Friday, February 22, 2008

Was The "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy" Actually, Well, Right?

During the Clinton scandals of the late 90's Hillary Clinton offered a now famous quote attacking her attackers. She said it was all part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to get her and her husband. The accusations of sexual misconduct turned out, of course, to be correct. However, that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Republican ire towards the Clintons. By the time President Clinton's term ended, he had become such a lightening rod that Al Gore purposely distanced himself from him during Gore's presidential campaign in 2000. It's likely that as Vice President, Gore's inability to use his president's incumbency on the campaign trail played a large part in his defeat.

Now Hillary is running for president. Much of the Clinton animosity has dissipated since Bill was in office, and he has been able to be much more involved in Hillary's campaign than he was in Gore's. The results have been interesting.

Democrats are now saying the same things about the Clintons that Republicans were saying about them throughout the 90's.

The NY Times recently published an article highlighting a somewhat shady business deal involving the Clintons and a foreign country. When responding to the Clinton's attacks on his record, Clinton's primary opponent was quoted as saying, "It's important to maintain some -- you know, level of honesty." A post on a local Democratic blog contained a comment from an Obama supporter saying, "now I know how Republicans feel." The NY Times' blog has a post about the Clinton's increasingly emotional and desperate antics. And, finally, an Obama supporter I have had some interaction with became so disgusted with the Clinton campaign he vowed not to vote at all if Hillary gained the nomination over Obama.

The "right wing" of the Republican Party has taken a lot of flak in the years since Clinton left office, while at the same time President Clinton's legacy began to strengthen as the animosity and angst of his presidency faded over the years.

But now they're back, and so are the same old criticisms. Only this time, it's the Democrats who are leveling them.


Feb. 22, 1732 George Washington, the first President of the United States, is born in Virginia. He served two terms, from 1789-1797, and died Dec. 14th 1799.

Feb. 22, 1980: In a stunning upset, the United States Olympic hockey team defeats the Soviets at Lake Placid, N.Y., 4-to-3. The U.S. team went on to win the gold medal.

Utah Education Issues

I noticed the Utah Education Issues blog last fall during the school voucher referendum. It's written by a teacher and is quite insightful. I've been checking in for a few months now and it's got some really good stuff; I appreciate the "from the trenches" point of view on education issues in the state.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bankers Are Morons

For the uninitiated, here's a quick recap of how a builder gets that house built.

First, a construction loan is applied for and received. Those funds are specifically for the cost of building the house; in other words, they are supposed to pay the sub contractors for their work.

The actual process of getting the funds from the construction loan can vary depending on the bank. Some banks will wire money to the builder's bank account according to the percentage of completion of the house. Some banks require that the builder fax in a disbursement request with the sub contractor bills attached, and then they wire the money to the builder.

The only smart one of the bunch will require copies of the bills, and then write the checks themselves.

When banks write the checks themselves, they are assured that the sub-contractors are paid. However, during the heady times of the housing boom, many banks were very lax with their construction loans. Simply wiring money to the builder is in essence an honor system, leaving the banker to trust that the builder will use the money appropriately. The problem is that many builders did not. There's payroll to meet, new projects to acquire, and countless other expenses that need paying for. Money for one project is used for a project somewhere else, always with the intention that it will be paid back with funds from yet other projects. As long as the houses get built, nobody cares.

That is, until the market slows. Then the money from closings dries up and can't be used to keep the cash flowing. Building projects in turn slow down as subs aren't paid. Lien notices are filed on multiple properties, making it harder to close, and alerting the now nervous bankers to what they should have known all along. Builders are left with what could be millions of dollars of property, but little to no cash to finish building.

The bankers are angry that the builder would divert money from their project to use somewhere else. They threaten to call the loan due and take over the property; which of course they really don't want to do. Bankers are in the business of loaning money, not building condos. So instead they tighten up controls and make it harder for builders to get access to more money. But the bank might as well take the property, because by withholding cash they make it next to impossible for the builder to finish the job.

Moral of the story- bankers are morons.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Music Suggestions

Here's a couple of Mark and Geoffrey's song suggestions:

You're The Reason God Made Oklahoma

This is just good country music...

Tom Waits

Crosby, Stills & Nash

Spock's Beard

Bobby Darin

Gladys Knight

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Barack Obama Like JFK?

Barack Obama is a very interesting candidate for president. He handily won Utah's primary, and with conservatives none too pleased with the remaining Republican candidates, many have expressed willingness to turn Utah blue.

He is a great speaker. His inspiring manner, his "Audacity of Hope", and his youth have all combined to make him a very strong challenger to Hillary Clinton's "inevitable" campaign.

Even Senator Ted Kennedy endorsed him. Not only endorsed him, but did so emphatically while comparing him to JFK. He is inspiring like Kennedy, appeals to young and old alike like Kennedy, and..... is a Democrat like Kennedy.

Except that he really isn't.

Democrats of Kennedy's day would have supported the war in Iraq.

JFK spoke out about the United State's new, changing role in world politics. He told us to face reality when dealing with foreign countries, and that it would require us to be involved with leaders we may not like, with governments we might not agree with, in conflicts that might seem never-ending.

Senator Joseph Lieberman continued this Democratic tradition, and was thrown out of the party for his efforts. Were Senator Obama to truly follow in JFK's footsteps, he'd get thrown out too.

So before we anoint him as the "Camelot Redux", let us, as President Kennedy said, face reality and realize that the Democratic Party ain't what it used to be.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Tagged - Songs

I've never been tagged before, so I'm not entirely sure how this works. But thanks Ash. Here are a few of my favorite songs:

Tom Petty - Honey Bee

REM - Be Mine

Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, etc - While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Mana - Como Dueles En Los Labios

Soledad y Andres Calamaro - I don't know the name of this song, but these two are at the top of my Spanish favorites list, and they did a duet live!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Class Size Reduction Ideas

With the release of the Class Size Reduction (CSR) audit report which I wrote about here and here, the Utah Taxpayers Association (UTA) in its January newsletter wrote a short criticism of CSR efforts in Utah. They highlight that Utah's demographics - lots of kids, with more on the way - coupled with studies showing class sizes need to be at least as small as 15 (Utah is currently at 26), make class size reduction efforts pointless. They estimate that it will cost almost $900 million in additional, ongoing money to hire enough teachers to reach the 15 benchmark, and another $4 billion to buy land and build additional schools. The costs are staggering. Because of this, they posit that the CSR program should be scrapped with the money then being spent on other education programs like higher teacher salaries.

The keystone of this argument is that, according to the UTA, studies show that only by reaching class sizes of 15 is there any noticeable increase in student achievement. So I set out to verify the claim.

The National Education Association's (NEA) website on class size makes it very clear that reaching 15 is the goal. It touts studies and statistics showing the effectiveness of having class sizes at 15, and supports petitioning of legislators to fund this goal. The website of utah's chapter of the NEA, the Utah Education Association, does not specifically address class sizes other than to say it supports funding and lobbying for smaller classrooms.

Google offers some more information. It led me to a US Department of Education publication which contains a compilation and analysis of class size studies. This in turn led me to what seems to be the seminal study of class size reduction efforts: Tennessee's Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio). This study compared student achievement for k-3 graders in class sizes of 13-17 with classrooms of 22-25 and 22-25 with a teaching aide. The smaller classrooms showed significant improvement at all levels (Also of note was that the larger classrooms with a teacher aide did not show much improvement.). It also showed that low income and minority students got a big boost from the smaller class sizes, which tapered out after a couple of years.

Project STAR seems to prove, or at least provide a strong basis for, what seems intuitive - that smaller class sizes are better. But the Taxpayers Association does not directly dispute that. Their criticism is that it would simply cost too much to reduce class sizes, and that the money is more efficiently spent elsewhere.

How the Tennessee study does apply to UTA's argument, though, is that by focusing CSR monies to the first few grades, a lasting effect can be achieved, even after the student returns to the larger classes. This effect diminishes each year, but lasts until at least the 8th grade. Also important is that traditionally poor performing students get a big boost from the early class size reduction. And while 15 seemed to be the goal, anything under 20 netted significant results, especially for students coming from class sizes of 25+, as Utah's are.

Based on this knowledge, my recommendation for Utah's CSR funding program would be to continue it, but to streamline it so that it reaps the most bang for the buck. All initial funding should go towards K-3rd grade classroom reduction, specifically in at-risk and low scoring districts. This way, the students who stand to gain the most are ensured of receiving the CSR money. Districts should apply for the money, with a clear plan demonstrating their need. Funds also should be required to be used for hiring teachers, and not for teacher aides.

The drawback to this strategy is that, depending on the funding requirements for these specific districts, there very well may be districts that receive no CSR funding at all. However, the current program netted two teachers over seven years, and many districts had to use non-CSR money just to keep on the teachers hired in previous years. Clearly, the program as presently constituted is not working, and simply funding it sufficiently for everyone is just not financially feasible. Let's add to our current levels of CSR funding at a reasonable pace, and let's use it efficiently so that children, teachers, and parents actually notice the difference.

And, please, let's keep track of it this time.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Gordon B. Hinckley

Gordon B. Hinckley, the Prophet and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which I am a member, passed away last Sunday evening. Though he was 97 years old, his passing was a surprise for me and my family, as he had been very active during his 13 years as leader of the Church, including all the way up to the days just before his death. He travelled all over the world, and kept a schedule I'm sure I would be unable to match.

He was set apart as Church prophet in 1995, and since that time has overseen much growth and change amongst the Mormons. The Church has grown from 9 million to 13 million members. On September 23, 1995 in a General Relief Society Meeting he read The Family: A Proclamation to the World, an inspired and prophetic pronouncement if ever there was one. LDS temples grew in number from 47 to 124. He announced and instituted the Perpetual Education Fund. And in 2000 he, along with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles released The Living Christ, a testimony and statement on the divinity of the Savior.

President Hinckley was the prophet for most of my adult life so far. He left me with many memories and examples of faith, endurance, eternal optimism, and love. I have enjoyed being able to remember his life and ministry this past week as he has been written about and stories have been shared. He truly is a man I admire and wish to emulate.

There are many great places to learn more about him, the things he was able to accomplish, and the people he made a difference to. The official Church Newsroom has photos and videos. The Deseret News has a great page up with copious articles and commentary. The Salt Lake Tribune also has a great multimedia tribute to President Hinckley. Brigham Young University has an awesome slideshow as well. Also, the Utah blogosphere has a number of posts remembering him, with many personal stories to share. Click on the Bloghive banner in my links area to the right, or click here. An Idaho blogger I recommend, Joel Kennedy, has a nice tribute as well.

So long, President Hinckley. May God be with you till we meet again.