Friday, January 27, 2006

Senate Supports House Prayer

I’m pretty sure the General Assembly has enough to do during this short session. There are plenty of bills to consider and meaningful resolutions to pass. There are items being considered that will affect a far greater number of Hoosiers than the 150 who represent us in the State Capitol.

Educational issues, such as full-day kindergarten, and highway issues, such as whether to add new toll roads, are important matters that must yet be considered.

Yet one of the priority items on the agenda of the Senate this month was passage of a resolution in support of the House’s desire to pray to Jesus. Maybe spending time passing such a meaningless resolution that has no legal binding anyway won’t prevent more important legislation from eventually being considered. But it does show where the priorities of our lawmakers lie.

Several weeks ago Federal Judge David Hamilton issued an order preventing members of the House from saying specifically Christian prayers once official business begins for the day. As a result, lawmakers have been praying before entering the chamber.

Last week, the Senate stepped in to support House members who want to pray by passing the resolution unanimously. A House version of the resolution also passed.

Lawmakers are mostly irked by the gall the federal judge had in issuing his prayer restriction. They say it violates the spirit of the separation of powers mandated by the Constitution.

The U.S. House opens its session with a prayer. Generally speaking, legislative bodies are given wide latitude to set their own procedural rules of order by the courts.

Unlike public schools, where children are captive audiences, the Senate and House do not require public attendance at their sessions. So they are less restricted as to their use of prayer.

However, the House comprises 100 lawmakers, each with his or her individual guarantee of freedom of religion. Objections were raised by some lawmakers that the prayers being said during legislative sessions were strictly Christian in nature.

Judge Hamilton did not proscribe prayer in the House. He simply ruled that any prayers must be more ecumenical in nature so as not to offend those of disparate faiths.

Representatives do not need to cloister in the hallways to say their prayers. They may pray freely in the chamber during a session, just as long as the prayers they say are general enough that proselytizing is not an issue.

The Senate starts its daily sessions with a moment of silence. The House should consider the same practice. A moment of silence would allow the religious members of the House to pray to whatever god they want. But those who are less sectarian can simply use the silence to yawn. No one gets offended.

But, alas, the entire General Assembly has decided to make a political issue out of it. It doesn’t require much of an excuse to make almost anything a political issue, but all things religious are especially vulnerable. Take the Ten Commandments, “One Nation under God,” and “In God We Trust,” as examples.

Even the Senate bill’s sponsor, Mike Delph, R-Carmel, acknowledged that the resolution was only symbolic. He said it did not undermine the judge’s ruling and that the House had every intention of abiding by the ruling.

But an appeal of that ruling is already in the works. Thus more time and taxpayer money will be used defending a practice that is of questionable value.

Yes, I know; it’s the principle of the thing.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Time to End Debate on Time

The federal government has made its ruling; the governor just wants to move on to newer issues, and most Hoosiers are ready to get used to the time change.

But a few lawmakers aren’t ready yet to throw in the towel on the time debate. Even though the General Assembly, after a great deal of debate, decided last year to catch Indiana up with the rest of the nation by voting to approve daylight saving time, House Minority Leader Pat Bauer wants the issue to remain alive, at least until the November elections.

“I think for St. Joe County, it disconnects them year-round from the Chicago economy and the transportation hub,” Bauer said at a news conference he called shortly after the Department of Transportation announced that eight Indiana counties would move to the Central Time zone.

Of course, had the DOT decided to allow St. Joseph County to switch to Central Time, as it had petitioned, Bauer would have bemoaned the fact that it would then have been separated from Elkhart County, which is clearly in the same metropolitan area.

Elkhart County did not petition to switch to Central Time, and the DOT had said previously that no counties would be switched unless they asked to be.

Until last week when the DOT announced its decision, 10 Hoosier counties were in the Central Time zone and all observed daylight saving time. Five counties near Chicago in Northwest Indiana along with five more near Evansville in the southwest have been on Central Time for decades.

In all, 17 counties petitioned the DOT, which is the agency in charge of setting time zone boundaries, to switch from Eastern to Central time. The DOT finally ruled last week that eight counties could make the switch.

Two of those counties, Starke and Pulaski, are in Northwest Indiana. The other six, in the southwest, are Knox, Davies, Martin, Dubois, Pike, and Perry.

It probably would have been better to move St. Joseph County and Elkhart County into the Central Time zone, keeping South Bend and Elkhart in step with Chicago all year. But since Elkhart did not petition for a switch, the DOT did not force the issue.

Some democratic lawmakers want Hoosiers to vote on whether all of Indiana should be placed in the Central Time zone. Others want to roll back the move to daylight saving time.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma doesn’t have the time for those kinds of legislative shenanigans. He said the General Assembly was the place to make those decisions, and the decision has already been made.

And with the ruling by the feds last week, the matter should be settled once and for all.

But in an election year, that seldom happens with contentious issues like what time it is in Indiana. Lawmakers, like Bauer, will continue beating the dead horse until they finally realize the life has left it. And that won’t be until after the election.

A lot of people in northern Indiana are not happy with the new time zone boundary. As confusing as things used to be, they say it is even more confusing now. And one survey indicated that a majority of Hoosiers are not clear about what the time zone ruling really means.

So, naturally, the minority party will milk the confusion for all its worth.

But once everyone has had a chance to spring forward and fall back at least once, they’ll realize it isn’t all that bad. And if they have relatives out of state, they’ll also realize how much easier it is to make plans now that they don’t have to worry about whether their clocks are synchronized with each other.

No matter where the time zone boundary was drawn, somebody would be inconvenienced. The newly-drawn boundary is probably the best compromise for a situation in which there was no way to please everybody.

And as for the lawmakers in the state capitol, they should move on to more pressing matters and let time expire on the time zone debate.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

School Lunches Getting Healthier?

When I was in school, the ladies in the cafeteria served up real food. At least, that’s the way I remember it.

There was always a green vegetable side dish, usually green beans or peas. And the main course seemed homemade. I don’t know that it really was.

Our beverage choice was, well, non-existent. We drank white milk or we drank nothing.

But we were always served a portion of buttered bread. We could select between one and four sandwich halves of it. I always opted for four. It was usually my favorite part of the meal. (I guess that might explain a lot about my current weight status.)

But sometime after I graduated high school, lunch menus changed. French fries were added, as was pizza. I never once remember being served fries for school lunch. And we didn’t have an a la carte line.

A school in northern Indiana where I taught for several years served the kids a good heaping plate of starch over starch several times a month. It was called ravioli over rice. They served it with a small side salad, but there aren’t many nutrients in lettuce.

These days, some schools are making at least a modicum of an effort to reintroduce green stuff back into their lunches. Most have either a salad bar or an option for a chef’s salad that kids can take instead of the starch du jour.

Still, there is always pizza day, pasta day, and almost every day is French fry day. When kids are given a choice, they usually opt for the fried starch with sugar.

And that brings me to the beverage choices. There’s still white milk, of course. But when given the choice of milk or flavored sugar beverages, most kids go for the sweet stuff.

It’s not even real juice, not that it would be so much better if it were. They offer fruit-flavored drinks, which are little more than sugar water with color. Real fruit juice isn’t much different, except that it does have a few vitamins.

Congress has finally stepped in to say enough is enough. Beginning in July, schools that participate in the federal free or reduced price lunch program must start offering students healthier menu choices, along with more options for physical activity.

The guidelines are well-intended, but implementing them may not help much unless local dieticians are careful.

The guidelines call for each meal to include no more than 30 percent of its calories from fat. What that might mean is that dieticians might opt to remove some of the healthy fats, such as omega-3 and monounsaturated fats and replace them with highly-refined carbohydrates. That would be a step backward.

The best school menus include a good mix of foods, including lots of green vegetables, salads, fresh fruit (not juice), lean meats, and foods containing the healthy fats. Good menus also restrict flour, starch, and sugar products and foods containing trans-fats. Beverages should be limited to white milk, chocolate milk, bottled water, and diet soft drinks.

As a teacher, it is easy for me to notice a big difference in behavior of the students immediately after lunch. They have been filled with sugary drinks and starchy foods, and it shows.

Maybe next year, if the school dieticians follow the intent of the new federal guidelines, fifth-period students might be a little more docile.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Don't Use ISTEP to Measure Teacher Performance

State Senator Teresa Lubbers, R-Indianapolis, wants students’ ISTEP test scores to partially determine whether teachers get to keep their jobs. She is author of a bill that would tie teacher evaluations to test scores.

The bill probably stands little chance of passage. That’s because it’s a dumb idea. Even its author said it could stand some retooling before it is introduced for further consideration.

Lubbers said that if administrators and schools are held accountable for ISTEP scores, then teachers should be, too. But it’s not quite that simple.

Teachers don’t have any control over what mix of students they are given. Some teachers have gifted and talented students, while others have a high percentage of special education students.

Some teachers are assigned college preparatory students who tend to do very well on standardized tests. Other teachers have classes filled primarily with students on the basic education track.

In addition, teachers have no control over the socioeconomic condition of the neighborhoods in which they teach. It is no secret that schools in poorer communities or neighborhoods have a higher percentage of students who fail the ISTEP.

Why should teachers be punished for a condition they have no control over?

Lubbers acknowledges that her legislation needs to be tweaked so that it doesn’t penalize a teacher by looking at a snapshot in time. She said there needs to be a two or three year trend before any kind of disciplinary action is warranted.

Predictably, the Indiana State Teachers’ Association isn’t happy with the bill. The Association says it could result in good teachers being fired. Besides, state law already makes it possible to fire teachers who insist on being incompetent.

Lubbers also said she may, in the future, consider a merit pay bill based on good ISTEP scores. But, again, ISTEP is designed to measure how much students have learned, not the performance of their teachers. Learning is a complex activity that includes much more than how competent the teacher is.

There are far better means of determining teacher competence than by looking at the test scores of students. Using ISTEP scores to determine the competence of a teacher is like using a yardstick to measure the weight of an apple. It is not the correct tool for the job.

The performance of Indianapolis Public Schools, as measured by students’ ISTEP scores, is abysmal. But students in suburban schools in good neighborhoods, such as White River Township, do much better.

Does that mean teachers in White River Township are superior to those that work for IPS?

Of course it doesn’t.

Relocate the teachers in a suburban school to an underachieving IPS school and move the IPS teachers to the suburbs, and odds are the test scores of both schools will be similar a year after the switch.

Lubbers would reward the teachers in the good schools and punish those in low-performing schools, not because of anything the teachers do, but simply because of the socioeconomic condition of the community where the schools are located.

That’s not to say that teachers cannot make a difference in test scores of their students. They can. But there are far more uncontrollable variables in the equation than a teacher’s effort.

Lubbers bill is ill-founded and without merit. It is probably dead in the water, and rightfully so.

Leave teacher evaluations to the experts in charge, not the politicians in the General Assembly.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Increasing Cigarette Tax Would Help Curb Smoking

No matter what you do, kids and teenagers are still going to smoke cigarettes. But there are things we could do that would result in a drastic decrease in the number of underage smokers.

Gov. Mitch Daniels, in his State of the State Address last week, proposed one method for reducing the number of teen smokers. He wants to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by a quarter a pack.

That not only would make it far more difficult, financially, for young people to afford to smoke, it would also make it more likely that more adult smokers would quit. That’s a great side benefit.

Of course, pushing any kind of tax increase through the General Assembly in an election year will be a tough sell. Although many Republicans have already given the governor’s proposal tentative support, most Democrats are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Indiana remains one of the smokiest states in the nation as measured by the percentage of adults who regularly light up. It’s in the top five.

But the trend is to stamp out smoking in public buildings. Last year, Indianapolis passed an ordinance to ban smoking in most public buildings, including restaurants. Exceptions are made for bowling alleys, bars, and restaurants that do not permit children under age 18 to enter.

Several other counties and municipalities in Central Indiana followed suite. But smaller towns, like Edinburgh, have been more reluctant to adopt smoking restrictions.

It’s no secret that most adults who smoke wished they didn’t. Tobacco is a very addictive drug, a fact that most kids claim they know, but take little heed of.

Teens, unfortunately, tend to do only what makes them look good or feel good. They are more concerned with pleasing their peers than with long-term health consequences.

Increasing the price of a pack of cigarettes won’t stop all kids from smoking. But, as the governor pointed out, studies show that the most effective way of reducing teen smoking is to make it unaffordable. Increasing the tax on cigarettes will do just that.

If the cigarette tax goes into effect, it will result in a revenue stream of $115 million a year. What will that money be used for?

The governor doesn’t know yet. He said it could be used for a number of different things. The real goal of the tax increase is to improve public health, according to Daniels.

But with that money coming in, assuming the tax is eventually passed, I can think of no better use of it than to put it toward education programs, especially those that help deter substance abuse and smoking.

Many smokers are looking for a good excuse to try once more to quit. And no good parent wants his or her kid to start smoking. Increasing the cigarette tax, and banning smoking in all public buildings, including restaurants, are giant steps in the right direction to helping Indiana drop off the list of top 10 smoking states.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Record Labels Probed for Price Fixing Plan

For the past five years or so the major record labels have had their way with consumers of music, online and off. They sell CDs containing a dozen or so songs, perhaps one or two of which are marketable as singles, to a music-hungry public for $12 to $16 or more and give the artist a couple of pennies from each sale.

Then, they sue thousands upon thousands of everyday law-abiding citizens, including grandmas and unsuspecting teen-agers, for copyright infringement when they download songs from the Internet in order to get around the high CD prices.

The music industry whines and cries that its bottom line is shrinking in light of all the piracy going on. A shrinking bottom line might more easily be explained by the slothful nature of the industry in embracing 21st century technology and the online market.

Thanks to Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs, that is beginning to change. Jobs introduced his iTunes music site along with Apple’s iPod music player that has become a must-own for most teens these days.

Apple made arrangements with all four major record labels to sell individual song titles for 99 cents each over the Internet. Other companies followed suit, such as a reformed Napster. Wal-Mart also sells songs online for 11 cents cheaper per song than the standard.

But now, the recording industry is whining that it is not able to control the prices charged for downloads. Record labels say they want to be able to charge more for the popular new releases and less for the slow-moving older tunes.

The major labels are alleged by some to be colluding on pricing of online music. So New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is saying not so fast. He has stepped in a launched an investigation of the music industry.

All four major labels have confirmed that they have received requests for information from Spitzer. Online music retailers Apple and America Online have received similar requests.

So the shoe is apparently now on the other foot. The recording industry has been putting the squeeze on consumers by suing and overcharging; now, the music industry is getting squeezed by New York.

The move is apparently working; music industry plans to change the pricing structure for online music is currently on hold. Some insiders claim the recording industry has been victimized by Jobs and his one-size-fits-all pricing system that has been adopted widely.

The poor record companies are now victims? How sad for them. But they are getting absolutely no sympathy from the online community. They’ve made a lot of enemies of their own customers over the past few years, and they know it.

The blogging community has been particularly outspoken against the tactics of the major record labels. A blogger on Slashdot wrote, “So, who are the pirates now? It does seem maybe these (alleged) crooks may be losing their grip on the industry: getting caught with their hand in the pricing cookie jar, and potential other investigations into payola (the other way they control the flow and exposure to music/artists).”

I have no doubt the industry will come out on top. Ultimately, the big corporations always do.

Everyone listens to music, and traditionally, the only way you could get it was to buy it from the record labels, at whatever price they decide to charge.

They still want to do that. Old habits die hard.

But it could be that the tide has begun to turn, if only just a little. There are now many recording artists who are skipping the major labels altogether and putting their music directly onto the Internet for downloading.

And now, at least one state’s attorney general is pulling the plug on a potential price-fixing plan by the record companies in its anti-trust probe.

If consumers are lucky, these will be remembered as the first steps in a battle to rein in the greedy multinational record labels and make them accountable for their indifference to the listening public.