Will wonders never cease

So yesterday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings allowed as how states should play a larger role in deciding how to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Seems to me that’s what Virginia has been saying all along. And to no avail.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that back in my teaching days, I was part of a team that taught a class called “The Poetry of Rock.”

I have been atoning for that ever since.

There is nothing wrong with holding high expectations (which, let me assure you, “The Poetry of Rock” did not) for all students. In fact, as Jay Matthews recently pointed out, most American kids still aren’t exactly wearing themselves to a frazzle with hours of daily study. In fact, two thirds of college freshmen say they spent less than an hour a day on homework when they were in high school.

But Virginia, which was one of the first states to institute high standards, has faced a brick wall with what former State Board of Education Chair Michelle Easton used to call the “federales.” Virginia, under the leadership of State Board Chairman Kirk Schroeder, instituted research-based testing standards for students who are still learning to speak English. We also created comprehensive standards for students with disabilities.

The Feds, led by Sec. Spellings, knew better. They wanted no flexibility. Well, any woman who’s ever bought a pair of panty hose marked “one size fits all” knows that it doesn’t. Virginia lawmakers were so frustrated that at one point, the House of Delegates–Republicans and Democrats alike–voted to pass up federal funding if it came with the NCLB strings attached.

But now, when new polls show that most Americans think NCLB has either had no impact or has actually hurt schools? Well, now Ms. Spellings seems to be changing her mind.

Animal House, Meet White House

John Belushi.jpgOne of the hoary traditions of the House of Delegates involves animal noises. Whenever a bill involving a particular species comes to the floor, there is an undertone of barks, oinks, whinnies, quacks, etc., from various members. It’s one of the juvenile impulses that sets the House apart from the more, um . . . dignified Senate.

During the past session, a series of tax exemption bills came to the floor. One dealt with an exemption for medicines administered to farm animals, with predictable sound effects. The next bill exempted equipment used in the manufacture of computer chips. After it was approved in silence, the Speaker observed, “I guess nobody knows what a semiconductor sounds like.”

What brings this to mind is an item in this week’s U.S. News and World Report. I guess we all missed out because President Bush didn’t start his political career in the House of Delegates. Party on!

Changing the Budget Year

The always-thoughtful Vivian Paige raises a question: should the Virginia budget cycle be changed?

Now, the incoming Governor has only a short period of time to put together a budget. Occasionally, as with this year’s little snafu over the distribution of sales tax, haste makes waste. (We’ll be returning to Richmond on Monday to clean it up for this year.

But should governors be given an entire year in office before they prepare a biennial budget? On the one hand, it gives them and their staff the time to prepare a budget that truly lays out their priorities.

It also would put budget adoption in an election year for Delegates and Senators. Anyone want to guess how many times we’d go into overtime if that occurred?

On the other hand, the cycle would delay accountability for any governor. For the first year and a half, he or she could say, “Hey, it’s not my fault. Blame the other guy.”

So what do you think?

In which we agree with the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal, hardly a bastion of liberal thought, has weighed in on our junior Senator’s recent brush with national fame. Mark your datebooks: Today may be one of the only days that we agree with the Journal’s editorial stand.

Brendan Miniter, the author of the editorial, notes that he began his journalistic career in rural Virginia, where he observed firsthand the impact of the state’s history on its current politics. He notes that while Sen. Allen has made some efforts to reach out to minority voters (for example, this year’s apology for the failure to enact antilynching laws), for most of his political tenure he “has displayed a dismaying indifference to his adoptive state’s racial history. And it is this political tone-deafness that is now weighing down his political future with Southern baggage.”

Miniter concludes, ” A legacy of the South’s long struggle with racism is that today its elected officials must take a stand on racially sensitive issues. What Mr. Allen is finding out is the same thing Trent Lott learned a few years ago: that Southern politicians who don’t appreciate the sensitivity of race issues may pay a political price.”

As Grandmother Brink used to say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

People in a whole lot of places got their first impression of Virginia’s Junior Senator last week: Albuquerque, New Mexico, Austin, Texas, Belleville, Illinois, Billings, Montana, Biloxi, Mississippi, Boston, Massachusetts, Bradenton, Florida, Charlotte, North Carolina, Cincinnati, Ohio, Columbus, Georgia, Denver, Colorado, Duluth, Minnesota, Evansville, Indiana, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Gwinnett County, Georgia, Houston, Texas, Indianapolis, Indiana, Kansas City, Missouri, Los Angeles, California, Macon, Georgia, Manchester, New Hampshire, McAlester, Oklahoma, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Palm Beach, Florida, Rochester, New York, San Francisco, California, San Jose, California, Sarasota, Florida, Searcy, Arkansas, Shoals, Alabama, Spokane, Washington, Tucson, Arizona, and Youngstown, Ohio, to name a few.

My concern is this: what impression of Virginia did they take away from the experience?

NCSL: Duelling Pollsters

For most of the past week Kris and I, along with scores of other states’ Delegates, Representatives, Senators, Assemblypersons, and Nebraska Unicams or whatever they call themselves, attended the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures. NCSL is a valuable bipartisan forum for legislators to share their states’ experiences and solutions in workshops and other presentations. Every year’s meeting has given me ideas for possible legislation in health care, technology and privacy, and other policy areas.

The meetings’ business sessions also feature great speakers. On Friday morning, we heard from the “Duelling Pollsters,” Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Frank Luntz, on the current political environment and their predictions for the upcoming elections. Hart cited a raft of statistics that point toward major Democratic gains on November 7: massive discontent with the country’s direction, a Republican president whose approval rating has languished under 40% for a year now, a record margin of voters who intend to vote Democratic for Congress. Surprisingly, Luntz said virtually nothing to refute Hart. “How many of you are Republicans?” he asked the audience. His advice to those who raised their hands: “Go home. Go home now. Go home and get another job — wait: you’re going to be looking for another job pretty soon anyway.”

One subtext of Luntz’s remarks was his neo-populist denunciation of corporate abuses, from Wal-Mart’s employee health care policies to CEOs’ super-sized pension packages. What made it interesting is this: in 1994, Luntz was the man behind the polling, messaging, and wordsmithing for the ingenious Republican Contract with America that contributed mightily to that year’s Republican takeover of Congress and their dominance of the national policy agenda for the past dozen years. So, more than any other person in that room, Luntz fairly could be said to be responsible for the conditions he was denouncing so passionately. Funny, life.

Democracy’s Next Generation

One of the highlights of this year’s National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) convention was a session featuring student projects completed through Project Citizen. This middle-school program teaches young people how to become responsible, participating citizens.

As we walked into the room, we were all given one of those How a Bill Becomes a Law charts. You’ve all seen them–lines and arrows that purport to teach the reality of legislation.

The first speaker asked us to tear them up. “That’s not how young people learn,” she said. And she was right.

Four groups of students, all in upper-elementary or middle school, then talked about the projects they had completed. Each group had identified a problem in their area–an alley that needed a pedestrian crossing, a local recreation program that didn’t communicate with the growing Latino population, a community that didn’t recycle its trash, a watershed that was increasingly polluted because of materials dumped in storm drains.

Students selected these projects themselves. They did extensive research on possible solutions. They spoke with policymakers, including legislators, mayors, school board members, and one member of Congress.

Not only did they propose solutions, but in some cases they saw those solutions implemented. Although they recognized that politics was not the preferred activity of most people their age (“No normal kid hangs out at town meetings,” one said), they were thrilled to learn that they could make a difference. “I watched adults listen to me. I watched my ideas turn into a reality,” one said.

It’s a great program. I hope to introduce it to schools in the 44th district this year. Meanwhile, being around all those smart, committed middle school students made me more confident than ever in democracy’s next generation.

Fidel’s on the Roof?

One of Bob’s favorite stories is about the woman who asked her sister to take care of her cat while she was on vacation. One day, she called home to check in and asked about the cat.

“The cat’s dead,” she was told.

“That’s a terrible way to tell me,” the woman admonished. “You should have said something like, ‘The cat’s on the roof.’ Then in the next call, you could have said, ‘The cat’s still on the roof and she’s not eating.’ That would have prepared me to hear about the demise of darling Fluffy.”

The next year, the woman again went on vacation. This time, she asked her sister to care for their mother.

Again, the woman phoned from the road. “How’s Grandma?” she asked.

“Grandma’s on the roof.”

Does anyone but me think that the drip, drip, drip of bad news from Havana is a sort of “Fidel’s on the roof” message to the world?

Off to the National Conference of State Legislatures this week. Assuming I can find a business center, I will post from there.

Solved My iPod Problem

A few months ago, on Extra Innings, I lamented that I was bored to death with all the music on my iPod.

I am delighted to report that my trip to Honduras has produced an unexpected side benefit. I heard reggaeton. A cross between reggae and rap (and of course nearly always in Spanish), reggaeton has great rhythm track.

Which, when you’re facing 17 more minutes on the elliptical trainer, is just what you want.

The Virginia General Assembly from the perspective of 7 West.