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.