from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

How does one measure a life? 

I will not try to make that determination for anyone else. But today, I have no doubt how I will measure mine. For twenty years ago, more than a third of my life, I was blessed to be joined in marriage with my eternal partner, known here as Leaves on the Current. That I participate here is due in no small part to our relationship, so please indulge me as I make this small verbal offering in her honor.

Our relationship is much older. I first noticed her when as a teenager she visited one of my music classes at Haverford with the wife of one of my professors. She finds this hard to believe, but when I described what she wore and how she looked she acknowledged it was possible. But our first conversation was an an early Easter morning at the Episcopal church where I had just been baptized. She did not know that I had been watching her, a senior at an elite (then all-girls) prep school. My very first words to here were “so when are you going to discover boys” and her response was :Why, when I go to Harvard, of course.”

Others noticed my watching her, but our relationship did not begin until the following fall, when I encountered her at a suburban train station. We we going in to the city, where she was going to catch another train out to her home. But our train was late, and she missed her connection, so I took her out for a piece of pie and cup of coffee. It was not our first date, that would be six days later when I took her out for dinner, but we mark the beginning of our relationship as of that day, September 21, 1974. She was 17, and taking a year off before Harvard to seriously study ballet, I was 28 and working in data processing and living in a rented room.

Within a few weeks it was clear that we were in love with one another. If I may steal some lines from the wonderful Sally Fields - James Garner movie, “Murphy’s Romance”, she was in love for the first time in her life, me for the last.

We had that year before she went off to Harvard. Then there were 4 years of my commuting to Cambridge Mass once or twice a month, followed by 3 years of greater separation while she attended Oxford with a Marshall Scholarship. We became each others closest friend and trusted confidant, but because our time together was so precious and limited we postponed some of the hard work at making a relationship work. Finally in 1982 we were in the same city and we really had to work on the relationship.

We moved to Arlington Virginia, and finally on December 29, 1985, several hundred people came to watch us get married, and then joined us at our reception at historic Oatlands Plantation near Leesburg, still decorated for the holidays.

We are both difficult people, but I am much more so. I do not really believe in myself. I am actually fairly shy, although an extravert, and easily get depressed. I worry that I am not making a difference. And here I am married to this very attractive, and brilliant and charming, young lady. In Myers-Briggs terms we probably should clash -- she is an INFJ, me an ENFP, with both the extraversion and perceptor qualities to the extreme. She is a neatnik, I am not, she is more oriented towards cats, me towards dogs, she late night me very early morning (probably a product in my case both of rising at 5 to practice piano before school as a teen and far too many days spent in monasteries as an adult).

And yet - as in any relationship there is commonality. We both love music, although our tastes do not always overlap (I draw the line at New Age, and except for Mary Chapin Carpenter and Willie Nelson she has little tolerance for Country). I was a music major in college yet discovered early in our relationship that she probably knew more abut Beethoven than did I. When she shared her high school yearbook picture with the accompanying quote she was surprised that I could recognize the passage and name the T S Eliot poem from which it came.

It may seem strange that I would take the time to write and post something like this on a blog that is devoted mainly to political issues. Bear with me. There is a reason for this.

It was Leaves who encouraged me to take the chance and get involved in the (abortive) campaign of Fritz Hollings for president in 1983, and who has always been supportive of my subsequent volunteering for campaigns, local, state and (Howard Dean) national. She encouraged me to write my thoughts, and I would not have begun blogging except that she insisted that my ideas and insights were worth sharing with others.

We do not always agree. For example, when I began to pursue the idea of doctoral studies in education she did not understand why I would want to do it. When I got a free ride for 3 years from Catholic, she became very supportive. When I decided to withdraw with a dissertation proposal almost complete, she - who had taken more than a decade to do her doctorate on a part-time basis - could not understand why I went so far and did not complete it. But as she has seen my writing on education in other fora she has accepted and supported the decision I made (even though she will periodically remind me that the university would probably love to have me back). She was very supportive last year when I took on the extra burden of work for my national board certification as a teacher, and bought me a bottle of champagne to celebrate when I found out I had passed.

Leaves is a superb editor -- often I wish that she were available to review what I write before I post it. I assure you there would be far fewer typos...and even fewer infelicities of expression! But it is not that which I value most. Not her skill as writer, which I greatly envy, not her superb intellect, which she has applied in many different arenas -- as a writer on dance, the environment, politics, religion.

No -- what I want to pay tribute to on this day is her soul, her heart in the old sense of that word. She is incredibly caring. I am an exceedingly difficult person, and yet as the years have passed she has made it absolutely clear that nothing I could say or do would ever cause her to stop loving me. In my moments of deep depression and despair (of which over the past 30+ years there have been far too many) she has always been there.

As I struggle to find balance in my life, she may not always understand where I am going, but she will try to help, to accompany me as far as I will allow her, and even then keep going.

I was able to become a teacher, to take the better part of a year off to get my training, because she increased how much she worked, taking time away from her own interests, in order to make it possible for me to explore an idea that was not completely formed.

Her caring shows in the time she makes for her nieces and nephews. particular one nephew having a difficult time whom yesterday she took to see Nutcracker. It is evident in the love she showed toward our Sheltie when Espeth was getting elderly - not a dog person, she warmed and her heart melted. It is obvious when a cat curls on her lap and she will give that priority over anything else she had planned.

Her heart and soul come out in her passion for preserving the environment, and her willingness to work against the death penalty, even standing in silent vigil as an execution took place in Jarrat tVirginia at the Greenville Correctional center. Her depth of feeling is in her poetry (which she does not often share). Some have even seen it in her few posts at dailykos.

Ours is a partnership -- I provide some structure in day to day things at which she is not so skilled (such as changing light bulbs -- she is not always the most practical -- and I do most of the shopping and almost all of what cooking occurs), and I have been able to serve as a sounding board for some of her ideas, and review some of her writing to help her. I have encouraged her intellectual pursuits as she has encouraged mine, to the point where it is not clear where we will put any more books in this house.

We often talk about political and social issues. This has been true for our entire relationship. We both see that we have a responsibility for a larger world. It was as a result of the comments I would make in these discussions, or when we would watch various talking heads shows, that led Leaves to encourage me to write down my thoughts and insights for a larger audience. So if you do not like what I post here, she is at least partly to blame.

Tonight I will take her to our favorite restaurant, reserved nowadays for truly special occasions. We will drive more than an hour into Rappahannock County for a late dinner at the superb Inn at Little Washington. It has been several years since our last visit. We both appreciate good food, and the ambiance is truly superb and appropriate for a reflective evening like this.

I am posting this very early in the morning, because I want the rest of this day free to be with Leaves on the Current, my partner for all eternity. I will not be online that much today. People may ignore this, or may comment as they see fit. I offer this to honor Leaves, to be sure. But I also offer it in another spirit -- many here are able to participate in this electronic community because of the support of other people. We may have spouses, parents, children, friends, significant others with two up to four feet, who tolerate or even actively encourage our participation. In our passionate involvement here, I hope we all take time to give them the thanks for the support they give us, both in our endeavors here and in all else we share in life.

I am having a very happy 20th wedding anniversary.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

... no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death 

In 1994 Harry Blackmun finally came to the conclusion that fair application of the death penalty was impossible to maintain.  In his dissent in Callins v Collins he wrote the memorable phrase
From this day forward I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.
  While I acknowledge that the clear language of the 5th and 14th Amendments allows for the possibility of a capital sentence, I now find myself  becoming an absolute opponent of the death penalty.  My reasoning will be different than that of Blackmun.  It will be moral and ethical, influenced by history and reason.  It will also be because of recent events, including Abu Ghraib and the kidnapping of Tom Fox.  And although a majority of Americans still support the death penalty in at least some cases, I am no longer sure I can morally offer support beyond a reluctant vote for anyone who is unwilling to challenge the rationale for capital sentences.  In this piece I will explore my reasoning.

As an adolescent raised in a Jewish family that attended a synagogue that included survivors of the Holocaust, I felt that any ex-Nazi the US could capture should be executed.  The Eichmann trial in Israel took place my sophomore year in high school, and I remember very few of my acquaintances who opposed his sentence of death.     I started with that as a baseline - that there were some acts which were so heinous that the only was of addressing them was by execution.  In my early readings of the Constitutional material I was influenced by the clear language in the Bill of Rights, reinforced by the post-Civil War 14th Amendment, which allowed a sentence of death provided due process of law had been followed.  It was only with the issuance of the verdict in Gideon that I first began to consider other possibilities.

Gideon v Wainwright as the case was called in SCOTUS (it was originally filed as Gideon v Cochrane) did not address capital cases.  It extended the right of counsel at trial in all state felony cases, thereby overturning a previous case. Betts v Brady asserted in 1942 that a person accused of a felony was not entitled to a free lawyer absent the possibility of a capital sentence.    Since my mother was a lawyer (at the time of the issuance of Gideon she was an Assistant Attorney General for New York State) it was logical for us to discuss what turned out to be the sole unanimous decision of the Court term.  Although she was no a criminal specialist, she was an appellate specialist, and thus I learned that the 1932 case of Powell v Alabama had asserted that people were entitled to lawyers in most criminal proceedings, but left implementation of the decision up to the states, and that historically even though 12 of the original 13 states had considerably broadened access to lawyer beyond British practice (which until the 1830's did not allow a lawyer in most felony cases), there were no provisions for free lawyers for those who could not afford a lawyer.  When I asked, my mother acknowledged that given the complexity of our legal system it was inherently unfair for anyone defending themselves not to have access to a lawyer.

The logical question that followed our discussion of Gideon was whether there had been people sentenced to death who had not had the assistance of counsel.  She acknowledged  that prior to Betts in 1942 there were cases in state courts.  I asked why there should be a distinction between a death sentence and a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, and her response was that it was largely to assuage the blood lust of society.  

I was at the time approaching my 17th birthday.  As a senior at Mamaroneck (NY) High School I was taking a very rigorous AP American History course with a very tough teacher who made us read - original documents, commentary - and think and argue.  We had been through a lot of constitutional material, and although we did not discuss this case, what we had done in that class of very bright students (the "weakest" school any of the 13 of us attended was U of Wisconsin, which had a superb history department  -- there were people going to Princeton, Swarthmore, Haverford [me], MIT, Cornell, Harvard [Tom Horne, now Superintendent of Public Instruction in AZ], etc.) had prepared me to wrestle with the issues this case presented to me.

Haverford was at the time of my entrance in 1963 still officially Quaker.  While it would be another 39 years until I officially applied for membership (at which time the chairman of my committee was my freshman roommate), I began to be influenced by Quaker thinking and practice.  I remember one debate in our freshman corridor late at night that addressed the death penalty.  I do not remember all of the details, but I do remember arguing that there certainly some cases so horrible that the only recourse for society to take was to execute the person, lest people who were angry withdraw their consent to the social contract and take matters into their own hand.  I was challenged in return by someone, I do not remember who, asking me if that therefore justified the lynching of blacks in the South because they had been accused of raping a black woman.  My response at the time was to note that lynching was an extra-legal action, but that if a society thought that rape was a horrendous enough crime, why would it be wrong to apply a death penalty?  I was challenged again  -  what if the application of a sentence of death was never applied to a white raping a black but only to blacks raping whites?  Having spent the summer before college very active in Civil Rights, including attending the August 28 March, that challenge brought me up short.  I did not have an answer, and it was the first time I encountered what for many was to become a key part of their argument against the unfairness of the death penalty, how it was unequally and inequitably applied.

And yet, I held to my position that there were cases for which there should be no argument.  I thought back again to Eichmann, and I would argue that had Hitler been captured, how could we reward him by keeping him alive as a prisoner.

I have long been interested in the workings of SCOTUS and our legal system.  Thus when the Furman v Georgia decision was issued in 1972 (when I was at Haverford for the 3rd and final time - I did not graduate until shortly before my 27th birthday) it caught my attention for several reasons.  First, the successful advocate, Anthony Amsterdam was, as I soon found out, a graduate of Haverford.  Second, two justices, Brennan and Marshall wanted to go much further than the per curiam decision and argue that the death penalty should be unconstitutional in ALL circumstances.  It was the first time I had been aware of members of the highest court taking such a position. And yet, despite 6 justices having found the application of the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, 4 years later it was reinstated in a 7-2 decision (Brennan and Marshall dissenting) in Gregg v Georgia.  Here I offer the summary found at www.oyez.org (an invaluable resource for those interested in Court cases):

Question Presented

Is the imposition of the death sentence prohibited under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments as "cruel and unusual" punishment?


No. In a 7-to-2 decision, the Court held that a punishment of death did not violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments under all circumstances. In extreme criminal cases, such as when a defendant has been convicted of deliberately killing another, the careful and judicious use of the death penalty may be appropriate if carefully employed. Georgia's death penalty statute assures the judicious and careful use of the death penalty by requiring a bifurcated proceeding where the trial and sentencing are conducted separately, specific jury findings as to the severity of the crime and the nature of the defendant, and a comparison of each capital sentence's circumstances with other similar cases. Moreover, the Court was not prepared to overrule the Georgia legislature's finding that capital punishment serves as a useful deterrent to future capital crimes and an appropriate means of social retribution against its most serious offenders.

Of course, it was easy to see some holes in the reasoning used by the majority.   Still, the idea that some crimes were so heinous that - provided care was applied in determining the sentence of death - reinforced what I had believed for a number of years.

Over the years I continued to read when death penalty cases arose.  I found myself becoming more inclined to look for reasons not to execute, although I probably could not have given a coherent reason.  Part of what was influencing me were changes in my personal life.

In 1974 after some major turmoil in personal life I was baptized as an Episcopalian.  I spent that summer in an Episcopal Benedictine monastery.  I did a lot of reading, praying and meditating.  And that September, I began the relationship that let to Dec. 29, 1985, when Leaves on the Current and I were married (and don't worry  - we have a significant celebration planned for this Thursday).  Both of these events began to shape my thinking, even before the issuance of Gregg.  I began to study scripture systematically, even obtaining a Masters of Religious Study with a concentration in scripture from a Roman Catholic Seminary.  Several things struck me in my studies.   I found it difficult to understand how someone who seriously read scripture could be blasé about the death penalty.   After all, Jesus had said the vengeance belonged to the Lord, and at least for me part of the justification for capital punishment had been satisfying the need for vengeance.  There was also the clear example of the intervention of Jesus to stop an `execution" (or lynching, depending upon your interpretation) of the woman taken in adultery.  His challenge that only those without sin be willing to cast the first stone brought me up short.  From a Christian perspective, it raised the very real issue of who could ever apply such a harsh punishment.  It challenged not only the death penalty  -- if one thought about it, it challenged the entire nature of our criminal justice system.  While I did not attempt to resolve the issue systematically, it caused me to do some reading (while in the monastery), about my Jewish background.  I came to understand that while the death penalty existed in theory, there was little evidence of its application in any circumstance where Jews had the ability to administer their own laws  (here I remind readers that it was the Romans who actually, according to the Gospel account, executed Jesus).  Judges would always look for extenuating circumstances.  And then I remembered debate I had skipped over in 1961 and 1962 about Eichmann, about whether even for him it was appropriate for Jews to execute someone.  I would later read Hannah Arendt (and still later have one very brief conversation with her about this in 1971) in which she presented the case that Israel, having convicted Eichmann, should have considered simply turning him loose, since no punishment applied by men could hope to erase the damage he had done - establish his guilt legally, but not attempt to punish for it (my memory of her actual words have faded).

My relationship with the woman who would eventually officially become my partner for eternity also began to influence me.  She is opposed to any taking of life, and in this she is consistent, opposing both the vast majority of abortions (exceptions for rape and to save the life of the mother) and capital punishment.  We argued on this subject over many years - we both take issues we view as moral very seriously.  

In the late 1970's for reasons I will not hear rehearse joined the Orthodox Church.   There I learned that early Russian Christians took so seriously the idea of resist not evil that two princes, Boris and Gleb, refused even to defend themselves when the assassins sent by their brother came to kill them, and that for most of its history after the conversion of Vladimir in Kievan Rus Russia did not have a capital sentence.  I  began to realize that there was a distinction between life with parole and the death sentence  -- the latter was a denial of the redemptive possibilities in Christianity.

I began to approach a position, but was unwilling to follow it to its logical conclusion.  It seemed clear to me that to argue any act (or even series of acts) committed by an individual could irrevocably put him beyond the reach of God's forgiveness (in Christian terms, the saving self-sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross), was a blasphemy  -  such reasoning made that individual equally powerful with Jesus / God.  That any individual could reject the mercy and love of God was the essential element of human freedom, and without that freedom man could not choose to love God   -- after all, love is the act of a free creature.  I found examples of Orthodox theologians who wrote speculatively that even Satan would eventually be redeemed, that even the Devil had not irrevocably placed himself beyond God's redemption.  And I encountered a piece of canon law ( not consistently enforced) that went back to the very earliest years of organized Christianity, that any many who had spilled blood was ineligible to be ordained presbyter (priest) -  the logic was that one who had spilled blood could not properly perform the rites of the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist.

I still was not totally opposed to the death penalty.  I was willing to question it, but at least in theory could imagine serving as a juror and voting for such a sentence.  I probably first expressed this when I went with my wife to a meeting of a Virginia group opposed to Capital Punishment  -  it was in a Church on Leesburg Pike in Bailey's Crossroad.  I do not know if Tom Fox was at that meeting, although Leaves knew him at that time from their joint activity.   This was sometime in the 1980s.  Virginia allows exclusion from capital cases of any potential juror who has a philosophical opposition to the death penalty.  I remember telling them that I was probably an important ally, since none of them could ever serve on a capital case - their membership in what I believe ws then called VASK (Virginians Against State Killing) was sufficient grounds for their exclusion.  Were I asked if I belonged to or supported any such group I could truly answer in the negative, as I could similar answer if asked if I had a philosophical opposition to the death penalty.  If voir dire went no further, I would be acceptable to the prosecution.

But by now my position had altered  --  I would still grant the idea of the death penalty in theory  -- for the Hitlers, Pol Pots, and Stalins.  But I had already decided that there was no case under American jurisprudence of which I was aware, recent or historical, for which I was willing to support a sentence of death.  I knew it was unlikely that I would be sufficiently questioned that this would become clear.

Sometime in the 1980's, after 1985, I was called for jury duty.  I do not swear an oath, but affirm.  In my first voir dire, I had to remind the judge that I had that right under Virginia law  - that brought attention to me, attention that would eventually lead to my being disqualified from every criminal pool by the prosecutor (I found this out from a friend in the Clerk's office):  in Virginia, for a normal 12 member jury, 18 people are seated at a time, and each side MUST disqualify 3  -- that hides who is being disqualified by which side.  I was always struck by the prosecutor.  I have never liked the idea of swearing, had noted that the Constitution allows the oath of office to be administered by oath or affirmation, and as a Christian (which I still was) took seriously the admonition of Jesus not to swear like the Pharisees but to simply let me yeas be yeas and my nays be nays.

I tell you this because it was the prosecution which struck me from a capital case.  Realistically, it should have been the defense, save for a memory lapse.   The case was of a separated and getting divorced couple.  He had gone to her home to get her to sign some papers, and in a fit of rage because he feared losing custody of their son had killed her.   One question asked of all jurors was whether they had ever known or experienced such a case in any personal fashion  - a legitimate concern to be explored.  I answered in the negative because of a memory block.

In 1985 I had wandered out of my office on the Monday after western Palm Sunday to buy a Philadelphia Inquirer -- it was that night that Georgetown and Villanova were to play for the NCAA division one championship in basketball, and I wanted to read how it was being covered in Philadelphia, especially as I had a rather large bet with a coworker who was a Georgetown supporter.   The lead story was of a shooting the day before at a suburban church.  An estranged husband had shown up where his wife and two little girls were attending church with her parents.   He shot and killed all 3 of his family with a rifle, turned the gun on himself, but at the last second flinched, shot in the air, then threw himself backwards.   Her name was Linda Moser, and I had trained her as a commuter programmer.  She was my immediate subordinate for several years, and there were marital difficulties even then, as she had outgrown him.

I called my former place of employment.   I had left that office in 1982 to move to our Washington Office, and had left the company in 1984.  People were in shock.  So was I.  I took the afternoon off because of how it struck me, and even that night as Villanova shot 10 for 11 in the second half I could not totally lose myself in the game.

Returning to my jury service, had I not been struck by the prosecution, one could argue that my participation in the deliberations might have served as a basis for overturning the verdict, except for one thing   -- I would not even in that case have voted for the death penalty.  As it happens my memory of Linda's death came back about the time the jury retired for the sentencing phase  (and he was sentenced to death, even in liberal Arlington).  For all practical purposes I would not vote for a death sentence, but I was still not philosophically opposed.

My position had remained the same over the many years.  And then one month ago yesterday, Saturday Nov. 26, Tom Fox and the other CPT team members were seized in Baghdad.  I learned of it early the next morning via email.  I did not know Tom that well, although we had both attended Langley Hill Monthly Meeting. Our little Meeting community quickly became involved in addressing the needs of Tom's family, our members, and responding to the news.  At first we attempted to keep the names of the individuals and the organization out of the news, although by the start of the work week that was already becoming impossible as events overtook things.  I had told my wife confidentially by phone midday Sunday which is when she reminded me of her knowledge of Tom through their anti-death penalty work.

As the next few days path, and I learned more about Tom, and the consistency of his life in opposing violence, I began to reexamine some of my own attitudes.  It was while conversing with the spouse of one of the members of his support committee that I came to realize that I was having my own moment like Harry Blackmun.  In my case it was not the issue of tinkering with the mechanisms of death.  It was a realization that my long espoused position was untenable.  I could no longer make the distinction between American jurisprudence, where I was reluctant if not yet absolutely opposed to applying a capital sentence, and other cases overseas.

I do not consider myself a Christian per se, but clearly there are parts of Christian belief that influence me.   As a longtime seeker, and several times teacher of comparative religion, I am also influence by the teaching of other great faith traditions, and the non-violent part of the Buddhist tradition also has helped shape some of my attitudes, as have my Jewish background and quite obviously my current Quaker affiliation and commitment.

While recognizing that other may disagree with my reasoning, I now find the idea of state sponsored killing repugnant and unacceptable.  Not in my name, as the Quaker songwriter John McCutcheon wrote in a song so entitled.  I find, even absent Christian theology, something inherently immoral in the idea that one group of humans will irrevocably decide that another human is beyond being changed, of repenting, of becoming productive.  In that sense I am also probably also opposed to life with no possibility of parole   -  I might set very high standards in some cases, with a long period of incarceration,  but I have trouble with the idea of permanent incarceration for similar reasons.

It is not merely that mistakes can be made.  I look at the reasoning that has been used in capital cases and I am appalled.  In Herrera v Collins Scotus ruled that once a person has been convicted the presumption of innocence disappears and thus the person is not necessarily entitled to continued legal action (e.g. habeas corpus suits) to introduce further evidence to demonstrate innocence.   While O'Connor's concurrence notes

the execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event
similar language does not appear in Rehnquist's majority opinion, which allows for the possibility of the execution of an innocent person.  This to my mind allows for something totally abhorrent -  at least to my moral sensibilities.  And I find it shocking that there are prosecutors who oppose DAN testing or reopening of cases in any fashion which might demonstrate that an innocent person has been executed.

I used to make a distinction between US jurisprudence and certain "horrible" actions in other nations, such as the Nazis.  I can no longer accept that reasoning.  I recognize that it bears a striking parallel to the arguments of the current administration justifying actions done outside the US, whether at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, that our laws do not apply (even thought the actions are being done by US government officials in the name of the nation and the people).  It would parallel their false argument that we have to fight terrorism [how od you fight a noun?] over in Iraq so we won't have to fight it here.

Immoral actions remain immoral, regardless of where they occur, despite any justification  we may offer for their occurrence.

Finally, my increasing reluctance to offer political support (beyond a reluctant vote) for any politician unwilling to take a stand on this issue.   We desperately need moral leadership in this nation.  At one point the vast majority of people tolerated chattel slavery, lesser rights for women, many other things the vast majority would now find repugnant.  Without someone willing to take a stand, to provide leadership, such change does not occur.  After all, it is hard to imagine someone (except perhaps John Yoo) attempting to legally justify sentencing someone to death without having the full assistance of competent counsel  [yeah, Pricilla Owens didn't think a lawyer sleeping through the trial denied the assistance of competent counsel  - so there are others].  

I think people are willing to be challenged.  Russ Feingold was alone in opposing USA PATRIOT Act.  He was targeted in his reelection, yet ran stronger than he ever has.  And soon we will have one or more clear examples of innocent people who have been executed, and that may sway some people away from their support for death sentences.

But my argument is against execution of those who are clearly guilty, and even those who do not repent.  My argument is not about them  -- it is about us.  It is about how our insistence on maintaining this judicial punishment diminishes us in the eyes of most of the civilized world.  That is important. But it is insufficient.

If we grant that there are certain things that are not acceptable for moral and humane people to do, such as own another human being, then we need to examine all of our actions.  How can we justify torture?  How can we justify denying basic rights to those who are not citizens  even as we require them to abide by the same laws and pay the same taxes?  How can we decide that some human beings are not fully human beings, and thus are entitled to be treated with less humanity?

I realize this is very long.  I do not expect that many will take the time to read it, or that it will receive much commentary, or stay visible in any place it is posted for any period of time.   I feel that it is a statement I had to make.  I am doing so in environments devoted to political issues because this is as important a political - and moral - issue as we face.

I accept that others will come to different conclusions, for what they will see as very good reasons.  As for me, I can no longer accept the idea of judicial killing.  

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Education - Not Toyota, but still what you asked for 

crossposted at dailykos,myleftwing,boomantribune, and teacherken

Toyota used to have  a slogan "You asked for it, you got it."  Many in the progressive/liberal blogosphere have been demanding  that  our political leaders listen to what we at the grassroots have to say.  In education this has now happened.

As many here may know, Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa began a process of soliciting ideas from the grass roots over at  HeartlandPac.org.  My participation in this, and in a conference call, eventually lead to Governor Vilsack himself posting here at dailykos.

The results of this ongoing conversation about education has now been systematically compiled and is available for your perusal.   Below the fold I will explain more, and offer an overview of what is available.  I strongly encourage all who are interested in education (which should be all of you) to continue reading this diary.

Without recapitulating the entire history, for those who do not know, Gov. Vilsack established an organization to solicit ideas from the grassroots, whether identified experts or merely interested citizens.  He set up a website at which people could post their ideas.   The site also offered ideas that were currently being triedby Democratic Governors around the nation.

The first topic on which Gov. Vilsack wanted to focus was education.  As a result, his internet guy, Kevin Thurman of BlueStateDigital, sought to get a number of educational bloggers to participate in a conference call with the Governor.  I was one of the two participants in one phone call, and eventually I blogged about it, among other places at dailykos.  As you will see if you click on the link, that posting got a lot of traffic.

It also got a response from the Governor, as you can see at A Response to TeacherKen and the DailyKos Community.  

I also crossposted a response I made to one of the Governor's postings at HeartlandPac, entitled A Response to Tom Vilsack.   This also got a fair amount of traffic.

I list these three item because they are among the sources of the ideas that Gov. Vilsack is now distributing.

If you go to HeartlandPac, you will see a link on the left-hand side to download a PDF of the 60 page report put together as a result of the dialog.  Kevin has assured me that it will also be available in html within the week, if you want to wait.

I am going to offer -- with permission  -- the table of contents to give a quick sense of what is offered, and the  the beginning of the Executive Summary, so readers can see how much input from the grassroots is involved. (WARNING - since I am cutting and pasting from a PDF, the formatting will have been slightly changed from how it appears in the actual document - and I apologize for html formatting problems).

Here's the TOC:

Table of Contents    

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY                            3  

EDUCATION IDEAS                                  10

Early Education                                   11

Length of School Year                             14

Length of School Day                             16

K-12 Education                                   17  

School Construction/Overcrowdin               25

Curriculum                                        27

Testing                                         31  

Teacher Quality                                   34

Violence in Schools                              40

School Administration                             41  

Parental Involvement                              42

Higher Education                                  45

Global Competition                                 51  

Miscellaneous                                   52    

ONLINE EDUCATION RESOURC                    56

Online Education Resources: Organizations 56

Online Education Resources: Blogs              59    

And the Executive Summary:

Executive Summary    

The Heartland PAC website www.heartlandpac.org was launched August 1, 2005.  The mission of the PAC is twofold:  To elect governors and other state officials, and to create a virtual  marketplace of ideas to bring communities without borders together to offer ideas and best practices to candidates who want a different outcome on Election Day.   We believe the best ideas and practices come from communities engaged in problem solving.  The Heartland PAC website's objective is to broaden the definition of community by offering a forum to those people who want to engage in problem solving.   In September, we launched the first single topic discussion on education. We challenged participants to submit their own ideas and best practices on education so that we may share them  with you.  The discussion ranges from a Japanese education program to a heated exchange about the length of the school year.   While there is no consensus or silver bullet, the document underscores both the importance of education and the shared yearning to solve longstanding problems.  Whether the discussion topic is early childhood, K-12 schooling, testing, curriculum or higher education, the discussion shows  real people in their own words, who cared enough to offer thoughts of their own to engage in the discussion.   Below is a summary of the ideas we recorded from participants. After the summaries, which are organized by category, you can read more about the ideas in the words of the authors.    


Early Education (Pg. 11)

   In this section, Gov. Tom Vilsack, joins former Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina, as well as  Sara Mead of the Progressive Policy Institute and Janet of Keokuk, Iowa, to discuss ideas on how to improve the quality of early education and pre-K child care:    

 - Gov. Tom Vilsack | Child Care Facilities and Education

Gov. Vilsack discusses a program that provides parents with detailed information about child care facilities.

 - Chris Correa | Brookline Education Project and Children's Health

Chris Correa discusses a study showing how successful education programs improve children's health.  

 - Janet from Keokuk, Iowa | Child Care Licensing and Education

Janet offers an idea on how to ensure that child care programs complement investments in early education.  

 - Gov. Jim Hunt | Smart Start

Gov. Hunt discusses North Carolina's Smart Start child care program and its many successes.

 - Sara Mead | Education Equity and Early Childhood

Sara Mead discusses how the quality of early education dramatically affects inequality in our communities.  


Length of the School Year (Pg. 14)  

   In this section, Gov. Vilsack joins two members of the DailyKos web community, Roddy and Amie Erickson, to discuss the merits of the American school calendar:    

 - Gov. Tom Vilsack | A Response to TeacherKen and DailyKos.com Community  

Gov. Vilsack discusses different ways of increasing children's instruction time.  

- Roddy @ DailyKos.com | Origins of the School Year

Roddy argues that the structure of the American school year is out of date.

 - Amie Erickson | How to Make the School Year Longer

 Amie explains that it may be best to phase in any changes to the school year.


 Length of the School Day (Pg. 16)  

In this section, four DailyKos.com members explain ideas regarding the length of the school  day:    

 - Transmission @ DailyKos.com | Moving Back School Start Time  

Transmission argues that starting the school day later makes it easier for children to learn.

 - JHsu @ DailyKos.com | More Efficiency, Not More Hours

JHsu argues that making the school day longer would fail to solve the problems that our  schools face.

 - Historys Mysteries @ DailyKos.com | Making More Time for Creativity

Historys Mysteries suggests that the school day be lengthened to make more time for  creative pursuits and individual instruction for students.

 - TarheelDem @ DailyKos.com | The Two Hours After School TarheelDem argues against increasing the length of the school day, but says that kids need  to do more than watch television when they get home from school.

The foregoing should give a sense of how much the input is from the grassroots, including as you can see postings made by people at dailykos, for example.

Let me make clear that my posting of this in no way represents an endorsement of any future political aspirations of Tom Vilsack.  It does, however, represent an aknowledgement of and an appreciation for the endeavor he has made to listen and to make available more widely the ideas on various topics that those at the grassroots level are willing to offer.  That is not the only source for the material presented  -  there are inclusions from recognized experts such as Andy Rotherham of the Progressive Policy Institute, and from Governors of things they are already doing.  The inclusion of the Governors is important because they are in the main the target of this effort by Vilsack.  He wants to empower Democratic Governors and gubernatorial candidates with the best thinking possible on key subjects.  

Education was the first topic to be addressed in this fashion.  The Governor has also asked for the ten key words people would use to say for what the Democratic Party stands, and he is about to begin accepting ideas on medical and healthcare issues.  

I would hope that all who read this will take the time to explore the report.  I will not selectively quote further, because there are so many differing ideas offered, and because the report does not attempt to come to a conclusion -- that is not its purpose.  While it comes in at 60 pages, the amount of text is actually far less, and the end, as one can see in the Table of Contents, includes a list of resources relevant to the topic.  Methinks this may prove to be a useful document to have, either maintained in electronic format on your computer, printed down so it can be marked up, or both (which is what I am doing).

Please, take the time to explore.   And also, consider going to HeartlandPac.org and participating yourself.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Paul Hackett at Hawk and Dove 

Washingtonians know Hawk and Dove as a classic Capitol Hill establishment that has been around for several decades, as the name should make clear. On Tuesday Dec 6, Paul Hackett, Democratic candidate for the US Senate had a fundraiser / get to know the candidate event. Having given money to Hackett’s special election race against Jean Schmidt, I was on the mailing list, and receive an electronic invitations. Since one of the hosts was Kevin Thurman, internet guy who put in in contact with Tom Vilsack, I thought I would attend. What follows is a semi-coherent reflection on the 3 hours I spent there.

The event was scheduled from 6-8. I spend far too much time at the establishment, normally when I am waiting for my wife who works nearby at the Library of Congress. Thus I arrived at 5:30, grabbed a beer and said hello to my friend the day manager Paul. I then around 5:45 wandered to the back room where the event was being set up. I remained until 9:30, well after the event was “officially” over. During my 3 hours I had a number of interesting conversations, including people who ahd served with Hackett in Iraq, at least one of whom is still on active duty, several key members of his campaign staff, others who there just to support him, and also with Kevin, noted above.

This will not be a stenographic account of the events, not even of Hackett’s formal remarks, if they can be so described. It will include reference to remarks he made to the crowd as a whole as well as several comments made directly to me or others. It is far more my general impressions, buttressed by specifics where relevant.

My first set of remarks is about people who served with him in Iraq. I talked with four, one a civilian female, three males who had been in the Marines (one still was). All were incredibly supportive, even though at least two were registered Republicans, one of of whom held a high ranking position on a Republican congressional staff (I promised not to be more specific, even though this individual was there with the knowledge of the person from whom s/he worked).

I served in the Marines (stateside only) in the 1960’s. That one’s fellow Marines, subordinates, superiors or equals (I will not specify) believe in and will support you is high praise indeed. While I did not see combat, I know that ultimate loyalty is to those with whom you serve, for your life may depend upon them. This is most true of the trust one places in one’s commanding officer. That people whom served under the command of Paul Hackett support him is very high praise, trust me.

Hackett is very “direct.” To put it another way, he is blunt, says exactly what he thinks, even if it might not be the politic thing to do. I remarked on this to several people, including both Hackett and his campaign manager. I offered the following thoughts.

(1) Americans will accept someone who speaks directly (even bluntly) what s/he believes, but once you start down this route you cannot back off because others tell you it is not “political” or “smart”.

(2) Americans want their political leaders not to be - how shall I say this - mean, nasty, demeaning to their political opponents. They want leaders who can recognize that people can honestly disagree about issues without demonizing their opponents.

(3) Americans want people able to seek out and work on those areas where common ground can be achieved.

BTW both agreed with me on these points.

Since this a holistic reflection, I will not try to recapitulate all I heard and observed. I note that Tim Ryan, elected to the House from Ohio when he was 28, showed up to introduce Hackett. I remember Ryan from the 50th birthday party for Howard Dean at Capitol City Brewery in 2003, where I had talked with him. I told him how much I respected him for being willing to take a stand and endorse Hackett now - after all, this could still be a contested primary.

When I first met Hackett he displayed what I consider an appropriate sense of humor, although I recognize that all who read this might not agree. I stated my name, my service serial number, and added “reporting for duty.” He immediately responded “Don’t do that, it reminds me of Kerry!” and we both chuckled.

When Hackett spoke to the crowd of about 100, his remarks covered a large amount of territory. Let me hit a few highlights.

He didn’t think it was the government’s business what you did in your bedroom or what you had in your gun case.

He worried that we would be the first generation to leave the country worse off than we received it.

He made it clear that he opposed the war, but that as military they followed the legitimate orders of the policy makers. He noted as well that he wishes he was still with his Marines, who as one of his former subordinates pointed out to me, will be returning to Iraq in June.

He had, in a side conversation with someone else, had said that those who thought that Iran was going to take over because of the relationship between Shi’a in both Iran and Iraq don’t understand the culture - that Iraqis are Arab and the Iranians are Persian, and that over the long term the two simply are too different to sustain a close relationship.

He described that Democrats as being the party of fiscal responsibility and - and I hope this is close to what he said - national security. He hit two other points as well, but right now I have brain lock - I did not take notes. Actually I wish I had an audio tape, because his remarks were so pointed and concise.

On Iraq -- he was quite critical of those who would set an arbitrary end date for withdrawal. He noted that the military will carry out the orders of the policy makers, but that it should be the military’s professional judgment of how and when to draw down troops.

I could go on, but you should already have a sense of what I think of Hackett. I was impressed far beyond the surface impression one can get from most politicians. There was not a lot of the normal “candidate-speak” which one encounters far too often here around DC.

BTW - slightly off topic . Also present was Andrew Duck, who will be the Dem candidate against Roscoe Bartlett in Maryland’s 6th CD. Duck is a retired career army officer who also served in Iraq. As it happens, several of his nieces and nephews attend the hs at which I teach, and another is associate director of admissions of the college from which i graduated and for which i do volunteer work in admissions - I know that nephew well,which shows how small the world really is.

I could go one with many more details. That might or might not be productive. let me give my general sense.

1) Should Sherrod Brown compete for the Senate nomination, he will get his clock cleaned.
2) Hackett has a real chance to win in Ohio. DeWine does not have a high approval rating, and Hackett has a real ability to draw support not only from Democrats, but also from republicans and libertarians (and he repeatedly mentioned both).
3) This is a man who is in it for real. He mentioned both privately and publicly that he was not satisfied with the close loss to Schmidt - as far as he is concerned, nothing other than a win is acceptable.
4) Anyone who encounters Hackett directly as I did is likely to look for a way to offer support. You may not agree with him on all issues (I don’t), but you will respect his forthrightness. Thus I have volunteered to serve as a resource person on education policy, even though it is not one of his top issues. I don’t intent to impose my viewpoints, but to help him clarify and best express his own views.

This is the end of my remarks. I hope they are useful to someone.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Monday, December 05, 2005

What kind of country do we want? 

My normal focus is education. And on more than one occasion I have written that we cannot decide how to address problems in our schools until we can decide on the purpose those schools are supposed to serve. But I have come to realize that there is a question of greater precedence, and that is reflected in the title of the piece.

One purpose our schools serve is to help us fulfill our hopes and aspirations for the future of our society. While I am not myself a parent, as a teacher I see how much parents want schools to empower their children for the future. They may disagree as to how they should be empowered, just as we may disagree whether the purpose of schools is to train people for the economy or to be citizens or some other goal. But rare are the parents who do not want the best for their children in the future.

So what are our hopes and aspirations for our society? What kind of nation do we want? And do not the answers to these questions shape the kind of politics we do as well as the kinds of schools we desire?

I cannot myself formulate a clear and concise answer to these questions. I know I am not alone in struggling. I note things like Gov. Vilsack's’ challenge at HeartlandPac to define what the Democratic Party stands for in ten words or less. While I have a personal antipathy towards such a reductionism to soundbites, I nevertheless applaud the striving towards a clear statement of that in which we believe.

I am afraid I am too verbose for such an exercise. I justify that prolixity by arguing that the ideas are too subtle for such a limited number of words. And then I realize that I have to start somewhere. So I will offer a few as of yet preliminary and tentative thoughts. The order doe not represent any kind of priority or structure. Nor do I pretend that the list below is even in the same galaxy as an overall philosophy. It is merely a compilation of some thoughts that are constant issues, at least for me.

I want a society and a nation that wants good for all. That is, I do not want to be part of a society that defines success for ourselves - as a nation or as individuals - only in the structure of a zero sum game where the advances of one can only occur because of the diminution of others.

I want a society and a nation which dos not define success merely in economic terms. Increasing levels of consumption and expenditure are not necessarily a sign of health, not even economically. They may instead indicate a spreading cancer of amorality.

I want a society and a nation which truly values diversity, within our boundaries and in the world writ large. Our form of government and economy are not perfect: if they were, we would not have the high levels of infant mortality, of financial inequity, of functional illiteracy, and yes, of crime and incarceration, that we do. We should value our differences, and use them to find a commonality that celebrates those differences rather than suppresses them. We should be able to honor those - nations and persons - whose values and ways of life may be very different than our own, so long as they are not hostile to us. Therefore we cannot, if we wish to be moral, be hostile towards those not hostile towards us.

I want a society and a nation that sees each individual as unique and irreplaceable. That does not mean that I do not value community. But the richness of our community as a society comes from our willingness to embrace the different gifts each can bring rather than insisting upon a common mold to be imposed upon all of us.

I could go on, and at some point I may try to form this into a more coherent statement. But as I start another school week, I thought I would offer this in the hope that others will share their ideas.

We should not expect to find agreement on many things, at least not easily. That is not the purpose of this posting. We must offer our ideas in a spirit of openness, to attempt to learn from one another. In a sense that which I ask is not dissimilar from what many of us now believe about the political process. We have, those of us who in the various grassroots movements of the Dean campaign, come to believe that reform can best be done from the ground up. Similarly, I believe that a national discussion on what kind of nation we can and perhaps should be, while it can be provoked by leaders willing to encourage it, as I believe a few have demonstrated, is best done by starting at the roots. And for this kind of approach the blogosphere is an ideal medium. We can offer our ideas, listen to those of others, discuss, and try to find elements of commonality even as we recognize those areas in which our visions do not overlap completely.

What say you? What will you offer to this discussion? We cannot afford NOT to have your vision. It could be the most important thing we hear. It is a task for all of us. Please speak.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Two recent educational studies -important issues 

crossposted at myleftwing and dailykos

It's time for an education related diary.  Because a lot of my time and energy are involved with the situation of Tom Fox (kidnapped American peace maker) I do not have much time for my own commentary.   So today I thought I would bring your attention to two recent studies published at the peer-reivewd but electronically published (and free) journal Education Policy Analysis Archives.  Then publication is worth scrolling through to see previous reports.   I wont' offer much commentary on either in the diary, but instead offer without comment the information released by EPAA (as it is commonly known) in the abstracts, which are posted to a large number of educationally related lists.  If you are interested in either  teacher preparation or the question of school choice and whether it improves test scores, both are worth the read.

The first is on the question of alternative tgeacher preparation programs, with a special focus on the heavily touted program Teach For America.   Here I note that my experience and observation is that one does not become a truly effective teacher by and large until one has several years of experience, which is why if someone tells me they plan to spend one or two years teaching before getting on with their lives I raise real questions.  It is not, in my mind, that they won't offer something more than what their students were previously receiving in the way of instruction, but that it represents a lack of commitment which in some way invevitably shortchanges those they teach and those with whom they work.   That is my point of view, and it was not changed by reading the article.

Here's the release:

EPAA has just published Volume 13 Number 42.

The article can be accessed directly from the

Recent Articles listing at the journal homepage:


An abstract follows:

         Does Teacher Preparation Matter?

       Evidence about Teacher Certification,

   Teach for America, and Teacher Effectiveness

             Linda Darling-Hammond

              Deborah J. Holtzman

                Su Jin Gatlin

             Julian Vasquez Heilig

              Stanford University


Recent debates about the utility of teacher education have raised questions about whether certified teachers are, in general, more effective than those who have not met the testing and training requirements for certification, and

whether some candidates with strong liberal arts backgrounds might be at least as effective as teacher education graduates. This study examines these questions with a large student-level data set from Houston, Texas

that links student characteristics and achievement with data about their teachers' certification status, experience, and degree levels from 1995-2002.

The data set also allows an examination of whether Teach for America

(TFA) candidates-recruits from selective universities who receive a few weeks of training before they begin teaching- are as effective as similarly experienced certified teachers. In a series of regression analyses looking at 4th and 5th grade student achievement gains on six different reading and mathematics tests over a six-year period, we find that certified teachers consistently produce stronger student achievement gains than do uncertified teachers.

These findings hold for TFA recruits as well as others. Controlling for teacher experience, degrees, and student characteristics, uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as  well as other uncertified teachers. TFA recruits who become certified after 2 or 3 years do about as well as other certified teachers in supporting student achievement gains; however, nearly all of them leave within three years. Teachers' effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching.

Citation: Darling-Hammond, L., Holtzman, D. J., Gatlin, S.

J., & Heilig, J. V. (2005, October 12). Does teacher

preparation matter? Evidence about teacher certification,

Teach for America, and teacher effectiveness. Education

Policy Analysis Archives, 13(42). Retrieved [date] from


The entire issue of school choice is an important political and social issue.  It is a major policy iniatiative on the right, claiming issue of liberty and freedom.  It has been championed, especially in the form of vouchers, beginning with Milton Friedman.  One argument used on its behalf is that it provide the marketplace of competition, which will therefore force schools to improve.  So any study that analyzes ACCURATELY (there are others that do so selectively) the impact of choice programs is an important contribution to this important policy debate.  Further, given the emphasis in NCLB on test-based accountability, the we need a coneptual framework that allows us to look at two key policy issues simultaneously, which to a degree this report does.  So here's the second release:

EPAA has just published Volume 13 Number 41.

The article can be accessed directly from the

Recent Articles listing at the journal homepage:


An abstract follows:

    On School Choice and Test-Based Accountability

                 Damian W. Betebenner

                    Boston College

                   Kenneth R. Howe

                  Samara S. Foster

               University of Colorado


Among the two most prominent school reform measures currently being implemented in The United States are school choice and test-based accountability. Until recently, the two policy initiatives remained relatively distinct from one another. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind

Act of 2001 (NCLB), a mutualism between choice and accountability emerged whereby school choice complements test-based accountability. In the first portion of this study we present a conceptual overview of school choice and

test-based accountability and explicate connections between the two that are explicit in reform implementations like NCLB or implicit within the market-based reform literature in which school choice and test-based accountability

reside. In the second portion we scrutinize the connections, in particular, between school choice and test- based accountability using a large western school district with a popular choice system in place. Data from three

sources are combined to explore the ways in which school choice and test-based accountability draw on each other: state assessment data of children in the district, school choice data for every participating student in the district

choice program, and a parental survey of both participants and non-participants of choice asking their attitudes concerning the use of school report cards in the district. Results suggest that choice is of benefit academically to only the lowest achieving students, choice participation is

not uniform across different ethnic groups in the district,

and parents' primary motivations as reported on a survey for participation in choice are not due to test scores, though this is not consistent with choice preferences among parents in the district. As such, our results generally

confirm the hypotheses of choice critics more so than advocates.

  Citation: Betebenner, D. W., Howe, K. R., & Foster, S. S.

(2005). On school choice and test-based accountability.

Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13(41). Retrieved

[date] from http://epaa.asu.edu/....

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

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