Monday, November 7, 2011

Christian Postage?

Saturday I went to the Bacon Street post office for stamps to mail an invitation to a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union. I was told that the only stamps they had were "holiday stamps" -- stamps adorned with Christmas tree ornaments.

Well, that's sweet. Except I wanted to do a business mailing ... to a group of people that includes, probably, the highest proportion of Jewish, AND Muslim, AND "non-believing" members of any group in America.

Set aside the issue that my audience was ACLU members -- people who are committed, in fact, to freedom of religious expression. Shouldn't ANY business have the option of using the U.S. Postal service to communicate with their customers (including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and non-believers) without paying to put an image that is specific to Christianity on the envelope?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ever feel like you've been "profiled?"

I had one of those jarring, perspective-altering experiences yesterday.

My son has been accepted into an all-city children’s choir, and in addition to rehearsals and concerts, part of what they do is a “service” project. A few times a year, these 11- to 14-year olds go to one of the local shelters for victims of domestic violence, and spend a couple of hours leading games and songs for the young children who are temporarily living there.

What a wonderful thing! I love this program that my son was exposed to through his enrollment in the Episcopalian school to which we are fortunate enough to be able to send him.

But my experience took a weird turn yesterday when I went to pick him up after his service there, in the gathering evening gloom.

I’ve been to domestic violence shelters before. Several years ago, when my daughters were Grant’s age, Sally and I arranged for the four of us to donate some time, toys, and money to one as part of our Christmas. It was both beneficial to the residents, and enormously rewarding to the four of us.

But when I arrived last night at another shelter to pick up my son, something that I wasn’t expecting happened. I arrived a few seconds after a young woman, and hadn’t noticed that she had “buzzed” her way in. So when she opened the door as I was approaching behind her, I just naturally followed her in. To pick up my son, who was there providing joy to the children staying there.

And I was completely taken aback, that three different women (yes, all women) from a security station to the right of entrance, descended on me with immense suspicion and intent. As far as I know, none of them were armed … but they all had the “whites of their eyes” look about them that indicated that they were prepared to take me down.

I was startled, and offended. What had I done to deserve this? I worked hard to restrain myself from sounding indignant that I was just retrieving my son who had been invited to come provide a service for their residents.

And after I went back outside while the staff consulted their records and then buzzed me back in and directed me to a waiting area, I gradually realized what was going on.

I was an unidentified male entering a domestic violence shelter. And for most women and children in America, there’s nothing more dangerous than an adult (heterosexual) male … particularly one that’s not the biological father of the child in question… you want the statistics? E-mail me….

I sat in the waiting area and stewed and thought about it. I was resenting being treated with suspicion because of my gender, especially when I was there to pick up my son who was there helping (when I could have been home having a martini!).

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how sheltered I’ve been. No one treats a 53-year-old white male this way! I began to realize … this is how a black male professional must feel, when he’s pulled over by the police for a turn-signal violation. This is how a Hispanic American must feel all the time, especially here in Indiana where the legislature has tried to over-rule the U.S. Constitution on which American citizens with Mexican-born parents “deserve” to be here, and what constitutes a "legal" alien. At least I had unthinkingly placed myself in a context where my gender was in fact "reasonable cause" for suspicion!

Not sure how to wrap this up, except to say … to all my fellow Americans who are judged by their color, ethnicity, or gender in the first instant that they meet someone … I’m starting to get it now …

Monday, September 12, 2011

I'm Now a Card-Carrying Member of the ACLU ...

And a lot more!

After seven years of self-employment as a consultant, I’m really excited to share that I have taken a full-time position. I’ve just started as Director of Development for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana!

First, let me say that I’ve enjoyed the variety and the flexibility of consulting, and the opportunity to learn about, and make friends in, whole new industries – in particular, libraries, community development, and the emerging field of social media marketing. One of the reasons I pursued consulting was because, after the campaign to help create the new Indiana State Museum, I really didn’t see one single cause that I could see devoting myself to exclusively for the next three to five years of my career.

Self-employment also allowed me the flexibility to do a lot of volunteering, including with the Common Goal mentoring program, and a variety of outreach programs through Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t feel like I’ve become “righteous” in my old age … but when I’m volunteering in the inner city I recall the scripture ‘whatsoever you did to one of the least of these my brothers, you did unto me’ and I feel like I’m in the right place.

And that’s a big part of what drew me to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU defends and protects the rights and liberties guaranteed to us in the Constitution. Guaranteed to all of us … including minorities, the poor, and the unpopular. Yes, the ACLU often makes the news for taking positions and cases that are controversial – because they often end up standing up for the people who otherwise would have no one in their corner.

This spring I was unhappy with many things that were happening legislatively in my state … and feeling powerless to do anything about it. When I learned that the ACLU was looking for a Director of Development, it was the first time in years that I saw an organization and a cause that made me stop and think: “That’s something that I could devote myself to exclusively for the next few years.”

I’ve spent big chunks of my career helping create two museums that are, at least partially, celebrations of Indiana culture. I love this state, as I love old friends and members of my family, even when I disagree with some of the things that happen here. Of course, it’s a pretty comfortable place to be a middle-class white male.

Along the way, I’ve been studiously non-controversial and non-partisan. I’ve avoided taking positions or sharing opinions on political, religious and even public issues that might alienate potential clients, donors, or collaborators. By doing that, I’ve missed some opportunities to promote my values and advance causes I believe in. A mentor once described this as “keeping my powder dry,” but at what cost, and to what ends?

The ACLU is – as I continue to be – non-partisan. It has strong supporters on both sides of the current configuration of the political aisle. It does fearlessly pursue its mission, though, taking on cases and causes without regard to popularity. A lot of these causes – LGBT rights, racial equality, reproductive rights, religious freedom – are causes that mean a great deal to me, and where recent trends in Indiana are having a powerful negative impact on friends and neighbors of mine. I’m eager to get off the sidelines on these issues.

The ACLU also vigorously defends the First Amendment rights of people and organizations with which I strongly disagree … but I understand that we cannot allow government to suppress their freedom of expression, or none of us can count on that freedom for ourselves.

Yesterday I joined the rest of you in commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9-11, in our own ways. Today feels very much like the first day of a new decade – certainly for me professionally and personally, and perhaps more globally. Perhaps yesterday’s services will open the door for a return to a more civil discourse, and I am looking forward to playing a role in that. The organization I’m now working for is the American CIVIL Liberties Union, after all…

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A National Endowment to Eliminate the Debt

I wonder if we could make a dent in the national debt by approaching it the same way that most non-profits build their endowments.

Last month, while preparing to lead a fund-raising workshop for the Indiana Historical Society, I brushed up on the professional literature by reading the annual Giving USA report on philanthropy in the US.

Other than the fact that the recent recession has caused a tiny decrease in total giving for the first time since we started keeping track (back in the early 1950s), overall the basic facts about philanthropy have remained remarkably unchanged.

Total charitable giving has hovered for a few years around $300 billion per year – about 2% of the total $14 trillion US economy. Charitable giving has grown every year but one for over fifty years, but as a share of GDP, it’s held steady at about 2%.

The share of that $300 billion given by corporations has fallen just slightly to 4%. The share given by private foundations such as Lilly Endowment has grown slightly to 13%. The share given by individuals in current-year cash, checks, and gifts of stock and other property has held steady at about 75%. And the share given by individuals in one-time estate gifts – bequests left to charities in people’s wills – has held steady at about 8%.

(As my colleague Jim Gillespie points out here, dead people give more money than corporations. The line always gets a laugh, but the point is that too many non-profits put too much effort into raising money from the apparent deep pockets of big companies, while the real money comes from individuals [who don’t have to answer to boards or stockholders].)

Another key point that Giving USA always makes is that intergenerational transfer of wealth is an enormous untapped resource … over the next 45 years, roughly $41 trillion dollars will pass from one generation to the next. It’s going to go three places – to inheritances to children and other family members; to estate taxes (in the case of estates worth $5 million or more); and to charitable bequests to non-profits or, in some cases, public entities like schools and libraries.

The purpose of this last point is to remind organizations that their long-term financial health depends on becoming one of the charities that their best donors remember in their wills. Because in most cases, that’s how an organization builds its endowment – not by receiving huge cash contributions, and not by running and “banking” operating surpluses.

And the first several times I heard (and then shared) that figure -- $41 trillion – it just seemed too huge to contemplate. I couldn’t intuitively calculate how large it was. It might as well have been “infinity” – the point was, the number was astronomical, and we could transform our organizations and change the world by tapping into a tiny tiny fraction of it.

Well, thanks to the economic news of the last three years, the number is no longer too large for me to grasp. I can grasp it now. $41 trillion is about three times the annual GDP of the United States. It’s also just about three times the accumulated national debt.

Do you see where I’m going? I always advise non-profit organizations to see bequests as a dedicated revenue stream for building their endowment. Unless a donor otherwise specifies (i.e, “I’m leaving my church $100,000 for new stained glass windows”), a charity should not spend a bequest; or at least it should only spend it on one-time capital improvements. It should never treat it as annual operating revenue, because the annual operating budget can’t become dependent on gifts that are effectively one-time gifts. And my recommendation is always to adopt a policy of putting “undesignated” bequests into an endowment – and encouraging donors to include the organization in their will with that understanding.

Right now, the federal government is spending $1.4 trillion more this year than it is taking in in tax revenues of all kinds. It “sort of” keeps Social Security and Medicare taxes discreet from other general individual and corporate income taxes, at least on paper. But it doesn’t treat inheritance taxes any differently from income taxes or capital gains taxes or other general revenues. And since it only taxes that portion of an estate that is in excess of five million dollars, it is a) only taxing the top 1-2% of us, and b) failing to treat those funds as a non-renewable, one-time transaction.

The United States needs a credible plan for reducing a debt that is now larger than the entire economy, and that has tripled in the last ten years. It’s been this large, as a share of the economy, once before – at the end of World War II, when we had quite reasonably mortgaged everything we had to defeat the Nazis and, frankly, save democracy. That debt wasn’t fatal, but we didn’t whittle it down as a share of the economy) overnight. It took 35 years to get the relative debt down to the low point that it reached in 1981, when it was less than a quarter of the economy.

So here’s a simple plan. Create a dedicated revenue stream for reducing the debt – one-time, non-renewable estate taxes. Pay for the annual government spending that we want now with renewable, current-year taxes. Over the next 45 years, we can retire the $14 trillion national debt by collecting one-third of the $41 trillion in intergenerational wealth transfer with a universal inheritance tax.

I’ll wait now for the screaming and swearing to die down. (Six weeks pass.) Okay, hear me out. First of all, I understand that paying estate taxes can cripple the ability of a family to keep a family business or a large family farm intact. Of course, it currently only affects estates worth more than $5 million, many of which have lots of other liquid assets in addition to the farm or factory. And I heard from an estate planner at last fall’s Indiana Rural Summit that 70% of the inheritors of family farms and businesses cash out within five years anyway. So, if that’s the case, it might be possible to exempt long-standing family farms and businesses (those that weren’t bought as a last-minute tax dodge) from the inheritance tax. Those next-generation owners who want out of the family business a couple years after dad is gone can simply pay capital gains taxes to the debt retirement fund at the time they sell out to MegaCorp. Those that do, in fact, maintain a thriving local business that creates and maintains local employment probably deserve the tax "break."

Meanwhile, I don’t think its good for the body politic to have a tax structure that takes large chunks from a very few taxpayers, and none at all from not only average taxpayers, but from even quite wealthy taxpayers who’s parents die with not quite $5,000,000 in the bank.

Similarly, I don’t think it’s healthy that we have a structure that allows the claim to be made (technically correctly) that 47% of taxpayers pay no federal income tax (after all the deductions and earned income credits) – even if many of those taxpayers do in fact pay more of their total income in other taxes than some of the rest of us.

These things just add fuel to the fire of politicians and talk-show hosts who like to bleat about class warfare.

By the same token, why should an average taxpayer, or a well-above-average taxpayer, stand to receive $50,000 or $500,000 or exactly $5,000,000 when a parent dies – and not owe a penny in taxes?

My wife and I might end up in one of those categories – depending on whether or not end-of-life care absorbs every penny that both of our mothers have saved in a lifetime. Both our mothers fret about outliving their savings and becoming a burden to their families and to society. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to be prudent and virtuous enough to guarantee that that won’t happen.

Because of the realities of health-care costs, my wife and I are not planning on an inheritance. If we get one, why should we keep every penny of it? We didn’t earn it; our parents did.

So what argument is left against a universal inheritance tax? Yes, I know. Who among us trusts the politicians who wrestle for control of the federal government to use these dollars to reduce the debt, instead of just using them to subsidize current-year operations in a budget that remains irrationally out of balance? Not me.

So perhaps the solution is not to TAX the $41 trillion dollar transfer of intergenerational wealth that current voters will leave to our children. Perhaps we should endeavor to persuade all of us to voluntarily leave a third of our estates to a private foundation that exists to pay down the crushing debt that we as an electorate have allowed to be heaped upon our innocent children. (But only as long as those politicians maintain a balanced annual operating budget.) Let us establish the National Endowment to Eliminate the Debt.

Or perhaps the operative verb is “Retire.” I just think we’ll get more takers if the organization is called NEED instead of NERD.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ouch! IU's NFL draft history ...

In anticipation of the NFL draft this week (perhaps the last event in the history of pro football?), there’s been a lot of articles looking at the history of the draft this week. Tonight, I looked at the charts in this article:

which detail how many NFL players, and how many first-round draft picks, each Division I school in America has produced in the last ten years.

As an Indiana University graduate and casual football fan, I’ve usually had the sense that my alma mater is always a couple bricks shy of a load … it seems like every year, IU is three plays away from winning three close games that would turn a 4-7 season into a bowl season.

But if you measure a college program by its ability to recruit, and/or develop, NFL talent, IU is a lot further away from the middle of the pack – let alone the top – than I ever realized.

With 10 NFL draft picks and no first rounders in the last 10 years, IU is dead last in the Big Ten – not even close to 10th-place Northwestern (16 and 2).

In the SEC, of course, they’d be no better … Vanderbilt’s 14 and 2 would trump them, as would Mississippi State’s 18 and 0, and Kentucky’s 18 and 1.

Surprisingly, they would be even less competitive in the Pac 10, where Washington State’s 17 and 1, and Stanford’s 33 and 1, are the only programs even remotely as futile as IU.

Big Twelve? Close. IU almost matches Iowa State, which has produced 11 NFL draft picks and no first rounders; or Baylor, with 9 and 1.

Well okay, the ACC. They’re not a football conference. And sure enough, IU is better at producing pro talent than … Duke, which has produced 2 NFL draft picks, neither of them first-rounders. But IU would still finish way behind Wake Forest (19 and 2) and everyone else in this basketball league.

The decimated, national-joke Big East? Nope. UConn, which may not even have been playing Division I football for the entire decade, has produced one more NFL draft pick and one more first-rounder than IU. Cincinnati is next worst with more than twice as many NFL picks as IU.

So, out of the 65 schools in the six BCS ‘power conferences,’ IU finishes next to last – ahead of private-school Duke and behind Iowa State – in producing NFL talent.

So, in which conference would IU be competitive?

The Mountain West? They would trounce Air Force (no NFL players; they don’t fit in the cockpits) and Wyoming (4 and none); but would slightly trail Colorado State and UNLV for seventh place in the nine-team league.

How about Conference USA? They do slightly better than Houston, Rice, SMU, and Tulsa, but rank behind East Carolina, Marshall, Memphis, Southern Miss, Tulane, UCF, and UTEP. IU would be in the bottom half of Conference USA.

The WAC? Well, they’re no match for Boise State or Fresno State or Hawaii (all between 13 and 20 NFL picks, and 1 and 3 first-rounders), but they could give Idaho (7 and 1) or Louisiana Tech (9 and 0) a good run for fourth.

Well, good grief, the MAC. Yes, IU could be competitive in the MAC. No MAC school can match IU’s ten NFL players in the last decade … although a few of them can claim a first-rounder to go along with their other NFL picks (Miami’s 9, Northern Illinois’ and Central Michigan’s 7). IU could regularly compete with these three schools for the MAC’s Motor City Bowl berth.

This isn’t so much a rant or a complaint, as an admission of shock. Frankly, I would have expected Indiana to rank firmly in the bottom third of all the schools in the so-called “power conferences” – but not at the very bottom (save Duke), and not merely in the middle of the “mid-major” conferences. Given IU’s inability to attract NFL-calibre talent, I’m frankly amazed they’ve been as competitive as they have.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Double Daylight Savings -- Why Stop Here?

It’s a lovely warm March Saturday, so tonight I’ll not only light the grill, I’ll also have a fire in the firepit. Because tonight is the last night before October that it will get dark before my son’s bedtime.

Yes, tomorrow starts Daylight Savings Time … or, as I consider it here in Indiana, double daylight savings time, since we spend the winter recognizing Eastern Standard Time even though we’re 100 miles deep into the Central Time Zone. But tonight we double down on that and set the clocks back. So tomorrow, it’s back to getting up and leaving for school and for work in the dark, just like in the bleakest days of early January.

I’m not trying to fight a lost battle all over again. In fact, I’d like to suggest that if we’ve come this far, we might as well take this game to the logical conclusion.

If the purpose of daylight savings time is to maximize our daylight hours for leisure time after the traditional workday … what’s the point of having the workday start just a few minutes before or after we all go into our offices, schools, warehouses and factories? I say, let’s put Indiana on Greenwich Mean Time!

Having noon be the midpoint between sunrise and sunset is a pointless arbitrary exercise – even an old school curmudgeon like me doesn’t want as much morning as afternoon. I actually kind of like where we are right now – five hours of morning, seven-and-a-half hours of afternoon – just fine. Tomorrow it goes to four hours of morning and eight-and-a-half hours of afternoon.

But why stop there? Why waste so many more hours of daylight on being stuck inside working? If we were to go on Greenwich Mean Time tomorrow, it would still be getting light about the time church let out (and about the time the heathens rolled out of bed), and then it would stay light until 1 AM!

And starting Monday, how many of us would notice that the sun was coming up four hours, instead of four minutes, after we pulled into the parking garages under our offices? Ah, but we would have seven hours of daylight ahead of us when we got home from work at 5:30. Sure, it’s going to be thirty-seven degrees and drizzling (because it’s MARCH!) but those of us that want to can still get in 36 holes of golf.

The real beauty of this idea comes in June, when the days are longest, and even though they start at 10 AM, they still last until 3 AM! That’s almost ten hours of daylight after we get out of school and off work! Heck, that’s like having seven Saturdays a week!

Mark me down as a convert. Greenwich Mean Time! Quintuple Daylight Savings Time! Because daylight is wasted on the workday.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Arts Day at the Statehouse: At Least It's Not Illegal

Yesterday I had a little exercise in representative democracy, attending parts of “Arts Day” at the Indiana Statehouse. It was an appropriately low-key event, organized by a non-profit group called the Indiana Coalition for the Arts, in support of the Indiana Arts Commission and other arts entities that receive state funding. I attended as a board member of an organization that receives IAC funding.

These kinds of events are planned months in advance, and so the arts advocates were hit by a double-whammy of miserable weather, and the fact that the legislators were dealing with a much more contentious issue, the Right to Work legislation. All in all, it was probably just as well.

State funding for the arts has never been particularly robust in Indiana, but at least during the current economic and political climate, it hasn’t been made a target. For the most part, the Daniels administration has given the arts about the same haircut that every other program and agency has received, no more or no less.

Federal funding is a different matter. This year, in the budget that the Obama administration put forth last week, many entities like the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (among many others) were targeted for cuts in the 8% range – while new approaches to defense and entitlement spending are deferred. The national associations whose e-blasts I receive aren’t urging me to lobby my Congressmen against these cuts – they are urging me to lobby my Congressmen against Republican amendments to cut funding to these programs by 100% -- to discontinue them altogether.

Now, I will admit that, as someone who has made my living in museums, I’m ambivalent about how federal funding impacts fields and institutions that I love. I’ve always felt like the peer-reviewed federal grant dollars always accrued to the largest institutions – the ones best positioned to dedicate the massive resources to the arcane application processes. I’ve always believed that time was better spent pursuing the far larger (and uncapped) pool of individual private philanthropic dollars.

And honestly, if I thought that accepting draconian cuts to my favored endeavors would fix our budgetary problems, I wouldn’t scream about having to sacrifice. But as article after article is making clear now – and at least some of our representatives must understand – we could cut all “discretionary” domestic spending – not only the arts and education, but foreign aid, community development block grants, the centers for disease control, highway funding, etc. – and the remaining federal expenditures (social security, medicare/Medicaid, defense, and interest on the debt) would still exceed federal revenue by a few hundred billion dollars this year. Zeroing out whole federal agencies will only add hugely to the unemployment rate and cause the bottom to fall out of aggregate demand in the still-faltering economy. Here in Indiana, the Daniels administration at least understood that.

But meanwhile, cuts to federal arts funding are inevitable; and they are probably going to come primarily out of available grant-making dollars rather than the overhead infrastructure. Because most competitive grants aren’t “renewable,” institutions tend to target them for new initiatives, or for programs delivered by performers and artists-in-residence that don’t become permanent operating costs. As always, it will be the lowest-paid and entry-level individuals who will suffer first and most.

So here in Indiana – despite some of the “Storm the Floor” rhetoric in the literature – filling the south lobby of the Statehouse with some well-mannered people bearing witness to their belief in the value of the arts was probably better than contributing to the general anger. At least there aren’t any bills or constitutional amendments pending to make the arts illegal.

Meanwhile, the real attention of the media and the disconcertingly large contingent of state troopers was on the north lobby, where large numbers of union members were gathered to make their feeling known about the Right to Work bill that would limit collective bargaining. (Although everything I saw remained civil -- all the carpenters and electricians that I encountered nodded and smiled, and held doors for my female colleague.)

At the time, my primary reaction was frustration at how difficult it is for a citizen to get into the Statehouse. I didn’t realize until this morning that state troopers were there, not to direct me around the building in the rain to the only doors where the metal detectors were actually staffed, but possibly to keep the Democratic minority from staging a walkout?

Because that has become the news in the time it has taken me to write this blog. The House Democratic caucus has disappeared, and may have left the state. And apparently, using the State Police to compel them to return is an option. Fascinating. I may have to go watch this in person …

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Is Choice Such a Good Idea After All?

Here in Indiana the legislature is in full gear, with Republican majorities in both houses pushing through an ambitious agenda, some of which is overdue and some of which scares me to death.

Education reform is at the top of the list. I'm not sure where I stand on all of the issues. The one thing that is obvious to me is that we need longer school days and longer school years to be competitive with the rest of the industrialized world, but investing one additional penny is about the only thing that isn't on anyone's agenda this year.

My wife and I are fortunate to be able to send our son to an excellent private Episcopal school just down the block. Unlike a lot of bloggers and posters, I don't "resent" paying both tuition and taxes. My neighbors who don't have kids pay taxes for public schools, for the common good; why should I not have to pay for those schools just because I choose not to use them?

By the same token, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of sending public dollars to private schools, in particular church-sponsored schools, by means of vouchers. Even though our son's school could no doubt benefit from the increased enrollment and revenue. The voucher legislation I've seen would work on a sliding scale, providing 75% of the cost of tuition to the neediest families, and only 25% to those who's household incomes approached six figures. My guess is, that in practice there would be a lot more solid middle-class households taking advantage of the 25% voucher, than struggling single moms able to use the 75% voucher for multiple kids. Like the home mortgage deduction and the tax-free-income status of employer-provided health insurance, this would be another transfer of wealth to the more affluent half of us, to the incalculable detriment of the other half.

All this activity is causing me to rethink one reform that I thought worked for everyone: the idea of open enrollment. For several years, one of the few things that Indianapolis Public Schools had going for it was the opportunity for every school in the district to develop its own specialties and magnet programs (math/science, humanities, fine arts, health sciences, etc.), and for students to be able to attend any high school in the district that best suited their interests and strengths. The growing number of free public charter schools expanded those choices. And now, with the recent reform of school funding made necessary by property tax caps, families across the state are free to explore the possibilities of the greener school districts on the other side of the fence.

Except. For the past three years, I've been participating in the Common Goal mentoring program at the New Tech magnet program at Arsenal Tech. In fact, I wrote about it for The Urban Times here.

After one year, I felt pretty good about what I was doing. I still think the program has merit and I'm not giving up, because "Quitting is Not an Option" is the message we're trying to get out to the kids in a school district that, three years ago, had a 31% graduation rate.

But the fact is, only one of the five freshman that I started mentoring in the fall of 2008 is still at that school. Only one appears to have dropped out. Three others, to the best of the school's knowledge, were moved by their families to other schools, inside or outside the IPS district. Moreover, only one of the four "new" students who was added to my group when the sophomore year began is still there. Four of the six good kids I meet with now are new to the school this year, if not this semester; and at least two of them have been to at least three different schools in their two and a half years of high school.

I can't believe that this kind of turnover is conducive to good education, regardless of the quality or uniqueness of any specific system, methodology, or teacher. I'm no apologist for the status quo or for the education lobby, but I don't see how the teachers accomplish anything in this environment.

Is it possible that we have students and families taking advantage of the opportunity to change at will, on the assumption that "the problem" is the teacher or the principal that they don't get along with ... instead of something within their control, or something that they might benefit by working through?

Maybe unlimited choice isn't such a good thing. Maybe, for all the flack the IHSAA takes for being arbitrary and heavy-handed about applying their transfer rules, they're on to something. Where, in the avalanche of change that we are demanding in public education this year, is some element of commitment on the part of the students and families?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Big Get Smaller ...

I was in Muncie today, and picked up a copy of the Star Press at a gas station because the headline caught my eye:

“The New Kid in the Class: Declining Enrollment shifting Central to 3A Next Year”

I’ve been following the shifting demographics of Indiana communities for years, but this is truly a stunning development.

For traditionalists (which in Indiana means almost everybody), the idea that Muncie Central High School is no longer the Big Bad Bully on the street – not only that, but not in the top 10, the top 20, or the top 100 – is downright disorienting.

In the century where the one-class state basketball tournament was one of Indiana’s defining features, Muncie Central’s pre-eminence was as much a given as the sunrise. Muncie Central won more single-class state championships than anyone else – and more than all of Indianapolis’ or South Bend’s or Gary’s or Fort Wayne’s schools combined – between 1911 and 1997. Muncie Central won their first title by beating John Wooden. Muncie Central won their last title by beating Damon Bailey. Muncie Central was the prime villain when Oscar Robertson and Crispus Attucks smashed the color barrier, and when Milan’s Bobby Plump fired the shot that inspired Hoosiers.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, which in the grand scheme of things is a good thing. But the reaction as reported in Muncie’s paper of record reflected the disorientation. One 73-year-old fan argued that Muncie Central and Muncie South should merge (Muncie North was closed years ago) so the community could continue to compete in the top tier of the IHSAA tournament. “If they combined them, then they would not go to 3A,” said Charles Corn.

Others didn’t want the benefit of increased enrollment from the eradication of Southside to put them back in the upper bracket. Max Linn contended, “I think we could play with any of them in 4A.”

“Play in 4A,” added Marcella Murphy. “We’ve been the best for years and years, and we can still be the best if we are given the chance.”

And then there was this from Max Linn’s wife, Georgia: “We’ll play easier teams (in 3A), so that’s a good thing … when we play Indianapolis Pike and all those big schools, that’s hard for a little school.”

Huh. Is Muncie Central a little school? Well, over the last two years, their enrollment dropped from 1,146 to 945. Compared to Ben Davis’ 4,544 or Carmel’s 4,443, Muncie Central is pretty small. Some of their fans don’t want to compete in a “second-tier” tournament. Others don’t want to keep competing against schools five times their size … even though they are still in the 74th percentile; even though Muncie won its first eight championships by plowing through the opening rounds of the tournament against teams one-twentieth their size.

But there’s something bigger than that going on here. Muncie Central has fallen into the second quartile of high schools because Muncie, the city, is bleeding population; but they are not unique, they are typical.

I took note this fall when Fishers High School, in its fifth year of existence, won the 5A state football championship. Pretty impressive; just as impressive as my high school, Tippecanoe Valley, winning the 1A state football championship in 1979 in its fifth year of existence – beating another small rural school, Hamilton Southeastern (HSE), for the title.

But one of the reasons I took note was because Fishers High School was created just five years ago when it was carved out of HSE. Over the 25 years since little HSE met little TVHS for the small-school state title, HSE grew so fast and so large, that by 2005 it could be split in two … and both halves would still be in the top quartile, larger not only than Tippecanoe Valley but larger than Muncie Central. (In fact, had HSE and Fishers not been split 5 years ago, this year HSE would have been the largest school in the state by 500 students, or 10%, over the #2 school, Ben Davis.)

Meanwhile, Tippecanoe Valley has moved from Class 1A in a 3-class football system, to 3A in a 5-class football system (and, indeed, to 3A in a 4-class basketball system). Is this because Akron and Mentone are thriving, growing metropolises? Uh, no. But they are in the distinct minority of Indiana communities in that they are not, like Muncie, bleeding population from the carotid artery.

Valley is a little smaller than it was 35 years ago – 617 vs. 648 students in the top 4 grades. It moved from the smallest 33% in 1979 to well into the top 50% in 2010 not by growing, but by losing population less rapidly than 80% of the rest of the state. Valley didn’t grow … they just passed 100 other communities that lost 20% of their population, and didn’t quite catch another 100, like Muncie, that lost population at a similar or greater rate, from a larger base.

Here’s the issue. A dozen suburban counties in Indiana are growing like wildflowers. Eighty others – including five central cities and 75 rural communities – are dwindling. Does it matter?

I don’t know. It just makes me uncomfortable.

From a “school size” standpoint, I think the current administration in the executive branch of state government is done pussy-footing around. Big, rich, and growing are going to get an increasing share of the available revenue. Small and stagnant communities are going to be forced into consolidations that may well improve the prospects for some current students. But are the dynamics that are causing them to get smaller going to be addressed? Stay tuned … but don’t wait for the cavalry …

Friday, February 4, 2011

A multi-lingual society?

This morning's Indianapolis Star carried a commendable editorial, criticizing House Bill 1255, an "English-only" bill that would ostensibly "ban state documents, public meetings and public employees from using a second language." You can read it here.

It reminded me that the other day I was using the ATM outside the Broad Ripple branch of the Huntington Bank where I do my banking, where I was struck to realize that the screen offered me THREE choices of language: English, Espanol, and Somali. Somali?

My first reaction was bemusement and curiosity. Surely, Somali is not the second most common foreign language in Indianapolis, Indiana. But it has to be a good thing; what's the point of living in a major city if it isn't diverse and cosmopolitan? It didn't occur to me to be offended.

I went home and did a little internet research. Huntington's website (tagline: "We Speak Your Language & Share Your Values. A Bank Like No Other") did not have any reference to why they've elevated this rather obscure African language to "Big Three" status.

A Google search did turn up some two-year-old news articles that were informative, though. Apparently there is a sizable Somalian population in Columbus, OH (where Huntington is headquartered) -- as many as 45,000. Why Columbus, I don't know; any more than I know why Fort Wayne attracted America's largest Macedonian population in the 1920s.

Of course these days, when we hear the word "Somalian," the first thing that comes to mind is "pirates." And we haven't heard as much about Somalian pirates in the last two years, not since a small group of them made the mistake of hijacking an American ship, and the American President with the African last name responded to his first foreign policy crisis by authorizing the (highly effective) use of deadly force in response.

But Somalian pirates are a by-product of the 20-year civil war in that country where we were once engaged, in one of those well-intended humanitarian missions that became a military one. And many of the Somalians in America today are refugees from that war. The ones who make it to America -- legally, in most cases -- are the lucky ones. Many of them, apparently, live frugally here so they can send money to relatives still struggling to survive in refugee camps in Kenya.

Of course, just about 100% of Somalians are black, and just about that high a percentage of them are Muslim. So I didn't have to follow too many links on Google to start finding newspaper articles followed by angry, hostile posts in those infernal "comments" sections. One such article, from late 2009, was about a different Ohio-based bank that had announced it would no longer facilitate wire transfers to Somalian refugees in Kenya, for fear that some of those funds were filtering to Islamic terrorists. The Executive Director of the Somali-American Chamber of Commerce was quoted as saying that this amounted to a death sentence his constituents' relatives in Africa. The comments section was predictably unsympathetic.

I thought about all of this again this morning while reading the Star editorial on our legislators' efforts to ban Spanish (let alone Somali!) from our public documents and websites and conversations.

So I stopped in my bank branch and asked the friendly faces (two of them, in fact, are Hispanic) behind the counter what they knew about the Somali language option on the ATM. The first person I talked to was aware of it but didn't know the specifics; a second employee offered that, because Huntington was headquartered in Columbus, the bank was simply making a conscious effort to capture that growing population as customers ... and all Huntington ATMs nationwide use the same interface. So ... probably not a humanitarian gesture; probably not a response to a leftist federal edict to pollute our English body politic with some foreign language ... just good old American capitalism at work. Good for Huntington Bank.

Of course, I remember when bank ATMs and answering machines at private businesses first began offering Spanish-language options over ten years ago, there was some public push-back among the talk-radio set. But those businesses weren't being politically correct -- they were responding to changes in the marketplace, and trying to capture market share, not punishing prospective customers for being alien.

I'm afraid that politicians are pandering to a minority on this issue. Worse, they are working against the tide of history, and against our future.