Federal education grant summons ghost of labor bill past

UPDATE: The Iowa House passed this bill on a party-line vote on Friday, and Culver signed it the same day.

Democratic state legislators are rushing to pass a bill that will allow Iowa to apply for a federal education grant of up to $175 million. The application is due on Tuesday, and Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. day, so Governor Chet Culver needs to be able to sign the bill this weekend.

The Iowa Senate approved Senate File 2033 on Wednesday. Senate Education Committee Chair Becky Schmitz summarized key provisions relating to the “Race to the Top” grant:

Specifically, the legislation before you today will:

   *     Remove the cap and repeal date for charter schools in Iowa.  Currently, Iowa Code has a 20 charter school cap and a repeal date for all charter schools on July 1, 2011.  […]

   *     Allow schools to develop Innovation Zone Schools and Consortiums -This legislation adds innovation zone schools and consortiums to the ways that schools districts can foster innovation in more schools.

Senate Republicans voted against this bill, and House Republicans will do the same when it’s considered today. They want to see Iowa relax current restrictions on who can operate a charter school. Additionally, they argue that it’s unwise to apply for one-time federal funds to support ongoing education expenses. The GOP talking point of choice is to call this bill “Race for the Cash.”

Republicans also claim the bill would shift authority toward “union bosses” because of provisions that are not directly linked to the federal grant application. More on that story is after the jump.

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New thread on Obama cabinet appointments and speculation (updated)

UPDATE: Barack Obama announced the key appointments in his energy and environmental team today. Meteor Blades has a good piece up on the “Green Team” of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “energy czar” Carol Browner, Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson and head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Nancy Sutley.

On Saturday Obama devoted his weekly address to the housing crisis (click the link to watch the video) and announced that New York City Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development Shaun Donovan will serve as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in his cabinet. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York commented,

Shaun Donovan has been one of the most effective housing commissioners in New York City’s history. At this time, with the housing crisis raging, he is exactly the kind of person we need as HUD secretary.

Sam Dillon of the New York Times discussed some possibilities for Secretary of Education and noted,

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to announce his choice for education secretary, there is mystery not only about the person he will choose, but also about the approach to overhauling the nation’s schools that his selection will reflect.

Despite an 18-month campaign for president and many debates, there remains uncertainty about what Mr. Obama believes is the best way to improve education.

Will he side with those who want to abolish teacher tenure and otherwise curb the power of teachers’ unions? Or with those who want to rewrite the main federal law on elementary and secondary education, the No Child Left Behind Act, and who say the best strategy is to help teachers become more qualified?

UPDATE: Obama reportedly plans to nominate Arne Duncan, the head of Chicago’s public school system, as Secretary of Education. Duncan is also a longtime friend of Obama’s.

Meanwhile, nearly 45,000 people have signed this online petition at Food Democracy Now. Excerpt:

As our nation’s future president, we hope that you will take our concerns under advisement when nominating our next Secretary of Agriculture because of the crucial role this Secretary will play in revitalizing our rural economies, protecting our nation’s food supply and our environment, improving human health and well-being, rescuing the independent family farmer, and creating a sustainable renewable energy future.

We believe that our nation is at a critical juncture in regard to agriculture and its impact on the environment and that our next Secretary of Agriculture must have a broad vision for our collective future that is greater than what past appointments have called for.

Presently, farmers face serious challenges in terms of the high costs of energy, inputs and land, as well as continually having to fight an economic system and legislative policies that undermine their ability to compete in the open market. The current system unnaturally favors economies of scale, consolidation and market concentration and the allocation of massive subsidies for commodities, all of which benefit the interests of corporate agribusiness over the livelihoods of farm families.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has set a goal of 100,000 signatures for this petition.

Steph Larsen discussed some names on the short list for Secretary of Agriculture here. Sustainable agriculture advocates would love to see the job offered to Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs. Hassebrook wrote this guest opinion for the Des Moines Register a few weeks ago, saying

Nothing better illustrates the broken politics of Washington than farm and rural policy. The federal government spends billions subsidizing mega farms to drive smaller farms off the land and often penalizes the best environmental stewards with lower payments. It largely fails to invest in the future of America’s rural communities.

For example, in 2005 the Department of Agriculture spent nearly twice as much to subsidize the 260 biggest farms across 13 leading farm states than on rural development initiatives to create economic opportunity for the 3 million people living in those states’ 260 most struggling rural counties. That does not help family farms or small-town Americans. It does not serve the common good.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is among those who want to see Obama nominate a “secretary of food” with a broad vision for agriculture. He named Hassebrook as a good candidate for the job.

The Center for Rural Affairs has launched its own online petition asking Obama’s future Secretary of Agriculture, whoever that may be, to promote a new vision for rural America. It’s a long petition, advocating priorities such as:

policies to support grassroots entrepreneurship in rural America, such as the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, the Value Added Producer Grant Program, and the Farmers Market Promotion Program;

a plan to get affordable high-speed internet service to every rural business and home;

policies to support local ownership of wind turbines by farmers and ranchers, communities, and the rural workers who maintain wind turbines;

a plan to find the right approach to biofuels;

federal policies that work for family-size farms, including caps on payments;

better land and water stewardship using the Conservation Stewardship Program and other programs.

According to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Obama’s two finalists for Secretary of Transportation are former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Bay area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Kirk was an early Obama supporter and the first African-American mayor of Dallas. Heminger has the strong backing of California’s large Democratic Congressional delegation. I don’t know enough about either man’s views on transportation to have an opinion about who would be better for this job.

New names continue to emerge in the speculation surrounding Obama’s Secretary of the Interior. Among the names previously floated, environmentalists have advocated for Raul Grijalva and against Mike Thompson. Now the Denver Post says Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado is a finalist for the job. Traditionally, someone from the west is named to head the Interior Department. Salazar is up for re-election in 2010, and Swing State Project already has a thread up to discuss possible Democratic candidates to replace him if he leaves the Senate for a cabinet position.

UPDATE: CBS news in Denver says Salazar has accepted Obama’s offer to become Secretary of the Interior. Not a great choice, and it leaves Democrats an open Senate seat to defend in Colorado in 2010.

Post any relevant thoughts or opinions in the comments.

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Tyson chicken is not antibiotic-free

Tyson Foods has been claiming to sell “chicken raised without antibiotics” since the summer of 2007, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not consider that label to be “truthful and accurate”:

After Tyson began labeling its chicken antibiotic-free, the USDA warned the company that such labels were not truthful, because Tyson regularly treats its birds’ feed with bacteria-killing ionophores. Tyson argued that ionophores are antimicrobials rather than antibiotics, but the USDA reiterated its policy that “ionophores are antibiotics.”

Because ionophores are not used to treat human disease, however, the poultry company suggested a compromise, accepted by the USDA in December, whereby Tyson would use a label reading “raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans.”

Tyson’s competitors Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and Foster Farms sued, under the banner of the Truthful Labeling Coalition. In May 2008, a federal judge ruled in their favor and told Tyson to stop using the label.

Not long after, on June 3, USDA inspectors discovered that in addition to using ionophores, Tyson was regularly injecting its chicken eggs with gentamicin, an antibiotic that has been used for more than 30 years in the United States to treat urinary tract and blood infections. The drug is also stockpiled by the federal government as a treatment for biological agents such as plague.

“In contrast to information presented by Tyson Foods Inc., [inspectors] found that they routinely used the antibiotic gentamicin to prevent illness and death in chicks, which raises public health concerns,” said USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond.

The main public health concern is the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, which is thought to be related to the widespread use of antibiotics in conventional agriculture.

Tyson Foods is suing the USDA, “claiming that the agency had improperly changed the definition of ‘raised without antibiotics’ to include the treatment of eggs.”

However the lawsuit is resolved, I consider this controversy another reason to avoid buying Tyson chicken. You might want to bring this issue to your school’s administrators or parent-teacher association if they encourage you to buy Tyson products as part of the Tyson Project A+ label collection program.

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Comparing two lapses in judgment by Des Moines school board members

Jonathan Narcisse, the odd man out on the Des Moines school board, did something dumb recently:

Craig Richman, 16, a sophomore wrestler at Roosevelt High School, wrote an e-mail to school board members last week that voiced his frustration with the state’s “no pass, no play” rule, which benches athletes whose grades slip.

Richman blamed his academic struggles on advanced math classes. He said it was unfair that he should be required to sit out for six weeks for “challenging myself” and added that he is retaking the algebra class that gave him trouble.

Board member Jonathan Narcisse, one of three board members to respond to Richman, said Monday that he thought the teen needed some “tough love.”

His e-mail told Richman: “Suck it up, man. Hit the books. Work out, and stay in shape, and don’t make the same mistake ever again.”

Richman’s parents feel Narcisse’s 11-paragraph e-mail was unnecessarily harsh. But they are more upset with a story Narcisse shared with the teen about an athlete who hadn’t focused enough on his academics and was last seen at a convenience store “asking customers for money for wine and offering (oral sex) for money.”

I happen to support the “no pass, no play” rule for high school students, and I think we’ve all had the experience of writing something in an e-mail we wish we could take back later. However, Narcisse should be particularly careful not to use inappropriate language when communicating with students. I sympathize with his point that the kid needs to take his lumps and study harder, but he could have made that point without any sexual references.

School board chair Ginny Strong wrote a letter to Narcisse

on behalf of the board that said members are “appalled” at his response to the student. The letter warns Narcisse against inappropriate language in communications that are carried out in his capacity as a board member.

“It is highly and completely inappropriate for a board member to reference a sexual act in response to a high school student’s e-mail,” Strong said.

Point taken. Now let’s compare Narcisse’s offense to a recent decision taken by the school board and announced by Strong in a press release last Friday:

Des Moines school officials today said they will not sue the construction management firm that has overseen millions of dollars in projects paid for with sales tax money.

School board members paid attorney Nicholas Critelli $49,000 for a 13-month investigation that reviewed the findings of a 2007 state auditor’s report that showed competitive bid laws were broken on school construction projects.

Critelli was charged with completing a more detailed review of construction projects and found additional projects also violated bid laws. Critelli recommended to the school board they consider legal action against the firm that oversaw all of the work, Taylor Ohde Kitchell.

The district has a $19.3 million contract with Taylor Ohde Kitchell to oversee construction projects through June 30, 2011. School officials also have decided not to terminate their contract with the company. Critelli wrote that Taylor Ohde Kitchell was responsible for the violations because of the conditions of its agreement with the district, and therefore was in violation of its contract.

Strong’s press release indicated that legal action “with little or no chance of success does not serve the best interests” of the community. The Des Moines Register added that the school board discussed Critelli’s report “briefly” at an October meeting, but Critelli was not there to take questions about the investigation.

I am not an attorney and can’t assess the prospects for a potential lawsuit against Taylor Ohde Kitchell. But I respect State Auditor David Vaudt, whose findings prompted the school board to hire Critelli, and it seems that Critelli thoroughly examined the issues at hand.

As the mother of a child in a Des Moines public school, I wonder why the school board would pay Critelli $49,000 to look into this matter and then ignore his recommendations. Even if they decided not to sue, they could have at least terminated the Taylor Ohde Kitchell contract.

As a Polk County resident, I wonder why the school board seems unconcerned with holding Taylor Ohde Kitchell accountable for how nearly $20 million in local-option sales tax dollars were spent.

By the way, Duane Van Hemert, who oversaw the bidding process on these projects as the school district’s facilities manager, refused to cooperate with Critelli’s investigation. That alone ought to raise some red flags for the school board members. (Van Hemert resigned from his position with the school district a year and a half ago, soon after Nancy Sebring became superintendent.)

Current and former school board members take pot shots at Narcisse, but he was among the community leaders who raised questions about the Taylor Ohde Kitchell contract years ago. Where were Des Moines school board members when the alleged wrongdoing identified by Vaudt and Critelli occurred? They were dismissing critics of Van Hemert and the school board as a bunch of name-callers.

If members of the school board are “appalled” by a boneheaded e-mail that offended one student and his parents, they should be equally “appalled” by Vaudt’s and Critelli’s findings.

Here’s hoping people committed to better governance and oversight will get on the Des Moines school board in the future.

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Board of Education adopts stricter rules on timeouts and physical discipline

The Iowa Board of Education adopted rules this week restricting the use of timeout rooms and certain kinds of physical restraint. According to the Des Moines Register,

The rules restrict some forms of restraint, such as holding a student facedown on the floor. Educators must get permission from school administrators to confine children in timeout rooms for longer than an hour.

School officials also must attempt to contact parents and document every time they use the discipline method.

Click here to read a more detailed summary of the rules proposed this summer.

The Register reported that the new rules are “similar to guidelines approved recently in Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”

The restrictions are a step in the right direction but may not go far enough to deter schools from using timeout rooms excessively. This report from last summer about the treatment of some special-needs children in Waukee Community School District elementaries was quite disturbing. It’s not just the length of time children were confined in the rooms, it’s also the frequency with which teachers resorted to this form of discipline.

This website on techniques for dealing with special-needs children notes that “repeating time-outs too frequently in too short a period of time greatly limits their effectiveness.”

Two families whose children were sent often (and for long stretches) to timeout rooms in Waukee schools have sued the school district. Those lawsuits have yet to be resolved in federal court.

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Vote in your local school board election

School board elections are being held across Iowa today. Get out and vote, even if you don’t have kids in school. All property tax payers have an interest in effective management of school district funds, and all citizens should be concerned about the quality of public education.

Some school board races are hotly contested, as in Des Moines where eight candidates, including three incumbents, are seeking three seats.

Other races are boring. The two incumbents on the West Des Moines school board have no challengers on the ballot, but I went to vote for them anyway. I don’t want some stealth candidate from the religious right winning a seat with 50 write-in votes.

If you’re reading this at work, it should only take you a few minutes to vote on the way home today. (As of 10:00 am, just five people had voted in my precinct.) Or, if you’re reading this at home, zip out to vote before or after dinner.

If you’re not happy with the leadership of your local school district, consider throwing your hat in the ring for the next school board election.  

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