All posts by Kris Amundson

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.

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.”

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.

Fidel and the Future

Political columnist James “Scotty” Reston once observed that Americans “will do anything for Latin America–except read about it.” So although the health of Castro and the future of Cuba have been much in the news, I’m still not sure that outside Miami, most Americans are paying any attention. Still, I thought I’d share some recollections of a trip to Cuba in 1999.

I was there as part of a U.S.-sanctioned visit of educators to Cuba. During that time, we had a chance to visit many Cuban schools and speak with (carefully vetted) teachers and administrators. We also heard more than our share of party officials. Here are a few observations:

1. Fidel is perhaps the best politician I have ever seen. Clearly, he’s needed great political skill to remain in power for so long. Case in point: There are no statues of Fidel in Cuba. Instead, the icon of the revolution is Che. It is his picture emblazoned eight stories high on a building near the central square where Fidel gives his address to the nation. So even after Fidel’s death, the hero of the revolution will “live” on.

2. In the end, the embargo hurts both Cuba and the U.S. I’m well aware of the human rights violations in Cuba, but there are certainly similar violations in countries like China, where we are only too happy to trade and do business. Shutting off all contact between the two countries allows the worst extremists in both countries to control what gets said.

3. Despite all their difficulties, Cubans retain a zest for life and a great sense of humor. This joke was a favorite among Cubans when we were there. A man dies and gets sent to hell. He is met at the entrance and offered his choice: imperialist American hell or Cuban socialist hell. What’s the difference, he asks? “In imperialist hell, you’re chopped up in little pieces, boiled in oil, then left to bake for a fiery eternity.” And in Cuban hell? “You’re chopped up in little pieces, boiled in oil, then left to bake for a fiery eternity.” In that case, says the man, the choice is easy. “I’ll choose the socialist hell. After all, in socialist hell, there may not be any oil … the cutting machine may be broken … the boiler may break down …”

Hasta Luego

Tomorrow morning, at an ungodly hour, I am headed to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. There, I’ll visit the girls at Our Little Roses (and check up on all those shoes we delivered last March).

It was ten years ago that Sara and I first visited OLR. I was looking for a project we could do together, since at the age of 16, she naturally had better things to do than spend time with her mother. This opportunity, with its focus on young women who had been abused and abandoned, seemed to be a natural fit.

After that first visit, Aurora, a resident of OLR, came to the U.S. to live with us for a few months so she could study English. In a blog entry, I can’t begin to tell you what those four months were like, but here’s the short version: it was hard.

She hated the food. She hated the cold (and since she also hated wearing anything that made her size-zero self look even a tiny bit larger, she was always cold). She was desperately homesick.

Still, we had some wonderful times, watching the telanovela Maria, la del Barrio on Univision and making Friday-night trips to the makeup department at the Wal-Mart.

When she went back to Honduras, she was determined to exert her independence. She moved out of the Home and for awhile we didn’t hear from her. Sara and I went down, found her, and let her know we still loved her.

Eventually, she made her way back to OLR. With our help, she attended a private university in Honduras, where she graduated number one in her class. There she also met Jorge, a handsome young man who fell in love with her intellect, her spunk, and her beauty.

Two years ago, in the chapel at Our Little Roses, Aurora and Jorge were married. Since her mother did not attend the ceremony, I was the mother of the bride.

This year, while I am in San Pedro Sula, I am looking forward to spoiling little Jorgito, the world’s most adorable boy. I am also anxiously checking on the health of my darling ajihada (God daughter), who is expecting her second baby–a girl this time–on Sara’s  very birthday. What a miracle the last ten years have been.

Abuelitas being what they are, I will probably post a zillion pictures when I get back. (Actually, of course, I won’t post any, but with Waldo’s help …)

Hasta luego–.

Another Sign the Apocalypse Is Near

Kraft Foods has announced a new food product coming soon to a supermarket shelf near you.

Fast Franks is, according to a Kraft news release, “a tasty Oscar Mayer hot dog wrapped in a soft and warm bakery-fresh bun.” All available in just 35 seconds, says the promo.

Now, I am not the world’s biggest hot dog fan. But I gotta say that it is not the time involved that keeps me from eating more hot dogs. What–a minute? Two minutes, tops?

Given the taste and nutritional benefits of hot dogs, I am not really that the world needs a faster version.

The Best Day

I fell in love with the Tour de France the first time I saw climbers race up Alpe d’Huez. Sara and I were vacationing in a little town near Gap. Some friends told us that this bike race was coming to Gap and we ought to see it in person.

What an amazing spectacle. Unlike many other sporting events — from the World Series to the World Cup to the Super Bowl–this one is absolutely free. Thousands (and sometimes millions) of spectators line the route. For hours before the racers arrive, a caravan of vehicles tosses swag–hats, candy, other tchotchkes–to the waiting crowds. Then come the team cars, honking self-importantly while carrying extra bikes and equipment. Finally the racers arrive in a blur of color.

The race takes a variety of routes through France, and only comes to Alpe d-Huez every two or three years. The stage is something special. It’s a mountain that goes, basically, straight up. I drove a car up partway and was terrified even to drive.

Along the route are thousands of spectators who have been camping for days. Many of them passed the time by getting pretty liquored up. So when the riders come by, they can (and sometimes do) reach out to touch their heroes.

I’ve been a bike racing fan ever since that first Alpe d’Huez stage. I suspect I am the only woman my age who made her selection of cable channels partly based on which package offered the OLN channel. (During the 11 months a year that OLN does NOT show the Tour (when it was formerly known as the Only Lance Network), its programming seems to consist largely of bass fishing.)

I know from peeking at the tour site that Floyd Landis has regained the yellow jersey, but I haven’t had time to watch the whole stage yet. But I’ll be cheering for every single one of the riders –those who finish in front of the peloton and those who are in danger of being dropped as they struggle up the mountain.