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Sunday, December 31, 2006

If You've Got to Subsidize...

Some characters around here will surely say the last thing we need is some liberal kid from out East telling us how to run our farms. (Listening to me is bad enough, I'm sure.) But Hannah Lupien, Yale freshman (freshperson?) and food pantry volunteer, writes an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun about the real cost of food (reprinted in various papers; I found my copy in the Minneapolis Star Tribune). She notes that many of the people she has served over seven years of volunteer work at a Baltimore food pantry are overweight and suffer diabetes. These poor folks can't afford diet products or even fresh fruits and vegetables. Lupien suggests various solutions to the lack of nutrition among the poor, including higher standards and funding for nutritious food supplied through food pantries and WIC. But here's Lupien's kicker:

Most important, if the government would stop subsidizing corn and soybeans and start subsidizing fruits and vegetables, we could begin to make real progress.

I'll probably get a tractorload of snow dumped at the end of my driveway for saying this, but Lupien makes sense. Our agricultural market has been knocked out of whack by government intervention to favor agriculture products that don't really feed people. For instance, 80% of the corn we grow goes to feed livestock (which, yes, we do eventually eat, but imagine how much better that meat would be if the livestock ate grass!). Far too little of the corn we directly consume is fresh corn on the cob. More than three times as much corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners than is used to produce cereal and other directly consumable corn products (see the chart on page 4 of "US Corn Growers: Producing Food AND Fuel" from the National Corn Growers Association).

Government subsidies of corn and beans drive producers away from healthier products. The result: the cheapest foods are indeed the least healthy. The seemingly paradoxical increase of obesity among the poor is a result of bad choices, not by the poor, who act quite rationally in choosing the cheapest foods, but by the government, which favors certain agricultural corporations who proceed to flood the market with cheap, fattening food.

Now I can't guarantee that the government could make everyone give up Cheetos in favor of celery sticks by an overhaul of its ag subsidies. But by shifting the market back toward fruits and vegetables, the government could drive some healthy changes, as the poor might find healthy food more affordable, and, as a not so peripheral benefit, many of my neighbors might find it more profitable to turn their cropland and their cattle back to pasture.

Wish List -- Top Ten Stories of 2007

The good folks of Madison and the great state of South Dakota have given me plenty to write about in 2006, and I'm sure they'll keep up the good work through 2007. But if I could wave my magic wand and conjure up news of my own, here are the ten biggest South Dakota stories I'd like to be able to comment on in 2007:

10. Rounds Endorses Replacing Property Tax with Corporate Income Tax
--Says Governor Rounds, "It's time Wal-Mart and Citibank paid their fair share for the highly educated workforce our tax dollars provide."

9. Madison Abandons Marketing Campaign; Banners Recycled to Fill Potholes
--"$100,000 a year, for banners?!" gasped Mayor Gene Hexom. "What were we thinking? We can get more bang for the buck paying kids to shovel snow and mow the city parks."

8. Rounds Commutes Death Sentences to Life in Prison; Legislature Follows by Banning Capital Punishment

7. Camp Lakodia Purchases Land, Donates to Nature Conservancy
--Entire south side of Lake Herman now off limits to further residential and commercial development.

6. Krabbenhoft Abandons Viking Dreams, Donates Personal Fortune to Schools, Speech Programs
--Sioux Valley Hospital CEO says education, not sports, real basis for community development. "Besides, the Vikings stink!"

5. South Dakota Implements Statewide Universal Health Coverage; Businesses and Young Professionals Flock to State
--"We've been shouting 'Live baby good, dead baby bad' at all the pro-life rallies," says Representative Roger Hunt of Brandon. "I figured it's time for us to put our money where our pro-life mouth is. Besides, universal health coverage will save South Dakotans millions."

4. Legislature Mandates School De-Consolidation
--Citing "educational advantage of smaller schools," Governor Rounds signs into law requirement that Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, and 12 other districts split into autonomous districts with enrollment no greater than 600 by July 1, 2009.

3. Highway Patrol Reports Quiet New Year's/Prom/Graduation Weekend
--"How do we explain the complete absence of DUI accidents and fatalities among our teenagers in 2007?" asks Secretary Tom Dravland of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety. "Is it our Parents Matter program? Is it parents putting a stop to teen drinking? Is it kids themselves finally getting sick of losing their friends for no reason? Who knows... and who cares, as long as our kids live long and happy lives?"

2. No Abortion Bills in 2007 Legislature
--"We're too busy," says Leslee Unruh, leader of the newly renamed Abstinence (from Political Grandstanding) Clearinghouse. "Feeding children, helping single mothers, promoting comprehensive health education -- who has time for politics?"

1. Pitchfork Revolution -- South Dakota Evicts Corporate Farms, Goes 100% Organic
--Brandishing pitchforks and copies of Kirkpatrick Sale's Human Scale, South Dakota farmers celebrated the Legislature's unanimous passage of land reform abolishing corporate farms and non-organic farming practices. "Farm Bill Schmarm Bill!" cried jubilant ex-legislator turned farm-revolutionary Gerry Lange of Madison. "With our organic meat and produce feeding our own people and filling high-end markets, we won't need any more farm subsidies!" When asked where South Dakota would find the workforce necessary to sustain the sudden increase in the number of smaller farms and the more labor-intensive, non-technological practices of organic farming, Lange pointed to the thousands of South Dakota ex-pats flocking back to the state to enjoy the recently passed universal health care program and the unparalleled quality of life. "So many good things are happening in South Dakota," said Lange, "that everyone wants to be a part of it."

TANSTAAFL -- Ethanol Plants Impact Quality of Life

TANSTAAFL: "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." As we seek solutions to economic problems, it's tempting to think we can find some magic solution that will make everything better. But we must remember that no solution will come without costs. Yesterday's Mitchell Daily Republic offers more evidence of the costs of ethanol, costs we don't see until it's too late. Residents in Loomis, a tiny town 10 miles north and west of Mitchell, complained to the Davison County Commission on Thursday of the noise pollution generated by the new Prairie Ethanol plant. Folks living near the new plant are losing sleep. One resident, Jay Ivers, backs his complaint with some science: using a dosimeter, he has measured noise levels from the ethanol plant reaching 58 to 63 decibels in his bedroom and 70 to 80 decibels in his yard. Perspective: normal conversation is 60 decibels; 80 decibels is a vacuum cleaner, heavy city traffic, or, according Ivers's own experiments, a rolling freight train passing 40 feet away.

Ivers gets my sympathy right away just for being scientific in his approach to the problem. As the father of a noisy, erratically sleeping infant, I further sympathize with his desire for a simple quiet night's sleep. A homeowner ought to be able to sleep peacefully in his own house without having to rearrange his life by moving his bedroom to the far end of the house or the basement, turning on appliances to drown out the noise, or installing expensive insulation. (A homeowner who loses sleep because of a noisy baby -- well, that's his own problem! :-) ). Ivers also wins my sympathy as he faces the typical corporate reaction: plant manager Dean Frederickson shrugs off the complaints, saying Ivers and his neighbors "have every right to say what they want, and I have a right to exist as a business as long as I'm legal, and I am legal and will continue to be legal." Don't expect good-neighborliness from corporations; all that matters to industry is the bottom line and the law (when the law works in their favor).

Ivers and his neighbors are victims of a classic example of externality, a cost of an economic transaction borne by individuals not party to that transaction. Prairie Ethanol gets to produce South Dakota's new liquid gold, which we are told will keep our family farms in business and promote energy independence to boot. To produce this valuable product, ethanol plants consume great quantities of energy and water, which they pay a fair market price for (cushioned, of course, by the ethanol production subsidy which the government gives not to the farmers producing the corn but to the big industrialists operating the ethanol plants). However, the ethanol plants also consume something for which they offer no compensation: the peace and quiet of country living. That quality of life is South Dakota's trump card in the competition for business. We can never outduel New York or San Francisco or even Minneapolis or Omaha for big-city shopping, transportation, or culture. But we can offer quiet country living, wide open spaces letting folks build their homes far away from the rush and roar of population and industry. That quality of life distinguishes South Dakota from the places we compete with for jobs... and that quality of life will erode as we buy into the promise of ethanol riches and crowd our landscape with ethanol plants. More prairie towns and farms will become uncomfortable, if not outright unlivable as the roar of the machinery, not to mention the glare of the factory lights (see the photo in the Daily Republic story) and the stench of grain alcohol (when the wind is right, I've smelled the Wentworth ethanol plant from Lake Herman, ten miles away).

Now I'm not ready to abandon ethanol as an alternative energy source. South Dakotans have to make a living, and the nation has to pursue alternative energy for its own economic and military secruity. However, we need to recognize all the costs that come with ethanol and balance them with all the benefits so glowingly promised by the big corporate interests and our own government. Higher corn prices? Great. More jobs? Keep 'em coming. But a quiet prairie night, a good night's sleep -- what are they worth to us?

Legislature's New Year's Promise: You're Fired!

This public school teacher wakes up on the last day of 2006 to find the legislature may be eliminating his job. Keloland.com reports that the 2007 South Dakota Legislature will consider mandating consolidation for school districts with fewer than 200 students.

At my place of employment, the Montrose School District, where enrollment sits too precariously close to 200, we've been expecting this move for some time. The governor has hinted in this direction previously. It doesn't surprise me that the state has waited until after Governor Rounds's re-election to make this move. (Hmmm, I wonder what other interesting and controversial legislation our governor might pursue now that he doesn't have to face his small-town constituents at the polls again.)

We have to keep in mind that this legislation can only be justified on fiscal, not educational grounds. Senate Republican Leader Dave Knudson from Sioux Falls has stated (in the Sioux Falls newspaper that advertises smut) that it's hard to get a quality education in schools that small. If that's the case, then how does Senator Knudson explain Montrose producing two SDSU Briggs Scholars (SDSU's most prestigious academic award to incoming freshmen) in the past two years, or Montrose making its annual yearly progress goals under No Child Left Behind?

The State Aid Study Task Force final report from this fall offers a little more perspective. Small schools* outperform larger districts on the state's own NCLB assessments. The report notes, "The differences in performance are more pronounced at the elementary level, less so at the middle grades, and disappear at the high school level." The report does show a full one-point advantage for large-school students on the ACT over their small-school counterparts, a reflection of the advantages large schools have in offering more college-prep courses in addition to the required curriculum. However, the report also shows that in the last two years, small-school students have tied or bettered their medium-school counterparts on the ACT. The task force report itself points out that since consolidation will turn small schools into medium schools, not large schools, we should weigh the educational impacts of consolidation by comparing achievement results of small and medium schools. When we focus our attention on that data, we find no educational reason to mash small schools into fewer, larger schools.

So don't let your legislators fool you: they aren't acting in the educational interest of our children. School consolidation isn't about education; it's about money. Legislators like Senator Knudson aren't asking whether kids learn better in small schools (or they are ignoring their own data, which seems to suggest that students, especially the younger ones, enjoy significant benefits from education in smaller districts). The legislators pushing consolidation are asking just how much we are willing to spend on education... and the answer seems to be, "Not enough to keep small schools -- and small communities -- alive."

Please note that while my job hangs in the balance -- even if my teaching and coaching position would survive consolidation, I'm not terribly interested in teaching in a larger school district, and I certainly don't want to have to commute further to a consolidated school in Canistota or Salem -- I am open to the fiscal debate on school consolidation. I would argue that in a state where people can afford RVs, half-million dollar lake homes, and other proliferating luxuries, the money exists to expand funding for all of our schools and bring teacher pay up from the national cellar. However, the Legislature may be able to produce evidence that the state cannot justify drawing more tax dollars out of the economy to prop up the existing statewide school district structure, which already gives extra funding per student to the small schools. Even with that extra assistance, small schools still shortchange their teachers, who earn an average of $1500 less per year than their medium-school counterparts and $7000 less than their large-school counterparts. I am open to the argument that small schools, while educationally effective, are not sufficiently efficient for state fiscal purposes.

The Legislature should definitely have an open and studious debate about the best way to fulfill its State-Constitutional duty to provide a free and uniform education to all of its children. However, let's be honest in that debate. The evidence shows that small schools educate their students just as well as, if not better than, the medium-size schools into which consolidation would transform them. The real debate is about whether the legislators and taxpayers of this state are willing to pay for the good education those small schools produce.

*Some perspective for my friends from the big city: on South Dakota's very human scale, "small" means up to 200 students in the district. "Medium" means 201-600. "Large" means a school district with more than 600 students. [back to text]

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Argus Peddles Smut, Drives Blogger to Irrational Behavior

Four weeks ago, I submitted a complaint to the Argus about its advertising for an "adult superstore" -- i.e., an establishment that sells sex toys and other degrading items. The ads appeared on the same page as regular news stories. I suggested to the Argus that if it couldn't bring itself to pass on the sex store's advertising dollars, the paper could at least restrict the ads to a separate section of its website requiring a login and certification that viewers are adults. The Argus has not responded, not even with a simple, "Thanks for your concern, but our advertising is our business, so tough cookies."

I hate to call for a boycott -- I like reading the Argus, and I have found it to be te best source for substantive online South Dakota news articles. But for what it's worth, I'm going to remove my link to the Argus here, and I will try my best to refrain from referring you, gentle reader, to articles in that paper, at least for a little while... until my desire to fight quixotic battles gives way to the practical need to know what the heck is going on!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Kucinich for Farmers, for Workers... for President!

While the Washington Post trumpets the entry of "Populist Edwards" into the 2008 Presidential race, the Madville Times proudly throws its support behind a real populist, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Of particular interest to South Dakotans should be the Cleveland congressman's views on saving family farms and rural communities by promoting local economy. And Dennis, if you're listening, come on out to South Dakota! We'd love to have you over for dinner and help you round up some primary votes in 2008!

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Transparency of Baloney

The banners emblazoned with Madison's new slogan, "Discover the Unexpected," have been up for a good couple-three months now, and the city's marketing ads have been on the air (or so my friends report -- I apparently haven't been watching enough TV... although I have seen Marion's and Mitchell's ads). Strangely, I haven't noticed any great whooshing sound of tourists, shoppers, and venture capitalists zooming here to invest. I'm sure the Chamber of Commerce and the Lake Area Improvement Corporation are gathering data right now and will be able to offer complete reports next year on exactly how much tax revenue these marketing efforts are generating and how many times these efforts will recoup the amount we paid outside consultants to come up with them.

While I wait for such data to roll in and prove the marketers' worth, I offer the following comment, more than tangentially related, from 15-year-old Traci Drinkwater. Today's New York Times reports on a 152-year-old rural Georgia church's decision to change its name from Hog Mountain Baptist Church to Hamilton Mill, after a new subdivision nearby.

But evidently, the name is no more likely to appeal to the young than the old. Traci Drinkwater, 15, a member, and her friend Elyse Young, 17, a frequent visitor, said they preferred the name Hog Mountain.

“Everything’s changing to fit the Hamilton Mill folk,” Elyse said. “They’re snooty. Money’s what it’s all about.”

Traci added: “If they weren’t coming here with the old name, then they wouldn’t be coming here for the right reasons. It’s not the name, it’s what’s on the inside.”
[emphasis mine]

It's a relief to know not everyone falls prey to the "image is everything" thinking the marketing industry would sell us. Whether we're talking a church, a store, or an entire town, what matters isn't signs, but substance.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Home School -- How to Make Everyone Happy

As my wife tries out some spontaneous homeschool curriculum with our 9-month-old daughter ("Red! Orange! Red! Orange! Tickle tickle tickle!"), we consider the relationship we want to have with our state's public education system. Our commitment to supporting public schools goes beyond our very practical desire to see my paycheck as a high school English teacher and debate/interp/drama coach pay the bills. We share the belief expressed by our state constitution that society has a duty to maintain a system of free, quality education for the benefit of all citizens. Individuals may choose not to avail themselves of that free service, but as members of society, we all have an obligation to support that free service through our tax dollars. (Analogy: I'm not obliged to check out books from our public library, but a portion of my tax dollars should support it. I've never called the fire department, but I should bear a fair share of the tax burden for supporting it.)

But it occurs to us that, in South Dakota, when we choose to homeschool, we do not decrease our household tax burden, but our local school district suffers a decrease in its funding. At the current funding level, a school district loses about $4400 in state aid for each child whose parents homeschool instead of enrolling the child in the public district. The state offers no vouchers or rebates, so those tax dollars aren't dedicated to any sort of direct assistance to the education of that homeschool child. That money simply rolls into other programs or savings for the state.

As you might imagine, this method of funding schools per enrolled students creates a logical pressure for school districts to discourage homeschooling. Civic-minded parents might feel a similar pressure. So why not alleviate that pressure by changing the rules? Perhaps public schools in South Dakota should receive state aid based on the total number of students studying in their district, period. Sure, if students open-enroll outside of the district, the state aid should follow them. But if a student homeschools within the bounds of the school district, let that district continue to count that student toward its Average Daily Membership (the statistic used as a multiplier for state education aid).

In return for this restored funding, public schools would agree to make all facilities, resources, and programs available for the use of homeschool students in their jurisdictions. Currently, South Dakota public schools can choose whether and under what conditions they will allow homeschoolers to participate in extracurriculars, with those schools barring such participation arguing that homeschool participants are an uncompensated drain on funding. If we restore the per-student funding for homeschoolers, schools will have no reason to bar homeschoolers' participation in band, drama, etc. And if a school really doesn't want homeschoolers participating in activities, we could always leave the school the option to decline the restored funding.

A quick search reveals that the South Dakota legislature tried something like this funding plan in its 2006 session. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, House Bill 1160 would have given school districts 25% of the standard per-pupil funding for each homeschooling student in their districts, as long as the benefiting districts made their programs available to thse homeschooling students. Perhaps oddly, the HSLDA opposed this "windfall" for the public schools, complaining that the districts would have gotten the funding even if no homeschoolers actually participated in the available school programs.

This homeschool family doesn't see the problem with such a measure. (In my usual full-tilt, no-compromise nature, this homeschool dad sees no reason to stop at 25% -- let's go for the full funding figure!) A measure like last session's HB 1160 doesn't put state money directly into homeschool families' hands, so the state can't use it as an excuse to impose more controls on how families school their own children. Public schools get more money without directly increasing the burden. We remove a significant source of pressure districts might feel to reject homeschool applications. And we increase opportunities for students, which ought to be the primary goal of any education policy, whether the education comes from the state or the home.

One could make an argument that parents who take on the burden of educating their children deserve direct financial assistance from the state, like a voucher for educational materials or even a straight tax rebate. However, education funding is strapped as it is, and even homeschool parents have an obligation to support the system that will provide education for every student in the state who wants it. Allowing public schools to include homeschool students in their Average Daily Membership for state aid calculation sustains the sharing of that obligation while opening the door for a more cooperative relationship between homeschool families and the public school system.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Watch What You Say... and What You Say Next

My analytical powers are devoted mostly to final exams for my Montrose students this week, but I can't pass up this unfortunate juxtaposition from the Pierre Capital Journal, two headlines that appeared in exactly this order on the CapJournal's website front page:

Hunter loses lower arm in accident
PIERRE - The victim of a hunting accident last week is in stable but serious condition in a Nebraska hospital. Full�story>>>
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Lending a helping hand
PIERRE - McKinley first-grade students have recently made some new friends while learning to read. However, most of those friends happen to be 70 years older than the students. Full�story>>>
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

We shouldn't laugh. We really shouldn't. But sometimes, we just can't help it.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

The Real Reason for the Season

Reading "Weekend Daycare Is a Big Help to Parents" on KELOLand.Com, I couldn't help wondering the weekend interns in the newsroom were just joking.
Some parents may feel guilty dropping off their child during this time of year, but parents say it helps them focus more on what the season is really about. Parent Sarah Webb explains, “It's a lifesaver. It's hard enough to keep your patience in line and everything else let alone having a two-year-old hanging on your leg."

In this fit of sloppy weekend writing, Casey Wonnenberg glaringly omits a clear statement of what the season is about. Given the context, this passage seems to affirm with an embarrassingly straight face that Christmas is all about ditching your inconvenient children and going shopping.
Webb says shopping isn't the only thing that's difficult with little ones around, it's also hard to wrap the presents. She says, “The eyes are always around at the worst possible time, and this is the time of year when you need a little privacy of your own."

Did I miss some cultural shift, some mutation of the American species that has rendered me an obsolete organism incompatible with the culture at large? Every present I got back in the 1970s and '80s was wrapped, and my parents had me home with them every weekend.
But I've always recognized that when I start saying things like, "Back when I was a kid," I've become an old fogey. I'll just need to learn to quit spouting off my obsolete notions of family values and embrace the devaluation of old-fashioned family time in favor of constantly expanding the market for goods and services. Ho ho ho!

Friday, December 1, 2006

Free Speech, Advertising, and Public Decency

The Argus Leader has gotten on my bad side this week. The Argus has already caused my journalistically minded friends significant annoyance with its web redesign, a great jumble of links and far-too-slowly updated podcasts and other whizbangs crowding out the news headlines. The Argus has perhaps tried to alleviate this problem by pulling the local, region, state, and business news links up to the top of the page, but even in that effort, the Argus as slipped, giving readers a view of only one headline at a time under each heading on the front page. (More information, fewer doodads, please!)

But it's not web layout that's getting my goat. (A quick look at my websites should demonstrate I'm in no position to cast stones on that issue!) Bothering me much more is the appearance of ads for a sex-toys store in Sioux Falls. Of course, the business (which, in a fit of quixotic prudery, I will not give the pleasure of free publicity by name here) makes no mention of sex in its ads. It euphemizes itself as an "adult supercenter." Its ads do not name or depict its products. The sex-store's ads simply try to build name recognition, pique curiosity, and overcome people's nagging sense that porn shops just aren't places for decent people. (Darn shame when conscience and good upbringing limit a business's market.) The current ad urges us to forget Tupperware and purse parties and instead "spice it up!" with an at-home party.

I take umbrage at such advertising on a number of levels. First, if I were a newspaper editor, I'd be uneasy placing such an ad next to a number of articles. I found the ad popping up next to stories about the death of one of my Montrose students and the upcoming retirement of SDSU President Peggy Miller. Both people deserve more respect than to have their faces placed next to an ad for sex toys. Later I encountered the same ad beside a story about a Rapid City man sentenced for possession of child pornography. That juxtaposition was as crass as placing an ad for Jack Daniels next to a story about drunk driving. Ads for sex toys just don't fit in a discussion of the day's news.

Such ads really don't fit into any sort of civil discourse. Take the ad and its message out of the context of the newspaper and place it in a public, face-to-face conversation. If I were to talk about this store and its products at work, my co-workers and students could easily sue me for sexual harassment. If my discussion of such matters infringes on the civil liberties of the people I work with, doesn't the presence of ads for a sex-toy store on news website open to the public constitute a similar form of harassment? I would argue the same is true of other ads for this store that shout out at us from radios and billboards throughout the work day. At the very least, shouldn't a responsible newspaper restrict such advertising to adults-only sections of its website, where everyday readers and students won't be bothered by it?

Now my offense at such ads is not based purely on some weird puritanical distaste for sex derived from growing up around lots of reserved Midwestern Lutherans. Sex is perfectly acceptable and enjoyable human behavior. But sex should not be a commercial good, something to commodify and mechanize and advertise. Sex should be a healthy physical and emotional relationship between two committed people, not a ménage à trois including some profiteer selling perverted plastic junk from China. If a relationship is lacking, nothing at an "adult supercenter" will resolve that problem. No sex toy or dirty movie -- no consumer product of any sort, decent or indecent -- will make up for a lack of genuine love and respect. We shouldn't need a business to "spice up" our relationships... and businesses should not try to make a profit by convincing us otherwise.