Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ninety-nine Red Balloons

I'm dating myself with this memory, but the 1982 song "99 Red Balloons (99 Luftballons)" by Nena was part of the soundtrack of my high-school years.

Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it's red alert
There's something here from somewhere else...
This was at about the time as the movie "War Games," when the thought of accidental global thermonuclear war was in the public imagination. The song protested the war machine with a fable of two children who release a bevy of toy balloons. Some country's surveillance software takes the balloons for a security threat and: "This is what we've waited for -- this is it, boys, this is war!"

I hadn't thought of that song for years, even when my daughters began to show great delight in helium balloons. A red birthday-balloon tradition became especially strong with Rose, whose February birthday falls at just the right season for discount Valentine balloons!

For Joy, mylar balloons have always been a stimmy delight, from their dangly ribbons to their delightful crackly feel. Once Joy came along, Rose had to learn to share the heart balloons -- though there were always plenty to go around.

Now in Wisconsin, mylar heart-balloons have taken on a whole new meaning.

It started in February, when the protests against Governor Walker's appalling budget proposals broke out. At some point during the initial protests, someone released a heart balloon in the Rotunda. It floated up to the dome... and stayed there. And stayed, and stayed. As the protests morphed into work on the recall elections, and the major remaining protest presence in the Capitol was the daily Solidarity Singalong, the heart balloon became a symbol of the endurance of the protests. A Capitol Balloon Facebook page sprang up, and a Twitter account. When eventually the balloon did come down toward the end of June, it was taken to the Wisconsin Historical Society to be preserved for posterity.

With the original balloon gone, replacements began trickling in. More balloons floated up to take its place, and protesters began delivering balloons to legislators. The Department of Administration and the Capitol police began to take notice. Soon there were reports of an arrest for a balloon release, and of police officers tailing a protester as she delivered balloons to legislative offices.

Then on Tuesday, a bizarre act of violence. The protester who had delivered the balloons was singing toward the end of that day's Solidarity Singalong, bearing a balloon ready for delivery to yet another office, when the facilities manager accosted her and began stabbing her balloon with a knife, repeatedly! By the time the balloon was good and dead, there was blood on the protester and on the floor, though she had not been injured (it seems the knife-wielder had managed to cut himself in the process.) He then took off, leaving spatters of blood in front of the stairs that lead to the Wisconsin Supreme Court -- and she followed to demand his identification. Instead of providing it, the protester & witnesses relate, he grabbed her and threw her into the door of the women's restroom.

The mainstream media coverage has been misleading, sadly at odds with the witness accounts, painting the incident as a little ol' argument that ended in a state employee popping a protester's balloon. The Department of Administration says that their employee hurt his hand in a tumble on the stairs before the confrontation (why he'd go accost a protester rather than attend to the dripping blood, nobody can say.)

Fortunately, between Facebook and Twitter and blogs, we needn't rely the mainstream press for the whole story. By the next day, the eyewitness accounts had made the rounds -- and the response at Wednesday's Solidarity Singalong at the Capitol was incredible.

Our little family was there.

We didn't bring any balloons ourselves, but there were plenty to go around. The Rotunda was alive with heart balloons, and clever signs ("You've already broken my heart -- you didn't need to STAB it too!"), and children running and playing. The crowd was close to 200!

Instead of ruffling the Capitol authorities with a big balloon-release, the organizers attached their balloon-clusters to large spools of ribbon, reeling them up to the dome for the singalong hour, and then back down afterwards. Of course, with so many individual balloons handed out to folks like Rose & Joy, some were bound to escape. We almost lost Joy's, but I caught it just in time and re-attached the string!

Joy isn't entirely thrilled with these singalong events, but she tolerates them if we provide enough food and enough distraction. The balloon was a great help, and has been fun at home too. Meanwhile, the noon protests do provide a small way for me to contribute while still on childcare duty, and lift my spirits as well.

Our struggle in Wisconsin isn't quite the apocalyptic vision from Nena's song, but the metaphor isn't unrelated. Gov. Walker himself referred to his first budget-attack as "dropping the bomb" when he thought he was talking to billionnaire David Koch on the phone -- but was actually getting pranked by a blogger. And this legislative session has surely left a swath of destruction and rubble in its wake. (Examples abound at a clever new website called WTF has Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker done so far?)

Recall elections in under two weeks. On August 9 the recalled Republicans face their Democratic challengers, on the 16th the recalled Democrats try to hold their seats as well. Polling shows most of the races close -- Republicans have no insurmountable leads -- we've got a real chance to flip the Senate here!

But meanwhile...

...Ninety-nine dreams I have had
And every one a red balloon
It's all over, I'm standing pretty
In the dust that was a city

I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
Here it is, a red balloon
I think of you and let it go

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Special Needs Vouchers in Florida: "Like a Perverse Science Experiment"

Here is how a recent article in the Miami New Times described Florida's McKay Special Needs Scholarship program:
It's like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash: Dole out millions to anybody calling himself an educator. Don't regulate curriculum or even visit campuses to see where the money is going.
Except that description isn't fair to science experiments, in the absence of an attempt to create a hypothesis capable of being tested, or to collect meaningful data.

The article, titled "McKay scholarship program sparks a cottage industry of fraud and chaos," tells a very different side of the story than the glowing voucher-advocate reports that are being used to promote similar legislation in Wisconsin.
The program works like this: any public school student with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) may enroll in a private school using taxpayer dollars that would have been spent for their public-school education. Public schools are required to provide a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Unfortunately, the private schools have no such requirement. They don't have to provide anything, or have so much as a single special-educator or therapist on staff. Not even when they're taking students funded with taxpayer dollars.

In Florida, according to the Miami New Times article, getting in on the McKay money is ridiculously simple:
Registering a private school is as easy as filing minimal start-up paperwork. Becoming eligible to receive McKay payments isn't much tougher and relies mostly on the honor system: You must claim to have a location, promise to run background checks on staffers, and either have been in business for three years or have access to a surety loan or line of credit.
These astonishingly loose conditions are followed up with an almost total lack of accountability, allowing fraud to flourish. In the 12 years since the program was introduced, there have been 39 Department of Education investigations in McKay voucher fraud, only 3 of which have resulted in arrest. Far from being an accolade for the quality of the program, it's an indictment of the lax oversight: the department rarely looks for trouble unless someone -- often "an associate with an axe to grind" according to the Miami New Times article -- files a report. Former Florida DOE investigator Seth Stoughton, specializing in voucher fraud, told the New Times that the most proactive his investigations ever got was driving around with an address list of McKay schools to make sure that schools actually existed at those addresses. He claimed that the DOE failed to uncover "even a significant fraction" of the existing fraud.

A couple of examples via the New Times of the fraud that was revealed:
- The most common caper involves simple forgery: school administrators doctoring attendance records and signing parents' names to show that students are enrolled when they're actually not. Jacksonville's Success Academy — which received $4.8 million — was likely the largest such case. From 2001 through 2005, the school accepted $421,000 for 52 students who were enrolled in public schools.

- At Muskateer's Academy in Hialeah (Stoughton says of the name: "I think they just had no idea how to spell"), husband and wife school owners Jacqueline and Erick Cermeno were indicted for stealing several students' disability information to falsely enroll them and pocket thousands in tuition. Muskateer's received $794,000 from the state.
But outright criminality is only one of the problems among schools accepting McKay vouchers. Since the curricula and teachers and locations are essentially unregulated, it leads to situations like the following at South Florida Prep:
Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the "campus" as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

The teachers were mostly in their early 20s. An afternoon for the high school students might consist of watching a VHS tape of a 1976 Laurence Fishburne blaxploitation flick — Cornbread, Earl and Me — and then summarizing the plot. In one class session, a middle school teacher recommended putting "mother nature" — a woman's period — into spaghetti sauce to keep a husband under thumb. "We had no materials," says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. "There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum."
Not only are desperately substandard schools receiving taxpayer money, the public schools appear to be actively pushing high school seniors out the door and into McKay schools before they have to take the all-important FCAT exam:

Beginning a few school years ago, Carol City Senior High social studies teacher Paul Moore was mystified by a new, perennial exodus of his "problem" seniors — students who might fare badly on FCATs. They were kids he usually liked to have one last-ditch shot at improving their studies.

Eventually, he figured out where many of them had ended up: Parkway Academy in Miramar, a charter school and target in 2009 of the Florida High School Athletic Association's largest fine — $260,000; later reduced to $118,000 — for dozens of football recruiting violations. Other of Moore's missing seniors had scattered to private schools, most of them McKay-funded. "It's an absolute policy in this state now to move at-risk kids to charter or private schools," Moore says.... The illicit practice even has a name: "FCAT cleansing."
I'll let you read the article itself to learn about how new McKay start-ups go recruiting in economically-disadvantaged urban areas, and how the program is set to expand.

You can bet that the proponents of the Special Needs Scholarship legislation that has cropped up in Wisconsin and elsewhere are not acknowledging these abuses in their materials (for example on this site pushing the Wisconsin version of the bill). I'm perfectly willing to be fairer than that and acknowledge that there are families who had bad experiences in the public schools, who have been able to use these vouchers to move into better private-school situations.

Priority number one, though, should be to FIX the public schools for students with special needs, rather than diverting their funding. And why in the world would Wisconsin want to open the door to the abuses that have become evident in Florida? As a press release from the Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations puts it, "This is not what we want for Wisconsin students with disabilities!"
Current voucher proposals on the table in Wisconsin, which have been crafted without the support of any established statewide disability organization, do not include formal oversight or accountability to families or students. There is no guarantee that a child will receive the required and individualized services they have a right to in the public school. At the same time, voucher programs are expected to drain resources from already strapped public schools which are trying to serve special education students with research-based practices.

The Special Needs Scholarship Program bill in Wisconsin, AB110, which had a public committee-hearing this spring, will receive a new legislative push in the fall. I invite friends of Elvis Sightings to join me in opposing this deeply-flawed legislation -- for the sake of Rose and Joy, and so many others like them!

Friday, July 8, 2011


Quick, fun note to post this morning. I've discovered a new tool for making "word cloud" images from the words contained in documents: on a web site called Tagxedo. (They've got both a freebie version, which I used, and a paid product.) Here's what came out when I put in recent posts on the Elvis Sightings blog, and chose a particularly appropriate template:

I like the idea of using the principle of "joy" to shape my words!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Celebrating Independence

A little over a year ago, I wrote about Joy's new sturdy big-girl tricycle that she got for a birthday present. She wasn't immediately impressed with it, but once she got to school, they were using the same kind of trike and she learned to trike up and down the halls like crazy! We're continuing to practice at home:

Our street is quiet enough that she can ride on the street as well as the driveway, though it's good to have another person nearby.

Rose doesn't want to be left out of the fun either, though her recent new inches have made it more challenging to fit herself onto Joy's trike:

Speaking of sizing, I pulled out Rose's old training-wheels bike just to give it a try. Joy's too big for it! We tried just a little bit, and she at least stayed upright, but she kept wanting to stretch her feet forward to the front wheel where the pedals SHOULD be, and also wanting to press the pedals backwards (which on the bike activates the braking function, but on the trike puts you into reverse.) I'll see if I can adjust the seat and handlebars for our next try, but I'm thinking we're going to need a larger training-wheels bike to make this work.

Meanwhile, we're having a long, summer-y weekend here. Real-live fireworks aren't on the agenda, since they're so very late in the evening and so very noisy besides. But Rose has come up with a substitute:

and a message for anyone who comes by:

Happy 4th of July!