Where is America headed?

The U.S. Capitol, home of CongressThis is my last blog as “Watching in Washington”. This is so for two reasons: I’m moving on (I want to tackle a longer-term writing project), and my family is moving from Washington D.C. back to Asia. Thank you very much to those readers who have journeyed with me and encouraged me along the way.

It seems fitting to use the last blog in this format to share some concerns and impressions regarding the United States.

The United States is in transition, I feel. Either its fractious, hyperbolic partisan politics will revert to the more moderate, centrist, longer-term and broader-focused approaches of the past, or the ideological, “party above country” pettiness of the present will degenerate even further. Idealistic me hopes that the former tendencies re-emerge; realistic me, sadly, sees the latter inclinations in fact becoming yet worse before they change for the better.

This is disturbing, to say the least. The United States is presently damaging itself more than any external state or non-state actors are hurting it. The inability to agree on how to address America’s long-term, structural challenges—never mind short-term issues—is crippling. Particularly since there is broad agreement, for example, that tax and entitlement reforms are needed to strengthen the U.S. economy. Of course, the tricky part will be negotiating the details, but there is widespread consensus on many aspects of the needed reforms to the tax code and entitlements. The problem is the inability to structure a political deal due to the ideological extremes in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Extreme ideological spin on all attempts to address such core problems keeps destroying sincere reform efforts.

How will these dynamics change? Americans could use the ballot box to reject emphatically those office holders who don’t perform in the national interest. But they haven’t shown the inclination to execute a full-blooded housecleaning or “swing” election. Why don’t they?

Typically blamed are gerrymandered electoral districts weighted to a particular party. Gerrymandering reinforces “group think”. Coupled with this is the unfortunate tendency of Americans apparently choosing more and more to live with those who are likeminded, thereby creating alarmingly homogenous residential areas. The “echo chamber” effect of listening or watching media that reflects already established views feeds into this narrative too. These trends are also accompanied by increasing apathy and unwillingness to actually vote.

Different remedies are being proposed and variously implemented by states. California has enacted the boldest plan to redraw electoral districts. It created a nonpartisan, independent redistricting board of citizens who were not allowed to be associated with, or related to, elected officials. The number of electoral districts has not changed through this effort, but their boundaries have changed dramatically. In the 2012 election, 26 percent of the seats in the state’s congressional delegation changed hands due to increased competition in redrawn districts. Other states that have adopted redistricting reforms include Arizona, Idaho, Iowa and Washington.

Another technique that moderates outcomes is allowing open primary elections in which voters belonging to any party can participate. In Mississippi, for example, black Democratic voters supported moderate U.S. Senator Thad Cochran in the Republican Party’s primary runoff in which he defeated Tea Party challenger state Senator Chris McDaniel. The director of the group that funded the outreach to Democratic voters defended their actions, saying that they weren’t “looking for Democrats to vote for Cochran, but … Cochran supporters who didn’t vote”.

Adoption of redistricting and open primaries would help change the dynamic, so one should feel encouraged by their adoption in various states. Interestingly, the Republican Party is resisting both redistricting and open primaries—because it finds electoral success in the narrow, homogenized worlds of gerrymandered districts and closed primaries. The Republican Party’s resistance to broadening participation by redrawing electoral districts and opening up primary elections underscores its challenges in moving beyond its narrowing base of older, whiter and wealthier American voters.

This dilemma also highlights the Republican Party’s difficulties with immigration reform. Like tax and entitlement reform, immigration reform is another critical area chronically overdue for action and solutions from U.S. political leaders. But it is a wedge issue like no other for the Republican Party. Different wings of the Party have dramatically divergent views on how to address the issue. Yet it is essential for the U.S. economy and society at large that the laws governing immigration be updated and modernized to reflect the changing realities of the U.S. economy and present immigration trends into the United States. Not addressing current immigration bottlenecks—underscored by the drama presently playing out on the U.S.’s southern border with the influx of children from three Central American countries—limits economic growth. But the adoption of immigration reform would likely weaken the Republican Party since many beneficiaries would be Hispanic-speakers who lean Democratic. The Republican Party is, of course, reluctant to cede any perceived advantage to the Democratic Party.

So I have come full circle. My first blog some 32 months ago was about the need for immigration reform. It is depressing that there has been virtually no progress on the issue in the intervening months; indeed, one could argue there has been regression.

Views of Congress are at an all-time low. Could the upcoming mid-term elections this November see a categorical anti-incumbent swing vote without more electoral reform by states? Maybe. One has to hope. Certainly, if higher numbers of Americans actually participated in the electoral process, outcomes would be different. But one can’t blame people for being turned off by the present tenor and style of debate. Moderation, pragmatism, and common sense must be restored to U.S. politics; the vitriolic ideological hyperbole must go. In their every-day lives, Americans generally appear thoroughly sensible, practical, tolerant, and down-to-earth. America’s political leadership should reflect these dispositions.

The freedom of information

Brookings seminar on Japan in AfricaWashington and the United States are deeply polarized. Those holding liberal or conservative views increasingly live in echo chambers in which media and other sources of information typically reinforce already established views. In addition to being more parochial, media also seems increasingly superficial and less nuanced as the Internet and television present news and information as “infotainment”.

This bias and superficiality is especially ironic in Washington since it is a city with incredible competition in the market place of ideas. Indeed, there is a complete glut of information sources here. Ease of access to high-caliber information, informed debate and knowledge is a defining characteristic of living in Washington. Policy-oriented think tanks rather than academic institutions create much of the information; their practical orientation is appealing. Scholarly information is certainly available, but it is more confined to university campuses and less accessible to broader society.

Ten days ago, the venerable Brookings Institution, for example, offered a fascinating half-day seminar on Japan’s reinvigorated approach to Africa’s economic development. Attendees learnt intriguing details such as the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe allotted twenty minutes a piece to meet individually with each of the 39 African heads of state who went to Japan for the recent TICAD V conference. This impressive and revealing time commitment from the Japanese premier underscores Japan’s new approach to Africa. Imagine President Barack Obama similarly according each African leader equal “face time” during the upcoming U.S.–Africa Leaders’ Summit to be held here this August? It is unthinkable. African leaders are, of course, being courted by the United States and Japan in direct response to greatly expanded Chinese influence on the continent. Whatever the motivation, this African, for one, is gratified that Africa is at last receiving greater world attention.

Attendance of an event such as the Brookings seminar on Japan in Africa is typically free. Anyone can sign up to attend through the Brookings’ website. In this case, fellow attendees included U.S. government officials focused on Africa, foreign diplomats based in Washington, staff from international organizations and NGOs, private-sector representatives, contractors, academics, students, and retirees and other interested individuals. Complimentary coffee and tea is usually available. As this event was longer than the more usual 90 minutes, a complimentary lunch was generously served for all attendees, providing the opportunity to chat and “network”, to use that overworked Washington term. It is probably fair to assume that the government of Japan or Japanese companies hosted the lunch.

It would be exhausting to trawl the websites of the major think tanks regularly to keep up with their imminent seminars and guest speakers. Helpfully, most institutions with this type of programming allow people to sign up on their websites for email notification of upcoming talks in one’s selected areas of interest. A portion of the programs that think tanks offer are also available for viewing on the Internet, either live through a webcam or live streamed in audio.

Attending these types of lectures, panel discussions, or seminars is also a helpful way to get personal impressions of key actors in diverse areas. For example, I heard Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee; speak on the post-Hurricane Katrina focus on charter schools in New Orleans. It was similarly illuminating to hear Mark Warner, Virginia’s Democratic senior U.S. senator who sits on the Senate Finance and Budget Committees, discuss the budget battles on Capitol Hill.

Another personal favourite for broadening understanding and appreciation of an issue is hearing authors speak about their recently published books. There are ample opportunities to do so here, since stopping in Washington and having at least one public reading seems to be “de rigueur” for newly published authors. Bookstores like Politics and Prose (which the Washington Post recently described as “the showcase for D.C.’s literary intelligentsia”), Busboys and Poets, and Barnes and Noble constantly offer the chance to hear authors. The talk featuring Katherine Boo, author of the powerful “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” about life in a Mumbai slum, was very poignant. My children greatly enjoyed the musings of Irish author Eoin Colfer at another such event. The annual National Book Festival, a celebration with nonstop talks by authors held—until this year—in big tents on the National Mall, is another joy. Attending a reading and insightful question-and-answer session with Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini is a treasured memory from last year’s Book Festival.

Public libraries here are exemplary. The range of services they offer, all free to residents of that particular county, is incredible, so it is not surprising that these places bustle with activity. I have enjoyed visiting area libraries for their speakers’ series. An eloquent talk by “Cutting for Stone” author Abraham Verghese was inspiring. His talk drew many from Washington’s Ethiopian and Eritrean communities, tellingly suggesting that he accurately described their challenges and diaspora.

Some venues typically only hold ticketed events. But the number of free events held in Washington that any member of the public can attend is breathtaking. Visits to the numerous Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are also free.

So, amidst the sharp, often disingenuous discourse too well exhibited in Washington, the yearning for more substance, common sense, and evidence-based understanding can—ironically—be well satisfied here. Thoughtful presentations at think tanks and inspiring discussions on literature offer reassuring counterpoints to the shrill ideological content of political discourse and the popular media. It is not a zero-sum game; we all win when we better understand each other. Is it not possible for Americans to get out of their ideological silos and rise above bitter and divisive politics, and see the world more broadly than the present narrow parochial ways? This is sadly not likely. There are mid-term elections this year and the presidential election in 2016.

Tracing the paths of heroes

A mural with Frederick Douglass in Anacostia, Washington, D.C.

A mural with Frederick Douglass in Anacostia, Washington, D.C.

The purpose in crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge for Maryland’s Eastern Shore was visiting key sites in the lives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, two local heroes with national and even international standing. An enjoyable day was spent driving to various locations from both of their lives. The sights of the day stimulated reflections on how all of us are products of our environments, and on the fortitude and courage of these two heroes emerging from the same geographical area at approximately the same time. Maryland was a border state between the North and the South in the pre-Civil War era, with very ambivalent attitudes towards slavery.

Born enslaved in two different communities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the early 1800s, Douglass and Tubman both liberated themselves and then led exemplary lives in different circumstances to free their compatriots. Douglass became the nationally and internationally acclaimed orator, author, politician, and advocate for the abolition of slavery. For example, he engaged President Abraham Lincoln a number of times during the Civil War. Less well-known but as inspiring, Tubman bravely returned more than a dozen times to the area where she was born to help about 70 people escape to freedom through a secret network of people, places, waterways and land-based routes called the Underground Railroad. Amidst his many activities, Douglas was also an agent in the Railroad, sheltering innumerable former slaves en route to their new lives. Later in her life, Tubman was active in pushing for women’s suffrage.

In Rochester, New York, where he settled, Douglass is recorded as having said this to Tubman on August 29, 1868: “The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a very private way.”

For Douglass, experiences as a slave in the Talbot County homes of his owners on Maryland’s Eastern Shore made him realize that blacks and whites could engage positively, notwithstanding the vicious racism he experienced in the community. There he apparently also recognized that he might be able to rise above his circumstances and free himself. In the home of another of his owners, this time in Baltimore, he learned to read, found religion, and experienced relative freedom of movement. When back in Talbot County, this time with a new owner who was particularly cruel and harsh, Douglass literally had a fistfight with him. In his 1855 book, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass remarked, “This battle with Mr. Covey…was the turning point in my life as a slave…I was NOTHING before: I WAS A MAN NOW”.

In Tubman’s case, her intimate familiarity with the Eastern Shore’s watery channels and inlets, together with the outdoor survival skills she learned in Dorchester County, facilitated her own liberation and her subsequent heroism in freeing so many others—despite increasingly severe punishment for those assisting slaves to escape. She had learned how to assess the tides of the Chesapeake Bay, gauge direction from the North Star’s location in the heavens, and forage for food in the forests, marshes and waterways of the area.

It is appropriate that, in March 2013, President Barack Obama recognized Tubman’s special affinity with the area of her birth and youth by designating part of Dorchester County a National Monument. A state park will follow near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. What a wonderful way to recognize Tubman’s connection to the natural world in which she was raised. The illiterate Tubman succeeded in helping herself and so many others acquire freedom because of her intimate knowledge of the Eastern Shore’s unique and challenging wetland ecosystem.

Douglass has received many accolades and much acknowledgement for his eloquent accomplishments. A statue of Douglass, for example, has the honour of being the sole statue representing the District of Columbia in National Statutory Hall, the U.S. Capitol’s collection of two statues per state. He lived partly in the District and in fact died in his D.C. home in 1895.

Getting a feel for the physical landscape and environment is the essence of self-guided driving tours that are available to key places in Douglass and Tubman’s lives. Brochures for the tours acknowledge the dearth of “structures or statues” but recognize that Tubman especially is “memorialized in the land, water, and sky of the Eastern Shore”. Even if the self-guided driving tours are a little overhyped and anti-climatic—with original buildings typically gone and relevant locations often on private property that cannot now be accessed—the enthusiasm of locals for sharing this history is energizing. For example, the visitor center assistants in Cambridge and Easton were so warm and welcoming, and the volunteer at the restored Linchester Mill near Preston, lovingly tending the immaculate garden on the property, was completely passionate about the historical preservation underway there. Their joy in visitors being interested in their history was palpable and inspiring.

It is remarkable that two such outstanding individuals emerged from the same geographical area at approximately the same time in pre-Civil War America. As South Africans well know, ordinary people, often from border or transitional areas, can sometimes be formed into historic actors in times of turbulence and moral turpitude.

A landing on the Choptank River in Maryland, close to where Harriet Tubman is thought to have made her first escape.

A landing on the Choptank River in Maryland, close to where Harriet Tubman is thought to have made her first escape.

Fun with facts

U.S. Supreme Court, with the Library of Congress While tourism to Washington is a year-round phenomenon, visitor numbers always spike dramatically and very noticeably as the city explodes into the exuberance of spring. It is no surprise that people want to visit Washington in spring—the city is simply gorgeous now, with splashes of colour reemerging everywhere after the drab monotones of winter.

At any time of year, visitors to Washington head to the National Mall to experience the nation’s treasured monuments, memorials, statues, and museums. In spring, visitors especially flock to the Tidal Basin to exult in the luxurious blossoms of the cherry trees famously encircling it. Even cynical Washington hacks and jaded longtime residents can surely not help but be stirred by the magnificence of these scores of trees in their glorious, annual bloom.

Those who live in the Washington metro area do become blasé about their proximity to the many world-famous attractions. Those who grow up here can be particularly nonchalant about the renowned sights or symbols of U.S. power in their midst.

So how would one excite a bunch of local, middle-class school children about a field trip to Capitol Hill? More likely than not, most would probably have been there before, and many perhaps a few times. Some would have parents or other family members working there, so they may be especially familiar with the place. How could one inspire such students for this school trip? Well, one could turn the trip into a treasure hunt, that’s how!

A four-hour “scavenger” or treasure hunt was the novel formula that my daughter’s school used earlier this month to experience the grandeur and history of some Washington institutions. The hunt was part of the students’ U.S. civics class. And what a fun way to engage with the civics curriculum! Dozens of parent volunteers were sought to escort the students in small groups for the hunt, and I stepped forward too to help.

This scavenger hunt was not a race to complete the pages-long questionnaire given to each small group. The questionnaire provided the context for interacting with our surroundings. It was the means through which to enjoy the experience, rather than the questionnaire’s completion being the end itself. Indeed, it would not have been possible to fill it all in the allotted four hours. Looking for the details suggested by the questions led to observing minutiae about the various buildings and appreciating aspects of their architecture and history. The constitutional roles of the institutions had clearly been deliberated in class in the preceding months.

The questionnaire sent groups to the U.S. Supreme Court, the office buildings of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Capitol and its visitors’ center, the Library of Congress, as well as a nearby park and some statues. With the exception of a suggested time slot for the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center (for crowd control purposes), each group could tailor its own experience and explore the particular interests of its members.

The questions were sufficiently detailed that one wouldn’t realistically know most of the answers without physically going to that specific location. For example, the section on Virginia’s two senators asked questions about items hanging on the walls of their offices. Without going to his actual office, how would one possibly know what is portrayed on at least one of the two Virginia maps in Senator Tim Kaine’s office?* Or with which British Royal family member he is photographed?** His office staff was fabulously good-natured and friendly when the group I was chaperoning stopped by. I imagine they were that way with all the other troops of teenagers who traipsed through their office that morning. But it must have been testing and disruptive too. This dynamic was repeated across the offices of many Virginia legislators on Capitol Hill that day.

There were, of course, security checkpoints to enter each building, which slowed the pace a bit. Students were forewarned to avoid wearing belts and jewelry that day to facilitate passage through these chokepoints. Overall though, I was surprised by the ease with which we could move from building to building. American politicians do have to be accessible to their constituents.

Our group passed by the U.S. Senate as a cluster of Democratic senators was holding a press event on the Senate’s steps to support President Barack Obama’s efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from its present $7.25. Security personnel prevented us from getting too close to the gathering, but it was an unexpected thrill for the students to see this event.

And we came upon this scene on the Senate steps right after the showstopper of the day—watching the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in session. It was breathtaking that members of the public could walk off the street into the Court, like we did, for three hallowed minutes to experience the aura of the Court. Admittedly, we waited in line for well over an hour and went through a few rounds of security to get in. It was a controversial day too for the Court, as they offered their 5-4 verdict in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the new campaign finance decision whereby aggregate limits are lifted on individual donors. What an exhilarating civics class!

As the deluge of tourists continues these weeks, I wonder if those shepherding school groups from around the United States through Washington’s many attractions will also be conducting scavenger hunts. The treasure hunt I experienced was an exemplary, creative, and inspiring way to examine aspects of U.S. federal institutions in this era of stalemated, cynical politics, especially for Washington teenagers. Similar treasure hunts would undoubtedly capture the imaginations of any student groups visiting Washington, this spring and beyond. Yet for many, merely being in Washington and seeing its sights in person is thrilling enough.

* One was of Virginia’s canals, the other of Virginia’s roadways.
** Queen Elizabeth

Hoops’ fans rule!

Winning WizardsThis is a fabulous time of year for basketball fans. The annual “March Madness” tournament involving the top 64 teams in Division 1 men’s college basketball has just started, with the top 64 teams in Division 1 on the women’s side due to begin competing too this weekend. Meanwhile, the professional National Basketball Association (NBA) league continues, seemingly undeterred by its spotlight briefly being stolen by unpaid amateur college players. Basketball is deliciously ubiquitous on television right now.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) March Madness competitions are very popular. This may be partly because they symbolize the arrival of spring—which is extra welcome this year after an unrelenting winter. But the tournaments are mainly well received because of the way they showcase the health of, and depth of talent in, basketball. Even though only a few of those playing college ball will actually make it into the NBA.

The tournaments also attract the attention and interest of non-basketball fans due to the fun that can be had putting together a “bracket”. Once the March Madness roster and seeds are announced on “Selection Sunday”, the obscure but all-American science of “bracketology” becomes widely practiced. Keen followers of the game and novices alike immediately began filling in their “bracket”, or choice of likely winner of each game in the elimination competitions, culminating in the declaration of the eventual winners. Pre-tournament predicting of the outcomes of the matchups happened all over the country this week, with friendly and not so friendly wagers being commonplace. Investor Warren Buffett and the company Quicken Loans raised the stakes this year by offering $1 billion to anyone who correctly called the winner of every single one of the 63 games in the men’s tournament. After the first two days of play, amazingly enough, not one of the 11 million brackets submitted to the ESPN Sports Channel correctly predicted the state of affairs. Such has been the extent of upsets.

An avid basketball player and devoted fan, President Barack Obama gets into it too. He took time out this week from placing sanctions on Russians for their government’s actions in Crimea and trying to recruit younger Americans for his signature healthcare plan to explain his bracket choices on the men’s side. Only once in the past five years of him making a bracket as president has he successfully anticipated the winner. For the record, this sixth time, Obama declares Michigan State will be the ultimate victor.

Another fun dimension to observe is the mostly good-natured bantering and trash talking that goes on as people get behind their favourite team or college alma mater. Is there also an identifiable hike in beer sales accompanying the present spike in television watching? There must be!

While being wrapped up in the NCAA competitions, I also want to give a shout out to the NBA and especially our hometown team, the Washington Wizards. My family attended the Wizards home game against the Brooklyn Nets last Saturday at the Verizon Center in downtown Washington. We all had a magnificent evening. Yes, the home team won 101-94, but that was only part of what made the outing memorable.

The evening was a total entertainment package. From the robust National Anthem sung solo by a talented young girl at the start of the game to the pulsating rhythms accompanying the cheerleading “Wizard girls” performing their dance moves, it was a complete sensory experience. Loud participation from the sold-out crowd was critical—both to the Wizards’ victory and the atmosphere around the game. Any timeouts during the game provided opportunities for further visual stimulation, mainly by the cheerleaders. Although the “dance cam[era]” scanning the crowd also caught some wonderful action. Half-time entertainment included a local dance troupe and a dunking spectacle.

Egged on by an announcer, the crowd became extra noisy at critical junctures. This included delicate moments, such as when Net players were trying to make baskets with free throws. Reflecting one of the many advantages of playing at home, the crowd was, of course, respectfully quiet when any Wizard similarly took free throws. A crowd-pleasing and rather hilarious moment was when a Brooklyn player missed two free throws in a row—whereby the crowd then knew each ticket holder could claim a free chicken fillet sandwich at any Chic-Fil-A fast food restaurant.

There were, of course, other advertising and merchandising pitches. A “t-shirt toss” saw dozens of t-shirts being spread throughout the crowd. The Wizards’ victory and the fact that they scored over 100 points in winning also meant that anyone could get fifty percent off pizza purchases at Papa John’s pizza outlets.

Sports purists might question all the distracting but amusing add-ons that seem expected as part of the fan experience at live sporting events these days. They might ask, “Isn’t the majesty of the game well played enough?” For passionate basketball fans who want to experience the game less adorned, there’s happily March Madness to feast on for the next couple of weeks.

Staunching public education’s decline

Please fully fund our schools!“Made the ‘Fund Our Schools’ poster?” Check. “Wearing the requested blue clothing?” Check. “Know where to go? Confirmed the time?” Check. And check. A few dozen Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) parents appear to have worked through this checklist on Tuesday morning. During a heavier-than-expected snowfall, these FCPS parents joined FCPS School Board members in a rally to push for additional funding for public schools in the county. The rally took place ahead of a county Board of Supervisors meeting at which the FY 2015 budget was presented.

With 184,500 students and 23,000 staff, FCPS is the eleventh largest school district in the country and the largest in the state of Virginia. For many, my family included, FCPS’s reputation for quality public education is the draw card in wanting to live here. Student numbers keep swelling—adding an estimated 3,000 new students per annum—as the county continues to attract immigrant and other families wanting their children to attend its vaunted public schools. Enrolment in FCPS schools has increased 8.9 percent, or by about 15,000 students, since 2009. But funding has only increased 5.6 percent. Many of the new enrollees also need additional services from the county, such as English language instruction and/or reduced price or free school meals.

Earlier this year, newly appointed FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza presented the school system’s FY 2015 budget. The $2.5 billion budget called for increased funding, while also incorporating significant cuts. The largest portion of the budget would go toward increasing teachers’ salaries. FCPS teaching salaries no longer compare favourably with those of nearby counties. Teachers’ pay here has been stagnant for five years and take-home pay has even declined due to mandatory contributions to the previously underfunded state pension system. The upshot is that, for example, 70 percent of the teachers at our local high school reportedly need to supplement their income during the school year. For FCPS to retain the best teachers, especially younger teachers, salary hikes are seen as essential.

Simultaneously, Dr. Garza proposed eliminating 731 staff positions, including 469 classroom positions and school support positions such as 12 assistant principal jobs. Reductions in staff positions would have the highly controversial consequence of increasing class sizes yet again, for the third time in recent years. Classes would have to be increased by an average of half a student per elementary and middle school class and by one student per high school class. Many parents complain that FCPS classes are already too full, with over 30 students per class being the norm too often.

Garza stresses that present funding levels do not support taking on both short and long-term problems. In fact, bar receiving additional funding, the only way in which the vital salary hikes could be at least partially implemented would be by making really dramatic cuts in support staff, increasing class sizes yet further, and narrowing the curriculum by perhaps eliminating the elementary-school foreign language program.

So Garza has called for increased funding to the tune of $98 million, or a 5.7 percent increase, in the allotment of taxpayer funding the county transfers to the school system. But, at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, County Executive Ed Long proposed only a two percent increase in funding for FCPS operations, leaving a gap of $63.8 million in FCPS’s advertised budget. Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Sharon Bulova then suggested that, in consultation with her colleagues, she would consider a higher advertised property tax rate to support more funding for schools and other services.

Approximately 51 percent of the county’s budget goes toward the school system. This funding from the county comprises 70 percent of the school system’s income. FCPS receives only 15 percent of its funding from the state. Yet Northern Virginia, including Fairfax County, is the most populous part of Virginia and so contributes most to state coffers. It certainly doesn’t get an equivalent ratio back in spend, especially not for its schools. In terms of the Virginia Department of Education’s Local Composite Index, FCPS received $1,855 per pupil in state aid, whereas the state average was $3,420 per pupil. Public education advocates in the county want separate taxing authority or other streams of income for FCPS that are not subject to the vagaries of the state or county budget processes.

In the main, I have been impressed with the FCPS system. While of course not universally so, there are many phenomenally dedicated, passionate teachers who really look out for their students and care deeply about their progress. As a FCPS parent, I definitely support FCPS teachers getting deserved raises, a measure that would boost morale and commitment. Overall though, I do feel that FCPS is a system under strain, with unquestionable fraying at the edges. Clearly, larger sums of money are needed to address some of the infrastructure issues. Schools are at full capacity and many are beyond capacity. I am still surprised by the widespread use of trailers (euphemistically called “villas” at a local school…) for classrooms.

Universal public primary and secondary school education is a bedrock of American society. It sustains and resupplies America’s middle class. It skills and acculturates newly arrived immigrants—even while it doesn’t do enough to close the achievement gap between poor Americans and those from higher income levels. Ninety percent of American school children are educated in public schools today. If there isn’t the will and support to fund public schools more fully, the future is grim.

A risk-averse society?

This isn't treacherous, is it?A significant snowstorm this past Tuesday, followed by days of atypical sub-zero temperatures, resulted in schools being closed across the Washington metro area. In Northern Virginia, officials of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) cancelled school from Tuesday to Thursday, and delayed the start by two hours on Friday. This was welcome news for those in FCPS wanting a respite from the routine of school. But it was controversial for others, including this FCPS parent. Monday had also been a day off from school; it was the public holiday honouring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Officials in neighbouring counties reacted differently to the snow and subsequent deep freeze: further west in Loudoun County, school was cancelled for all four weekdays, reflecting the higher quantity of fallen snow there and the difficulty of clearing snow off its more rural, sometimes hilly roads. In Montgomery County to the north and Alexandria and Arlington Counties to the east, as well as in the District of Columbia itself, schools were closed for Tuesday and Wednesday, and delayed for two hours on Thursday.

Some in our county were incredulous when FCPS cancelled school the third day. A delayed start seemed a more appropriate response. The usual two-hour delay would have ensured that school goers walked to school or bus stops in daylight, not the usual darkness of January mornings, and would thus have been able to see most icy patches or other obstacles en route. Cancelling school entirely was an over-reaction—albeit a revealing one.

Sensitive to criticism of their decision on Thursday’s closure, when announcing Friday’s delayed start, FCPS officials noted, a little defensively, “FCPS’ primary concern is always student safety when making a decision about opening or delaying schools. In addition to considering information from a range of public safety sources, FCPS transportation supervisors travel the routes our buses would traverse and inspect bus stops and the pathways that will be used by walkers. When there are areas in the county that are considered unsafe or treacherous, schools are closed.”

Friday’s delayed start was not incident free. FCPS acknowledged in an email sent to parents shortly after 9 a.m. that it was “experiencing significant mechanical problems with a number of buses across the county … due to the freezing temperatures. Some of these buses will be late picking up students; some may be very late. Parents are advised to take precautions to ensure that their children are not standing outside in the cold for extended periods of time. Mechanics, transportation supervisors, and drivers are working to the best of their ability to get the buses running and on time”.

Undoubtedly there are people who will criticize FCPS for Friday’s delayed start and suggest that schools should have remained closed on Friday too. They might say that so many buses with mechanical issues due to the low temperatures prove the decision to have school, albeit delayed, unwise.

I am definitely one of those who felt resuming an as-regular-as-possible school schedule should have been attempted, with a delayed start, on the Thursday already. Certainly, it was extremely cold. One is reminded of the expression, “There’s no such thing as bad weather; there’s only bad clothing”. Most living in this region would have adequate protective clothing; winter here typically does include really chilly days, although temperatures as consistently low as they’ve been over the last days are unusual. The curious unwillingness of teenagers to wear jackets is obviously not a reason to cancel school.

The over-cautious decisions from FCPS reflect a broader tendency in U.S. society—the general widespread adoption of risk aversion policies and processes. FCPS officials are terrified of the possibility of being sued. Whether this could be for an accident involving a FCPS student falling on an icy sidewalk or pavement at a school, or, heaven forbid, being hit by a car sliding on ice, or, I hate to suggest it, a bus accident with elementary school children on board, or some other horrible scenario. FCPS officials cannot entertain the possibility of being liable. So instead hyper-conservative decisions are made.

Risk avoidance is endemic in the United States. There are signs everywhere disclaiming responsibility for this or that—or warning that use of whatever is at people’s own discretion. One is forever signing indemnity forms absolving others of any responsibility for anything. Lawyers predicate far too much behaviour in this society.

There are, of course, profound anomalies to this society-wide aversion to risk. Promiscuous gun laws in the United States are, to my mind, the most baffling contradiction to this excessive concern with safety. The ease with which guns can be purchased, plus the way in which they can be concealed and carried in everyday life, are aspects of U.S. society I struggle to understand. The presence of a firearm by definition always escalates the chance of any situation spiralling out of control and compromising people’s safety.

Life is full of freak, random events. It is impossible to control for everything. Surely school children would be better served by not being too sheltered but by being exposed to some risks and learning coping mechanisms? More exposure to adversity and less cossetting would help childrens’ coping and social skills.

Washington mourns Nelson Mandela

The Stars and Stripes at half-mast over the White HouseThe outpouring of respect, admiration, and affection for Nelson Mandela here in Washington, D.C., since his death on December 5, has been phenomenal. It would be hard to match—apart from in South Africa itself—the reverence and passion felt for Mandela by the residents of this city. After his many visits to the city, Washingtonians responded to Mandela’s passing as if he were a true native son.

The degree of goodwill toward South Africa—as personified by the inimitable and inspirational Mandela—moved me this past week. There are many Americans who care greatly about South Africa and genuinely want it to succeed.

Appreciation of Madiba’s life accomplishments is especially heartfelt in the large African American community and diaspora of Africans from across the continent, both immigrants and diplomats. Resonance between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights and that of black South Africans is self-evident. The local African American community played a critical role in stoking opposition to the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s Nationalist government. Their campaign of seeking arrest at the South African Embassy here in the mid-1980s is well recognized as having been pivotal. Until Barack Obama’s election to the White House, their finest hour was their success in strategizing to oppose U.S. political and economic backing of apartheid South Africa and support growing worldwide disgust at the white minority government’s oppression of the black majority.

Official Washington responded quickly to the news of Madiba’s passing. Within half an hour of South African President Jacob Zuma announcing Mandela’s death, U.S. President Obama delivered stirring comments on Mandela from the White House press briefing room. He also declared, in a rare honour for a foreigner, that flags outside federal buildings would be flown at half-mast for a week out of respect for Mandela.

The top-heavy U.S. delegation to Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto last Tuesday says everything about U.S. regard for Mandela. It is unprecedented that four current and former U.S. presidents (and perhaps a fifth prospective one?) would travel to the memorial service of a former head of state.

President Obama’s speech at the Soweto memorial was unquestionably the rousing center point of the memorial—it was the eulogy of the day. And thank goodness for it. Without it, the speeches would have been rather ho-hum. Obama recognized that it “took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but also a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts”. He noted, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done”.

The pity is that the thoughtful content President Obama offered was overshadowed by the non-controversy of his quick handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro, the stupid reaction to the “selfie” photograph and seat change, and the extremely disconcerting problem of the incompetent, violence-prone signer standing feet away from some of the world’s most important people during the ceremony.

The U.S. national memorial service for Mandela was held in the Washington National Cathedral on December 11, the day after the Soweto memorial service. It was, in many ways, the polar opposite of the chaotic, carnival-like—yet also deliciously revelatory—Soweto service. It was purposeful, reflective, impassioned yet solemn. Unlike the Soweto memorial or yesterday’s dignified Qunu burial, both of which took place with the world’s full attention, this service appears to have received little publicity. Which is a shame, because it was outstanding. I urge readers to watch videos of the proceedings.

The main speeches were very thoughtful. Vice President Joe Biden spoke first, followed later by Andrew Young, Allan Boesak, and finally South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool. The last three speeches were essentially powerful “calls to action”. Young admonished mourners that “we have nothing yet to celebrate” as “the hungry can’t eat hope, they can’t drink inspiration … we have to keep on keeping on”. Boesak too reiterated that, in the words of Rev. James Moore’s gospel song, “It ain’t over until God says it’s done”. In a singularly eloquent and well-crafted speech, Rasool acknowledged, “Nelson Mandela’s values are eternal in time, universal in space, and enduring in every circumstance…[and] he always understood that progress only comes from working together.” Rasool ended his comments by noting that “Madiba is not here to light the path with his courage and his sacrifice. Each of us who has been inspired by him and been touched by him and moved by him must continue the long walk”.

There is nothing more ”establishment” or respectable in Washington than a memorial service in your honour at the National Cathedral. I marveled at the irony and majesty of the profound service for the formerly marginalized “terrorist” whose name was too recently removed from the list forbidding entry into the United States. What a long, improbable and incredibly inspiring walk Nelson Mandela undertook.

The South African Embassy in Washington was the locus for daily gatherings of mourners. Many placed flowers by the embassy’s newly unveiled statute of Mandela and signed condolence books. There were also nightly prayer vigils with robust singing and dancing.

There were some grumblings of discontent at the attention showered on Mandela. Some questioned the lowering of the Stars and Stripes, asking why this was ordered for a foreigner. “Were U.S. presidents similarly honoured in foreign countries?” It was also fascinating to learn how conservative supporters of Senator Ted Cruz and former Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized them for offering praise of Mandela. This underscores how much work remains to be done in furthering racial reconciliation and understanding—not only in South Africa, but in the United States too.

Flowers from admirers

N.I.M.B.Y.

Communities in Fairfax County have earned the “Not In My Back Yard” label. A county proposal to facilitate—through rezoning or a special exception process—the building of residential studio housing for low-income earners in nearly all types of zoning in the county has elicited controversy. That low-density suburban residential areas are included in the proposed zoning ordinance is the source of much of the contention.

The goal of the zoning change is enabling construction of buildings of studio or efficiency apartments only for rent by those with low incomes. It is an attempt to address the long-term countywide need to “enable a pool of mixed labour” against a scarcity of affordable housing for low-income people.

The root of the problem is that commercial developers have erected little housing for lower-income groups in the county. Fairfax County, it should be noted, has the second highest median household income of any local U.S. jurisdiction, after its neighbor Loudoun County. So this county initiative is an attempt to fill a perceived gap in the housing pool, one that the market hasn’t provided. Seven different lots around the county are currently being suggested as possible locations for such housing.

At least 80 percent of the units in such buildings are envisaged to be rent-controlled. The target market would be folk earning less than 60 percent of area median income, namely less than around $45,000 per annum for a single-person household. The other 20 percent could be for higher income levels and the rent would not be controlled. The aim is to attract lower-income earners such as nurses, first-year teachers, and non-teaching staff at local schools such as cafeteria workers. Targeted tenants are also those “just starting out”, like recent college graduates.

Such housing could potentially also be a stepping stone for those presently homeless. This type of single-room housing, coupled with support services like job counseling and substance abuse or mental health treatment, has been shown to help the homeless transition into durable living arrangements.

The zoning amendment permits up to 75 units per lot, while individual units can be no larger than 500 square feet. Although intended for single occupancy, each unit could accommodate up to three people, including two children. Each unit has to include a kitchen and a bathroom, and be allocated at least one parking bay. One washer and dryer has to be available per ten units—if these amenities are not included in the individual units. Additionally, there has to be either a resident or on-site manager, or off-site management that the county’s Board of Supervisors approved.

The owner of property where such a building is being considered for construction would have to appear in public hearings before both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to have a special exception granted to current zoning. In this process, consideration would be given to: compatibility with the neighbouring area, as well as location by a major thoroughfare to ensure the likely availability of public transport options. Adding yet other criteria for consideration, such as pedestrian access to shopping and other services, is still under discussion. Also still being debated is whether or not to allow the conversion of single-family homes into apartments, and the effect of such a decision on illegal boarding houses.

In recent weeks, I have attended two public meetings on the residential studio issue: the McLean Community Association hosted the first; the second was a Fairfax County Planning Commission hearing on the proposed amendment. I learnt much at both meetings and came away with some strong impressions.

The vocal and noisy majority of attendees at both gatherings were firm opponents of the proposed zoning ordinance amendment to encourage construction of low-income housing.

There is merit to homeowners’ unhappiness that this type of housing is being contemplated for low-density, single-family-home residential neighbourhoods. Typically, exceptions to present zoning limits in such neighbourhoods are granted for entities benefitting the general community, such as petrol or “gas” stations, churches, preschools, assisted living facilities, and so on. Supervisor John Foust, who was sitting in the audience at the first meeting, agreed that residential studio units made more sense in higher-density areas, saying, “this is a good product in the right zoning category, but I don’t think it’s the right product for low-density residential”.

The other worthy point is that no market research or feasibility studies have been conducted to test the county’s vision—apart from a George Mason University study published in 2006 at the height of the housing bubble and before the 2008 crash in the housing market. Would, for example, young professionals “starting out” even be interested in such studio accommodation? Might there not be more interest in one-bedroom apartments? Also, how would young professionals feel about living in buildings with many lower-income tenants, including formerly homeless individuals? All of these questions should be researched. The county is perhaps trying to target too many different types of tenants with one product. And, however well intentioned, it is not clear that there is market demand for this type of housing.

But these aspects seemed to be only a small part of the public’s negative reaction to the potential zoning change. There appeared to be an overall perception of buildings with such units and tenants leading to reduced property prices and a diminished quality of life for those currently living in areas where they might be located. Concerns were raised about the impact on already overcrowded schools and already acute traffic congestion; the perceived lack of enforcement of present occupancy restrictions; and fear of spikes in vandalism, crime, and general lawlessness around such multi-family, low-income dwellings. At the second gathering, a former owner of buildings in the District of Columbia, spoke—to loud applause—about the “negative synergy” that develops around buildings with a “preponderance of low-income people”.

A courageous woman stood up to address all near the meeting’s conclusion, knowing her opinion was in the minority. She was appalled at the tenor of people’s comments. She warned, very emotionally, about the slippery slope shown by history of thinking about fellow humans as being the “other”. It is hard to disagree with her heartfelt statement, but most present apparently did.

Local government still works

community awareness effortAmericans’ present despair and disgust with the federal government does not extend to local government. Opinion polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center underscore that Americans consistently view local government more positively than the federal government. In a hierarchy of favourability, local government comes out on top, followed by state government, with the federal government coming last—and less than half as popular as both local and state government.

Local government is better regarded because it truly responds to people’s needs. Local representatives are close to the people they serve; indeed, they live among them. Local officials are pragmatic and flexible; they focus on “getting things done” rather than ideological purity. They also have to provide the desired services within budget—unlike their federal counterparts—so they are seen as better guardians of people’s money.

Local government is government “for the people, by the people, of the people”. The local governing process can be influenced very directly by community activism, with committed people in the community really able to impact an outcome. Countering and even overriding “legal capture” by vested and special interests is possible in the local realm. No wonder local government is regarded more positively.

Two current campaigns in our area illustrate key aspects of local government’s openness to those it serves. The lack of pavements or “sidewalks” along some key arterial roads in our neighbourhood is dangerous for pedestrians. Fairfax County is receptive to concerns about pedestrian safety, and has added requests for sidewalks on these busy roads to the long list of presently unfunded transportation projects in the county. This list is available on the Internet. Very transparently, the county asks for community input to help prioritize the desired tasks. There is now a concerted neighbourhood effort to have stakeholders fill in the online survey to help escalate the prioritization of providing these long-coveted sidewalks. There will also be public meetings to discuss county priorities, with members of the public encouraged to attend to offer their viewpoints. Of course, the activists in our community are urging as many as possible to participate in these meetings. Many living along the two busy streets have also placed signs on their lawns to draw attention to the campaign.

The other initiative being pushed locally is a perennial issue in Fairfax County Public Schools. This is the campaign for later high school start times. Nearby Arlington and Loudoun Counties have already made the shift, while Montgomery County across the Potomac River in Maryland is also considering the adjustment.

Pushing the present FCPS high school start time of 7:20 a.m. to after 8 a.m. is the goal. The research is quite clear on the benefits of later school starting times for teenagers, given their natural circadian or biologically driven body-clock rhythms. The apparent benefits of more morning sleep and less sleep deprivation include increased academic achievement, improved performance in tests (especially in those held at the start of the school day), better school attendance, improved punctuality in arriving at school, reduced drop out rates, fewer car accidents, less reported depression, fewer health center visits, and less daytime sleepiness in class. Research seems to suggest that bed times do not shift to later if school start times are pushed back (one could be cynical about this finding, knowing teenagers’ approach to bedtime…). It is suggested that sleep appears to increase by the amount that school start time is delayed.

Resistance to implementing later high school start times is mainly due to the impact on bus transport to and from school. These transportation costs are why the change has not been made previously, despite attempts to do so. Presently, the same buses are used for at least three shifts: to transport high school, then middle school, and lastly elementary school children to their respective schools. Adjusting high school start times might mean modifying all schools’ start times (this is the approach Montgomery County’s superintendent recommends), particularly if the same number of buses and drivers are to be used. Other school districts have accomplished later high school start times by “flipping” the sequence of pick up, with elementary school children, for example, being switched to the earliest shift. Yet dislike of little children waiting in the morning dark for buses is apparently why rare school districts revert to earlier high school start times if they switched. Increased transportation costs—for more buses and drivers—appear to be the biggest impediments to changing school start times, especially in this era of reduced budgets.

Other constraints include leaving enough time for extracurricular athletic activities, especially considering after-hours use of school facilities by community groups; after-school employment of students; childcare of younger siblings; overall adjustments in family schedules; and the impact on commuting traffic.

Giving families time to prepare for such profound schedule changes is key. Providing details about the possible changes is essential, with information meetings being one important and necessary tool. Earlier this year, a meeting was held at the local high school and, more recently, at a community center for members of the public. The speaker at both events was Dr. Judith Owens of the Children’s National Medical Center Division of Sleep Medicine. The FCPS School Board has commissioned the Children’s National Medical Center to submit recommendations on how the board could start high schools after 8 a.m. Many of the earlier comments here are based on my notes from these two meetings. The latter meeting was well attended by local luminaries, including the district supervisor, our local school board member, plus one of the candidates running for the state House of Delegates. I was impressed that they all attended. Clearly, they wanted to hear the presentation and gauge community reactions to it.

SLEEP in Fairfax (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal) is a committed group of volunteers who have been working since 2004 for later FCPS high school start times. One has to admire their fortitude and perseverance. The momentum now somehow suggests that, this time round, their hard work toward this long-sought goal will have the desired outcome.

Local activists have an encouraging track record. A success in 2011, for example, was the extension of kindergarten to full day from half day in the last FCPS schools that didn’t yet have it.

So if you want to make a difference in your community, try influencing local government. Your odds are better here than at the federal level.