Obama Administration

Rita Hibbard's picture

Schools are failing - and kids are counting on us to get it right

If a school is failing, how do you fix it? Can you fix it without admitting anything is wrong with the teaching? How about the leadership? The district administration? The parents or the students? Whose fault is it anyway?

Schools on a list of the state’s lowest performing schools are in line to get some big federal dollars. President Obama this week announced he has $900 million in new federal grants available to school districts willing to take aggressive steps to fix their struggling institutions, or close them. That $900 million is on top of $4 billion in federal grants in the “Race to the Top” fund aimed at improving education nationwide. That program will make about $50 million available to Washington schools judged to be among the lowest 5 percent in student achievement.

Obama said the new federal aid would be available to the districts that are home to the 2,000 schools that produce more than half of the nation’s dropouts.

But the fix has to include some big admissions of failure – the school districts must agree to take at least one of these steps: firing the principal and at least half the staff of a troubled school; reopening it as a charter school, which is not legal under Washington law; or closing the school  and transferring students to higher performing schools in the district. 

According to a story in the Seattle Times, the Tacoma Schools superintendent is proposing to close one middle school, replace the principals and at least half the staff at two others, and transform the fourth.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Tying student scores to teacher ratings in Oregon and Idaho, while WA takes a go-slow approach

The state of Oregon is putting it on the line, taking the controversial step -- with the backing of its teachers unions - to connect student test scores to teacher ratings and using them to judge effectiveness.

rita_hibbardweb"Schools will be expected to use those results to improve teaching practices and could use them to help decide which teachers they should promote, give bonuses or let go,” reports Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian. Oregon will take this step in its application to win $200 million of the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top fund – deadline Tuesday. About 43 states, including Idaho, are expected to apply in this first round of competitive funding, and Oregon is one of only 28 with teacher union backing.

Meanwhile, Washington state is proceeding more tentatively. Gov. Christine Gregoire has announced the state will apply for round two of the funding – deadline June. Superintendent of Schools Randy Dorn agrees with the go-slow approach.

“Race to the Top money will help change the way we do education and make our schools better for our students,” Dorn said. “But we need time to make sure local districts can participate in the process. Waiting for the second round of applications gives us that time.”

Like Oregon, Idaho schools also will seek the federal funding in the first round – about $75 million for a pilot program to pay teachers based on performance in several areas, including student test scores.

Cleaning up Coeur d'Alene

Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman highlights the history behind a $1.79 billion bankruptcy settlement between the American Smelting and Refining Co. (ASARCO), owner of the Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lead from the mines helped fuel World War II's barrage of bullets and Idaho's economic trajectory, but the mine owners knowingly emitted large amounts of lead into the environment, though they could have fixed the emissions control.

Instead, they pursued record profits while poisoning the air with a substance known to make children fidgety, dumb and brain damaged.  The Kellogg mine was on the Coeur d'Alene river, which drains into Lake Coeur d'Alene, which along with the upper reaches of the Spokane River is now one of the nation's largest Superfund sites.

Now, the mine's waste tailings, full of heavy metals like cadmium, spread into Washington, and the state and the E.P.A.'s work is not done.  $435 million of the settlement is set aside specifically for Bunker Hill.  The clean up of the mines is revving Idaho's economic engine now, attracting another $15-20 million in stimulus funds from the Obama Administration.

Read University of Idaho Associate Professor Katherine Aiken's excellent history of the Bunker Hill mine, whose owners were embroiled in Watergate, giving illegal contributions to the EPA to influence its decisions, rather than spending the money on cleaning up the toxic legacy they had left to Idaho and Washington's children.

Obama administration's climate regs have two key and timely audiences

The United Nations' refusal to accredit InvestigateWest journalsts to cover the global climate-change negotiations today in Copenhagen took up way too much of my day. How ridiculous! The UN, which can't even figure out how to open up to independent journalists the corridors outside where actual decisions are made* ... is going to be running an international treaty? One that likely will engender massive worldwide economic and energy-use changes?

rm iwest mugAnyway, to recap the most important development in the climate story on this side of the Atlantic today, the Obama administration announced it would be treating greenhouse gases as pollutants. I first saw it on the front page of The Wall Street Journal this morning, and further checking suggests the Journal got the jump on others on this story (with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers' positions both mentioned before the jump).

Now, this is anything but unexpected. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced  months ago the agency would be taking the step it did today, which puts EPA on the path to regulating carbon dioxide and methane and the whole shootin' match as if they were, oh, say, benzene. The EPA was more or less obligated to do this by a 2007 court decision.

Jackson said nothing about today's announcement when she was in Seattle Friday.

Obama's people make the case that fighting climate change = jobs

Our good friends at grist.org commissioned this story today. Hope you like it:

By Robert McClure

SEATTLE—You could tell by the way Obama administration officials pep-talked a roomful of clean-energy businesspeople today that the White House realizes it hasn’t convinced Americans that “tackling climate change = ending the recession.”

rm iwest mugAgain and again EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Energy Undersecretary Kristina Johnson pounded on the jobs issue at a pre-Copenhagen climate talks event designed to showcase how energy efficiency, the smart grid and renewable energy can boost employment rates.

“We’re hearing a whole host of reasons today to support American clean energy. There are national security reasons. There are environmental reasons, and there are public-health reasons,” Jackson said. “But perhaps the most compelling reason at this moment and in this place is the economy.”

The very setting of the clean energy forum fairly screamed “JOBS!” It was a nearly-finished “innovation center” that is leasing space for startups, built by McKinstry Co. beside the firm’s south Seattle offices. McKinstry is all about energy efficiency in buildings (which is where something like a third to two-fifths of our energy use occurs, depending on how you’re counting).

And, get this: Even as the recession roared ahead into high gear earlier this year, McKinstry announced plans to hire 500 people.

That can happen more, Jackson said.

Snake, Columbia rivers' salmon recovery plan nearing approval

U.S. District Judge James Redden lauded the Obama Administration's tweaks to his predecessor's deficient plan for improving salmon runs along the dam-studded Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The Idaho Statesman reports Redden said just "a little bit of work" would be needed to win approval for the federal hydroelectric system's salmon recovery plan along those rivers, whose power lights up most of the Pacific Northwest, after more than 10 years in court.

But Redden also said that the legality of the plan -- known as the biological option or BioP -- could be challenged unless the Obama Administration formally adds its changes to the plan or puts the science behind them through public review.  The Endangered Species Act forces the government to study and mitigate the impact of its hydroelectric system on salmon.

The state of Oregon, the Spokane and Nez Perce tribes and environmentalists disagree with the plan, which wouldn't breach four Snake River dams that have ravaged salmon runs unless the salmon were right on the brink of extinction.  The states of Washington and Idaho and other tribes back the plan and its more than $1 billion in federal recovery efforts over the next decade.

The Oregonian reports the federal government is so intent on hording all the power produced by the dams that it doesn't want to continue spilling water over the tops during peak salmon runs, despite their proven success at helping recover salmon runs by easing their downstream passage.

Flushing out illegal immigrants -- quietly

We reported in July that Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Obama had initiated an audit of employers with illegal immigrant employees in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Antonio and New York.

Now, a major janitorial services firm owned by local conservative talk radio host Peter Weissbach has fired about 100 janitors suspected of being illegal.  The Seattle Times reports that Seattle Building Maintenance will continue to let go workers in waves so managers can hire replacements.

At first, the Obama Administration's approach was heralded by immigrant advocates as more humane, since it keeps enough of a buffer between immigration agents and illegal immigrants so the former don't deport the latter wholesale.

Conservative Law Professor Kris Kobach has also focused on making it more difficult for employers to hire and employ illegals.  The federal strategy also  includes roping in local law enforcement to identify illegal immigrants with criminal histories in preparation for deportation.

The government's more targeted, two-pronged approach is aimed at chipping away at the illegal immigration population by reducing the supply of jobs that draws people to this country illegally and speeding up deportation proceedings by focusing them on criminals.

U.S. treatment of illegal immigrant once they have been detained has been criticized as inhumane due to the dirty, overcrowded private contractor facilities for housing those detainees.

U.S.-China climate pact: Why so late? We try to ask Al Gore (with a little help from KUOW)

The news today on the climate front is a pretty big honkin' deal: President Obama, on a visit to China, signed an agreement with China calling for the United States to offer a proposal for near-term cuts in greenhouse gases. In return, China will say what it plans to do about not frying the planet to kingdom come.

(I know: It doesn't sound earth-shattering. But it's a big enough deal that it's currently topping Google News. You have to realize that China and America are No. 1 and No. 2 in the list of the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.)

If you want more on today's developments, I recommend Jake Schmidt's piece over at grist.org.

But here at Dateline Earth, I can't help but ask: Why didn't the Clinton-Gore administration convince China to show such good faith? At the time of the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, even some members of the U.S. delegation to the climate talks knew that selling the deal to the U.S. Senate meant convincing senators it would spawn expanding alternative-energy industry that would make money for Americans.  (At least in part by selling the stuff to China.)

Yes, the global political and economic scene was different then. But it seems the idea that Americans might benefit to some degree had to be sold. And then an R&D rampup had to happen. But it wasn't. And it didn't.

In fact, I may actually get to ask Al Gore about this, courtesy of the good folks at KUOW, the public radio news-and-information station. Gore, the leader of the American delegation to the 1997 Kyoto talks, is appearing from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday on The Conversation with Ross Reynolds. (It's at 94.9* FM if you're here in Rain City.