Jackson County Opinions...

March 21, 2001

By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
March 21, 2001

Gap Narrows Between The Rich And Poor
Already President George W. Bush has succeeded in doing something most Democrats thought needed to be done, but which most Republicans refuse to discuss.
Under Bush's leadership, the gap between the rich and the poor has actually closed. While the president has expressed worry about "Americans' portfolios," the current plunge of the stock market has had little immediate effect on the assets of most poor Americans, who don't own stocks or mutual funds.
The Bush Crash (sorry, I couldn't resist) has stock values plunging with the trajectory of car keys dumped into a swimming pool. The poor haven't gotten poorer, but the rich are less so.
As a holder of small sums of money in mutual funds, I quit looking at my statements. My two Merrill Lynch funds that house my company 401K money have lost very little. In fact, my advisor managed to pick a fund that grew by a percent or two in 1998, when a blind monkey could pick funds that would surpass 15 percent. When that failed to perform, I asked him to select a second fund, which has also been flat. Flat looked terrible in 1998 and 1999. In 2000 it was OK; if it stays flat in 2001, it is cause for celebration.
People are reacting three ways to the vertical plunge of their assets. The first group is philosophical and knows stocks will rebound; the second group panics and sells off, reversing the maxim of "buy low and sell high." The third group thinks there would be no economic slowdown if only people would quit talking about it.
I fit none of those categories. I think an economy in recession offers opportunities to go fishing. The principle of "fish when the tide is rising and fish when the tide is falling" doesn't contribute much to long-term financial stability, but it beats watching CNN Financial News.
The falling markets also vindicate the "glass is half empty" approach to the economy that I've espoused during the good years. Many of us long believed that the economic good times had to end; we just didn't know when, and we don't have a clue for how long. Once we hit the bottom, my view will change to the "half full" approach.
It is interesting that the Bush approach to a faltering economy is to throw money at it, a principle that used to be associated with the liberals. Bush believes that if the federal government returns to sender a couple trillion of its assets, the economy will reverse. That will re-fatten his rich friends' portfolios, eliminate the budget surplus and return America to the excellent economy of the Reagan era, when the deficit quadrupled but nobody cared.
His suddenly-richer big oil buddies will use their windfalls to lobby for access to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where they can make billions despoiling (you can't spell 'despoil' without 'oil') the last unmolested part of the planet, all for the equivalent of six months' of the nation's energy demand. Those vast profits, we'll be told, are the tonic this nation needs to pull us out of the recession.
What's good for the oilmen may be good for other rich folks, but it won't help us or the planet. We'd be better off if Bush went fishing.
Mark Beardsley is editor of The Commerce News.

The Jackson Herald
March 21, 2001

Standardized testing needs more balance
Standardized testing has become an annual ritual in today's public schools. The results of these tests are widely used as indicators of school quality and are an important part of the "accountability" movement in education. That movement will likely gather steam in the coming years as the state requires "gateway" testing for a student to leave third, fifth and eighth grade, putting even more focus on these tests.
There's no doubt that achievement tests fulfill an important function. Absent any other objective criteria, standardized test results are about the only way the public can get a sense of a school's performance. The tests also give parents something of an objective standard of their child's progress. In some instances, a child's individual test results have revealed problems to parents that were not reflected in the regular classroom grades.
Yet, for all the good aspects of standard testing, we wonder if the accountability movement might be taking all of this too far. Perhaps that is in part the fault of those of us in the media who report every detail of standard test results. Maybe in reporting these results, we have exaggerated the significance of the testing. Real estate agents, for example, say that home buyers often ask about standardized test results in the various school districts around the state as one of the factors in deciding where to purchase a home.
But schools, too, share some of the burden for this increased focus on testing. Hours of drilling students and test prepping are now the norm in many schools as leaders seek ways to make the school's results more competitive. More pressure is being put on administrators and teachers to produce better test scores. In the same way a football coach is expected to have a winning season, teachers are expected to have "winning" test scores from their students.
Perhaps some of that is healthy. It does, after all, push schools to compete on the academic field as well as the athletic field. Generally speaking, competition is good because it pushes everyone to work harder.
But we're starting to wonder if some of this academic competition isn't being taken too far. Often lost with this emphasis on testing is some of the basic curriculum which students are supposed to learn. So much time and effort is being expended on getting good test results that we wonder whether the test is measuring academic success or test prep success.
Perhaps it's time for all of us to step back and reflect on just where all of this is headed. Do we want students to gain knowledge, or do we want them to perform well on tests? And how can we as a community balance those two objectives such that testing gives us useful information, but does not take so much time away from basic instruction?
We still believe standard test results are an important part of how a community should evaluate its local schools.
But it should not be the only criterion. That it is rapidly becoming THE standard is perhaps just as bad as having no criteria at all.

By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
March 21, 2001

Ending social promotions not a school cure-all
Should children who are having trouble in school be required to repeat a grade if they don't measure up?
That was the issue last week as "Round II" of Gov. Roy Barnes education reform was debated in the General Assembly. The legislation, which was approved, mandates that students in the third, fifth and eighth grades pass a state standardized test before moving on to the next grade. It would end the practice of "social promotions" where students having academic problems are simply passed along from grade to grade.
Like so many issues involving public education, I am of two minds about this move. Obviously, you can't argue that we should be moving students from grade to grade if they are not academically prepared for the next level. We're not doing any student a favor by allowing his failure in one grade to be repeated again the next year and the year after.
The ability to read, for example, is a basic academic discipline that every student must have in order to succeed. Students who move beyond the second or third grade without having developed good reading skills are likely to have trouble for the rest of their school years. Yet across the state there are students leaving the third grade who read only at a first grade level.
The end of social promotions is tied to the new school year calendars adopted in Jackson County as well. The week-long breaks in October and February are designed to be remedial periods for helping students who are having academic problems.
But the end of social promotions may not be the panacea many of us hope for.
For one thing, the standards for passing the "gateway" test will undoubtedly be low. Given the politics involved in the issue, there's no way the state will allow thousands of students to be retained a grade. To do so would invite lawsuits from various minority factions and would place a huge financial burden on local school districts. Thus, there is no way to know if the standards will be fair and useful because of the political considerations those standards will reflect.
The gateway exams may also do a disservice by again focusing more attention and money on a small percentage of underachievers to the detriment of the average and above-average students. Already, the small number of underachieving students receive a huge part of school attention. If you look at a school budget, you'll note a number of special programs designed to help this small group of students. While that effort may be worthy, it is also taking money away from average and above-average students.
Finally, gateway testing may push schools to take even more time away from curriculum and devote it to the more superficial test prepping work. Already schools are devoting large blocks of time to standardized test drills. That will only increase because of the "do-or-die" nature of gateway testing and the pressure it will create.
The issue of student retention is just one aspect of a much larger and more complex change taking place in public education. At one time, local school systems had a fairly homogenous student population. Today, however, there is much more diversity in the student population. That is a huge challenge for public educators because it is impossible to meet the needs of all the students in a classroom.
So the gateway exams could be another force which continues to splinter public education in ways that cannot be fully predicted. A significant number of parents have already opted out of public education through home school programs or private schools. The end of social promotions may accelerate that trend if parents believe even more time and money is being spent on a small number of underachieving children to the detriment of their children.
What is shaping up in Georgia, and indeed America, is the beginning of the end of public education as we have known it for the last 50 years. Public education has historically been a unifying force in society, but it is now becoming more divisive as it attempts to respond to a population that is increasingly divided along social and cultural lines.
I don't have the answer of how to help students who aren't ready to move to the next grade. Perhaps holding them back and allowing another year of maturity will bolster their academic work.
But I fear that may be just wishful thinking.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.

The Commerce News
March 21, 2001

Why Seek Low-Income Rental Housing Here?
Having just endorsed the building of 120 new apartment units, most designed for low-income renters, the Commerce City Council needs to ask itself what those apartments will do for the city.
The buildings will be a source of property taxes to help fund our schools and the city will sell natural gas, water and sewage treatment to the project.
But didn't the city and county recently agree that the property along Progress Road was best suited for industries and commercial businesses? In fact, Progress Road was created for the express purpose of economic development ­ improving the tax base to help fund the cost of all the new residents we're getting.
The new development is in the shared tax district, so the Commerce School System will get only a quarter or less of the ad valorem taxes on the building and grounds. While it will get a huge sewer tap fee and sell water and (possibly) natural gas, sewage treatment capacity that could have been more profitably used to attract industry will be tied up in residential use.
But the biggest hit is that the proposed development would be primarily low-income rental housing.
Commerce doesn't need more low-income rental housing. It already seems to be the low-income rental housing center for the Banks-Jackson area. What this city needs is industry, the tax base to help offset for our taxpayers some of the costs associated with our large low/moderate income population. The best use of land along Progress Road is to create high-quality industrial sites; the second-best use would be for commercial development. Housing is the last choice, and low-income rental housing is the worst.
Commerce gains nothing by promoting the construction of low-income rental housing. The last thing the city should be doing is encouraging more of it to locate in Commerce ­ particularly in areas better suited for industrial or commercial development. Utilizing prime land along Interstate 85 for low-income rental housing indicates that development along the first phase of our first I-85 access road will be a jumble of mixed uses that will detract from, not add to, the economic vitality of the city and the county. Where's the progress in that?
Sewer Decision Will Be Criticized At Later DateAlthough the five property owners in the path of a sewer line being built by the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority are thrilled to have the line moved off their land, the decision to move the line will be strongly and unjustly criticized down the road.
That's because the proposed line was moved from the property of people opposed to the project and onto land owned by the wife of chairman Alex Bryan. It's a move that could make Mrs. Bryan's land much more valuable in the future.
Probably in the next local political campaign, if not sooner, it will be argued that the move was made to benefit the family of Bryan. Nothing will be said to show that all five property owners did not want the sewer line running through their property.
Some opponents' comments to the contrary, it is well known that in most cases, proximity to a sewer line increases the value of land, particularly in a county where there is rapid growth and limited sewer access. Given the mean-spiritedness of political debate today, the authority can expect to be condemned for running the line across Mrs. Bryan's property, or condemned for running it across the land of the five people across the river.
It should be noted that Bryan tried very hard to get opponents to see the benefits of the line. It should be noted, but it probably won't be.

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