Monthly Archives: December 2004

Virginia News: Higher Ed Strategy

With at least three major proposals in the works for higher ed – the New College in Southside, the Charter Plan by the big three and the governor’s plan to allow high school students more opportunities to take college level course – the Daily Press makes sense in asking what’s the overall strategy of higher ed in the state.

Consider the developments that drove these three plans to the forefront: the growing importance of a college-educated work force in the state’s competitiveness, the increase in demand for college admission, the need to expand access in an under-served region, the rising cost of higher education, and the dilemma of top-flight universities whose quality and prestige are threatened by the state’s continued refusal to provide the funding they need.

A strategic plan would consider, with full understanding of these developments, the needs of all of Virginia’s students and all quarters of the economy for which the state must prepare if it is to remain prosperous. It must be complete, so that the piece of the puzzle represented by each of the state’s two- and four-year colleges fits in to form a whole, a picture that represents where Virginia needs and wants to go with respect to higher education.

And it must address the fundamental questions: Where does Virginia’s commitment to higher education fall within its priorities? In order to serve its students and its economy, what does it need to offer? What does the ideal mix of colleges and programs look like in terms of size, mission and location? Where are there gaps between what is available and what is needed? What will it take to fill those gaps? Are there duplications among colleges, or excess capacity in any sector? Where are the trouble spots in terms of access? Where do private colleges fit into the equation?

This is not about trying to impose centralized control on the state’s colleges and universities. But the proposals on the table could well change the shape of public higher education in Virginia. That shape must not be determined by limited-scale plans tied to the needs of specific schools or regions or short-term political or economic circumstances. These new ideas will serve the state best if they are shaped within a guiding framework that reflects Virginia’s long-term interests.

The state boasts a system of higher education that is one of the finest in the nation. It didn’t become that way by accident, and it won’t stay that way if its future is left to chance or partial solutions dictated by the crisis of the moment.

Negative Attack!? Oh My!

Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Jeff Shapiro has a piece today on the video Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine has produced.

Opening with an announcer intoning, “Jerry Kilgore is afraid of Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine – and with good reason,” the video cites media accounts critical of the Republican’s performance against Kaine.

At one point, Kilgore is seen rolling his eyes while Kaine, who had accused him of mishandling the GOP eavesdropping scandal, is heard saying, “We’ve got a leadership problem, folks.”

Carrie Cantrell, Kilgore policy director, said, “Generally you try to motivate people on issues and ideas, not negative attacks on those outside your party or inside your party.”

I’ve got to chuckle anytime I hear a Republican decry negative attack ads. If they’re good enough for our president, why aren’t they appropriate for our next governor? And that’s assuming that you think saying “We’ve got a leadership problem” is a negative attack.

Virginia News: Big Spending Republicans

Leave it to Jeff Shapiro to point out the GOP’s, shall we say, inconsistency.

According to a recent snapshot, state expenditures ballooned 68 percent from 1994 to 2003. That covers the governorships of Republicans George Allen and Jim Gilmore, the GOP takeover of the General Assembly and the financially austere, do-almost-nothing first half of Democrat Mark R. Warner’s term as chief executive.

Without actually saying it, the assembly’s investigative arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, suggests in a widely overlooked report issued Monday that the spending spiral can be attributed to a factor that helped lift the Republican Party to power: a 13 percent increase in population to more than 7 million service-demanding Virginians, many of them suburbanites.

Even when adjusted for inflation, the growth in new spending – 36 percent – remains high. It is important to point out that this occurred before Warner, with succor from centrist Republicans, won $1.4 billion in higher taxes for education, public safety and human services, pushing the current two-year budget to $61 billion.

Despite their sometimes overheated, government-be-damned rhetoric, Republicans, particularly in the conservative House of Delegates, are amassing a record that could make liberal Democrats proud. But it may actually be cause for embarrassment.

For example, in the nine-year period covered by the JLARC analysis, general government spending exploded 108 percent, increasing annually by an average of 8.8 percent. This is more than nuts-and-bolts expenditures, such as paying a work force that’s barely grown, purchasing gasoline for a vast fleet of automobiles and trucks and keeping lights burn- ing in state office buildings.

The two biggest drivers are items that have become synonymous with the Republican ascendancy: the cost of reimbursing localities for lost revenue under the car-tax rollback, and interest payments on state bonds.

Big Brother

This has got to scare you.

The upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which dictates how colleges report things such as revenue, tuition and enrollment, has some local college officials concerned.

The Education Department is searching for a way to collect more meaningful and accurate information about colleges. One way to do that, according to the Education Department, is to change the way colleges report information. The agency proposed collecting unit record data and tracking each individual student throughout their career.

…The new reporting system under consideration will track individual students and will keep all records indefinitely. By doing so the department said it can provide the public with more accurate retention and graduation rates, a true cost of higher education and measure colleges’ performance.

…Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, president of Sweet Briar College, agrees with the Education Department that people need to know whether or not colleges are doing what they are supposed to and if they’re efficient or not.

She still has concerns, however.

This legislation “really does raise a big specter of big government tracking students. … It does move us closer to the big brother society,” she said.

Virginia News: Lowell Fulk vs. Glenn Weatherholtz Redux

Looks like a repeat in the 26th district next November.

Democrat Lowell Fulk has all but announced his candidacy for the House of Delegates, telling a group of party leaders that he “looks forward to debating Glenn Weatherholtz on the real issues that face our Valley.” Weatherholtz represents the 26th District, which includes Harrisonburg and much of Rockingham County. All 100 seats in the House are up for grabs in November. Fulk, 47, of Linville, made his comments on Saturday night at a Rockingham County Democratic Committee banquet, where he announced his resignation as committee chairman. The farmer and former county School Board member said he would resign “to explore a candidacy” for the 26th District seat.

Intolerant Christians

Apropos of my comment yesterday, E.J. Dionne has an op-ed today commenting on the spate of Christian lawsuits seeking a greater recognition of Christmas in public venues.

The great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “the chief source of man’s inhumanity to man seems to be the tribal limits of his sense of obligation to other men.” I fear that in these Christmas debates, Christians are behaving not as Christians but as a tribe: “We will pound them if they get in the way of our customs and rituals.”

Tribal behavior is antithetical to the spirit of peace and good will. In this season, we ought to be taking the most expansive possible view of our obligations to others.

Update: Margaret Edds also had a column about this yesterday.

The controversy is gaining traction, however, because it fits a popular, post-election narrative: A “values” divide is supposedly rending the nation – secularism and multi-culturalism on one side, traditional Christianity on the other.

If that’s the case, and the premise is certainly open to dispute, this latest outgrowth strikes me in three ways: silly, odd, and – if it’s genuine – not nearly far-reaching enough.

Silly because, seriously now, who cares? A strong, vibrant religious movement isn’t going to be undone because a storefront says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Odd because I view militant Christianity as an oxymoron. The most convincing faith radiates from a well-lived life, not from pushy actions such as boycotts or sit-ins.

And ultimately short-sighted, because if we’re determined to go this route, even “Merry Christmas” isn’t exactly “O Holy Night” and the real apostasy in the season is spending more time in a shopping mall than at the local homeless shelter.

Any Christianity-based objection to Macy’s “Holiday 2004” press release ought not to stop with the word “holiday.” Consider this marketing twist: “Throughout the store, shoppers will see alluring signs highlighting holiday-season sentiment … Who can resist a display of recliner chairs labeled ‘Goodwill Toward Men’ or cashmere sweaters under a sign reading, ‘Comfort and Joy’?”

The Committee to Save Merry Christmas’s real complaint ought to be the national linking of lavish consumerism to its holy season.

Virginia News: Call It What It Is

Jerry Kilgore is not as shy as anti-abortionists (see below) about calling legislation what it is. He wants to pass the Death Penalty Enhancement Act. It “would drop the requirement that the death penalty be applied only to the triggerman in a killing.” And he’s willing to use Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine’s religious beliefs to his political advantage.

…In a debate with Kaine this month, Kilgore promised to remind voters that his opponent “actually represented death row inmates, those who escaped from prison.”

Jeff Kraus, a spokesman for Kaine, said the lieutenant governor’s opposition to the death penalty is derived from his religious beliefs but would not interfere with Kaine’s determination to enforce the death penalty statutes if he is elected governor.

Kilgore wants his pound of flesh.

Kilgore also wants to eliminate the automatic life imprisonment measure if a jury cannot unanimously vote for death in the punishment phase of a capital murder trial. Instead, the judge “will be able to dismiss the hung jury and impanel a different one to consider whether a defendant should receive the death penalty,” Kilgore said.

“What he seems to be saying is that if the jury refuses to issue the death penalty, then he wants a new jury,” [Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union] said. “It’s a very aggressive law that looks as if its purpose is to send more people to the death chamber more frequently. It has nothing to do with justice.”

And Kilgore wants that pound at any cost.

“He is still trying once again to appear tough on crime, when what he’s really doing is being stupid on crime,” said Jack Payden-Travers, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives for the Death Penalty.

Payden-Travers believes Kilgore wants to use post-Sept. 11, 2001, security needs for political gain. Putting a criminal to death does not make Virginians any safer than putting him behind bars for life without parole, Payden-Travers said.

But it does cost the taxpayers more money, he said.

A second trial for Muhammad, who had already been sentenced to death, would have cost taxpayers another $2.5 million, Payden-Travers said.

“Any time you indict someone and they face the death penalty, you increase the cost of the trial by an exponential factor, and you don’t gain anything, because the execution of the individual costs more than it would to keep the individual behind bars for the rest of their natural life,” Payden-Travers said.

Anyone know of the “studies” referred to here?

[Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh] argued that the death penalty does make society safer and does not cost the state more money than a life sentence.

“Recent studies show executions in fact deter other would-be murderers,” Murtaugh said. “If that is true, then the cost to society of not executing capital murderers is high, as it allows more murders.

Virginia News: Two Views

Two editorials today contrast the newspapers’ different views of the political landscape. The Richmond Times-Dispatch criticizes national Democrats for seeking to re-label some of their views, calling same-sex marriages a “right to marry issue, for example.

In other words, Democrats should employ euphemistic rhetoric, find different words. But decking out gun control, homosexual marriage, racial preferences, high taxes, class warfare, and a fetish for the United Nations in fancy euphemisms will not make voters forget Michael Moore, wild-eyed protesters, and the blame-America-first, red-staters-are-morons mentality of the professional left. The party’s problem in wooing the electorate is not that it needs a new dress; the problem is that it is a nag and a scold and a snob. Voters don’t like that. Or, to borrow from the title of a popular self-help book: They’re just not that into you.

Of course, RTD makes no mention of the GOP’s use of rhetorical flourishes to advance their causes, calling anti-abortion stances as “pro-life” or legislation to restrict political liberties the Patriot Act, for examples.

Meanwhile, the Virginian Pilot says name-calling is about all the state GOP party apparatchik can do.

Speaking at Old Dominion’s University’s winter graduation, [Gov. Mark] Warner called for both parties to lower the decibels on political rhetoric and strive for common ground while addressing critical needs.

He urged graduates to “be respectful” of political opponents, taking time to listen to their concerns and create dialogue, not diatribes, around issues.

And what was the response of Shawn Smith, executive director of the RPV, to that appeal for civility?

“Mark Warner is just another high-tax, liberal Democrat hoping to mask his legacy by spouting perceived centrist rhetoric,” said Smith.

…Spitting at your opponent when he asks for a handshake may make sense in some national political play book. But Virginians are not well-served when narrow party interests and name-calling veto the search for real solutions to real problems. The Republican Party dominates political life in Virginia. Virginians will hold it accountable for its results, not its rhetoric.

Virginia News: Religious Displays

The religious right, many of whom decry “activist judges” when it comes to asserting gay rights, is not shy about using the courts to push their agenda as evidenced by legal challenges to the separation of church and state.

In Virginia, one family was rebuffed by a judge when they tried to force a school principal into allowing a student to sing a religious song called “The Prayer” at a graduation ceremony.

“Unlike a street corner or even a city council meeting, this is a closed forum,” said Robert MacFarland, a lawyer for the school officials. “Anyone doesn’t have the right to make a speech. The principal can restrict the content of that forum.”

There is also a more sinister reason behind the ban.

One unidentified School Board member told Ashby that if they allow his daughter to sing that song then they would have to allow “Muslims to stand up and say, “‘Oh, Allah, bless us, for there are planes with bombs on it so we can kill people, help us, oh God, Allah,”’ according to [the family’s] deposition.

[The father] responded that his daughter’s request was different because “we’re Christians,” two board members said in depositions.

So one side is afraid of giving Muslim’s free speech and the other thinks their religion gives them special privileges.

Still, the lengths to which some jurisdictions go to remove religious references seem extreme.

After years of legal assaults on municipal displays of Nativity scenes and Christmas observances in public schools, Christian groups are now mounting court challenges in the other direction. Doug Morgan said his son was a victim of “political correctness spiraling out of control.” He noted that the school had informed parents that only white paper plates and napkins — no Christmas red and green — would be allowed at the generic “Winter Break” party.

“They are so determined not to offend anyone,” he said, “that we’re being silenced and made to feel that what we want to share is not appropriate to share in a public environment.”

That is an increasingly common holiday sentiment, said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Twenty or 30 years ago, Sekulow said, the vast majority of lawsuits over Christmas displays were filed by secular groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, to block the placement of religious symbols on public property. Though there are still some gray areas, he said, those cases established fairly clear precedents about what does and does not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion.

…On Friday, the ACLJ persuaded officials in Pasco County, Fla., to reverse their decision to remove Christmas trees from all public buildings. Daniel R. Johnson, an assistant county administrator, said the removal had been triggered by a request from a resident to put a Hanukah menorah next to the Christmas tree in the public library.

At first, county officials feared that “if you open the door to one, then you must open the door to all, and not just during the holiday season, but all year long,” Johnson said. But on further review, he said, the county’s attorney decided there would be “little legal risk” in a temporary display of both a menorah and a Christmas tree, along with a sign saying they are symbols of “our legacy of freedom.”

In other cases across the country, Christian groups have argued in court this month against a New York City school policy that allows menorahs during Hanukah and the Islamic crescent during Ramadan but not Nativity scenes during Christmas. A federal judge in Florida on Wednesday ordered the town of Bay Harbor Islands to grant a resident’s request to erect a creche next to a local synagogue’s menorah on public property.

What’s not clear here is whether the menorah was on private or public property. If it was on private property, it seems the desire to put a crèche next to it is provocative. It’s as if Christians see the menorah as a challenge to them, rather than the simple freedom to express one’s religion when on private property.

In too many cases, aggression seems part of the mix.

…Anthony R. Picarello Jr., a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which works for greater freedom of religious expression, said it is not easy to say which side is truly the aggressor. “If these Christmas pageants and displays have been done for a long time and now there’s a push to exclude them, then it appears to be aggression from the left. If they haven’t been done and someone’s suing to add them, then it appears to be aggression from the right.”