day kindergarten from Day One if I had a do-over?

Would I encourage other parents to put their children in all day?

Is all-day kindergarten really the way to fix our schools?

I can't answer the first question because I'm still not sure, though I wish she spent the first semester going for two-thirds of a day or only three long days.

I can't answer the second with anything other than, 'It depends upon your child." My second daughter will be older when she starts and has a different personality, so she may avoid her sister's problems.

But I can answer the last one with a resounding, 'No!"

Some 5- and 6-year-olds can easily spend all day at school. Some cannot. Objective measures don't account for hurt feelings that can sour children for months, as happened with my daughter. She went from 'eagerly ready" to 'not ready" in two weeks.

Many children who dropped naps are toast by the end of a kindergarten day, particularly if they're taking a first-grade curriculum. Pity the poor nap-needer. Even my daughter, who dazzles baby-sitters with her ability to snore through crying infants and roaring ambulances, couldn't sleep in an exciting room filled with peers.

Even kids from so-called ideal households – their parents are married, college-educated and eager to work with teachers and principals – can find the day too long and frustrating.

What about kids from unstable homes, whose parents don't see benefits from education, whose parents are too intimidated to question doctorate-holding principals, whose parents doubt they can help their kids as well as college-educated teachers? Surely these kids are having the same problems. Yet it's in their name that we're foisting this experiment on all children.

All-day kindergarten's defenders say that its effects carry on long after the kids have turned the yarn tassels on their construction-paper mortar boards. American students' standing among those of other countries has fallen behind, and we must do everything we can to put our kids back on top. That includes all-day kindergarten.

However, studies cited by the Goldwater Institute, Thomas Sowell and others suggest that any education advantage of all-day kindergarten disappears by middle school, even among so-called at-risk children. Besides, our nation's elementary students with only half-day kindergarten already compete on even footing with students of other nations. Our students stay near the top until middle school. Seeing as our nation's education shortcomings start in middle school, putting the burden on kindergarteners seems misdirected.

Admittedly, schools with all-day kindergarten let parents choose half days. However, blind rules by created by government bureaucracies and contracts can mean parents lack the options of letting kids go all-day for two or three days, or leaving a little after lunch. My daughter's Catholic school, which is not bound by such rules, has an easier time accommodating unique needs.

Parents, if your kids are ready for all-day kindergarten, go for it. They'll learn a lot and love it

But if your kids are not adjusting, trust your instincts. Go for a half day, then do extra work at home, if needed. (It takes less time with only one child.) They will go from dreading school to loving it, which matters more in the long run.

Help your school become flexible if you want kids to transition gradually. Offer to volunteer at lunch and recess so there are an adequate number of adults, then take your children home afterward. Find other parents with similar concerns and ask if the two kids can class-share – much like job-sharing, they would split the afternoons with one child going two days and the other going three.

These children are not bragging rights for bureaucrats, politicians or principals. They're just little kids.

Our little kids.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hoosiers left in dark over state finances

Government accounting seems like the last place you'd want to see creative expression.

There ought to be one right way to report where government gets money and how it spends it, and that's it.

Apparently, it doesn't work that way. And it goes well beyond choosing whether to employ FIFO (first in, first out – known to us non-accountants as paying bills first come, first served) or LIFO (last in, first out) techniques. If spending and income information is available, it may be in an unusable format or indecipherable by the elected officials entrusted with creating the budget.

• It's very nearly impossible to figure out how much taxpayers spend per student in Indiana public schools because funding formulas are so convoluted. Even education economics experts, such as the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, go through absurd hoops to find what should be simple answers.

• It's tough to find out on what services Medicaid money is spent and how it is allocated. Some elected officials have complained to me that the dollars each county must spend is determined by Indiana government, then counties must charge property owners enough to pay for it. They suspect that some counties are tagged as magnets for aid-recipients because the amounts seem disconnected from poverty statistics. Maybe the numbers are cooked. Maybe they're not. Secretive methods help only to create cynicism.

• Grant County, where I live, has conflicting reports about how many tax dollars are coming in, and if there was a mistake, whether it was made at the local or state level. The budget was approved last month by the Department of Local Government Finance, which said the county would have a $1.6 million surplus. H.J. Umbaugh & Associates said there's a shortfall of $1.1 million. C'mon, either the county has spent too much or it has a surplus. It's not a matter of opinion.

This all means that Hoosiers – the folks who pay the bills – have no idea what we're spending nor what we're buying.

We don't tolerate this when we're buying grapes. If a grocery's employees don't know how much the grapes cost or whether they have seeds, we buy grapes elsewhere.

Unfortunately, if we didn't pay taxes when we didn't get answers, we'd be homeless or in jail.

So we keep paying more and more, even though we know less and less about what we're getting.

Citizen groups frequently provide good analysis, but it can be tough to tell genuine watchdogs from groups seeking to keep government money coming.

Sure, the media ought to get to the bottom of this stuff. Unfortunately, few reporters have math and accounting majors. In my 10-plus years in the business, working with hundreds of journalists, I've met only one who majored in math, and he was in the sports department. I've never met anyone in accounting, moreless forensic auditing, which is the needed skill to get answers.

(Hint to editors: Pool your resources, either within your chains or statewide as you did for the access to government records project, and hire experienced forensic accountants to go over the state budget, and eventually, local budgets. There's a community service Pulitzer Prize waiting for you.)

It goes against my small-government heart to seek another law, but this situation begs for one. Government entities should be required to post the amount of money taken in and spent in a simple, easily understandable format. They all must employ the same, simple accounting rules. Reports must be posted online, and in spreadsheets that people can readily use to find what they need. Everyone – public and government types – ought to be able to find answers without hiring a professional.

Is this micromanaging? Absolutely. But seeing the absurdities and corruption that is uncovered by thorough auditing, it's clearly an overdue step.

What about the privacy of the recipients of government money, such as individuals getting Medicaid or the specifics about businesses receiving training grants? If it's too private for those who pay the bills to know about, then it's too private for government to be doing. If recipients want privacy, they need to seek money from private sources that don't blab or pay for it themselves. This latter part goes double – no, triple – for corporate welfare recipients.

Besides, financial reports would be shorter and simpler if government did less.

Of course, some tasks require secrecy, including national defense and prosecutors' strategy. That privacy needs to be strictly limited in scope and in the length of time that it remains private. The statute of limitations must be extended past the time the documents remain secret so that those who misuse such authority can be punished severely and forced to make total restitution.
If experts and government officials can't find answers, how are taxpayers supposed to evaluate government's performance?

Friday, June 03, 2005

Speech-restricting policy presents the real danger

Either INDOT thinks Hoosiers are hapless or safety is its excuse to silence opponents

by Sheri Conover Sharlow

Police officers stopped Thomas Tokarski and Brandon Hill before they could enter the public forum sponsored by the Indiana Department of Transportation.

'We were shocked," Tokarski said.

Tokarski and Hill are members of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, which opposes the government-preferred route of Interstate-69 that would link Indianapolis to Evansville. CARR has been setting up its folding table at meetings since 1991, when plans were announced for an expanded I-69 that would link Canada to Mexico.

Tokarski and Hill were shooed away from the May 26 meeting in Oakland City. The officers said that CARR could no longer set up an information table nor hand out literature at future INDOT meetings.

The CARR activists put their table on the sidewalk outside Wood Memorial Junior-Senior High School. Later someone from INDOT handed them a copy of its new public meeting policy.

In part, the policy letter states:

'To reduce the department's potential liability for tort claims and to save taxpayer money, individuals and organizations are prohibited from erecting tables, displays and banners in any area reserved for INDOT's use. …To facilitate crowd movement and safety, the circulation of petitions and/or other materials within areas reserved for the department's use is also prohibited."

Forget that the table cost Hoosiers nothing. Forget about the democratic process. Forget about free speech. It seems that the government-approved story about the highway is the only one that INDOT has approved as safe for Hoosiers.

The letter raises questions:

• Does INDOT think that Hoosiers are losers who will fall down and sue if presented with another viewpoint? How often has this happened at government meetings in the entire history of Indiana? Wouldn't liability insurance cover such a freak accident?

• Why wasn't this policy letter signed and dated? Who issued the letter? Was this person with INDOT or was it someone else?

• What does CARR have to say that it so dangerous that INDOT considers it a safety risk?

I'm more concerned about the security of free-speech than INDOT's absurd excuse that citizen-provided literature endangers citizens.

Allowing such a policy to stand in this case would invite it in others. It could be extended to pro-life and pro-choice advocates in the abortion issue, property-tax watchdogs and school-spending proponents, those supporting traditional marriage and those seeking gay marriage.

This would chill free speech.

Of course, this policy does not similarly restrict INDOT. It could still show charts, maps, etc. without allowing its opponents to present similar materials. How did government find literature that is safe to use around hapless Hoosiers?

This is a complex issue. CARR could show a map of their proposed alternative upgrade route that would follow I-70 from Indianapolis to U.S. 41 in Terre Haute, then upgrade that highway to Evansville. With that map and related literature, citizens would learn:

1. The upgrade route is, at most, 12 minutes longer.

2. It would improve traffic for some of Indiana's poorest counties, which line U.S. 41. These communities would benefit from an interstate. INDOT's preferred new-terrain route would cut through lush forests and fertile farmland, destroying rural countryside that many landowners deliberately chose to avoid the noise of highways and urban life.

3. It would take less private property.

4. It would cost at least $900 million less (an extremely conservative estimate using INDOT's rosy picture of costs) than the new-terrain highway. These are dollars that would not be available for upgrades and maintenance of federal highways throughout Indiana, including the much-needed upgrade of U.S. 31 from Indianapolis to South Bend.

If INDOT is concerned that some new-terrain opponents will behave boorishly, then address that directly. It is reasonable to oust people who disrupt the meeting by shouting over those who are speaking. So is limiting signs within the audience, assuring an unobstructed view for those attending the meeting.

However, denying free speech to those who play by the rules is unreasonable.

And it's unconstitutional.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

GOP’s Garton shows how self-preservation trumps Indiana’s well-being

by Sheri Conover Sharlow

It’s no surprise that the Republican General Assembly lacks the backbone to deliver the small government its party brags about.

Even their own party members must work around these political invertebrates if they hope to just slow the rate of growth.

Here it is in a nutshell from a story in last week’s The Indianapolis Star:

Senate President Pro Tempore Robert D. Garton, R-Columbus, called the planned license branch closings a "sneak attack."

Garton, the most powerful Republican in the Senate, said he believed the closings -- including one in Hope, about 20 miles from Columbus -- were deliberately timed to be announced after lawmakers left town last week.

Asked if he had been sneaky, Joel Silverman, commissioner of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said: "Yeah. I'll be honest."

It’s pretty pathetic that Silverman had to sneak around his own party’s leadership to make necessary cuts.

Never mind that taxpayers must pay $1 million a year to keep open offices that locals don’t care enough to use. License branches are doing less business because users have more attractive options that don’t involve taking a number and waiting. We can buy license plates by mail or at the BMV web site, and renew our drivers licenses online.

Later in the Star story, Garton was quoted saying that government should not be run like a bottom-line focused business, but "government should be run for the customer. The citizens are the customers. It's different. I hope at some point, in what I hope is a short career in government, (Silverman) learns that."

Actually, it’s Silverman who understands this, not Garton. The BMV chief knows that the real customers are those who pay the price. That’s us taxpayers.

The mesmerizing part is that Garton is so terrified of the handful of constituents who use the Hope BWV branch in his district. His district is so rigged that Democrats haven’t bothered to field candidates in the past election. He has won by 18,568 votes in 2002. Even if every one of the about 12,000 users the Hope BMV office voted against Garton, he’s unlikely to lose.

Could it be that his only challengers – Libertarian candidates – have him scared silly?

If Republicans like Garton can’t handle an easy yet necessary cut like this, how are they going to make the tough yet necessary cuts in Medicaid and education spending or stand up to those who want to extract even more money from Hoosiers?

Hint: They won’t. And they didn’t.

· They’ve refused to limit Medicaid coverage to only those items the federal government orders states to spend, meaning that those on welfare in Indiana have access to more comprehensive health-care coverage than those who work full time.

· They’ve refused to cut off colleges who build pricey and unnecessary new buildings, particularly in places where buildings could be leased for far less, forcing students to pay more for tuition.

· They’ve refused to say “no” to corporate welfare for the Indianapolis Colts. Everyday Hoosiers will pay an extra sales tax to subsidize millionaires. They try to pass it off as “just 1 percent” on a restaurant tab, neglecting how much every little tax and regulation on restaurants has added up into a huge burden, especially on small businesses. No wonder mom-and-pop restaurants give up.

· They’ve refused to stand up to the overpriced, unnecessary Interstate-69 project. The expensive new-terrain option will cost millions more, at the cost of upgrading and maintaining other federal roads throughout the state for at least a generation. It’s even politically crazy: This project rewards a Democrat governor’s supporters.

Republican legislators are afraid that the boogeyman of the moment – nasty Democrats, liberal interest groups, the media – will say something unkind to those who do the right thing.

They’d rather complain about the game being rigged. How rigged can it be? They’re the majority.

Now we have proof that too many Republicans want leadership titles without providing real leadership, which requires doing the right thing. That’s why Silverman deserves applause.

The game is actually rigged against us, the people who pay the bills. Taxpayers and voters must let them know that these so-called leaders will not stay in office if they refuse to cut spending. Don’t discount impeachment or recall threats, no matter how impractical.

These guys are chickens and it obviously takes little to scare them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Legislators, not sober drivers, are ones with impaired judgment

Open-container bill wouldn’t make roads safer, but it would make life more difficult for drivers

It’s a good thing that the current open-container bill wasn’t law when I was a newspaper reporter. One of our photographers could have unwittingly broken the law as we covered a story.

We joined two hilarious volunteers, a lawyer and a funeral-home director, for the city-wide cleanup. Their mission: To become real garbagemen. They debated what to do with goopy trash bags they dubbed radioactive (“Real garbagemen aren’t afraid of nuclear waste.”) They poked fun at other volunteers (“Real garbagemen don’t have clean gloves.”)

Soon, their truck was heaping with trash. Then they saw another bag.

“Real garbagemen don’t drive past garbage,” the passenger told the driver.

The passenger jumped out of the truck and grabbed the bag. He couldn’t wedge it into the truck bed, so he opened the car door of the photographer who was following them. He tossed the bag on her front-seat floor.

Under the open-container bill – House Bill 1057 – if there was just one empty beer can or bourbon bottle inside that bag, she could be ticketed.

It doesn’t matter that she was sober. It doesn’t matter that someone else put the bag there without her consent. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t know the bag’s contents. It doesn’t matter that she was hauling away litter. It doesn’t matter that her employer would have been tougher than any officer if she had been drinking while she was working.

All that matters under this bill is if there’s an open alcohol container in the passenger compartment.

Once again, our legislature is leading us into the Land of Unintended Consequences because it lacks the sense and the guts to do the right thing, which is nothing.

Too bad. They had been holding firmly against this legislation long sought by the federal government.

The federal government has extorted Hoosiers to the tune of $20 million a year of highway taxes that our drivers have paid, just because it doesn’t like Indiana’s highway law. Never mind that pesky 10th Amendment, which says that powers not specifically designated by the U.S. Constitution belong to the states.

The Indiana General Assembly should have learned from its recent tour to the Land of Unintended Consequences. A law that was passed in 2001 and went into effect this January required all food-serving establishments to employ licensed food handlers.

It inadvertently banned potlucks at churches and other nonprofits. Why, Indiana can’t have those dangerous church ladies making gooseberry pies or corn pudding or potato salad without state approval, even if grieving families openly appreciated having a nice meal after funerals.


Back to HB 1057.

Like other alcohol laws, it clearly will have some bizarre inconsistencies. Under current liquor laws, you can’t buy carry-out non-alcoholic beer on Sundays, even though you can’t get even a minor buzz off it, yet you can buy all the 50-proof Nyquil you want. Or 28.6-proof Scope. Or 70-proof vanilla extract. (For comparison, domestic beers are 10-14 proof and domestic wines are 24-28 proof.)

I don’t want blue laws to ban such purchases. But this shows how current laws don’t make sense.

Surely harmless non-alcoholic beer will be part of this bill because, jeepers, a police officer looking from a distance can’t tell a green O’Doul’s bottle from a green Becks bottle.

Why don’t they go all the way with the law? If you have an open Scope bottle, you’re toast. Better keep that vanilla in the trunk. And no tolerance for a cup of orange juice, either. If the orange juice in your refrigerator was opened three days ago, it has more alcohol than a bottle of O’Doul’s.

This bill would punish recyclers, who reduce the load on our landfills, pick up litter and support nonprofits, such as the Muncie animal shelter.

Collectors hauling their goods to the flea market could face fines for cans and bottles that have been empty so long that the drinker has been dead for decades. Caterers (or parents of the bride and groom) would not be able to choose where in the van to put the half-used bottles left from a wedding reception.

The problem isn’t with alcohol containers.

The first problem is unsafe drivers. (Ironically, drunk drivers will drive past police officers ticketing sober drivers.)

The other problem is with legislators who pass laws without thinking about the consequences. Their judgment is clearly impaired. They’re the ones who deserve a citation.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Thank Catholic schools for faith in every student

Their high achievement comes as they spend half the money per student than public schools

by Sheri Conover Sharlow
Libertarian Writers' Bureau

While government schools scream about small cuts in their state funding, Catholic schools will celebrate the great work they do with half the per-student spending of their counterparts.

This is Catholic Schools Week, when schools nationwide will showcase what they do for millions of children.

Criticisms that Catholic schools skim the top talent aren’t true. Many take all comers.

The difference? They don’t let excuses explain away poor achievement. This year’s theme – Faith in Every Student – perfectly sums up the goals of these schools.

I point to my alma maters, McAuley High School and Assumption Elementary School in greater Cincinnati. Both draw heavily from blue-collar families. Both have long offered a high-quality education that rivals the city’s best schools. Both rely on parents and alumni to fund new facilities.

Surprisingly, Catholic schools frequently are less annoying than government schools that nickel-and-dime people to death with sales of wrapping paper, candy and other things that no one wants. This comes after they tax us to death. (Why do they need more money? Half of our education dollars never make it to the classroom, but get sucked up in education bureaucracy.)

St. Paul Elementary, where my daughter Meredith attends kindergarten, strictly limits fund-raising to very few events. Focus on those and the school will get enough.

If you can’t afford the tuition, even if you’re not Catholic, these schools usually find a way for your children attend. They offer scholarships. High schools frequently allow students to sweep floors or wash dishes, offsetting tuition and getting needed work done inexpensively

At my high school, these low-skill student workers freed our maintenance workers to do the high-skill work of taking care of the building.

Compare that building to Marion High School, both of which were built around the same time, and you’ll see what a huge difference it has made. McAuley looks amazing. Marion High School is falling apart because maintenance wasn’t a priority. Now the school corporation is sending taxpayers an avoidable multi-million-dollar bill.

Catholic schools have an unapologetic point of view and they don’t fit every student. Some schools may have education methods that don’t suit specific students. Some families may find that Catholic teachings clash with their own.

This is why I hope that Catholic Schools week inspires not only those who attend Catholic schools, but everyone who wants the best for Indiana’s children. We need more schools that tailor their mission to their students.

Program-specific schools, such as Montessori, encourage students to flourish. Lutheran schools, common in Fort Wayne, do excellent work. Other Christian schools offer alternatives to families frustrated with government schools that challenge their religious beliefs.

Actually, private schools are the proper places for morality-based teaching. Catholic schools trace their roots back 100 years, when government schools taught religion that was hostile to Catholicism. Fed-up Catholic parents established their own schools. Problem solved.

Government schools have their place. But we cannot expect each school to be all things to all people. Private schools have a vital role to play. So could charter schools, if Indiana stops sabotaging them with restrictions.

Indiana could encourage more private schools and home-schooling by offering tax incentives to anyone who pays for a child’s education. Despite government-school belly-aching to the contrary, this would leave more money for government schools because they would have fewer kids to educate and more opportunities to specialize.

Regardless of your religious beliefs or your devotion to government schools, please say thanks to Catholic schools. They demonstrate the amazing things that happen when we put faith in our children.

Sheri Conover Sharlow, a former journalist, wore her plaid uniform to Catholic schools for 11 years. Her daughter, Meredith Sharlow, is the fourth-generation in her family to attend a Catholic school.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Disaster aid starts at home

Losing and regaining power after ice storm offers chance to see what we really care about

OK, Scott, I got the hint.

By Day 2 of our 56-hour power outage, it was do-or-die for our freezer’s contents. My husband loaded coolers to put in our friend’s stand-up freezer.

He left popsicles and bones for stock. But he grabbed bags of scary bananas that we saved for bread.

Once power resumed, I felt obligated to make banana bread.

For me, the worst part was going without coffee. I’m drinking decaf tonight, just because I can.

Losing power for a few days in the winter can help us reassess what we care about.

• While 15,000 customers lost power in Grant County, including most of Upland and Fairmount, Gas City’s outages were brief and few. An article in The Chronicle-Tribune ascribed this to the electrical utility being owned by the city. That utility demanded that trees be trimmed.

It wasn’t the magic of government, but late Mayor Gene Linn’s insistence upon quality that prevented the problems.

Linn – aka Beaner – ran Gas City like a business that strived to please its customers, whether plowing snow or standing up to bureaucratic nonsense at the state level or keeping local government out of businesses’ hair.

He understood. He owned a business.

As for preventing outages, utility competition and placing costs on offenders would help.

If one utility company had few outages while others had extended outages, guess where we’d send the check.

As for assessing costs, some damage was unforeseeable. Lines fell, tree or no tree, along Interstate 69 from just north of the outlet mall at Daleville to about halfway between Fairmount and Gas City.

You can’t bill God. (Believers could deduct from their tithes, but to whom would atheists send their bills?)

Trimming trees can minimize outages. Those who own the trees must be responsible for trimming. However, utilities must better inform customers. Customers who ignore repeated and documented warnings ought to be billed for the labor to restore power if that negligence provably causes an outage. Similarly, if insurance companies gave discounts to responsible customers, compliance would improve.

• Businesses did amazing things to serve their customers. A mom-and-pop restaurant had only its gas stove working, yet it opened to dispense coffee. Cable TV crews paid service calls to homes lacking electricity. Home Depot generated electricity to power strategic lights and a couple cash registers that first day, then was open at 3 a.m. when the next shipment of generators arrived.

I didn’t see high prices on emergency items, though it’d be reasonable. Such hikes serve a rationing function. The guy with electricity is less likely to buy a bunch of lantern flashlights if the price rises, leaving plenty for my family.

Higher prices also encourage stores within a chain or buying network to shift inventory. Some generators that came to Marion were intended for sale in Pennsylvania.

• I have seen Red Cross trucks at fire, police and minor disaster scenes from my reporting days. When I saw two Red Cross trucks in a hotel parking lot, it hit home. These trucks came to help my family.

We luckily found shelter with friends. Those who acted immediately may have found hotel rooms. But for those who had nowhere to go - or whose options also lackedpower - the Red Cross offered shelter at churches, schools and other facilities.

Disasters don’t discriminate, and neither does the Red Cross. It brings much-needed respite to people of any ethnic group, any family status and any income. Its volunteers will move on from the electrical outages in Delaware, Blackford and Grant Counties, and serve those who will be ravaged by floodwaters from rain, melting snow and ice.

My Canadian friends criticized our government’s slow response to the recent Indian Ocean tsunami until I reminded them that the United States would be the No. 1 donor once private donations are added.

Admittedly, we Americans regularly embarrass ourselves with our social clumsiness. But we are first class when it comes to charity.

So enjoy your banana bread and coffee. Hope that the coming floods touch few people. And support for-profits and nonprofits that serve those whom disaster touches.

It’s not the government’s job.

It’s ours.