Saturday, July 22, 2006

Education in Indiana not Quite Free

Although summer is still in full swing, the time is rapidly approaching when the kids will be back in school again. And that means making trips to the malls and discount stores to get all those back-to-school supplies and clothes. It’s inevitable.

What is also inevitable, unfortunately, is that our so-called free education system will be charging parents exorbitant fees for textbook rental. A family with three school-aged children in various grades might expect to pay more than $500 or $600 for textbook rental fees. It doesn’t sound free to me.

Approximately 30 percent of school families will have the rental fees waived. That’s because these families qualify for free or reduced price lunches because their total family incomes are below federal guidelines. But the remaining 70 percent of families with kids in school must fork over the full amount of the rental.

In a 2001 policy statement the Indiana Department of Education laid forth reasons why Indiana should remain one of only 10 states that force their school children to pay fees for mandatory textbooks. In other words, their conclusion was that the vast majority of states must be doing it the wrong way.

At the time the policy statement was issued, the Indiana General Assembly was considering a measure to pay for all mandatory textbook fees with tax dollars. But the DOE nixed that idea.

The biggest reason cited for not supporting tax-funded textbooks was the cost. In 2000 Indiana’s expenditure for school textbooks to low-income families exceeded $16 million. The DOE estimate was that if textbooks were supplied free to all one million Hoosier students the cost would skyrocket to $74 million, and would continue to escalate every year due to inflation.

But in the big scheme of state expenditures, the difference between 16 and 74 million is not that crucial. It might be if the new expense were for something inconsequential, but the education of Indiana’s school children is of the utmost importance and should never be the target of penny-pinching.

A DOE survey that led up to the policy statement showed that, in many states that have no textbook rental, books were sometimes 10 years old and in poor shape. The study also found that not every student had access to some textbooks.

Although that might be true, it doesn’t have to be. It’s a matter of proper implementation of policy. In states that allow their textbooks to become antiquated or that purchase less-than-adequate supplies of books, the effort should focus on improving their funding formulas. It’s a problem that doesn’t have to happen in Indiana.

Another concern by the DOE is that in states where students receive their textbooks for free, they are less likely to take care of them. As a teacher myself, I know that students in Indiana don’t always take care of their textbooks either. And regardless of whether the books are paid for by parents or by taxpayers in general, students who lose or abuse their textbooks are still charged for the damage. It’s a non-issue.

The 2000 survey showed that four states paid for textbooks from state funds. The remaining states without rental fees paid for books with a combination of state and local funding. And even in some of the 10 states that have rental fees for textbooks, the state chips in a little so the parent doesn’t have to foot the entire bill.

But in Indiana, the onus is entirely on the parents. And that is bad policy.

Taxpayers who do not have children may complain that they should not have to help to pay for books for other people’s children. But they are paying for the tuition. The state constitution mandates a free education for all children because the framers recognized that educating our children is important for all of society.

A well-educated public is a public that enjoys a higher standard of living, less crime, and longer life expectancies. If the state mandates that all children be educated at state expense, it only makes sense that it should also pay for textbooks that are mandatory to achieving that education.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Be Careful What Your Kids are Taught at Camp

I didn’t go to summer camp when I was a kid. I almost got to. One of my best friends at the time and I had plans to attend camp, but his father didn’t want to pony up the funds. Even though the camp would take a reduced fee for those who needed it, no questions asked, his dad said no way. He didn’t take charity.

It was probably just as well. It was a church camp anyway.

When my daughter was eight or nine she got to go for a few days before she became bored to tears and had to return. “There was way too much praying,” she said. She also didn’t like sleeping in the dark in the woods.

I did have a nice summer camp experience when I was 22, though. No, I didn’t go to camp as a camper, but as an assistant program director for the Boys Club camp north of Indianapolis. I had just graduated college and I got to spend the entire summer in camp. Every two weeks, a new group of boys would be bussed in, ages 7 to 12.

Being affiliated with the Boys Club, it was a secular camp, so there was no organized praying, though campers could pray on their own if they wished. We did have an ecumenical worship service every Sunday morning. Each camp counselor and administrator got his turn at giving the “sermon.” When it was my turn, I spoke mostly about anger management. Some of the boys had issues.

Camps are not a whole lot different today from when I helped develop the programs in 1976. There is one major difference, however. Many of the church camps, about 50 percent of them according to the Christian Camp and Conference Association, teach lessons on God’s creation. One even has a Creation Walk, where each one of seven rooms is designed to show the little campers one day’s worth of Creation. I assume they get to take a nap in the seventh room.

One education director said the programs were designed to open kids’ eyes so when they go back to school they all think real science is goofy. No, that wasn’t a direct quote, but it was pretty close.

Of course, other camps have a different agenda. When I was the assistant program director at Boys Club Camp, we had a naturalist on staff. He did nature walks with the kids and showed them the wonders of evolution. But he was not competing with the church camps; he was just doing his job as a naturalist.

Now, however, there are camp programs that are designed to counter the Creation and Intelligent Design movements at Christian camps. One camp in California, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church, has a science camp that uses song, dance and drama to teach children about scientific discoveries about human origins.

Another camp in New York has a Natural History Day, where kids can take the Evolution vs. Creation Challenge. Students are taken for a nature hike where they get to see for themselves how the process of evolution has been working over millions of years.

Of course, when all the kids are done for the summer and meet back at school where they can share their experiences, confusion is bound to reign. I guess for parents, some good advice might be to be careful where you send your kids for the summer. You never know what sort of fairy tales they may be learning.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Canadian Trades Paperclip for House

I have in my possession a nice red paperclip, used of course. I will gladly trade it to anyone out there for a two-story farm house. Any takers?

I know; you think if I really believe I’ll get any offers for my paperclip that I must be a nut case. But a guy from Montreal did exactly that. Well, it took him a year and 14 trades, but he finally got his house.

How is this possible? A paperclip for a house?

Well, if it were not for the Internet, the guy would be trucked off to the nearest loony bin if he went around trying to trade a paperclip for a farm house. Instead, he not only got his house, he became somewhat famous as well, and increased his marketability.

It started about a year ago. The 26-year-old Canadian, Kyle MacDonald, started a blog called One Red Paperclip. Blog is shorthand for Web log, and it is simply a journal you maintain on the Web that contains whatever you want. Some would-be journalists use their blogs to report news events from a different perspective. Others use them just as a public diary. My blog contains all my newspaper columns plus other commentary that I wouldn’t dare submit to the newspaper.

MacDonald started his blog announcing he had a red paperclip he was using to keep his resume together. He posted that he would, within the span of a year, trade up to a house. “One paperclip, one house, one year,” he wrote in his blog.

People all across the U.S. and Canada were more than willing to help the guy obtain his goal. If he succeeded, they too would become part of Internet history.

He got the idea from a childhood game called bigger and better. He and his young friends played it as kids. The point, of course, is to trade something you own for something else of greater value. Then trade that for something of even greater value, and so on.

His first trade, brokered online, was his red paperclip for a fish-shaped pen. The first trade should have been the toughest if trading were based on item value. A paperclip is worth nothing and can be found any almost anyone’s desk drawer. A pen, especially a specialty pen, has at least some intrinsic value.

But the deal was made because, if MacDonald finally succeeded, the original paperclip would then be worth something as a collector’s item.

He traded the fish-shaped pen for a clay doorknob with a face on it. He traded that in for a camping stove, and the stove for a generator. He traded that for a party and the party for a snowmobile.

The snowmobile he traded for a vacation to British Columbia, which he then successfully traded for a van. He traded the van for a recording contract and he traded that in for one year’s free rent in an apartment in Phoenix.

It’s not quite a house, but it’s close. But a house is what MacDonald’s goal was and he wasn’t about the settle for less. He traded that for an afternoon in the company of rocker Alice Cooper.

Then it appeared he had lost it, trading the Alice Cooper afternoon for a snowglobe of the band Kiss. Seems like a trade down to me, way down.

But actor Corbin Bernsen, for some reason, wanted the snowglobe. So he traded a speaking role in an upcoming film, Donna on Demand, for the snowglobe.

A speaking role in a movie has some real value. It appeared MacDonald was in position to get what he wanted, just less than a year after he started. And finally, it happened. He traded his movie role to the City of Kipling, Saskatchewan for a two-story farm house.

The person with the red paperclip must be pretty happy.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Representatives Pissed Off about Film's PG Rating

Some members of Congress have a bone to pick with the Motion Picture Association of America. Roy Blunt from Missouri and Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee, both Republicans, have been especially vocal in their opposition to the PG rating the MPAA gave to an inspirational sports film called “Facing the Giants.”

They believe the film should have been given a G rating because of its inspirational message. They also contend that the MPAA gave it a PG rating simply due to its religious content, a claim the MPAA denies.

The film, scheduled to be released in September, is about a high school football coach who is faced with being terminated after six losing seasons. His faltering career, along with other troubles in his personal life, compels him to seek God’s help.

After receiving a message from an undisclosed recipient, he somehow interprets it as his guidance from God. He then develops a new mission for his football team: they no longer have a goal of winning games, but a goal to live for God and to do everything in his name, including playing football. “If we win, we praise God. If we lose, we praise God,” the coach tells the team.

I’m sure it’s a nice warm and fuzzy family film about how all you have to do to be successful in life is to have faith in God and try your best. But face it; it’s probably the trying your best part that’s most important in succeeding.

The congressional representatives, as though they have nothing more important to do with their time, want the House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold hearings on the matter. The explanation by the MPAA that the film’s PG rating was due to mature themes did not ease their concerns about the film’s rating or the subjectivity of the rating system as a whole.

“This incident raises the disquieting possibility that the MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and violence,” Blunt wrote in a letter to the MPAA.

Well, let’s see. Gratuitous sex in films probably is not responsible for too many innocent deaths. And it certainly doesn’t hold any responsibility for torture. It’s simply, according to Christian dogma, a sin.

On the other hand, Christianity has been directly responsible for the violent deaths of millions of innocent men, women, and children throughout much of history. It is responsible for merciless torture killings throughout the Middle Ages and into the nineteenth century. And it is responsible for putting the brakes on scientific progress from before Galileo’s time up through the present day.

Islam has taken over where Christianity left off in the Middle Ages when it comes to torture and murdering innocents. The only real difference is that the fundamentalist Muslims have better weaponry.

So, yes, Congressman, maybe a film that has a theme centered on organized religion ought to contain at least a PG rating. It certainly is a mature subject matter. Not to mention the fact that some scenes in the movie address other adult topics, such as pregnancy.

Of course, not all people of religious faith have trouble with the MPAA’s rating of the film. Although they haven’t addressed the controversy surrounding the film directly, a Christian missionary group called the XXXchurch, probably doesn’t care what rating the film gets. It is making its rounds, touting its own religious message that Jesus loves porn stars, too.

Members of XXXchurch go to porn conventions and hand out copies of the bible, adorned in red and stamped with the message, “Jesus loves porn stars.”

Their introduction to the bible, which is written in plain English, states, “Jesus loves pornographers as much as he loves pastors, soccer moms, liars, thieves and prostitutes. We're all just people who need God to save us from the mess we're in, and lead us to a better way.”

So you see, representatives of the people, apparently everyone from a disgruntled football coach to porn stars get to seek God’s guidance to get them through life, however misguided.

I wonder if the XXXchurch came out with a Christian-based porn film whether the folks in Congress would have a problem deciding what rating it should have.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

We're All Related?

How far back can you trace your genealogy?

Somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 years ago, according research done by Steve Olson and Joseph Chang, there was a single person who was the last individual on the planet to be the direct ancestor of every person alive today, all 6.5 billion of us.

They can’t narrow down exactly who he or she was, but whoever it was most likely lived somewhere in eastern Asia, perhaps Malaysia or Siberia.

Olson, a computer scientist, wrote a book in 2002 that maps human history all the way back to our ancient African ancestors that lived more than 100,000 years ago. Yang is a statistician from Yale who started thinking about who might have been the last person on earth to have been a direct ancestor of us all, and when he or she may have lived.

The two scientists teamed up and, with the help of a supercomputer, calculated with mathematical certainty that everyone alive today is a distant relative of a single person that lived sometime in history. And that time frame, they determined, was not that long ago, no more than 5,000 years and more likely closer to 2,000 years.

The details are esoteric and confusing to most of us. But, broken down to its simplest terms, here’s how it works.

Everybody has two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. That’s three generations. Now keep going back and you will see that each generation will have double the number of ancestors as the generation that came after it. You had 16 great-great-grandparents, 32 great-great-great-grandparents, and so on.

Now, as an analogy, let me digress a bit. Suppose you have a whole sheet of newspaper laid out flat on the table. Now, fold it in half, then in half again, then in half again. Keep going. After you have folded it 100 times, how thick do you predict it would be?

Would it be as thick as a phone book? How about an unabridged dictionary? Maybe you think it would be as thick as your house is high. The fact is, it would be thicker than the known universe. Go ahead, try it. You’ll never make it close to 100 doublings.

Now apply that principal to the number of generations you would have to go back to encompass all the people on earth. After 40 generations, you’ll find that you will have had over a trillion ancestors. That would put you somewhere in the ninth century CE.

The problem is there were only about 200 million people alive back then. There are not even a trillion of us on earth today. So where did all those extra ancestors come from?

The answer, of course, is that the same person appears on our ancestral family tree more than once. The same person who sired your father’s 25th great-grandfather may also have sired your mother’s 25th great-grandmother.

Since not everyone alive in the ninth century had children, and others had family lines that died out, it turns out that every person who had a continuous family line from the ninth century appears on everyone’s family tree thousands of times.

Going back further in time, you’ll reach a point, about 7,000 years ago, when everyone alive (who had children that continued their line) was an ancestor of everyone alive today.

It’s fascinating, but what does it all mean. Is it just some mathematical hocus pocus?

Well, it’s mathematically sound. Everyone on earth actually did come from one common ancestor who lived somewhere in Asia about 3,000 years ago or so. But it also means that every Muslim is related by blood to every Jew. It means that every black is related by blood to every Neo-Nazi. And every fundamentalist Christian is related by blood to every atheist.

It makes one wonder how we turned out so different.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Ban All Smoking Around Kids

Although the tobacco companies vehemently disagree, most people can see a common-sense relationship between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke, commonly called secondhand smoke, and increased risk of illness.

Now, the U.S. Surgeon General, Richard Carmona, has set the record straight. Secondhand smoke is a major public health hazard which can lead to increased risks for heart disease and lung cancer.

“The scientific evidence is now indisputable: secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance. It is a serious health hazard that can lead to disease and premature death in children and non-smoking adults,” Carmona said in a statement last week.

But he said that, unlike some other health risks, this one was easily preventable. Simply ban smoking in all public places and in the workplace.

That sounds easy enough, but how many counties, cities, and towns have actually banned smoking or limited it in public buildings? A growing number have, but still not that many compared to the number of places that still allow people to light up almost anywhere.

Ron Davis, president-elect of the American Medical Association applauded the Surgeon General’s report. He said that secondhand smoke is a leading cause of preventable death among adults in the US. He claims it causes 53,000 deaths per year. But he added the disease and death caused by secondhand smoke is completely preventable.

One of the biggest concerns is that parents who smoke at home are slowly killing their own children. Secondhand smoke in the home cannot easily be legislated against. Smoking remains, and should remain, a legal activity for adults. And what adults do in the privacy of their own homes should not be the government’s business.

However, where children are concerned, sometimes the government does have to get involved. Children’s welfare officials sometimes are forced to remove a child from an unsafe home, even over parental objections. Usually, it is for child abuse or neglect.

But, although smoking parents may not be beating their children or neglecting them, they are administering a form of child abuse if they smoke in their homes around their children.

The same is true for smoking in vehicles where children are present. Even with the windows cracked, secondhand smoke builds up in the car.

Fortunately, most parents today understand that smoking is an addiction that they do not want their kids to develop. They go outside the home to smoke. Some never smoke in cars when their children are with them. Others may have designated smoking areas inside the home.

But there are still a significant number of parents who seem to be oblivious to the ill effects that their smoking has on their children. They smoke in the same room as their kids, with windows closed.

They also smoke at the dining table, in those restaurants that still allow smoking, with their kids present. I’ve seen it innumerable times while dining out: kids trying to eat with smoke billowing around their little heads. It’s more than discomforting; it’s dangerous.

“Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and increases risk for heart disease and lung cancer,” the Surgeon General’s report stated.

It went on to say that the only way to prevent the risk is to ban smoking outright in all public places, not just inside buildings. I would suggest also making it a crime to smoke cigarettes within 100 feet of a minor child, inside or out, including in private homes.

It might seem to be a drastic step, and some would cry more government interference in private lives. But where kids are concerned, such interference is warranted.