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My Letter to President Obama & Congress Re Torture Under the Bush Administration April 24, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in politics.
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Dear President Obama and Members of Congress:

It is the legal duty of our Justice Department to investigate serious allegations of torture, to prosecute ALL those reasonably suspected of such atrocities, and to punish those who are found responsible.  And it is your duty, as our leaders, to encourage, not hinder, such an investigation.  President Obama’s statement that ‘this is a time for reflection, not retribution’ is a statement that, in my mind, does not pass muster. For, bringing criminals to trial is not retribution, rather it is justice.   The legitimacy of our criminal justice system rests on the principle that NO American is above the law. President Obama’s rational for neglecting the duty to launch an investigation, here, is not one he or any other well-trained lawyer would ever use toward an ordinary citizen believed to have committed heinous crimes, and I believe that he is seriously misguided and disingenuous to use it as a rationale for neglecting his duty to uphold the laws of our country in this instance.

In making this statement, you, President Obama, make a mockery of our criminal justice system which is in place to seek and bring  justice and, thereby, to negate the need for wronged individuals to seek retribution.   In promising  justice to all, it serves to discourage and, where necessary, to  punish retribution.

Further, if we are to be, and be seen as, a just country, it is imperative that we investigate ALL charges of illegality regardless of the social standing or power of the accused. To do otherwise brings disgrace on you as our leaders, brings the disdain of the world upon us, and undermines our belief in the fairness of our justice system.

Moreover, we would not tolerate such a statement on behalf of other world leaders, particularly if their countrymen had tortured Americans.  Rather, we would demand that those who refused to meet their duty to see that justice was done be themselves prosecuted for their neglect.

As an American citizen, an American trained lawyer and one of your supporters, President Obama, I fully and completely reject your exceptionally flawed reasoning here.  You are abdicating responsibility and furthering the idea of American exceptionalism.  I am utterly shocked and dismayed that would ever utter such a statement.

According to the recently released bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report, the Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush distorted the meaning and the intent of our anti-torture laws.  The administration then went out of its way to rationalize the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody.  Because substantial evidence exists, it is your duty to see that an investigation of these allegations is made.

I agree with Amnesty International that our leaders must ‘establish and support a non-partisan, independent commission of distinguished Americans to investigate this matter.’  This commission must examine Bush Administration actions and policies regarding  the detention, treatment and transfer of detainees after the 9/11 attacks.  It must also deeply consider the consequences of those actions and policies and provide a comprehensive report on its findings and its recommendations for making future policy in this area.  I agree, too, that this commission must be ‘independent, backed by the full force of law, and adequately funded.’  Do not forget that it is our government’s  legal obligation to uphold the laws of our nation and to prosecute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

Finally, I reiterate Amnesty International’s request that President Obama’s Administration make public all relevant policy memos that argued for, documented, and/or established the basis for detainee treatment, including their subjection to coercive interrogation techniques under the  Bush administration.  In order to fulfill your promise of transparency in government, President Obama, you must see to it that the truth is made known about the abuses that were committed in our names.  We have the right to know.


Suzanne Robinson

Below, I add a partial response I made to one of our readers:

Your comment regarding your desire to see those who sanctioned waterboarding receive a little of their own medicine is so poignant because there are many Americans who share your sentiment – that those who were culpable should experience that which they had a hand in bringing upon others. That’s why I find another statement made by President Obama – that it is time for us to move on, to heal – so entirely maddening and, frankly, more than a bit frightening.

Moving on – in a way that is healthy for our country, for democracy, for our peace of mind – necessarily includes the regaining of some sense of right and wrong, some sense of a limit to otherwise unchecked and dangerous power.

While no one can undo what has been done, our government can and, I think, must demonstrate for us and for the world that in America these atrocities do not go unanswered. It is only then, I think, that we may truly heal. It is only then that we can move on with any faith that our government will, acting on our behalves, uphold our values and our laws.

For me, one bottom line is this. If a democratically elected government does not meet this duty to its citizens – the duty to severely punish torture at the hands of those entrusted with the power of public office – we are left with nothing but to live in fear of our government.

Thanks to condron.us and alpha inventions, two great resources for bloggers!


Education Reform: Part II of ??? March 27, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Education, Obama, politics.
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I sat down today (now, as I post,  yesterday) to edit what I intended to be the second of a two part post on education reform.  I needed only, I thought, flesh out a couple of ideas, add a few sentences to tie the sections together, make final edits, and call it a day and a project – one close to my heart – finished.  The first half of part II was to be entitled INNOVATION and would look at new teaching models – or rather a renewal of innovative teaching models of days past.  The first sub-section was to be entitled ‘Social Justice as a Learning Tool.’

I first encountered the Social Justice Teaching Method when I read about a Chicago high school called the Little Village Lawndale High School.  The school consists of four small schools on one campus, one of which is called the Social Justice School.  The Social Justice School teaches students through the lens of the struggle for justice and the hope for peace.  I was drawn to the methodology because it offers a means through which to teach poor and minority students in a way that speaks to their lives, and I thought that, given that the school was built in Chicago during Arne Duncan’s tenure,  it would also provide a lens through which to view his work.

The Social Justice Methodology aims to provide a a place where students can learn the basic and crucial skills that all our schools aim to teach, but in a different way.  For example, teachers teach critical thinking skills through projects centered around race, gender and economic equality – the things that touch these students, 98% of whom are minority students from low income families,  lives everyday.  Advocates tell stories of once alienated students becoming enthusiastic about learning, excited by the opportunity to explore concepts like their own identity, racial stereotypes, how advertising influences societal views about different groups, and what it is that makes a community.  Adam Doster tells this part of this story in his article ‘The Conscious Classroom’ in The Nation.   He tells that this concept of marrying learning to social justice and activism is being adopted by a growing number of educators across the country.  Where other reform efforts have failed, a growing number of educators and reformers say, this methodology, which grows from previous alternative methodologies of the 1960s, is engaging urban students who were previously alienated by mainstream teaching methods.  According to Stan Karp, an English teacher and editor of the Milwaukee-based education reform magazine Rethinking Schools, “Taking kids’ lives as a point of departure and bringing the world into the classroom really does seem to give a context and a purpose that is very motivating.”

While some conservatives denounce the movement as indoctrinating students with left wing ideology, advocates insist that teachers teach the same basic skills taught in mainstream schools, but do so in a way that helps students appreciate the need to learn.  Take math.  How many times have you heard students say that they don’t NEED TO KNOW MATH, that is has no impact on them. And while parents and teachers tell middle-class students that math is important in today’s technology economy, the Social Justice teachers can make clear math’s relevance to their student’s lives and do so in a way that makes the subject interesting.  One example Doster uses to illustrate the increased learning fostered by this method is that, “a math teacher can run probability simulations using real data to understand the dynamics behind income inequality or racial profiling.”  Now that brings the power of math home to students who know these evils all too well.

And the method is spreading.  Since 1992 the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has run modern freedom schools in cities nationwide, with a model curriculum focused on five components: high-quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, physical and mental health.  More than 64,000 children (and their families) have been taken part in this program in the roughly the last decade.  

Frustrated teachers of poor and minority students across the country are coming together to discuss ways to bring social justice issues to their classrooms, drawing on the works of those who have long studied the problems of urban schools, such as Johnathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace – books that bring the realities of these schools to life in a way that breaks the heart and frustrates the mind.  Teachers who are terribly frustrated with the reform efforts of the Bush years, which many believe have only heightened the inequalities in public education, feel it is necessary to ‘speak frankly’ with their students about fairness, about justice, about the hope of a peaceful life.  And these students, who see injustice and violence before them every day, appreciate that this new way of learning is relevant to them, that it takes them into account.

It all makes sense to me.  And while there remains a lack of research on the benefits of this methodology because it is so new, studies that have been conducted do show a significant increase in learning in relation to students, particularly low income students, who have not had the benefit of this new way of engaging students in real life learning.  But this methodology, while it is making inroads in several cities, hasn’t yet made its way into mainstream conversations about school reform.  And so I was excited to read about this new school in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.

Then tonight, because I didn’t have a clear view of Secretary Duncan’s thoughts on this new way of teaching some of the students under his charge who need the most help,  I did a bit more research.  And the story, I think, is worth telling.  It is a provocative story that demonstrates well some – but only some – of the challenges we face in education today.

This story began when a group of Latino mothers on the west side of Chicago came together to demand a better school for their children.  Studies illustrate time and again that given school’s educational quality often reflects the socioeconomic makeup of its district.  That unfortunate circumstance is the catalyst for this story.  Educators call for parents’ involvement in their children’s education.  This is a story of dedicated involvement.  It is also a story of racial and socio-economic discrimination – on the part not just of the powerful, but of some of the folks in every faction involved in this saga.  It is a story of a continuing struggle, an intransigent bureaucracy, an allegedly racist CEO on his way out, a story of hope even in the face of overwhelming resistance, of vision, and of a new CEO who gets the school opened.  It is a story of strong advocates, poor administration and a dishonest principal with good intentions, of symbolism and determination and belonging and not belonging and gang violence and hope and despair.  And this story all takes place before the school at the story’s center graduates its first class of students.  The school remains a place of hope, as it should, and – as much as anything – it demonstrates well the vast difference between a theoretical vision and real life implementation because, like life, it is nothing if not messy.

In 1998, parents in the Little Village neighborhood on the west side of Chicago – mostly first generation Mexican immigrants who live in the most densely populated part of the city –  came together and petitioned the local government to build a school in their neighborhood because their big city high school was overcrowded, underperforming, rife with gang violence and the accompanying metal detectors and police, a drop-out rate of nearly 40%, and students, perhaps the lucky ones, being bused all over the city.  And these parents didn’t just want any old school, rather they wanted a school that taught the students about about the struggle for justice so relevant to their lives (including the struggle that the parents had to undertake to get the school built).  The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) agreed to build the Little Village Lawndale High School.  But the school did not come into existence easily.  CPS promised to begin work on three new schools, two  ‘selective enrollment’ magnet schools in the more affluent north side of the city and the Little Village school.  Work began on the two North side schools, but CPS did not begin work on the school promised to this neighborhood, rather district representatives told the parents, when they went back to ask why their school wasn’t being built though the others had been,  that there was no longer any money to build their school.  Rather than take any responsibility, CPS advised the advocates to lobby their state legislators.

The parents didn’t give up.  After two years of struggle and broken promises, a group of community organizers, parents, grandparents, teachers and students went on a 19 day hunger strike to force the issue.  They set up a tent city, which they referred to as ‘Camp Chavez,’ on the school site and waited for Paul Vallas, then the CEO of the CPS to take them seriously. According to Jaime de Leon, one of the hunger strike organizers, when the strike began, Vallas refused to come to the site or acknowledge the strikers.  In fact, he allegedly said that he did not want to come to Little Village ‘to meet with a few women who are refusing to eat.’  But the media began telling the story and, within a few days more than 500 people were living at Camp Chavez.  CEO Vallas buckled under the scrutiny and pressure and, on the sixth day of the strike, he made a visit, but he did not commit to building the school.  The strike ended out of concerns for the strikers’s health.  Just a few months later, in August 2001, CEO Vallas resigned, Mayor Daly appointed Arne Duncan to fill the post, and Duncan pledged to fulfill CPS’s promise to build the school.  According to an article written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education on Education Week‘s website, Duncan says he would have made sure Little Village got a new high school even if there hadn’t been a hunger strike.  “It was the right thing to do,” Duncan said. “It’s a community with a growing population. I saw tremendous need.”  Duncan said, too though, that prevalent view in Little Village that the school system has discriminated against Latinos is wrong. Rather, he said, “the district constantly faces the challenge of providing new schools in areas of the city where there is overcrowding, and “that is frequently in the Latino community.”  But this doesn’t explain the building, without need for community action, of the two schools built in more affluent areas while the Latino community was shut out.  Still, he lived up to his promise and the Little Village school was built at a cost of $61 million, more than has been spent to build any other school in Chicago’s history.  The school was so expensive to build because it houses more than just a high school.  The campus is open at nights and on the weekends and offers many resources for the community, such as a health clinic, an adult education program, and a distance learning facility.  And the cost was not born solely by Chicago tax payers.  La Raza and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed generously to its construction.

As David Stovall, Assistant Professor of Policy Studies in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the design team for Little Village,  writes in an article on the ‘Rethinking Schools’ website, CPS under Duncan’s leadership included parents in the planning process (though they, of course, fought hard for this inclusion every step of the way).  The result of their collaboration is one campus containing four distinct schools, with each school operating autonomously, while sharing after-school programs and other services vital to their community.  There is a school of math, science, and technology;  a visual and performing arts school; a world languages school; and the social justice school. 

But, at the time the school was being planned and built, the then CEO of the Chicago Schools had instituted what he termed ‘Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI) guidelines, which required that all proposals from the community go through another ‘bureaucratic maze,’ the Transitional Advisory Council (TAC), which, in turn, would make recommendations to CPS.  Matters were made more complicated, he notes, as CHSRI (the redesign initiative) was incorporated into a new Renaissance 2010 Project, a project implemented by Arne Duncan that aims to close 60 Chicago public schools and reopen them as 100 new ‘performance schools,’ which are public charter schools, though many will be privately operated and will lack union representation.  As Stovall, who has been involved in the school project from the beginning, explains it,  

“Performance schools are managed and funded by the district under a five-year ‘performance agreement’ that provides ‘greater autonomy’ in exchange for meeting certain performance targets like test scores.  Under Renaissance 2010, ‘performance schools’ are funded under a different formula than the CHSRI small schools, resulting in a significant decrease in funding for programming and institutional support.”

 Pauline Lipman, Professor of Policy Studies in the College of Education, University of Illinois-Chicago, asserts that the goal of Ren10 is to “reshape the educational geography of Chicago by aiding the gentrification of particular neighborhoods and, in effect, increasing educational inequality.”  And many in Chicago agree.  The community insisted that theirs was not a Ren 10 school, that its genesis preceded the implementation of Ren10, and that their school grew out of community efforts.  CPS resisted.  The parents fought back.  Finally, concerned about the demands and funding cuts as well as a fear of gentrification, the advocates requested a meeting with the new Chicago Schools CEO, Arne Duncan.  Stovall reports that Duncan told them they were ‘misinformed about Renaissance 2010’s relationship to gentrification.’  Displeased with the meeting’s outcome, the Little Village community organized public hearings to express their concerns.  In the face of strong community opposition to their status as a Ren 10 school, CPS reinstated the Little Village school’s status as a ‘neighborhood small school,’ but the school is still listed on the CPS website and in its ‘new schools development directory’ as a Ren 10 project. 

Stovall maintains that under Duncan’s leadership, CPS continued to say one thing while doing another and, in 2005 – the year the school opened its doors, he wrote the battle on the ground is far from over. “This struggle, he said, to maintain our vision for a neighborhood school demonstrates the importance of using community action to hold school authorities accountable in the battle for quality, inclusive education.”  

Because CPS required that the school be at least 30% African American, black students from the neighboring North Lawndale neighborhood joined their Latino neighbors in the school.  Stovall argues that this inclusion will serve a catalyst for much needed cultural, ethnic and racial collaboration, but there is a darker side to the story.  Though 30% of the students come from the predominately African American North Lawndale neighborhood and the school is officially called Little Village Lawndale High School, the sign in front of the school reads simply Little Village High School, and admission controversies have changed the school’s meaning for residents of both communities.   “To those who are denied access, the impressive spire and $61 million campus represent what their children are not able to receive,” writes  Joanie Friedman in her informative essay Contested Space:  The Struggle for the Little Village Lawndale High School, which appears on the website Area Chicago: Art/Research/Education/Research, and was originally published in the summer 2007 issue of Critical Planning, the UCLA Journal of Urban Planning.  Where racial collaboration was the goal, the scarcity of educational resources has driven, instead, more racial tension.  But the goal remains, as students from the two communities come together in their new school.  

So how are things going at Little Village Lawndale High School?  Surprisingly, this information is the hardest to find.  The city’s Office of New Schools holds the school out as a shining example of success.  Student attendance and achievement are up, but I am having a hard time finding numbers.  The Social Justice School recently won an award for its work in developing a strong sense of  ‘civic engagement’  in its students, topping all the other schools in the city.  And, it seems to offer a good amount of transparency, with a website that even includes the day’s assigned homework.  

Unfortunately it has not escaped the problem of gang violence that is too prevalent in Chicago’s schools, particularly in the Lawndale community.  The new year brings bad news of more gang violence, which in February required that the police be brought in, the school be shut down for a week, after school activities cancelled, and talks will soon be underway about heightened security on campus.   There is good news, here, too, though.  The students at the Social Justice School hosted a forum attended by nearly 500 Chicago students, mostly African American students, on how to decrease gang violence in their neighborhoods.  There were few adults in attendance, and their leadership is impressive, suggesting that the Social Justice school really is training leaders.  The decision to have four separate administrations and four separate principles, though, leaves four different approaches to student discipline, which, as the recent outbursts make clear, must be addressed.  

The worst news comes from the adults in the school.  There is already too little continuity, though I have yet to find how teacher turn-over rates there compare with other schools city wide.  The principal of the Math and Science school is leaving at the end of the year to join Secretary Duncan in Washington. And Rito Martinez, the principal of  The Social Justice School is being fired because he lives outside the district, which the Inspector General’s office evidently discovered by hiring a private detective to follow him for three months (he claimed to live in the Little Village neighborhood).   

I am struggling at the moment with websites that I can’t get to load, and am frustrated because this is critical information that I want to know and to share. The CPS website offers little information about any of its schools, and I am experiencing problems with the State Department of Education’s website.   I will keep at it today and update this post this information as I find it.  It looks, though, as if the students are doing well.  

This story and others I’ve read about about Chicago schools under his leadership, leave me with a mixed opinion of Secretary Duncan.  He did uphold the school district’s promise to the Little Village community.  And he does talk of supporting social justice in learning.  But talk is just talk, and it is also clear that he favors a corporate model of schooling, preferring, among other things, private charter schools free from teacher’s unions.  He argues, first, that the role of schools is to provide employees for America’s corporations, and works hard to bring corporate methodologies into our schools.  This is at odds with my vision of excellent education that brings, in addition to business skills, a breadth of knowledge to its students and an informed citizenry to the public arena.  And I am confused by the president’s choice to surround himself with so many corporate types.  It wasn’t so long ago that, in the story I’ve tried to tell here, he would have played the role of the community organizer, fighting for the right of parents to have a school that embraced their values.  Arne Duncan is not that man and, I think, does not fully share that man’s vision.  And I question how much of what President Obama cites as Duncan success stories are really stories of success.  For example, while President Obama cites as one example of Duncan’s stellar leadership the declining drop-out rates that occurred every year Duncan ran Chicago’s schools, he does not indicate whether graduation rates rose correspondingly.  My fear is that they did not.  Many criticize Duncan for simply kicking ‘difficult’ students out of the schools,  leaving them no opportunity to quit on their own.  In a scathing article on the Truth Out website, Kenneth Saltman, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Research at DePaul University in Chicago and author, most recently, of “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools,”  who is certainly not alone in his criticism, writes that,

“Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, (and) advocated a growing police presence in the schools….  A recent report, “Education on Lockdown,” claimed that partly under Duncan’s leadership “Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has become infamous for its harsh zero tolerance policies. Although there is no verified positive impact on safety, these policies have resulted in tens of thousands of student suspensions and an exorbitant number of expulsions.”

I have so much hope for our president that it colors my vision.  Had President Bush appointed Secretary Duncan, I have no doubts that I would have quickly ripped him to shreds for abandoning our children, gotten a good night’s rest, posted my blog on time and be out shopping for a new bicycle right now. Yet, time and again I find myself searching for ways President Obama the benefit of the doubt.  The choice of Duncan is another that I do not like, yet I find myself restrained in my criticism, actively searching for indications that he will do well by our children.  President Obama is a deliberative man who does not speak in particulars until he is sure of what he wants to say.  He is undoubtedly familiar with the criticisms voiced by many Chicago residents who disdain Arne Duncan as a neoliberal reformer who will destroy our public schools as he moves toward the privitization and corporitization of schools.  Yet he chose Duncan to lead the nation’s schools.  The choice, like others he has made, leave me feeling confused and saddened.  I never thought for a moment, that as president,  Barack Obama would adopt an ultra-progressive stance.  He cannot.  He is restrained as the leader of all Americans.  But neither did I think he would embrace a capitalist model of education.  I am deeply disappointed and skeptical as I write today.  But I will be back next week, looking at other issues that we face in our efforts to improve education and educational opportunity.  And I will have looked more closely at some of the criticisms about Secretary Duncan as well at the writings of some who praise his efforts.  I hope that I have some good news to report.

President Obama Calls For Education Reform, Part I March 19, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Education, politics.
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President Obama this week announced his plans for education reform, which many in the MSM hailed as courageous, as calling for sweeping change….  Wait a minute.  I think I missed something.  While he called for some reform, like lengthening the school day and/or the school year (but maybe only for those students who ‘need’ it) and doing more to support early childhood education (for which I applaud him) his message fell well short of a transformative vision.  He wants to hold teachers accountable, link pay to performance (as measured by student testing), close failing schools, and promote charter schools.  All of this sounds like President Bush were still in office.  

He wants the ‘best and brightest’ teachers, yet he did not call for paying teachers as though they are professionals.  Average teachers’ salaries range from the mid $20s to the upper $40s, depending on regional differences in the cost of living.  That is not the pay that will attract the ‘best and brightest.’ That’s not to say that many of our teachers are not the best and brightest, but the best and brightest who choose to teach in the public school system must also be something more.  They must be strongly dedicated to giving back to their community.  The best and brightest can find their first jobs, straight out of college, that pay beyond the median American income, in the mid $50s (and even more in expensive parts of the country).  And those with advanced degrees, as many of the best and brightest teachers have, can find jobs that pay far more (or at least they could before this economic crisis was brought upon us).  In addition to the low salaries teachers receive, they are under-appreciated, and are too often blamed for every failure in education, though so many problems in our educational system are far beyond their control.  

Teachers are expected to teach classes of 25 – 30+ students, even though, as I will flesh out in more detail below, most researchers believe that providing classrooms with 20 or fewer students is the single most important reform we can make to enhance learning.  Yet President Obama uttered not one word about decreasing classroom sizes.  

The best teachers are filled with innovative ideas, but are strapped by the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind, which should be scrapped, but which he will keep.  To his credit, he did say that he wants to replace NCLB’s rigid multiple choice exams with tests that measure real learning – analytical ability, problem solving and the like.  While this will be a vast improvement, it alone is not enough.  Children must be provided with the resources they need to learn in order to score well on any test.  And too many of them aren’t.  

President Obama was elected on a platform of change, and he claims a strong commitment to education, but he failed to provide a transformative agenda about which progressive educators and advocates of reform can get excited.  

President Obama Announces Secretary of Education Pick, Arne Duncan

President Obama selected Arne Duncan as his Secretary of Education, a controversial choice.  Hailing his great success in Chicago, the president said,

“For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book – it’s the cause of his life. And the results aren’t just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job…. In just seven years, he’s boosted elementary test scores here in Chicago from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67 percent. The dropout rate has gone down every year he’s been in charge…. He’s worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality, increasing the number of master teachers who’ve completed a rigorous national certification process from 11 to just shy of 1,200, and rewarding school leaders and teachers for gains in student achievement. He’s championed good charter schools – even when it was controversial. He’s shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs – even when it was unpopular. 

And Duncan said, in accepting the post, 

“Whether it’s fighting poverty, strengthening the economy or promoting opportunity, education is the common thread. It is the civil rights issue of our generation and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair and just society. 

But neither the president nor the education secretary addressed the vast inequalities that exist in our educational system.

Duncan, of course, has his fans and his critics.  Rod Paigs, President Bush’s Education Secretary, whose Texas reforms were the model for the hated NCLB,  called him a “budding hero in the education business.”  Is public education a business?  I suppose it makes sense, then, that Duncan was the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ of the Chicago public school system.  

But others, like Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky think that under Duncan we will see “more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, militarization, and the privatization of school management.”  

On the other hand, according to MSNBC’s report, Obama Education Pick Sparks Conflict, some teacher’s unions like him, saying he is willing to reach out to teachers in collaboration.

So, the jury is out.  President Obama did credit him with providing teacher training and certification on a grand scale, and he has lowered the drop out rate in Chicago schools, but I wish I’d heard more about his ideas for decreasing class sizes and ‘advancing educational opportunities in economically disadvantaged areas.’  I am skeptical, and I will keep a close watch, but for now I will try to be hopeful.

Class Size Matters.  As I mentioned above, most researchers agree that class size is an important factor in education.  Studies show that, while small reductions in class size have little effect,  students benefit substantially when class sizes are cut to around 20 students per classroom, particularly in the early grades, but also in grades 8-12.   Yet NCLB removed funding for cutting the size of classrooms. 

A consensus of research indicates that for K-3 education, class size reduction to a point somewhere between 15 and 20 students leads to higher student achievement that many believe lasts throughout the child’s education.  The Public School Parent’s Network, a resource and information website for parents, reports that the research data from The US Dept of Education’s publication Reducing Class Size, What Do We Know?,  indicate that if class size is reduced from substantially more than 20 students to below 20 students, the average student moves from the 50th percentile to above the 60th percentile.  And, for disadvantaged and minority students the effects are even larger.

A study commissioned by the US Department of Education analyzed the achievement levels of students in 2,561 schools, as measured by their performance on the national NAEP exams.  The sample included at least 50 schools in each state, including large and small, urban and rural, affluent and poor areas.  After controlling for student background, the only objective factor found to be correlated with higher student success as measured by test scores was class size. (Class Size Matters.org)  

A study from the Public Policy Institute of California shows significant improvements in test scores for all groups of students in smaller classes (with no changes in curriculum or instruction).  In California’s six largest school districts (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland and Fresno), class size reduction substantially raised the proportion of students  who exceeded the national median, after controlling for all other factors.  

                                                    Math        Reading        Language    

Los Angeles                            13.9%            9.5%            14.5%

Next 5 Largest Districts        10.5%           8.4%

LA High Needs Students        27%             19%               28%

100% Black Population         14.7%          18.4%


Also note that:

(1) This study looked only at 3rd graders who spent just one year in a smaller class;

(2) Gains improved the longer students remained in small classrooms;

(3) Even larger gains were found in schools with a higher percentage of poor students; and

(4) Studies show that parents are more involved in schools where their children are in small classrooms.

(Relationships Between Class Size Reduction and Student Achievement, Research Brief, Public Policy Institute of California)

These findings are consistent across states.  Studies from Tennessee, Wisconsin, and elsewhere show that students in smaller classes from grades K-3 do better in every way that can be measured: they score higher on tests, receive better grades, and improve their attendance.  And, again, students who need the most help show the most improvement.   Indeed, Alan Krueger of Princeton estimates that reducing class size in early grades shrinks the achievement gap by about 38%.

Class size reduction changes many features of the classroom which lead to higher student achievement.  Perhaps most importantly, the teacher has more time to give each student individualized attention, allowing the teacher to know each of their students better, to know how they learn, and to keep track of how each student is progressing.  As such, the teacher can intervene more rapidly and effectively to help  each student.  Furthermore, the research shows that students develop better relationships with their teacher and classmates in small class settings.  We all know that learning is enhanced by classroom participation, and in smaller classes, each student has more time to – and is more likely to – speak while others listen.  There are also fewer students to distract each other, and researchers report fewer disciplinary problems.  These findings are significant and should be a part of meaningful school reform. 

In 2007, the average class size in California (not including independent study and other self-contained courses) was 20 students in K-3 and 28 in grades 4-12.  Class sizes in Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi and many others were similar in 2006 and 2007, especially in grades 4-12, while K-3 classes were generally somewhat larger. Georgia law allows for 32 – 35 students in grades 9-12, depending on the subject matter.  

So it is unfortunate that in February, the NY Education Department issued a report that found the average number of children per class increased in nearly every grade this school year.  And now comes new that, in New York and California at least, there will soon be even more students in each classroom due to state budget gaps.  In one California district, budget shortfalls have already increased the size of kindergarten classes to 33 students per teacher.   Unless class size is made a priority and funded as such, given today’s state of affairs, the outlook here is bleak and the impact on student achievement is too great.  


School Financing Matters.  President Obama did not address the widespread disparity in spending among school districts and states.  Underprivileged children often attend the worst school, though they are generally the students who need the most help.

The US Department of Education reports that current expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools will be about $519 billion for the 2008-09 school year. According to the its website, he national average current expenditure per student is around $10,418, but this provides little information.  Rather, they simply tally up spending, divide it by the number of students, and voila, there you have average spending.  But this information is close to useless because we know that is not the way spending occurs.  We do not spend the same amount to educate every child.  Rather, as I outline below, there remain vast differences in spending.  The information they provide does not even tell us the mean or the median.  It doesn’t tell us how much is spent on instruction, how much on administration (we know some districts have bloated administrations, wasting taxpayer money).  It does not tell how much disparity there is among school districts.  Over the past couple of decades, many states have made gains in funding schools more equitably, but sizeable differences remain.  Yet it is difficult to find data that will allow us to be informed consumers of education.  To take an example for their reporting on class sizes, the US Department of Education website tells us that classes are much smaller than reported by the Departments of Educations in the individual states.  This lack of transparency is inexcusable, and often the information they do provide is misleading.

It is difficult to ascertain how funding is apportioned among school districts across the nation.  The data provided by the Department of Education is too broad to be useful, other available data is too old to be useful and, where financing per district is available, it is not coupled with the average income per district, leaving one only to speculate how money is apportioned among wealthy, middle class, and low income communities.  For example, according to South Carolina’s General Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2008-2009South Carolina spends an average of  $11,480 per student, but spending among districts ranges from $8,659 to $18,081.  

And according to SF Gate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s websitein 2006 funding per pupil in California schools ranged from $4,806 to 34,279.  These are vast differences that must be addressed if we are to make a commitment to all our children.  Yet neither President Obama nor Education Secretary Duncan spoke to this issue.

New York spends the most money per pupil of all the states except Alaska, but we know that many inner-city schools have crumbling infrastructure and lack basic resources.  

The Washington Post reports that while the number most widely stated as per pupil spending in the Washington D.C. is $8,322, total spending is actually closer to  $25,000, about the same as the cost of an education at Sidwell Friends, where the Obama children attend school.  It asks, then, “So why force most D.C. children into often dilapidated and underperforming public schools when we could easily offer them a choice of private schools?”  My question is, if D.C. public school districts receive equal funding as some of the most expensive private schools, why do they have dilapidated school buildings?  Where does the money go?  We know that teachers at prestigious private schools earn more than their colleagues in the public sector, that private schools offer a broader cirriculum, including art programs and physical education that have been cut at many public schools, and have more resources for the students, such as science labs and computers, so this data is hard to reconcile.  

But it gets more complicated.  The Census Bureau reports that per public spending for D.C. students is $13,446, but adds that funding per pupil from local sources is $16,195 (it adds this information to clarify that local funding is high relative to other school districts across the nation because other districts, unlike those in D.C. also receive state funding).  Add to this that D.C. schools also receive about $81 million in federal funds, and the picture is pure confusion.  How much does Washington D.C. spend per pupil?  I can’t say with any certainty.  But it is clear that transparency in public school funding and expenditures is necessary if parents are to make informed choices about where to send their children.

Making matters worse, as some states were just beginning to make gains in a more equitable distribution of funding, school budgets are now being slashed as a result of our present economy.  While, as many argue, ‘throwing money at the problem’ isn’t the entire solution, all schools must be sufficiently funded to provide the basic necessities for learning.  It is a disgrace that some students do not have text books, that some go to school in unsafe buildings, that many do not have adequate facilities to learn science.  President Obama must call for equitable funding for our public schools or we will continue to leave far too many students with enormous potential behind, depriving them of the promise of opportunity and us of the benefit of their knowledge, both as citizens and as participants in our economy.

Conclusion, Part I.  Linda Darling-Hammond, a former teacher, expert on teacher quality and professor of education at Stanford and an Obama advisor writes in  The Nation   that the US should adopt some of the practices that higher-achieving countries have been using over the past twenty years “as they have left us further and further behind educationally.”  She reports that the US ranks twenty-eighth of forty countries in mathematics and graduates only about 75% of students, though other top performing countries graduate more than 95% of their students.  She tells us that most high-achieving countries fund their schools centrally and equally, then provide additional funds to the neediest schools.  They also have  better-prepared teachers whom they pay competitive salaries and provide with high-quality teacher education, mentoring and ongoing professional development. These are exactly the reforms we need if we are to recruit and keep the best and brightest teachers.  President Obama should heed her advice if we are to build and maintain an educational system that provides a world-class education for our students, all our students, even the disadvantaged who we too easily leave behind.

Education Reform, Part II.  In the second part of this piece, next week, I will discuss many other issues surrounding education, including student testing, merit pay, charter schools, innovative teaching methods, single-sex classrooms, and the US Supreme Court’s ruling on what right to education is guaranteed us by the education and the importance of that ruling’s being reexamined in light of the requirements of today’s world.  I hope it will shed even more light on what is going on in our classrooms, including the vastly different approaches some pioneers in teaching are taking.

Despite Republican Obstinance, The Stimulus Plan Will Soon Reach the President. Will it help alleviate the worst effects of our economic crisis? February 13, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Stimulus.
Tags: , , , ,

The Politics.  Well, after much ado, a sufficient number of Legislators have agreed to the compromise stimulus plan.  For such a major piece of legislation, it was passed with remarkable speed but without bipartisan support.  In fact, though Democratic leaders offered to work with any Republicans willing to sit down and hammer out a compromise after the House and Senate each failed to pass their version of the legislation, only three Republican Senators, Arlen Specter (PA), Susan Collins (ME), and Olympia Snowe (ME), accepted the offer and helped reach a compromise that all involved in the negotiations could support.  And, even after Democratic leaders increased tax breaks and cut spending at their behest, not a single House Republican or any Senate Republican, save these three, offered their support.  The president didn’t need House Republican support for passage, but it would have been nice to see some work with him in his attempt to stimulate the economy and get Americans back to work.  But it was not to be. 

Everyone, including Congressional Republicans, agree that our economy is in dire straits.  The IMF said this week that leading economies are already in a depression, and the President of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank said she saw “the same type of dynamics taking place that do happen in a depression, according to Dana Millbank of the Washington Post.  Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) acknowledged Monday, “the economy is in serious trouble.”

Still, Congressional Republicans said they could not support the plan because it is too big, it will not adequately stimulate the economy, and it will permanently expand government spending programs.  Even with 36% of the resources allocated for tax breaks, Republicans weren’t taking the bait.  Rather, Congressional Republicans joined ranks and refused to budge, all while pressuring the three Republican Senators who did participate to stand down.  Despite their actions, though, Congressional Quarterly (CQ) Politics, reported that Representative Mike Pence (R-IN) said Wednesday, “I know of no Republican in the Congress of the United States that wants to do nothing.”  Not all Republican leaders agree.  Michael Steele, the new Republican Party chairman who has disgraced himself repeatedly in his short tenure, boastfully told House Republicans, “The goose egg that you laid on the president’s desk was just beautiful.”  President Obama has his work cut out for him in bringing a new, civil and dignified tone to Washington in the face of this Republican leadership. 

President Obama, after reaching out to Republicans to join in crafting the stimulus package to no avail, realized he would not garner the 80 Senate votes he had hoped the bill would attract and went to the public to promote the stimulus.  While the nearly total lack of support from Congressional Republicans may have made a less devoted man decide it was impossible in today’s climate to persuade our leaders to work together for the people they represent, President Obama has not wavered.  In an article that appeared in the New York Times and at MSNBC.com, Peter Baker reported, that President Obama has not given up on fostering a spirit of cooperation in Washington.  Rather, he noted that while the time for garnering bipartisan support of this legislation had passed, he made clear that he will continue his efforts.  “As I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully they will be reciprocated.”  And the people are watching.

The New York Times reported that we lost 598,000 jobs in January, leaving 3.6 million officially unemployed Americans.  With Republican posturing in the face of these dismal numbers, the public is not happy.  According to a Feb. 6-7 Gallup Poll, 67% of Americans are pleased with the way President Obama is handling the economic crisis, while only 31% approve of the way Republicans in Congress have conducted themselves.  This poll was conducted before President Obama’s Monday press conference, where he undoubtedly won over more Americans with his explanation of why the stimulus is needed and what benefits it will provide.  Even so, the poll revealed that the American people have more confidence in President Obama now than they did when he was inaugurated.  Fifty-five percent say their confidence in his ability to improve the economy has increased.  And 51% say the same about his ability to manage the federal government. 

Three Republicans Found a Compromise They Could Support. Lacking any Republican support, the stimulus plan could not pass.  Fortunately, the president picked up the support of three Senate Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both from Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.  Senator Specter particularly deserves the appreciation of the President and the American people.  He is the only one of the three facing reelection in 2010, and his support at home is waning.  Acknowledging this situation, he said, “I have no doubts about the political disadvantage.  [I’m] losing a lot of political skin about this… It means I’ll have to raise a lot more money.”  This is particularly true since, according to CNN, Scott Wheeler, the executive director of The National Republican Trust PAC announced Wednesday that, “Republican senators are on notice… If they support the stimulus package, we will make sure every voter in their state knows how they tried to further bankrupt voters in an already bad economy.”  He threatened to provide financial support to any primary challenger to the Senators who supported the plan, and vowed to actively campaign against any Republican who agreed to spend more than $800 billion (probably contributing to the $787 ceiling).  He specifically targeted Specter, saying, “[H]e has “crossed the line too many times.  We’re now going to get involved in finding a conservative alternative.”  President Obama and Congressional Democrats should recognize his courageous support, and voters should note that he voted for what he thought best for the country rather than what he thought best for his career. 

The Plan: Breakdown and Highlights. The stimulus plan, now totaling $787 billion, with $505 billion (approximately 64%) in spending and $282 billion (approximately 36%) in tax cuts is a close approximation of President Obama’s initial plan.  He wanted a 60 – 40 split.  It allocates resources among four categories:

  • Tax breaks;
  •  Infrastructure projects, (e.g. transportation, broadband expansion, etc.);
  • Aid to state and local governments; and
  • Investments in healthcare and alternative energy initiatives.

 The Associated Press has provided highlights of the compromise stimulus bill – its spending, tax cuts and incentives.  A summary of the spending provisions is below.  Note that a fuller picture is provided on their site, which is helpful, as certain spending provisions could be placed under two or more categories:

  • Health Care                                                           $137 billion
  • Energy                                                                     $ 97 billion
  • Education                                                               $ 91 billion (includes school repairs)
  • Infrastructure                                                        $ 86 billion  (transportation, internet, etc.)
  • Aid to Poor and Unemployed                            $ 67 billion 
  • Direct Cash Payments                                        $ 14 billion
  • State Block Grants                                               $   8 billion
  • Scientific Research                                              $   6 billion
  • Law Enforcement                                                 $   4 billion
  • Homeland Security                                              $   3 billion

The Battle Over Education Spending. Working with Harry Reid (D-NV) and other top Democrats, including Ben Nelson (IN), the three Republican Senators put together a compromise bill that cut $110 billion of spending that Collins and Nelson said “didn’t belong in the bill.”  Matt Yglesias of Think Progress reported that they cut $20 billion for targeted school repairs and modernization, $7.5 billion to help states progress in meeting No Child Left Behind goals, $1 billion for Head Start, and $25 billion in flexible funding for states that could be used for education projects.  Yet after they cut education spending significantly, Nelson publicly patted himself and Collins on the back, saying that after cutting wasteful spending, “what remains will fund education.” 

Many Congressional Republicans, it seems, believe it is an improper use of the stimulus money to bring schools up to compliance with fire, health, and safety codes, better insulate them to save energy and governmental energy costs.  They (erroneously) argue that it is not an investment to modernize, renovate or repair science and engineering labs or libraries or career and technical school facilities.  It is likely that they fear that spending money now would open a flood gate, that the administration would continue to raise education funding, thus expanding government in a way that they oppose.  But that argument can’t stand when it comes to school repair any more than it can when talking of road repair. School construction creates jobs and puts money into the economy, and weather proofing schools will save on energy costs in the future.  Given that it meets the goals of the stimulus package, and given the low construction costs resulting from this economy, providing much needed repairs at below market value seems to me a solid plan.

House Democrats were understandably distressed over the cuts to school construction and to education spending overall. It is clear to them that we need our students to improve their science skills and master new technologies to be competitive in tomorrow’s economy. This spending is an investment in our people that will help boost our economy now, as the spending occurs, and down the road, when students enter the work force.  Some House Democrats were so distraught over these cuts that they even considered withholding their support for the president’s bill.  But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who also vocally opposed the education cuts, called a meeting with concerned Democrats, which the Washington Post reports opened with chants of, “We want more.”  During the meeting, however, cooler heads prevailed, all involved relented and threw their support behind the compromise bill.

Infrastructure Spending.  Rachel Maddow noted that spending increases economic activity more heavily than do tax cuts, and that some types of spending provide more bang for the buck than do other forms.  She provided a few examples of the ‘multiplier effect,” where government investment provides more economic activity than the amount spent.

  • Tax cuts                                           $1 = $1.09 in economic activity
  • Infrastructure Spending              $1 = $1.59 in economic activity
  • Foodstamps                                    $1 = $1.73 in economic activity

 Despite this, the Senate agreement not only cut nearly $20 billion for school construction, but also cut $8 billion to refurbish federal buildings to make them more energy efficient, and cut $2 billion to expand broadband networks in rural and underserved areas.

 As it turns out, some infrastructure projects are more of a stimulus than others.  According to The Economist:

  • Every $1 billion investment in infrastructure creates 35,000 jobs. 
  • Repairing roads and bridges creates 9% more jobs than building new ones. 
  • Spending on public transit creates 19% more jobs than building new roads.  And, not only does spending on public transit translate into the highest multiplier effect, it also serves other policy goals such as lowering dependence on foreign oil, saving energy and reducing pollution and congestion.  Moreover, convenient and efficient public transit saves Americans money by reducing the costs of fuel, car maintenance and repairs and insurance. 

 But the stimulus plan does not allocate enough to public transit to make a marked improvement.  The Associated Press provided highlights of the plan, reporting that of the $46 billion being spent on infrastructure, $27 billion goes toward building and repairing roads and bridges, while only $8.4 billion is being spent on mass transit. Even with an additional $8 billion for building high-speed railways, our government has not shown that it is serious about cutting emissions by taking this opportunity to build a twenty-first century transit system.

 And, of the $27 billion for roads and bridges, indications are that many states are choosing to build new ones rather than repair old ones.  Nineteen states have made public their transport requests and more than half requested that 80% of the funding be spent on roads, mostly on building new ones.  While some new roads and bridges may be badly needed, there is a risk that too many states will make poor decisions.  Moreover, where practicable, money should be put into alternatives that create the most jobs, save energy, help protect the environment, and save consumers their hard earned money.

 Transparency.  President Obama promised that his administration would operate in the open, and he is delivering on that promise here.  His administration will set up a website, resources.gov, which will track projects receiving funding and their progress.  It will allow us to see how the money is being used, providing accountability for poor decisions, excessive spending and other important matters.  It will allow us to see whether the stimulus plan creates the promised 3.5 million jobs.  And it will allow state and federal leaders to see what work remains to be done.  Mostly, it will provide a welcome departure from the secrecy of George W. Bush’s administration.

Conclusion. Partisan railing aside, I’m not against removing items from the stimulus bill that don’t aid our goals of providing sustenance to those worst hit by the abysmal economy, maintaining and building the middle class by increasing employment, building and improving our infrastructure, increasing energy efficiency, or building a sustainable economy.   I do, however, favor redirecting those resources to projects that meet these goals well rather than cutting the size of the bill. The bill already provides for spending a vast amount of money, and nearly all economists agree that it will take a bold initiative, likely more bold even than this, to alleviate the economic crisis we’re experiencing.  Minor cutting isn’t going to substantially affect our debt – at least not so much as to do too little when doing too little may make things much worse.  Accordingly, I would like to have seen less allocated for tax cuts and more marked for education and for infrastructure, particularly for public transit.  That said, I believe most of the measures will help improve our current situation, and that this is only the first step President Obama will take in his efforts to guide us back to economic health. 


Update: Is Senator Gregg a Good Pick for Commerce? February 12, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , ,

As I wrote last week, I thought Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) was a bad choice for Commerce Secretary.  He refused to vote on the stimulus plan while saying he supported it, though his voting record indicated that his support would have required a miraculous change of heart.  My main concern, though, was that, having forcefully opposed additional spending by President Clinton to conduct an accurate census, I doubted that he would work hard to ensure that all the people would be counted in 2010.

Well, it turns out that he agrees.  Senator Gregg withdrew from the nomination today.  He sat for an interview with Politico and released a written statement in which he explained that, …”[I]t has become apparent during this process that this will not work for me as I have found that on issues such as the stimulus package and the Census there are irresolvable conflicts for me…. We are functioning from a different set of views on many critical items of policy.”  

President Obama Brings Hope to the Nation and the World February 1, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Uncategorized.
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Throngs of people descended on Washington D.C. and well-wishers the world over gathered together last Tuesday to watch as Barack Obama took the oath of office and before our eyes became our president.  Most people, here and abroad, were filled with a new hope and a nearly unbridled optimism.  President Obama has inspired us with his own hopefulness and his courageous belief that good people, working together, can change our world.   He has reached us with his mantra, which, as he wanted, we’ve adopted as our own.  “Yes we can.”  Times are tough here, everybody knows that, but we feel stronger because President Obama is moving his family into the White House.

 In 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the first Republican President of the United States in dark days. The question that demanded an answer was what would become of slavery.  Slaveholders in the south argued angrily that they should be able to take their ‘property’ with them west.  But resistance was strong.  Former Whigs and Democrats, in 1856, left their old political homes to form the Republican Party in opposition to slavery’s expansion into the western territories.  Activists in the new party went further and called for an immediate end to slavery, and many southerners feared an end to their way of life.

 And 1861 found Frederick Douglas, a charismatic black abolitionist, courageously leading those who called out for an end to slavery and for equal rights for African Americans.  Douglas, while he maintained that Lincoln was the white man’s president who also helped blacks, said too that Lincoln was the only white leader with whom he had spoken who showed not one bit of prejudice toward black Americans.  And, as the nation fought and Lincoln began to work toward the emancipation of slaves, he and President Lincoln developed a warm relationship.

 It was a frighteningly dark time in our history.  In the four short months between the day President Lincoln was elected and the day he took office, seven southern states withdrew from the Union, formed the Confederate States of America, and inaugurated Jefferson Davis President.  Causing further alarm were the stirrings of secessionist sentiments in the five border states.  Though Lincoln remained hopeful to the end that war could be prevented, within weeks of his taking office, the country was fighting a long, brutal war with itself that would cost the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.  

 Lincoln did not live to see the people, in December 1865, ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery across the nation.   This was a tremendous step forward in the battle for equality, still the struggle necessarily continued after America freed African Americans from the bondage of slavery – for there were fundamental and urgent questions to answer about what that liberty would mean in their day, and in our day.

 In 1961, one hundred years later, John F. Kennedy became our first Catholic President on a platform of civil rights, promising laws prohibiting employment discrimination, the right to an adequate education, the right of labor to organize, and, among other things, an increase in the minimum wage to meet the right to earn enough to provide adequately for oneself and one’s family. 

 And in 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr., that generation’s great dissenting leader, led the march for equality under the law for those African Americans who still did not possess the right to sit next to a white person and mind their own business.  Their struggle would continue after Kennedy’s assassination, after King’s assassination, after Robert Kennedy was taken.  (By 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson had passed more civil rights legislation than any other President in our history, most notably President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act (1964), which banned discrimination in public accommodations, and Johnson’s Voting Rights Act (1965), which prohibited states from denying citizens the vote on the basis of their race.)  But, even after these struggles the work wasn’t over, as, by way of but one example of too many to list, states refused and resisted the right of black children to attend the schools of white children. 

 And too that year, in the heat of the summer, the man who became our president last Tuesday was born in Kansas, in the very heart of America, to an intellectual African father and a bright, idealistic white American mother.  In his books, he tells us that he grew up with love, guidance and nurturance, with the childhood privilege of attending an elite school, and with the knowledge that life is complicated.  He earned coveted slots at Columbia University and Harvard Law through hard work and natural intelligence.  By the accounts of many who’ve watched him over the years, though, the Barack Obama we see today has grown into the man he is through deep reflection and disciplined commitment.  

 President Obama, like many of us, sees in Abraham Lincoln an inspirational leader.  And the two men share common characteristics and ideals.  Lincoln, too, was an eloquent speaker, a man of supreme confidence and ambition.   Lincoln, too, was a man who grew into his own intentionally and thoughtfully.  Obama, like Lincoln, believes in the power of reason and of passion.  And Lincoln said, too, while finding it difficult to wait his turn in hard times, “There is one president at a time.”  Importantly, they share a deep reverence for the ideal of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  President Obama calls these words, “our starting point as Americans… our common creed.”  President Lincoln said that equality is government’s “leading object.” 

 Through our struggles, America has been blessed with its share of great leaders.  We have long had great African American leaders, dissenting leaders who’ve carried a heavy weight and won hard battles – many through sheer determination.  But President Obama is the first African American President of the United States of America.  And whether fair or not, the mantle he carries brings with it an additional responsibility to the ideal of equality.  From the beginning our country has struggled in answering this call.  We’ve fought bitterly.  At times we have covered our ears and our eyes.  But in times of bold leadership and engaged citizenship we have expanded liberty’s reach and deepened its impact.   We have put a lot of bad ways behind us, and under President Obama’s leadership we hope to see the march for equality gain some good ground.  We hope to see the guiding light of equality take root in his policies, and foremost in his approach to rebuilding our economy. 

 President Obama ran a long, hopeful campaign that, too, was important because it showed us how elections can be won with dignity – and it modeled well, though not perfectly, the values it espoused.  Now he takes office and his agenda is filled to overflowing.  Americans are focused on our economy because is in tatters at a time when our country is deeply in debt, and because what everyone agrees on is that it will get worse.  We’re worried about our jobs, and with them our insurance, our house payments.  We’re worried because our kids aren’t learning well enough and we fear they will struggle to find security in tomorrow’s world.   But despite our fear, we are truly hopeful.  We don’t know how the world will look in two, four, or eight years…  But today we celebrate and feel like things are better.