November 1, 2014
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My Take on the News
Vouchers best chance to improve our schools
Lonnie Barham

WE GOT WHAT WE PAID FOR WITH EDC: How many of us remember when Governor Carcieri conducted a nationwide search in 2009 for a new director for the Economic Development Corporation? How many of us remember that he almost hired an outstanding out-of-state woman, Ioanna T. Morfessis, an economic development professional from Phoenix with a Ph.D. in economic development policy and a proven successful track record – and who had no ties to Rhode Island politics? She withdrew from consideration when Rhode Islanders complained so much about her proposed annual salary of $250,000. So, instead of hiring proven expertise with a clean slate in R.I., we hired a Rhode Islander with long ties to state politicians – to include close ties to Senate President Paiva Weed. But, wait; we saved about $75,000 by keeping the job in the hands of someone who might be easily controlled by politicians. Now we are paying the piper. To save a pittance, we are now on the verge of being liable for more than $100 million due to the default by 38 Studios on its $75 million loan guarantee. Would an outsider accustomed to successfully dealing with powerful bosses have refused to accede to Governor Carcieri's pressure to funnel so much money to a flashy baseball star? We don't know for sure, but certainly there is a great likelihood that she would have handled things differently to the advantage of Rhode Island taxpayers. Yes, in this case of colossal mismanagement, we truly "got what we paid for."


SPACE-X AND FREE ENTERPRISE: The Falcon 9 rocket that blasted off from Cape Canaveral last week spoke volumes about the proper function of government in assisting and promoting the development of private industry in an area previously the exclusive province of an expensive, non-competitive and bureaucratic monopoly. Government didn't "bail out" the private space industry; it didn't pour stimulus money into a failing enterprise. Instead, it invested a small amount of money and expertise in an entrepreneurial effort that will push this monopoly into the free market where history has shown us that products will be created more efficiently, at much lower cost and with far greater quality. An added attraction to this company's future is that it will allow private citizens to eventually experience space travel and to send their loved one's ashes into the heavens for eternal travel in the unknown. It is ironic that among the first ashes cast off into space from this first trip were those of the actor who played Star Trek's engineer, Scotty. It gives a whole new meaning to the iconic phrase, "Beam me up, Scotty."


SCHOOL VOUCHERS: The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, says he now supports school vouchers – government payments to parents to use for their children's tuition at private schools. Numerous studies have shown that vouchers increase the performance of receiving students when compared to public school students. Washington, D.C.'s Opportunity Scholarships program is the latest to prove this argument. Democrats like President Obama and his teacher union supporters are adamantly opposed to vouchers. Why? Because, in their minds, vouchers will take tax dollars and the best students from public schools and will cause student performance to drop below its already dismal level. They may be right! But the key question is: so what? If voucher programs become widespread in the U.S., public schools will have to compete for good students. Competition is invariably good for whatever "product" is being produced – in this case, education. Voucher opponents argue, however, that eventually public school would be inhabited mostly by students with learning disabilities so great that voucher dollars would not be sufficient to educate them in private schools – thus, the cost to taxpayers for the surviving public schools would skyrocket. This is a valid argument but not a good one. If all the doomsayers' projections were to become reality, we would have higher taxes for education overall but we’d have a nation of high-performing students. We now waste perhaps 80 percent of the tax money we pour into public education; student test results seem to confirm this. And, our nation's workforce, industry output, business innovation and economy in general suffer greatly from the lack of educated graduates. Even if it means a slighter higher tax bill, most Americans would likely welcome a system that will return our country's education system to success. We've tried everything from stiffening standards to throwing money at unions and none of it has improved public education. Democrats, unions and urban liberals should be the most vehement supporters of vouchers since their ostensible constituents – poor and minority families – are the ones most adversely affected by our failing public education system. For self-serving reasons, they will continue to oppose vouchers, but it is time for the rest of us to demand a system that works. The voucher system is our best bet!


RESOURCE OFFICERS: The ACLU is concerned about the lack of statewide guidelines and consistent training for school resource officers across R.I. Passing legislation or statewide regulations to impose uniformity is the wrong answer. As the former chief operating officer for an urban ring school district, this writer saw firsthand what works when resource officers are assigned to schools. Since every community and every school district is different, it is essential that each district and its police department come up with their own guidelines on when a resource officer will exercise enforcement authority and when it is more appropriate for a school administrator to handle a situation. Good administrators rely on resources officers only for extreme cases. Good resource officers perform more as social guidance counselors and mentors than as enforcers. As far as whether or not resource officers are needed at all in high schools, the answer seems clear. Whenever 1,000 to 1,500 people congregate in one public area, police officers are always assigned to maintain order. Why should it be any different if those 1,000-plus people are congregated at a high school? Let's keep the state out of this and leave decisions regarding resource officers where they belong – at the local level between schools and police.


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