Category Archives: published opinion pieces

Missouri uses flawed data to penalize poor, minority students

Published as a Op-Ed piece in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on May 28, 2014 

Concerning Normandy’s suit against the Missouri Board of Education, it’s absolutely necessary to point out the elephant in the room: The method for evaluating school districts and thus removing accreditation and ultimately dissolving a district is based on faulty data that discriminate against poor children and especially minority children.

It’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming. What did the state do with the schools and students in Wellston when that district was dissolved? They were merged into Normandy. And now the state wants to dissolve Normandy. What’s wrong with this picture? What district do the vultures want to pick off next?

Elisa Crouch and Walker Moskop’s well-written story on May 18, “The grade divide,” about the struggle to educate children in poverty, clearly revealed the problem that children from low-income families do poorly on standardized tests. Not that they don’t or can’t learn, but that their test scores are low.

Studies show that the test format itself and especially the conditions under which the test is administered increase the odds that children in minorities will get low scores (see “Stereotypes and the Achievement Gap: Stereotype Threat Prior to Test Taking,” Markus Appel, Nicole Dronberger, Education Psychology Review, 2012.) In that study the Austrian researchers tested African-American students in the United States, Turkish students in Eastern Europe and others with “an immigration background” that labored under negative stereotypes. They found that if the tests were presented to such students as having high stakes — and what could be higher than branding an entire school as deficient? — performance went down even further.

I see three problems here: Evaluation of districts is based on faulty, discriminatory data; the state is using that faulty data to penalize poor children by attacking their schools, especially school districts that have a majority of African-American students; that attack has resulted in the dissolution of one district already, the attempted dissolution of a second district and the threat to continue until all school districts with minority majority enrollments and a majority of poor children have been taken away from their constituents and handed over to for-profit (i.e., charter) operations.

This is a racially tinged class struggle. Let’s quit talking about transportation costs and get to the point: This accreditation system is deeply flawed and does not serve the education needs of the children of Missouri, especially children in schools with a large number of low-income students. The decision to penalize the school districts for the ethnicity and social class of their students is unconstitutional. Taking away local control is unconscionable.


Virginia Gilbert covered the education beat for the Post-Dispatch for six years in the 1980s and early 1990s.


Flooding, Farming and Cotton Prices

Flooding, farming and cotton prices

In April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intentionally flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland along the Mississippi River to “control” flooding in more densely populated areas. In Missouri, the corps blew up levees around Birds Point in southeastern Missouri to divert flood water from Cairo, Ill.

In early June, The New York Times reported that the Mississippi’s record flooding is expected to dump a record amount of nitrogen and phosphorous from farmland runoff into the Gulf of Mexico, thus producing the largest “dead zone” yet in the Gulf. The article suggested that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might tighten controls on fertilizer usage in the Delta states. The reporter did not mention the intentional flooding, which could have been a major factor in the runoff problem.

The next day, McClatchy Newspapers reported that cotton prices are at an all time high because of floods in Pakistan and Australia and freezes in China. No mention of the flooding in the Mississippi Delta, but the flooded acres in Missouri are prime cotton land, and I assume the farmland in states farther south could be, too.

The runoff problem alone is enough reason for the corps to rethink using farmland floodways to divert the river from towns like Cairo.

A new rubric is needed that takes into account the ecological damage of farmland runoff and the economic value of crops that the flooded land could have produced.

Agricultural products still account for the majority of U.S. exports.

Published in Letters, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 9, 2011

Amending Missouri’s Initiatives

This was published in Letters to the Editor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday, April 24.

Faulty statutes

On the compromise to amend the “puppy mill law” passed by a state majority in November: Apparently, it is fine to repeal or amend a law approved by the voters through an initiative. That’s good news that folks have agreed on how to change Proposition B more to everyone’s liking — because, you know, the voters obviously didn’t understand the implications of what they were voting on.

As long as we’re amending laws passed by initiative, St. Louis and Kansas City voters would like to repeal Proposition A (from the same election) that requires us to approve our city earnings tax every five years. Both cities re-approved those taxes earlier this month with resounding majorities — nearly nine to one in St. Louis and more than eight to one in Kansas City. But the specter of having to approve this very fair tax every five years is expected to affect both cities’ bond ratings and has the St. Louis mayor talking about shifting to less progressive funding.

No need to take the measure back to the entire state. What say we ask the Legislature to fix this obviously faulty statute and return local control of municipal revenue and taxes to the cities in question and get Rex Sinquefield out of our city’s business?

See also:

Why I support the city earnings tax

Framing Christianity

It must be difficult for conservatives who thought they had a lock on churchgoing Christians. In “Media apply God-talk double standard” (July 17), Colleen Carroll Campbell tries to reserve expressions of faith for conservatives and attempts to limit the issues important to churchgoers to “abortion, gay marriage and the banishment of God from public life.” She calls Democrats “secular liberals.”

Many Democrats are Christian; many liberals go to church every week. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, is not trying to attract “conservative churchgoing voters.” His “socially liberal policies” are Christian values, period. Among liberal Christians like me, the concern has not been “the banishment of God from public life” but the co-option of our faith by right-wingers who would frame Christianity on their limited, exclusionary terms. I respect their love of the gospel; I do not respect their insistence that they alone are able to interpret the gospel for society.

In comparing theocratic leanings, it should be noted whose “theo” and whose “cracy.” Mr. Obama’s Christian conversion and baptism occurred in the United Church of Christ, whose roots go back to the first churches founded in New England and the Midwest, including St. Louis. Mr. Obama’s social policies are rooted in Christian interpretation of commands found in Matthew 25 and Leviticus 25.

I agree with Ms. Campbell on one point: A politician’s past action is what matters most. I’ll take the record of Mr. Obama, former community organizer, over President George W. Bush’s.

Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 23, 2008

Demonstrations Digitally Remastered

St. Louis

I’ve been to many demonstrations over the years, as a reporter and as a marcher/demonstrator. The gathering of folks on the sidewalks by a gas station in St. Louis Wednesday was different, mainly in the way we were called to action – by a broadcast e-mail.

About 40 people answered Adam Shriver’s invitation to participate in the St. Louis version of MoveOn’s “National Day of Action for an Oil-Free President” demonstration at a Shell station at Skinker and Delmar boulevards. We joined thousands of MoveOn members who took to the sidewalks in more than 200 cities Wednesday to call attention to the differences in the proposed energy policies of the presidential candidates, Senator John McCain (Republican) and Senator Barack Obama (Democrat).

We held signs, passed out fliers and attracted several honking supporters at the busy intersection at the eastern end of the St. Louis/University City Loop. It was a varied group gathered at rush hour – teachers on summer break, college and grad students, retired folks, and those with flexible working hours or nearby jobs.

Donna Beard faced the street and raised her sign: “Exxon McCain: Big Oil Buys Another President.”

“I haven’t held up a sign since the 1960s,” Beard said. Back then, she was boycotting Woolworths in Chicago for its lunch-counter segregation in the South. After so many years, Beard was moved to pick up a sign in peaceful demonstration because “there’s gotta be a change” – in gas prices, in energy policy and in the leadership of the country. Like the other MoveOn demonstrators, Beard supports Obama.

“This is the best turnout yet,” Robert Recht told Shriver. Recht, who identified himself as “the oldest member of MoveOn St. Louis,” said he had been to about 10 MoveOn demonstrations.

This was Nick Apperson’s first demonstration. Apperson, 24, said he voted in the 2004 presidential election “against W” rather than for John Kerry, the Democratic candidate.

“This time is different,” he said. “This time I’m definitely for Obama. Of course, he won’t solve all our problems. Change takes more than one person.”

And that was one reason Apperson was moved to pick up a sign and hand out fliers. “This is just the beginning,” he said.

No traditional news media appeared to record the event in St. Louis. A student journalist for Vox Magazine, an online publication of the University of Missouri-Columbia journalism school, and a few bloggers were the only reporters at the local demonstration.

The events in at least a few locations elsewhere did attract mainstream news, although the list was apparently quite short. In a congratulatory e-mail to participants on Thursday, MoveOn spokesman Noah T. Winer mentioned only accounts on a radio station in Duluth, Minn. and a newspaper in Orange County, Calif.

Winer declared the nationwide demonstration a success: “Together, we accomplished our primary goal: now more people will think ‘Big Oil’ when they hear ‘John McCain.’ That is exactly what we wanted — for people and the press to start realizing McCain would be another president who is so closely tied to the oil industry we can’t count on him to lower gas prices or support alternative energy solutions.”

The St. Louis gathering is perhaps an example of the way political campaigning is changing, as supporters both use and bypass mainstream media and traditional political groups, and mix online networking with older-style street demonstrations. Shriver’s e-mail invitation said the demonstration was sparked by TV ads by the McCain campaign trying to blame Obama for high gasoline prices.

Broadcast e-mail reactions to TV ads and newscasts have become a standard campaign tactic of MoveOn, the Obama organization and other political and activist groups that have my e-mail address. (Republicans may do this, too, but I am not on any of their lists.) Most of the time, these mass e-mails contain a link to the offending video and usually urge the recipients to sign a petition deploring the action or statement. This time, we were urged to show up in person.

The fliers we handed out compared Obama’s and McCain’s voting records and policy statements on energy, including their ranking by the League of Conservation Voters in its 2007 legislative scorecard (Obama: 67 percent in 2007, 86 percent “lifetime”; McCain: 0 percent in 2007 because he missed every vote, 24 percent “lifetime”). We gave these fliers to people in cars leaving the gas station or stopped at the intersection, as well as to pedestrians and bicyclists. A lot of drivers gave us thumbs up or honked their horns. A few declined the fliers or gave us a thumbs down.

Michael Sandler, 22, who works for the Obama campaign, stopped by to register new voters and sign up campaign volunteers. The MoveOn volunteers were already registered, but Sandler found a ready audience for his pitch that they get more involved in joining the Obama organization. Linda Fried, who had been canvassing in my neighborhood a few days before for a candidate in the August primary election for state offices, signed up as an Obama volunteer.

In an odd juxtaposition of new-style/old-style campaigning, Sandler was quite open with folks he was recruiting, clipboard and pen at the ready to take their names and contact information; but he was adamant that he couldn’t talk to news media, including this blogger, because all statements to the press must go through the Obama organization. I guess it’s one thing to accept the endorsement of an independent group like MoveOn and quite another to have to worry about how any and every worker in one’s own organization might be quoted in the media.

The Internet has widened the reach of “word of mouth,” but traditional means of political persuasion still work. Two parents brought their children to the demonstration.

Angela Miller went to demonstrations against the Vietnam War with her father, Dwight Miller, a Stanford professor.

“We were chased down by mounted police in San Francisco,” she recalls.

On Wednesday, Miller brought her son, Jonas Stockie, 12, to his first demonstration. He hoisted a sign and waved to an acquaintance in a passing car. Miller’s daughter, Marisa Miller, 16, said she had been to many demonstrations in the past few years: for living wages for Washington University maintenance staff, against confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, for example.

AnaClaire Bryant, 8, made her own pro-Obama poster. Her father, Sean Bryant, is a student at St. Louis University Law School. He encouraged AnaClaire to participate in the demonstration “so she can learn that she can speak her voice and people will hear it.”

He glanced fondly at his daughter standing in the hot sun. “If you believe in something, you’ve got to say what you believe. Right, Goofball?”

AnaClaire nodded, smiling.

Published 7/14/08 on Huffington Post

Live Together or Die Alone

“Live together or die alone.” That’s the motto of the castaways in the TV show, “Lost,” which began its fourth season a couple months ago.
The saying is far from original, of course. I’m reminded of the flag featured in the titles of the recent PBS documentary on John Adams, that depicted a snake in several pieces, with the words, “Join or Die.” It was a plea for the colonies to recognize their common interests and work together. See where that got us – one of the most powerful nations on earth.
Members of labor unions know the wisdom of collective action of individuals for the good of all. When I joined the Newspaper Guild in 1977, I benefitted from the strikes and struggles of the previous decades, with a 37 1/2-hour work week, a night shift that was an hour shorter than the day shift, and a solid grievance system that would protect me from the whims of erratic supervisors.
Some old-timers could tell me when they got those particular provisions in the contract, or what the results were of the strikes of the previous decade. Before I left, I could tell you the battles we waged to prevent a two-tier wage system, random drug testing or attacks on our very right to representation.
Readers of the Labor Trib don’t need to be persuaded of the value of sticking together for the common good. But in the last few years, maybe even the last few decades, many Americans seem to have lost sight of the notion of The Common Good in capital letters. Live together or die alone; join or die. These are not just sayings to make a good TV show or something from our history. These expressions of the necessity of focusing on the Common Good describe what has made America a great nation.
I’m afraid for our great nation when we lose sight of the Common Good.
The topsy-turvy weather we’ve been having the last few weeks has me thinking about global warming, power , money and the Common Good. The fact that our global climate is changing because of pollution is becoming inescapable. What mystifies me is why the Bush administration, the oil companies and other powerful monied interests are so anxious to deny it’s happening.
Oh, I can see the economic argument. Addressing the problem, tackling it with all our resources, would cost money. It might reduce profits. It could threaten fortunes. What I don’t understand is the attitude of the rich and powerful who seem to think that their power and money can protect them from global climate change.
It’s one thing to invade Iraq, using the nation’s soldiers and the nation’s money, while Bush & Co. reap profits and stay safe from the action. They seem to think that they can construct reality and live in their nice bubble, paid for with other people’s lives and livelihoods.
But there’s nowhere to hide from global warming. No amount of money or power can prevent the climate from changing in the rich man’s corner of the world. No amount of money can remove these problems to another planet. Everyone’s wellbeing is connected.
It’s the same with the attitude toward healthcare. The Republicans in Congress and the Blunt administration in Missouri seem to think that as long as their children have access to healthcare, they and their powerful friends shouldn’t have to pay taxes to ensure that other people’s children are healthy. Until the immunization rate has plummeted so much that we’re suffering from an epidemic of whooping cough – a thoroughly preventable disease. When the legislature or Congress feel no responsibility to provide access to healthcare for the least powerful of their constituents, they are acting as if they don’t live on the same planet.
Or take the economy. This latest downturn, the economists tell us, is different from those in the past. Because the poorest segments of the U.S. population never recovered from the last downturn. The rising tide of economic activity has not lifted all boats, especially among the chronically unemployed or underemployed.
Well, why should the billionaires in this country care about the widening gap between rich and poor? Why should the CEOs who get millions in bonuses even when their companies lose money – why should they care?
When the Common Good is overshadowed by “I’ve got mine, and to hell with you,” why should anyone care?
Live together or die alone. If money and power could buy peace and prosperity, the Middle East with its oil would be heaven on earth, where all children had enough to eat, where every adult had meaningful work and all God’s children would live in harmony. Instead, it is a spawning ground for terrorism. Why does this oil-rich region incubate the likes of Al Qaida, Hamas, the Taliban, ? Policies of the powerful that ignore or tear down the Common Good.
No one has enough money or power to buy peace of mind, if they’re focused only on getting it for themselves. No economy can function for long if the people who do the work are sacrificed for the comfort of the people who have the money. Take a look at the stock market’s gyrations lately. A system built on American productivity cannot hold if you ship the production overseas. A system that exploits immigrant workers and seeks to blame them for the exploitation will continue only if we refuse to stand together.
This political season, as some politicians try the divide-and-conquer methods again, I urge you to look for candidates who understand the necessity of making policy decisions for the Common Good. Live together or die alone.

Published in the St. Louis Labor Tribune, March 11-18, 2008

Ask better questions: They’re not running for the Senate

It took me a while to figure out what bothers me about the campaigns and questions asked of presidential candidates, especially during the last two debates between the two democratic front runners. Aside from the idiotic, irrelevant questions (Tim Russert asking Obama, “Do you reject the support of Louis Farrakhan?”), and the horserace coverage (the Post-Dispatch headline about the most recent debate: “Fight Night”), what bothers me is that we’ve all been acting like Clinton and Obama are running for the Senate.
Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama keep emphasizing how their healthcare plans differ. It’s a non-issue, unless Hillary is really campaigning to be Senate majority leader. Program details are legislative matters. Whatever the president hopes to do with health care, any proposal will have to be a product of Congress.
More important is how the president would carry out legislation. How about asking what the candidates would expect from their Secretary of Health and Human Services? Or how the agencies and offices in the administrative branch should be coordinated to improve the health and access to health care of all Americans?
The president will have tremendous influence and control over the policy and operations of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Surgeon General, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the National Labor Relations Board – which all affect the health of Americans and our access to health care.
In the end, it’s not simply what the president would do, it’s how the president would delegate, what priorities s/he would set and why.

Published in Letters, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 3, 2008