Charter Schools: A Welcome Choice for Parents
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Tuesday 31 August 2010 4:30 PM

From The Heritage Foundation

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A study published by the Department of Education (DOE) in June, “The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts,” highlights the many benefits of charter schools. The results show unambiguously that parents are substantially more satisfied with charter schools and the academic and social development of their children who attend compared to public school parents.

What Are Charter Schools?

Charter schools are a controversial innovation in education policy—controversial in many circles, but not with parents. Typically founded and run by non-profit community organizations, charter schools receive public funding but are allowed to operate without the regulatory burden faced by ordinary public schools.

Charters have more leeway to experiment with different teaching methods, curriculum content, disciplinary procedures, and levels of parental involvement. Often overwhelmed with many more applicants than available places, many charter schools must use an annual lottery to select new students.

What the Study Found

Among the DOE report’s key findings:

  • Parental satisfaction with student development. Parents of charter students reported substantially greater satisfaction with their children’s academic and social development compared to parents of non-charter students.
  • Parental satisfaction with schools. Parents of charter students also reported much higher levels of satisfaction with their children’s schools. Charter schools were rated “excellent” by 85 percent of parents, while non-charter schools received the excellent rating from just 37 percent of parents.
  • Test scores. Attending a charter school caused no statistically significant[i] differences in overall math or reading test scores.

These results should be considered in light of the study’s quality of methodology and consistency with past findings.

Quality of Methodology

Because parents, teachers, or the students themselves must elect to attend charter schools, participants in charter school programs tend to be different from non-participants in terms of ability, motivation, family background, and many other variables. An essential part of any program evaluation is to avoid mistaking these initial differences for the effect of the program itself. To do this, evaluators need a control group that is as similar as possible to the students who participate in the program.

The DOE study used the best possible control group: one constructed from a random lottery. Among 2,330 eligible applicants to a representative sample of charter middle schools throughout the country, 1,400 were randomly offered admission. The evaluation then compared students who attended a charter school through the lottery to students who lost the lottery and were denied entrance.[ii]

A lottery is the “gold standard” method of evaluation, which produces results deserving the most attention. If statistically significant differences between participants and non-participants emerge from this strict comparison, policymakers can be sure that the program in question has had an impact.

Without a lottery, the next most desirable evaluation method is careful matching of participants and non-participants on as many background variables as possible. Ideally, these comparisons examine trends over time so that researchers can assess the educational “value added” by the charter school for each student. Since some confounding variables are unobserved, the value-added models are less reliable than the lottery method, but they can still be informative when performed carefully. Recent examples include a study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes[iii] and a Florida State University report by Tim Sass.[iv]

Less scholarly studies use raw comparisons or insufficient matching of participants and non-participants. These evaluations are rarely informative. One example is a 2004 study published by the American Federation of Teachers, which compares charter and non-charter students’ national test scores.[v] The study used very limited controls with no individual student tracking, making the results uninterpretable.

Consistency with Past Findings

Greater parental satisfaction with charter schools is almost always observed when researchers inquire about it. Studies of charter schools in Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, and Arizona, for example, all find parental satisfaction substantially higher than in competing public schools.[vi] This led the authors of the RAND Corporation’s book-length review of school choice data to conclude: “Parental satisfaction levels are high in virtually all voucher and charter programs studied, indicating that parents are happy with the school choices made available by the programs.”[vii] As the most rigorous evaluation to date, the DOE study is confirmation of the greater parental satisfaction observed in other charter school studies.

On raising test scores, the authors noted small effects among various subgroups of students, but the overall impact of charter school attendance was insignificant. Test scores are notoriously hard to raise through intervention. Increasing funding for public schools—through class size reduction, teacher training, stricter certification requirements, etc.—also rarely results in significant test score improvement.[viii]

Policy Implications

The consistent finding of increased parental satisfaction should inform the continuing debates over charter schools. But if scholars and policymakers focus on the negligible test score effects reported by the evaluation, they may overlook the broader benefits of school choice.

Given the higher levels of parental satisfaction produced by charter schools, test scores are clearly only one factor parents consider in evaluating schools. In fact, parents probably understand the limitations of social policy better than most academics and policymakers. Rather than obsessing over elusive test score gains, parents seem to have a more nuanced and child-specific set of criteria: They want schools that are safe, cultivate a positive attitude about learning, and best fit their children’s abilities and interests. Only school choice programs can satisfy these diverse preferences and expectations.

The Big Picture

In summary, the DOE study uses the gold standard of scholarly rigor and reliability, and its findings corroborate past studies of charter schools. Parents want choice in education, and the overwhelming majority of parents who choose charter schools are happy with that choice. As the DOE’s evaluation makes clear, charter schools can offer real benefits to students and their families.

Jason Richwine is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation

White calls for 2-term limit for governor
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, Term Limits
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| Tuesday 31 August 2010 2:20 PM


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AUSTIN, Texas — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White said Tuesday that Texas needs to limit the governorship to two four-year terms.

White is trying to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who’s seeking an unprecedented third full four-year term in the Nov. 2 election.

White, the former Houston mayor, said in a statement there should be a voter referendum on term limits. His spokeswoman said he favors a proposed constitutional amendment that would have to be approved by voters.

Texas does not limit the number of times its governor can run for re-election. Perry ascended to the governorship from lieutenant governor in December 2000 when then-Gov. George W. Bush resigned to become president. Perry was elected to the office in 2002 and 2006.

“Texas needs term limits to avoid excessive centralization of power in Austin and the use of power by special interests to entrench a governor in office,” White said. He said Perry’s use of appointees as a “fundraising machine” demonstrates a need for term limits.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner says the governor disagrees with term limits and that he puts his trust in the voters each election.

“The governor believes that the voters decide who they want to be their elected officials,” Miner said. He added that when White was mayor he oversaw the establishment of a commission last year to study whether to do away with term limits for the Houston mayor and City Council. City leaders recently decided to keep term limits in place.

White served three terms as mayor until he was term limited out of office this year.

“Bill White could be a poster boy for term limits,” Miner said.

Mississippi should protect its property owners’ rights
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, Property Rights
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| Monday 30 August 2010 5:00 PM

From < a href="" title="Laurel Leader Call" Target="_blank">Laurel Leader Call

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LAUREL — For more than two centuries, the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment imposed a basic limitation on the scope of government’s eminent domain authority, since the “takings” clause of the Amendment was consistently and properly interpreted to prohibit the taking of private property for private use even if just compensation was paid. Government was not permitted to confiscate property from one private individual and transfer it to another; all government takings of private property presupposed an actual public purpose such as highways, schools or courthouses.

However, after the United States Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, certain longstanding protections provided by the Fifth Amendment were stripped away. In Kelo, the Court dramatically altered the Constitution’s original understanding by expanding the scope of “public use” to encompass non-traditional and even private uses.

By a vote of 5-4, the Court held that the government’s power of eminent domain may be used to take private property – one’s home, business, farm or church – based on a number of purported justifications, including the possibility of tax revenue generation or even presumably to enhance aesthetics.

In broadly construing the “public use” language of the “takings” clause to encompass any secondary benefits imaginable, private property rights – as traditionally understood – were deemed illusory.

The Court’s decision fashioned the possibility of individuals having their property forcibly conveyed, via the government, to any tax-generating entity, corporate or otherwise, thereby advancing the economic interests of entities with disproportionate power over government affairs.

Of course, had the framers of our Constitution intended the “public use” language to have such sweeping scope, they would have selected a more expansive phrase for inclusion in the Amendment’s text, such as “general welfare.”

Instead, the specifically-chosen “public use” language was more narrowly construed, as it simply embodied the founders’ understanding that ownership of property is a natural and fundamental right.

The republic’s founders obviously recognized property rights as among the most sacred of American liberties, taking up arms against an English system in which the rich and powerful could take whatever property they wanted by utilizing the sovereign’s proposed justification for transfer. They concluded it was their responsibility to protect against the abuses of government, extolling the Constitution as the guarantor of additional security to liberty and property.

Fearing government’s capricious confiscation and subsequent transfer of property, early patriot Arthur Lee wrote in 1775, “The right of property is the guardian of every other right, and to deprive a people of this, is in fact to deprive them of their liberty.” Alexander Hamilton concurred, arguing “one great object of government is the personal protection and the security of property.”

The drafter of the “takings” clause, James Madison, also made his intentions perfectly clear: “A Government is instituted to protect property of every sort. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”

Despite their unwavering support of private property, our rights are now being threatened, with the most vulnerable among us bearing the most significant burdens.

Economically disadvantaged communities are less likely to put their lands to the highest and best economical use, making their lands ripe for government taking. Since the poor are, generally speaking, the least politically powerful segment of a community, they generally lack the political force necessary to deter or alter the power of government. They are more likely to suffer the indignity and pain of losing their property, including sentimental possessions such as beloved family land and homes.

But the loss of one’s sentimental possessions, though important, pales in comparison with our collective loss of liberty.

History demonstrates that secure property rights are an indispensable condition for the preservation of freedom, economic prosperity and social harmony.

Accordingly, they must be honorably defended, no matter the offered justification for abolishment.

Since the Kelo decision was handed down by the Court, nine state supreme courts have limited eminent domain powers, and 43 state legislatures have passed greater property rights protections.

And, yet, the State of Mississippi has not taken action to protect its property owners.

As we tread a delicate balance between economic growth and personal liberty, it’s time for us to find a solution, however difficult.

Charter schools finding niches
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Monday 30 August 2010 3:48 PM

From The Washington Times

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Michiganders are welcoming a first-in-the-nation — a public charter school that trains high-schoolers for careers in the aviation industry.

And youths in the Harlem neighborhood in New York City are being instructed on the importance of civic responsibility and leadership at Democracy Preparatory Charter School.

Whether these schools produce the next Sarah Palin or Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen,won’t be known for years to come, but they definitely reflect the latest trend in the 20-year-old charter-school movement: specialization.

While many of the first-generation charter schools mimicked their public counterparts in structure and scope, many of the second-generation schools are tailor-made, according to subject matter or populations or moral goals.

“The movement is beginning to expand and grow as parents figure out that public charters are doing a great deal in closing the achievement gap and offering options that public schools don’t,” said Peter Groff, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The West Michigan Aviation Academy, which opens in September, is the brainchild of philanthropist Dick DeVos, a school-voucher supporter who paired his passion for flying with tuition-free education. Students will undertake four years of the rigors of traditional academic courses — and lengthier school calendars.

But what works in Harlem and in Grand Rapids, Mich., might not work elsewhere, advocates said, so the best approach to growing the charter movement rests in the hands of parents and their communities, and the marketplace.

“It will be interesting to see if businesses try to grow their own work force to figure out where the next Bill Gates will come from,” said Mr. Groff, who served until recently in the Obama administration’s Education Department.

The Obama administration’s role in school reform is the subject of a heated debate among school-choice advocates.

Some say the winners of the Education Departments Race to the Top grants were decided on the basis of how friendly states were to unions and the losers were American children.

“I upset my colleagues in the movement,” said Jeanne Allen, executive director of the Center for Education Reform. “But this ‘race’ was about whether you had buy-in from unions.”

She cited Louisiana and Colorado, reform-minded states that have laws to encourage charter growth, but lost out, and states including Maryland that overregulate charters and “impede growth,” but won.

New Orleans, whose schools were ravaged five years ago by Hurricane Katrina, has heavily relied on charter schools to rebuild its public education system. The city was rated No. 1 in the Fordham Institute’s just-released rankings on how reform-friendly a school district is.

“The Race to the Top is not pushing [charter-school] growth,” said Mrs. Allen, elaborating that the charter movement is growing “despite all the troubles and travails.”

Mr. Groff disagrees. He says the White House “has been critical to the growth of charter schools.”

“When you look at states that received Race to the Top funds, 15 raised their caps on charter schools,” said Mr. Groff. “The administration has been critical to the growth of charter schools.”

There are an estimated 5,000 charter schools with an estimated 1.65 million students and waiting lists that average 239 children per charter, according to the Center for Education Reform’s website. Many of them are cookie-cutter schools that replicate traditional schools and fail for the same reasons as regular public schools — poor management and financial oversight.

Mr. Groff said charter-school advocates should focus more on the quality rather than the quantity of schools, and added that he favored “smart growth.”

Because charter schools operate outside the public school bureaucracy, he and Mrs. Allen said, laws and policies should be designed to encourage good charter schools to flourish.

“Low performers should be shut down or moved in a new direction,” Mr. Groff said.

In some states and the District of Columbia, there are charter networks like KIPP, Aspire, Friendship and Civic Builders, while thousands of other charters are independent schools.

Civic Builders, for example, is a network that took over an aging Episcopal vestry in Harlem and in less than a year transformed it into Democracy Preparatory Charter School for civic-minded students.

Morning Bell: Secretary Duncan’s Race to Waste Your Education Dollars
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, School Choice
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| Friday 27 August 2010 4:06 PM

From The Heritage Foundation

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When Education Secretary Arne Duncan first unveiled his Race to the Top (RttT) program in July of last year, he admitted that “when I was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, I did not always welcome calls from the U.S. Department of Education. That’s because the department, from its inception in 1980, has traditionally been a compliance-driven agency.” But, he continued, that was all about to change because his RttT program, funded by $4.35 billion of economic stimulus cash, would be a “competition” that scrutinized “state applications for a coordinated and deep-seated commitment to reform.” He later added: “As I have said many times before, this isn’t just about the money — this is about working together and putting the needs of children ahead of everyone else.”

Fast forward to this past Tuesday when Secretary Duncan identified the ten recipients of second round RttT funding that did not include the state of New Jersey, which fell just three points shy of the winners circle. The Newark Star-Ledger then revealed that a clerical error cost the state 4.8 points (out of 500 possible) because New Jersey’s application submitted data comparing the 2010 and 2011 state budgets, not the 2008 and 2009 data that the application required. Wednesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) accepted full responsibility for the error, but also used the incident to launch a trenchant critique of the entire program:

That’s the stuff that drives people nuts about government and that’s the stuff the Obama administration should answer for. Are you guys just down there checking boxes like mindless drones, or are you thinking? … When the president comes back to New Jersey, he’s going to have to explain to the people of the state of New Jersey why he’s depriving them of $400 million that this application earned because one of his bureaucrats in Washington couldn’t pick up the phone and ask a question, couldn’t go on the Internet and find information.

Mindless box-checking is just the beginning of RttT’s problems. When Tuesday’s results were announced, the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, was quick to claim that it was Gov. Christie’s failure to get “buy in” from unions on the application that ultimately cost the state millions in federal cash. Specifically, Gov. Christie’s insistence on not caving-in to union demands that he weaken the state’s teacher accountability standards lost him far more points than the clerical error did. And New Jersey was not the only state to lose out because of the Obama administration’s slavish devotion to teacher union votes and cash. Proven education reform leaders like Louisiana and Colorado also lost points and finished out of the money because their state’s chosen reforms threatened union priorities. Meanwhile Hawaii (which the Data Quality Campaign ranked 17th for education data systems, which the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked 34th for the strength of their charter laws, and which got a D- from the National Council on Teacher Quality) finished third and will receive $75 million. Oh, but they had 100% “buy in” from the unions. So much for Secretary Duncan’s claim that RttT was committed to “putting the needs of children ahead of everyone else.”

As pernicious as teachers union influence has been on RttT, it is merely a symptom of the larger disease that is the top-down government bureaucracy approach to education. Secretary Duncan loves to talk about the “competition” that RttT has inspired among the states. But there is a fundamental difference between the competition for federal government funds and real market competition. When Apple competes for the mobile music industry, it does so by winning over consumers with a better product. When Amazon competes to become the leader in online retail, it does so by serving customers needs better. Not so with RttT.

As Gov. Christie points out, New Jersey’s RttT application was over 1,000 pages long and took thousands of hours to complete. Instead of states spending their money and manpower to improve schools and educate children, the government asks them to put taxpayer dollars toward constructing massive grant applications. The incentives are all flowing in the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on making children and parents happy by devoting resources to make a better education product, states have been devoting resources to make Washington bureaucrats happy with a better grant application product. Filling out grant applications has never educated a single child anywhere ever. But grant applications are what RttT is all about, and they have made RttT the biggest waste of your education dollars ever.

Co-authored by Rachel Sheffield.

Stockton Homeowner Frustrated by Caltrans Eminent Domain
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, Property Rights
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| Friday 27 August 2010 2:05 PM

From Fox 40

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STOCKTON – 72 year old Ralph LeGrand says he’s at wit’s end dealing with the Caltrans eminent domain procedure that he sees as unfair. The east Stockton home he built 29 years ago is scheduled to make way for a highway on ramp on highway 99 near Farmington Road.

It began with a Caltrans appraisal to his three bedroom one acre home for $210 thousand. An appraiser hired by LeGrand came in at $295 thousand. He lost an appeal. Caltrans tried to find him a similar home, but he said none were suitable as a replacement. “When they’re talking comparables, they’re not even getting close,”said LeGrande.

After a news story was broadcast about his plight, Caltrans said $149 thousand was available in a separate relocation fund. LeGrand found a newer foreclosed house on a smaller lot a few miles nearby. He placed a down payment and lined up contractors to repair the house which has been vandalized. LeGrand said he was counting on the extra money to make it work, but Caltrans officials would not guarantee the money. Banks and contractors would not accept a “conditional entitlement” letter given to him by Caltrans that stated he “may” be getting the money. The house will go back on the market unless Caltrans approves the relocation funds.

A Caltrans spokesperson said it needs homeowners to sign over their property before relocation funds are issued reasoning that it has to look out for taxpayer’s money. But signing over the property means LeGrand gives up his rights to appeal and any future claims.

LeGrand says he doesn’t want to go ahead with the purchase because he fears he’ll be on the hook for any costs over the $210 thousand he will get for his home. He vows not give in without a fight. “They can take this house from me, because they can legally do it. But I won’t give it to them,” said LeGrand.

A Caltrans division chief says they will inspect LeGrand’s replacement home to see if the relocation funds can be tapped. LeGrand says he’s not getting too excited because he’s been given the runaround so many times before.

Letter: We should limit the Congress to eight years
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, Term Limits
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| Friday 27 August 2010 12:53 PM

From The Camp Verde bugle

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It is often said and oft repeated, too, that the President of the United States is the most powerful person in the free world. Moreover, yet, perhaps because of this fact, we limit the US President to two, four year terms in office.

It seems to me if we have learned nothing from our corrupt and corruptible political system; we should learn that if we are going to impose term limits upon the President we need to impose term limits on Congress, too.

I can identify no reason why Congress should enjoy unlimited ability to hold office while the Presidential terms are limited.

If we are going to limit the term of the President to a total of eight years, we should limit the Congress to eight years, too.

This can easily be accomplished with an amendment to the US Constitution that sets forth these new term limits and it is long overdue. The GOP promised term limits in 1994 in their now infamous “contract with [on] America” but, like all politicians, once they had tasted the nectar of power that induces forgetfulness, they did not keep their promise to implement term limits upon themselves.

So, it will be up to we, the voters, to impose this upon them by refusing to vote for anyone, in either party who does not agree to term limits as part of their electoral campaign; accepting no excuses if they do not implement term limits; and voting them out of office after one term if they do not accomplish term limits during their tenure.

This is the only way term limits will become a reality. We, as voters, must transcend party and force our elected representatives to adhere to our desire for term limits. This rises above party affiliation. It is not about being a Democrat or a Republican.

It is about being an American and working cooperatively to preserve our democracy under a constitutional republic to force our elected officials to be response to “We, the people.” All of the people, not just the wealthy elite, politically connected, or those in corporations committed to the Military Industrial Machine.

John A. Bond


Voters will weigh in on term limits in November
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, Term Limits
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| Thursday 26 August 2010 2:20 PM

From The New York Post

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Voters will get a third chance to make their feelings known on term limits after the City Charter Revision Commission voted this month to put the contentious issue back on the ballot in November.

Through a voter initiative in 1993, a two-term limit for city elected officials was created. In 1996, voters again went to the polls in a referendum and nixed a plan by members of the City Council to extend the limit to three terms.

The term limit debate heated up again in 2008 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg, citing the struggling economy, successfully mounted an effort to extend term limits through a Council law which benefitted himself, the Council members and citywide office holders. In the 2009 city elections, the mayor, a number of Council members and three of the five borough presidents, including Borough President Helen Marshall, were re-elected to a third term.

The commission voted earlier this month to put the issue back in the hands of voters.

While the language of the ballot measure has yet to be determined, the commission passed a resolution for voters to decide whether terms for mayor, public advocate, city comptroller, borough presidents and Council members should revert back to two terms.

The resolution also included a provision prohibiting the Council from making another change through a local law “in a manner that affects the term limit applicable to incumbent officials.”

If voters were to cast ballots in favor of a two-term limit, the change would apply to anyone elected to their first full term on or after Nov. 5, 2013, meaning the potential reversal would not affect incumbent elected officials.

The commission, which was created by Bloomberg earlier in the year, also floated an idea that would make it easier for candidates to run for office.

The commission proposed cutting the number of petition signatures needed to get on the ballot for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough president and Council by half.

The commission is scheduled to meet by the end of the month to decide on final proposed amendments and to determine how the questions will be worded on the ballot in November.

The New Orleans School Choice Experiment
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Posted by admin | Uncategorized
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| Wednesday 25 August 2010 4:54 PM

From The Heritage Foundation

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Our friends at ReasonTV have put out a great new video highlighting the strides that have been made towards school choice in New Orleans following the Hurricane Katrina disaster. As ReasonTV Editor Nick Gillespie says in the video, few people could have predicted the improvements in education that would result, but “sometimes things get so bad that radical change can happen.”

Before Katrina, the New Orleans school system was in terrible shape. As one mother explains, when they were displaced to Baton Rouge during the cleanup, she found much better schools compared to what they had known before. The thought of returning her children to the same terrible system upon their return to New Orleans weighed heavily on her mind. “I dreaded coming home,” she admits in the video, “I didn’t want to put my kids in public school here in New Orleans.”

But following the disaster, New Orleans has undergone a bit of a renaissance, becoming another labratory for school choice. The state of Louisiana took over Orleans parish schools, turning them into charter schools and later introduced a voucher program to allow students to attend private schools.

As we have highlighted many times, and as we highlighted in our documentary “Let Me Rise”, voucher programs and other school choice initiatives have a proven track record of success. By allowing families to choose schools that are working rather than forcing children to accept a second-rate education, real progress can be made.

Dauphin Island Homeowners Fall Victim to Eminent Domain Proceedings
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Posted by admin | Issues
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, Property Rights
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| Wednesday 25 August 2010 3:36 PM


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Terry and Gerald Graham can remember watching their children run up and down the beach of Aloe Bay from the deck of their Dauphin Island home during stays on lower Alabama’s popular barrier island. Their island neighbors, Michael and Diane Johnson, have similar memories of their children, too.

The Graham and Johnson families can also remember not being able to relax on their porch for weeks and even months after the Dauphin Island bridge tragedy. Through the good and the bad, though, they never imagined the rooms, porches, yards and access to water where they made so many memories could, one day, cease to be theirs.

Then some letters came in the mail.

One was addressed to 1310 Chaumont Ave., the other to 1312, and another to neighbors across the street. It said the government would repurpose land where these homes are located.

“I know that they can’t buy our dreams and memories,” Terry Graham told Lagniappe as she expressed her disappointment in learning about eminent domain proceedings for the Dauphin Island Airport.

“We had plans to retire here,” Michael and Diane Johnson both noted of their island house that’s been in the family roughly 30 years.

Runway Protection Zone

The Grahams, Johnsons and their neighbor across the street at 1313 Chaumont Ave., Delores Kelley-Kennedy, all live on land that, upon Mobile County receiving funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, was deemed to be needed as a safety buffer zone for planes landing at the Dauphin Island Airport.

The safety areas, called a Runway Protection Zone by the FAA, aren’t a new standard, according to Aeronautics Division Bureau Chief John Eagerton of the Alabama Department of Transportation.

“The RPZ’s are areas off the ends of the runways put in place to protect the people on the ground and people in the plane,” Eagerton said. “Anything that attracts a congregation of people, like a house is not compatible. A road can go through it. But, generally speaking, the area needs to be kept in a cleared and mowable condition.”

In order to receive federal funding, Eagerton said, the owner of the airport — in this case Mobile County — must be in compliance with federal regulations.

FAA Spokesperson Kathleen Bergen said the current length and width of the runway at Dauphin Island only allows for smaller aircraft to use the facility.

When asked if the FAA required airports like the one on Dauphin Island to have RPZ’s, FAA Airport District Manager Rans Black, who handles airports in both Mississippi and Alabama said yes, so long as the facility’s operators have accepted federal funding in the past. He also noted, residential land use inside of an RPZ is against FAA regulations, because Mobile County has accepted federal funding in both the past and for this particular project.

Black said once the FAA was made aware of the need for the Dauphin Island project by the State of Alabama, his agency asked for a plan. When Mobile County submitted the plan to buy lots for the RPZ, they felt it was appropriate and offered their concurrence.

Bergen confirmed the FAA had recently issued three grants to Mobile County for a total of $1 million to acquire property for the RPZ. The amount of federal funding in this specific scenario amounts to 95 percent of the RPZ project, Bergen added. The remaining 5 percent of funding for projects like this is generally split between local and state governments evenly, Eagerton said.

The grants obligate Mobile County to maintain and make the airport available for public use for 20 years, Bergen said.

As for the project’s execution, Bergen noted, that’s left between the airport’s owner and the landowners. She also noted the FAA doesn’t fund any type of operational costs and there are many airports that don’t accept federal funding.

“We just provide funding when there’s a signed purchase agreement,” Bergen said.

Dissent is apparent when you talk to Dauphin Island Airport Manager and retired FAA air traffic controller Bill Meredith, however.

“In this case there could have been a waiver,” he said. “I’m disappointed we’re spending in excess of $1 million and it’s questionable at best how much you’re improving the safety of the people on the ground.”

Meredith says most of the traffic at the facility is from helicopters.

“We have, on average about 25 total operations daily,” Meredith said. “That’s coming and going. With our traffic flow, this move isn’t going to help much.”

He also sharply criticized the state of Alabama for their interpretation of the requirements and said the FAA is simply choosing not to go against what the state wants.

“This is just the state milking the federal government for all it’s worth. I understood it (the regulation) as having some latitude,” Meredith said of the circular handbook Black referenced. “Those rules have nothing to do with houses and everything to do with people. Now if you want to say a house will constantly attract a group of 12 people or more, OK, but that’s still the people, not the house. It’s black and white. Obviously Dr. Eagerton interpreted the rule differently.”

Execution: Mobile County, Volkert and Buddy Eslava

As custodians of the Dauphin Island Airport, a basic, unmanned, one-runway operation with no facilities for plane storage or maintenance, Mobile County hired Mobile-based contracting firm Volkert & Associates to execute a revised airport layout plan and land acquisitions for the RPZ.

Part of the responsibilities assumed by Volkert in completing the land acquisition for the RPZ involved the hire of Edmund “Buddy” Eslava for the purposes of a property appraisal.

The Johnsons, Grahams and Kelley-Kennedy contend Eslava grossly undervalued their houses at appraisal time.

An example of just one of the families’ contentions is evidenced in a letter dated April 16, 2010, that was sent to Volkert. The correspondence from Terry and Gerald Graham said upon their receiving notice that an appraisal would be necessary in late August of 2009. They voiced concern over the condition of their house at that time. The house has been in the Graham family roughly 30 years.

“Because of limited building supplies, available contractors (after Hurricane Ivan) and the fact that we were in the process of building a new home in Saraland, Alabama we have been slow completing the final renovations to the downstairs,” the letter begins.

The Grahams say Eslava told them the condition of the house at that time wouldn’t affect the appraisal value. However, they remained concerned because in the lower half of the home the Grahams had added bedrooms, another living area and another bathroom, effectively doubling the square footage of the home.

“At the time he assured us that it would not affect the appraisal at all, that it would be based on the value of the lot, the square footage of the house, the deck, porch, concrete drive etc.,” the letter continues. “He went so far as to say he did not need to go inside of the home at all, he would only need a list of any special building materials we may have used in the house.”

The Grahams continue to describe their appraisal experience in the letter, claiming Eslava, after taking measurements of the lot, proceeded to enter the house and, room-by-room, take notes and pictures.

“He again said not to worry, this would not affect the appraisal,” the letter reads. “We are not stupid people and we know what an appraisal consists of and why he was doing what he was doing. We would have never allowed an appraisal to be conducted at that time had we known he was going to do this.”

At the time, the Grahams say they felt they had been cheated.

“Mr. Eslava lied to us and then used his findings to justify the much lower appraisal he turned in,” the letter concludes.

Eslava didn’t wish to talk about the details of the appraisal when Lagniappe contacted him, noting a confidentiality agreement with all of his clients, but he did offer statements about his protocol.

“I have nothing to hide,” Eslava said. “I followed every procedure. I have no dog in this hunt and I can understand a property owner is going to be mad if they think their property is worth $1 million and I tell them it’s worth $100,000.”

Eslava said he didn’t remember the appraisals in question, but contends there were no attempts to be unfair to the property owners. County Attorney Jay Ross backed Eslava’s sentiment, saying he believed the appraisal was legitimate.

“It’d be a disservice if you tried to print this as being unfair to the property owners,” Eslava said. “Thank God we live in America. They have certain liberties.”

The question of fairness

Conversely, the three families involved feel they’ve been given everything but a fair shake, claiming communication from Volkert and Mobile County has been non-existent.

The Johnsons also noted they were uncertain if anyone at the county was even involved in the process of reviewing their counter offers. When Lagniappe posed questions to Mobile County’s Public Relations Director Nancy Johnson, she told Lagniappe Mobile County and its subcontractors take every initiative to be fair with citizens.

“We have to be good stewards to everyone in the community,” Johnson said. “Overpaying for these properties isn’t doing the rest of the county any good, so we have to strike that balance and find a good deal that benefits everyone involved.”

If property owners don’t view the appraised value of their properties as fair, she added, they can go to probate court where a three-citizen panel will determine if they were given a fair offer. If the disagreement results in a court date, “evidence is key,” Johnson said.

And in the case of Terry and Gerald Graham, they fear pictures taken of their home as it was being repaired will serve as evidence of a state of repair they consider atypical.

Appraisal Values

“Just our land was appraised at $62,000!” Michael Johnson said. “You’re not going to find a lot anywhere on the island for that kind of money, let alone replace the lot we have right now. By the time you pay for utilities you’ll be way over that amount.”

According to Michael Johnson, Eslava appraised their house and land at $240,000. The Grahams say their home and property were appraised at $175,000. And, Kelley-Kennedy would not disclose the appraisal she received. Both the Johnsons’ and Grahams’ properties stretch to just shy of the shores of Aloe Bay, but defining them as “waterfront” has been a major issue in the appraisal process, according to the families.

“We’ve been told they’re panoramic view,” Diane Johnson said. Terry Graham added, the land at the shore is technically deeded to the University of South Alabama, but the school allowed them to access the land and maintain it as they wished.

Terry Graham is also quick to point out, while they are happy for one set of neighbors who settled with Mobile County early, the amount those people were offered for their home, which has no direct access to water, but is different in respects to square footage and design far exceeds any offer they’ve received.

“They got $580,000 for their house,” Terry Graham said. The sum paid to those neighbors makes up more than half of the FAA’s contribution to the project.

“They set a standard with that offer,” Diane Johnson said.

Ross said the offer was based on a legitimate appraisal value from Eslava, the same appraiser who determined the value of the Johnson, Graham and Kelley-Kennedy homes.

Accordingly, all three families involved have personally hired their own licensed appraiser and say the results seeking a second professional opinion have reaffirmed their feelings they were short-changed by the original evaluation.

“We can’t disclose how much our properties were appraised at because we’ve been told it would be our last bargaining chip if we have to go to court, but Mr. Eslava’s appraisal amounts to an insulting percentage of what our homes are worth,” Terry Graham told Lagniappe.

The Johnsons’ sentiment and actions mirror those of his neighbors. The families also take exception to the aforementioned lack of communication.

“We were told when we submitted counter offers we’d be contacted with a rejection or acceptance notification within three days,” Terry Graham said. “With our first offer, we submitted it on April 20. It was three full months before we had to call them back and ask if they’d even received it in July.”

“We have never been contacted by Mobile County or Volkert throughout this whole process,” Michael Johnson said.

After Terry Graham contacted John Baker, an employee in Volkert’s property acquisition department, she said he gave them the news of their rejection to the counter offer, but with a level of aloofness they didn’t appreciate.

“He seemed confused when he had heard we didn’t get a response earlier,” Graham said. “He said he thought someone had called us. No one ever called us.”

When Lagniappe called Baker at his Volkert office for an interview he declined comment and referred calls to Mobile County Attorney Jay Ross.

When told about the complaint being made against Volkert’s handling of the situation Ross said he’d look into the matter, but noted otherwise he’d heard no complaints.

After Michael and Diane Johnson told Lagniappe they weren’t sure if County Commissioner Mike Dean had ever bothered making a trip down to Dauphin Island to view the site of the eminent domain activities, Lagniappe spoke with the commissioner.

“I’m relying on the advice of our legal staff at the county,” Dean said. “My job isn’t to get in the middle of this, but I’ll certainly look to get more federal money for this project.”

When Lagniappe initially questioned Dean about the project he said as far as he was aware, everyone was happy.

“From what I understood there was only one eminent domain location remaining that was in question,” Dean said. “And we met and I made a commitment that I wasn’t going to take their (the neighbors who have settled) house and — matter of fact — the FFA (FAA) offered her enough money and she was willing to sell and relocate so she was fine with it. So we’re moving on with the project.”

When asked if he was aware of the other families, Dean initially said he wasn’t, but then acknowledged he did know about them and proceeded to discount their status as homeowners.

“Absolutely not. Those families that I guess I’m aware of are people that don’t even live there. That’s rental property,” Dean said. “They own it but they don’t live there.”

When quickly asked if he thought the families affected by the RPZ were being treated fairly, Volkert’s John Baker responded, “certainly.”

Proceedings initiated

The families say it’s been hard to find a lawyer specializing in eminent domain matters they can trust or doesn’t have a tie to someone with Volkert, Mobile County or another conflicting person or entity.

Still, as the Johnsons, Grahams and Kelly-Kennedy just recently received notification letters informing them eminent domain proceedings have been initiated. They’re left feeling worn out and shortchanged, but ready to fight.

When the Johnsons and Grahams were asked if they’d even consider selling their homes in the current economy, the response was a unified “no.”

“It’s legalized robbery,” Michael Johnson said. “We’re so beat down from trying to get questions answered, but we’ll just gear up for whatever’s next.

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