And the Winner Is — The Story!

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McFarland USA is not a great movie, but it is a great story. The pacing is slow, and at 129 minutes, the picture is justtoo long. The acting is average, and the casting, with men as old as 30 playing characters under 16, is often jarring, especially when a 30-year-old actor is romancing a 15-year-old girl. But the story, about a rag-tag cross-country team of mostly immigrant students who make it to the California state championships, grabs your heart midway through and keeps you engaged till the end.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach who has lost three teaching positions in three different states because of his inability to control his temper. He ends up in McFarland, an agricultural community of immigrant farmworkers and one of the poorest communities in California, because it is virtually at the end of the road. He wants nothing more than to put in his time while finding a better position somewhere else. When a local merchant recommends that he plant a tree in his yard that will provide shade in five years, White responds, “I won’t be here that long.”

They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies.

Then he notices some students running from school to their homes or work in the fields after school, and he realizes that they have what it takes to succeed in cross country. “No one can endure pain the way you can,” he reminds the team during a pre-tournament pep talk. “No one else out there gets up at 4 a.m. to work in the fields and then goes to school and then to practice. No one else can endure heat and thirst the way you can. Don’t let them intimidate you.” Coach White knows the pain they are able to endure, because he has joined them in the fields to pick cabbage, and it was the most physically demanding work he has ever done. He admires these young men on his team who are often marginalized and face ridicule and derision when they compete at other schools.

According to interviews, the real Jim White did not move from job to job until he hit rock bottom in McFarland; he chose to teach at McFarland High School because he wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and he figured a small school would be the best place to do that. It was his first and only teaching job, and he definitely succeeded in his goal of making a difference. All of his original team members went to college or the military and went back to McFarland and became leaders in the community. One did some time in prison, but returned to work in McFarland after serving his sentence. The pattern has continued with subsequent team members, many of whom have graduated from college and found employment serving communities like theirs.

That’s why I said that McFarland USA is a great story, even if it isn’t a great movie. These boys and their families work hard, produce much, and pay their own way. They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies. But they do it so their children can have a better life. Seeing the actual men striding alongside the actors who portray them during the closing credits is one of the best moments in the film.


Editor's Note: Review of "McFarland USA," directed by Niki Caro. Disney Studios, 2015, 129 minutes.



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Home on the Range

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Rational vs. Irrational in the Gun Debate

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A month after the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama launched his campaign to reverse the supposed increase in mass gun violence. With families of the victims in the audience, he ladled out a thick emotional stew of divisive rhetoric and straw man arguments. The empathetic Obama exuded sadness, anguish, frustration, contempt — but no sense of shame about his exploitation of the four prepubescent gun-control advocates who shared his stage. They were four among the reputedly numerous children who wrote touching pleas to the president.

A morsel from one read, "I am writing you to ask you to STOP gun violence. I am very sad about the children who lost their lives in Conn." Asnippet from another, read pensively by Mr. Obama, as if it were the deepest passage of Platonic philosophy, queried, "Can we stop using guns?" To the instruction "try very hard to make guns not allowed," the president promised he would.

That the sentiments of children could have such a provocative effect on politicians should inspire other budding activists. Can we look forward to national policies sanctioned exclusively by heartfelt gems from the children of global warmers and environmentalists? Think of the legislative outpouring as Obama passionately recites, "Please Mr. President, heal the planet"; "I am very sad about the children without Chevy Volts"; "Try very hard to make fossil fuels not allowed." Perhaps a juvenile letter-writing campaign lamenting the Benghazi and Fast and Furious fiascos would get to the bottom of them. Such a tactic could backfire, though. What if children from groups that are out of political favor engaged in similar campaigns: "I am writing you to ask you to STOP mommy from aborting my brothers and sisters." Would the president be forced to take action on that front?

The number of mass shootings is extremely small and stable, averaging only 20 instances and about 100 deaths annually for the past three decades.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), naturally one of the first organizations affected by Obama's diminutive pawns, swiftly voiced its support, saying, “The Academy agrees with the President that to prevent future incidence like the shooting in Newtown there must be stronger gun laws, comprehensive access to mental health care, and no restrictions on federal gun violence research and prevention efforts. . . . Pediatricians stand ready to assist." The AAP was heartened by the prospect of reducing gun violence, and by the prospect of receiving scads of that research money. “No restrictions!” Obama's effusive pleas will beckon many others to stand ready with the AAP — at the government trough.

But, as the funding flows to assuage Obama's mass gun violence crisis, legitimate researchers will readily discover that, well, there is no crisis. The number of mass shootings (those that involve four or more deaths, including that of the gunman) is extremely small and stable, averaging only 20 instances (about 100 deaths) annually for the past three decades. By comparison, there are approximately 30,000 firearm related deaths per year. About two thirds of these are suicides; one third (11,000) are homicides. About 9,000 homicides are committed with handguns. Only about 48 deaths per year are attributed to “assault weapons”; this number includes accidental shootings and homicides that are not mass murders. To me, hammers and cudgels, which kill over twelve times as many people (618 mercilessly pummeled and battered to death in 2011 alone) are much more troubling than assault weapons.

According to crime experts, mass murderers are impossible to stop. In an article called “Top 10 myths about mass shootings, “James Alan Fox points out that "mass murderers typically plan their assaults for days, weeks, or months. They are deliberate in preparing their missions and determined to follow through, no matter what impediments are placed in their path." The vast majority (96.5%) are male. Most have neither a criminal record nor a history of psychiatric hospitalization. In the absence of that, they would not be disqualified from purchasing weapons legally — not that disqualification would preclude the acquisition of weapons by alternative means.

Furthermore, the handgun, not the assault rifle, is the weapon of choice. And, since mass murderers usually kill themselves (or have police do the honors), little is known beyond a few common telltale signs, such as: they have few friends, high self-esteem, and a tendency to blame others for their misfortunes. No wonder President Obama is averse to profiling.

As a first step in dissolving his imagined crisis, the president vilified his imagined opponent: a coalition of evil pundits, politicians, and special interest groups (the NRA and other anti-children organizations) that seek only to "gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves." Relying exclusively on emotion (that wonderful evolutionary class of traits that allow humans to take immediate action without thinking), Obama resorted to the irresistible, and what progressives believe to be unassailable, "if it saves one life" argument. Intellectually lazy, shameless in his exploitation of dead children, he beseeched, “If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”

One of the things that could be done is the prosecution of dangerous people (convicted felons and other prohibited persons) who attempt to purchase guns. To his mournful audience, the president said that if we "keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be fewer atrocities like the one in Connecticut." He should call Eric Holder. In 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, only 77 of 71,000 such cases (0.1%) were prosecuted.

The abysmal enforcement of existing gun laws is the real, and much larger, “crisis.” In the face of this, proposing a package of 23 new laws is moronic. And, as lawmakers scramble to our rescue, the most popular nostrum under consideration, the "Universal Background Check," may be the most moronic of all.

Calling it a legislative "sweet spot," Senator Chuck Schumer tells us that it "is the best chance of getting something done." The problem is that criminals are smarter than Schumer. They (drug dealers, gang members, convicted felons, terrorists, etc.) won't subject themselves to enhanced checks, even at gun shows. Anticipating disqualification, they will simply obtain their guns elsewhere and, no doubt to the surprise of Obama and Schumer et alia, probably by illegal means — and at lower prices, when they simply steal the guns from people who purchased them legally. Why not?

Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens, who presumably would pass the enhanced check, will experience enhanced delays and fees, and the scorn of a national gun tracking registry. Gun control proponents mock Second Amendment supporters as paranoid about the use of such a database to facilitate an ultimate gun confiscation. But precedents for confiscation (Canada, Great Britain, Australia, California, and New York City) make their fears seem less irrational. Owners of so-called assault weapons are similarly mocked, as crazed and, apparently, clumsy killers using AR-15's with 100-round drums to mow down herds of deer. Banning such weapons, it is said, will not reduce hunters' rights, but will reduce mass murders — apparently, in direct proportion to the number of mass murderers who, in their lengthy, deliberate preparation, wouldn't think to bring along extra handguns and ammo clips to complete their missions.

Without once mentioning the glaring, abysmal failure of our immense law enforcement system to enforce 9,000 existing federal gun laws, President Obama proposed 23 more.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, leader of the assault weapon ban movement, indignantly asserts, "These weapons are not for hunting deer — they're for hunting people." And there is little doubt that looters and other criminals will have such weapons, since such people show up in the aftermath of riots, hurricanes, and other disasters, long before the government gets there. Sen. Feinstein's indignation notwithstanding, there will be little support among thinking people for an assault-weapon ban that forces gun owners to greet them with seven-shot handguns and deer rifles — judging, at least, by the current demand for assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which has caused almost every gun shop and distributor in the country to be sold out.

Any serious attempt to reduce gun violence must focus on the 11,000 firearm related homicides committed each year, or at least the proportion of them committed by violent criminals. Exploiting children to drum up hysteria over mass murderers who kill 100 people annually is not serious. Nor is ridiculing “assault weapon” owners as ignorant and morally deficient individuals whose adherence to the Second Amendment threatens the safety of our children. As heinous as mass murders are, and whether assault weapons are involved or not, there is almost nothing that can be done to stop dedicated mass murderers. They are America's suicide bombers.

Unfortunately, rational policies are now blurred by the tears of emotion, tears that are being shamelessly used to advance an agenda that is a moral and political charade. In 2008, President-elect Obama shed no tears when 512 people were murdered in Chicago — his hometown where, as a community organizer, he supposedly worked closely with the very people being slaughtered. In 2012, President Obama remained tearless, when 516 were killed and Chicago ended the year as America's murder capital. Yet Mr. Obama brought himself to shed a tear for the 26 killed by an assault weapon in Newton, Connecticut. Then, pandering to fears he helped create, he immediately began a relentless attack on assault weapons, gun owners, the NRA, and politicians (that is, politicians who have the misfortune to disagree with him). He implored us to ask congressional leaders "why an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby is more important than keeping kids safe in a first grade classroom.” And without once mentioning the glaring, abysmal failure of our immense law enforcement system to enforce 9,000 existing federal gun laws, he proposed 23 more.

If more gun laws would reduce gun violence, then cities like Chicago would be safe. Obama, Schumer, Feinstein, and their many surrogates and supporters could announce, with pious tears of joy, "We saved the children." But Chicago, which has the toughest gun laws (in effect, all guns, even handguns, are banned), is among the least safe. Its citizens, restricted by gun laws, are prey to its criminals, unrestricted by law enforcement.

Outrage over “gun violence” should be directed at the law enforcement community, which blatantly shirks its duty. Conscientious and resolute enforcement of existing gun laws against violent criminals would significantly shrink the 11,000 annual firearms-related homicides.Instead, we must endure incessant outrage over assault weapons and mass murder (100 victims annually, some children, some killed with assault weapons).

This is feigned outrage. It is the wagging tail of an enormous untamed dog. It is immoral. And who but morons would think that 9,023 laws will work, when 9,000 didn't.




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The NRA Hits the Bullseye

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The shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, ignited a national debate. President Obama — cynical to the core — was only too happy to exploit the dead children to advance his agenda of limiting guns in any way he can. The head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, took a few days to reflect on the matter, then had a news conference in which he made a great suggestion: instead of trying to restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens, why not put armed guards in those schools that don’t already have them (which about half of all public schools already do)?

The mainstream media went ballistic, excoriating the NRA as some kind of front group for gun manufacturers — at once crazy, threatening and out of touch with American people. The media went on a propaganda rampage, sensing the NRA was now at last vulnerable.

But the NRA, it appears, clearly hit the mark. A recent CNN — CNN! — poll showed that the public favored the proposal to put armed guards in schools by a large margin — 54% for, 45% against.

Even worse for the anti-gun crowd (President Obama, Senator Feinstein, et. al.) was the news out of Newtown itself. The Newtown Board of Education has just voted to request — armed guards! They won’t be called “armed guards” (which would offend progressive sensibilities), but “school resource officers.”

Actually, I’m surprised that the public favors this proposal by only ten points. It is a testament to the power of the mainstream media that it got this close. Absent the propaganda tsunami — replete with film of children piteously crying out for banana-clip bans — the public might be expected to favor the NRA proposal by sixty points. After all, the public expects armed guards at banks, shopping malls, and sports arenas, not to mention every college in America.

As for the role the federal government should play in implementing the proposal, I have discussed that elsewhere. It is a subject for reasonable disagreement. The freedom of the schools to implement it is not. The public seems to agree on the proposal itself.




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Democrat Rep. Chris Murphy: Obama's Measure Is "Revolting"

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On January 16th, Obama released a slew of executive orders supposed to "fight gun violence." Most of these orders are either tepid measures begging bureaucrats to actually do their job, or pledges to provide more guidelines to said chairwarmers. A few represent more paperwork and hassle for legitimate gun buyers (background checks, mental health checks). One calls for predictably condescending, belittling propaganda targeting gun owners, called “national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.”

One order, however, stands out. It promises to give $150 million of taxpayers' money to school districts and law enforcement agencies so that they can hire "1000 new school resource officers, school psychologists, social workers, and counselors."

School psychologists, social workers, and counselors are just more of the nonteaching staff that inflates the US cost of education while doing nothing to raise the country's pitiful international ranking in standardized tests. However, the first category, "school resource officers," should catch the reader's attention. This, ladies and gents, is a euphemism for "armed guard." (Ominous thunder roll.)

If politicians surround themselves with Secret Service agents, it's presumed to be safer, and not just because they enjoy the sight of burly guys with dark suits, sunglasses, and a penchant for South American whores.

In case there is any doubt, Obama's press release helpfully explains that the term designates specially trained cops posted in schools — in short, armed guards in schools. This was a measure proposed by many, including the NRA, after the December Newtown school shooting. The general ideais only common sense. After all, if politicians surround themselves with Secret Service agents, it's presumed to be safer, and not just because they enjoy the sight of burly guys with dark suits, sunglasses, and a penchant for South American whores.

California and Ohio, to cite only two examples, already allow schools to employ armed guards, a measure that finds favor among the public. A December 18 Gallup poll shows that 87% of respondents think increased police presence in schools would be "somewhat" or "very" effective to deter shootings, while 64% support the idea of having one or more school officials in every school carry a gun. To support this notion, Larry Sand, a retired teacher and president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, cites a couple of shootings which could have been much worse if not for an armed "good guy":

In 1997, at Pearl High School in Mississippi, 16-year-old Luke Woodham shot nine students and staff, killing two, before Joel Myrick, the school's assistant principal, confronted and subdued him with a pistol he retrieved from his truck. In 2001, senior Jason Hoffman opened fire on the attendance office of Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, California. Hoffman wounded five people before being shot and incapacitated by an armed school cop. (Source: City Journal)

We can add the aborted attempt of a San Antonio man who started shooting near a movie theater, then ran inside, where he continued to shoot. He was himself shot and wounded by an armed woman, a security guard who cornered him in the restrooms and took his gun. No one was killed.

In all these cases, police arrived and did their job, but for precious minutes, the armed "good guy" on location was the only help.

Naturally, it is absurd to start a new federal program to pay for these things. Schools can do it themselves, if they want to. But armed guards in school are a logical measure backed by cases proving its worth. It is thus unsurprising that Democrats howled and screamed at the proposition, calling the NRA "crazy" and frothing with outrage. Not that the NRA was the only outfit backing the idea, mind you, but the NRA is the target that the Alinskyites are currently trying to freeze and isolate. Connecticut Representative Chris Murphy went so far as calling the proposition "revolting" and "tone deaf" in a tweet.

That's a pretty hefty accusation. You see, Rep. Murphy is credited with helping the creation of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, and claims to support "independent, non-partisan ethics." If such a paragon of ethical virtue calls an idea revolting, it must be quite loathsome, right?

Alas! As we have seen, Obama has now quietly endorsed the notion, even putting our money where his mouth is. So, Mr. Murphy, bad news for you: you have just called the Dear Leader revolting and tone deaf. But the Lightworker will forgive you. After all, you were just slavishly parroting the slogans of the day. Ethically and independently, of course.




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Hoosiers Show the Way

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A nice piece recently published in the venerable Economist reports some good news out of the state of Indiana. The Hoosier state, under the enlightened leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels, has enacted a series of school reforms — reforms that are paying off handsomely for the children of the state.

The reforms crafted by Daniels and his superintendent of schools are interesting, among other reasons, because they are so wide-ranging. They include:

  • creating a voucher program for poor students;
  • encouraging and empowering more charter schools;
  • enhancing the autonomy of school principals to fire the obvious deadwood and respond to parents’ legitimate pressures;
  • requiring that teacher evaluations incorporate data on actual student performance.

Naturally, the rentseeking teachers unions hotly oppose these reforms (as they oppose almost all reforms, of any kind). Their position is: how dare these miserable, ungrateful, unwashed parents of kids in failing public schools insist on their right to send their kids elsewhere — or gain the right to see pertinent facts about the performance of the public schools?

The piteous cry is, “What is this country coming to?”

Of course, the deepest of the Indiana reforms is the establishment of a voucher program — which may well become the biggest in the country. Despite the unions’ vicious (and also morally vile) jihad against school reform in general and school choice in particular, there are now 32 voucher programs spread over 16 states. These programs educate only a small portion (210,000 students in total) of all America’s K-12 students, but they represent a growing threat to the dysfunctional status quo.

The anti-voucher forces trot out the usual lies: vouchers drain resources from public schools; they violate the separation of church and state. The replies are obvious. For every student who leaves a public school to attend a private one, yes, the district loses money, but it also saves the money it would have spent on that selfsame student. Apparently, unionized teachers can’t do simple arithmetic. Big surprise.

Further, the Supreme Court has already ruled that vouchers given directly to parents (who can decide to use them at religious, or atheist, private schools) do not violate the separation of church and state — no more than Pell Grants and the GI Bill of Rights, the benefits of which have always been usable at religious colleges. Apparently, unionized teachers don’t know history, either.

In fact, the voucher amount is usually much smaller, per student, than what is spent by public school districts. The Economist draws the obvious conclusion: vouchers save taxpayers’ money.

But I regard that as the least important advantage of vouchers. The most important, the crucial, advantage is that voucher programs (and other forms of school choice) rescue kids from stultified lives of needless underachievement.




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Schools: What Kind of Reform?

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Now that Governor Scott Walker has won the recall election, Wisconsin is pushing through the education reforms that were part of his 2010 legislative agenda. Like most education reform initiatives, Wisconsin’s contains some form of merit-based teacher pay and a voucher system. Indiana has proposed similar reforms, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have made national headlines with education reform plans that in some ways resemble Wisconsin’s.

The proposals are pushed by Republicans who tout them as free-market solutions to the education problem in their respective states. But what they don’t say, or perhaps don’t see, about their proposals may make the system worse than the one we have.

Teachers object to having their pay tied to student performance. But this is what happens all across the private sector. If a manager’s employees are not doing what the company demands, the manager will be replaced. Likewise, if a high school coach’s team doesn’t win enough games, the coach will be replaced. Teachers must be held accountable if their students are not learning, and be rewarded if they are. It is time they were held to the same standard as everyone else.

The practical problem isn’t whether teachers should be assessed, but how they should be assessed. Yet that means there’s still a problem.

Standardized tests are the primary measure by which we judge a student’s level of achievement, and changing our measure of achievement must be among the first reforms enacted. Standardized testing prohibits experiential learning and diminishes the value of differentiated instruction. As an educator, I have found that certain topics are more attractive to students than other subjects, and those topics change from year to year and class to class. For instance, in 2001 my ninth-grade world history class we dedicated significantly more time to world religions, particularly Islam, than had originally been planned — because of what happened on 9/11. Had there been a standardized history exam I would never have been able to capitalize on the students’ interest, and we all would have missed out on a teachable moment.

So whatever measure states use to evaluate teachers must not limit their flexibility or autonomy. This goal is doubly difficult to achieve, however, when government enters the picture, even in the form of a school voucher system.

Supporters of school choice ground their argument in free-market principles. Opponents object that tax dollars will be siphoned away from already cash-strapped schools. The reply is: “If you want the money, you must earn it.” Where there is a monopoly, providers become inefficient and weak. Where there is competition, we see innovation and greater progress. A school voucher program works to break the monopoly to allow free market mechanisms to enter the education system. Ironically, however, it is the government that is seeking to instill this aspect of the free market.

We should be wary of that. If the government begins, indirectly, to fund private schools through vouchers, the schools will not have to be as competitive when trying to secure funding either from student tuition or from donors.

Any time government takes action there are unintended consequences, and there are at least two educational consequences that we can see looming on the horizon already. The first is an undermining of free market principles. The second is the opportunity for government to regulate private schools, with vouchers being construed as funded mandates. If private schools begin to depend on indirect government funding, then the government can gain leverage over what these schools teach and how they teach it.

There is no easy solution to our education problems. Problems with education have been documented for more than two millennia. No reform or policy will be the final solution, for education is a process, and improving it should be seen in the same way. Which is why, in the end, we should advocate reforms that promote the greatest amount of flexibility and accountability.




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School Choice News

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Among a number of other bits of good news lately, there has been a favorable Supreme Court ruling regarding school choice.

A closely-divided Court decided (5–4, in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v.Winn) to uphold an Arizona law meant to facilitate school choice. The law allows people who donate to organizations that support religious schools to write off all their school payments on their state income taxes. Opponents of the law — including, naturally, teachers’ unions and public school administrations — argued that the tax credit amounted to establishment of religion, and was thus unconstitutional. They pointed to the fact that many of the schools supported by the tax credit required students to be of a particular faith. The opponents were trying to get around the landmark 2002 Supreme Court ruling Zelman v.Simmons-Harris, which held that voucher programs comply with the establishment clause, even when the vouchers are used to send kids to religious schools.

The opponents’ suit was based on a 1968 Supreme Court ruling that allows people who are not harmed by a religious subsidy to have standing to sue, because otherwise enforcement of the establishment clause would be difficult. But the majority of the current Court held that the exemption was meant only to apply to actual government payments to support religion, and a tax credit is not a government payment; it is just funds never collected to begin with.

This ruling will permit more states to allow tax breaks enabling parents whose children are being cheated out of a decent education by the state monopolistic school systems to send their kids to religious schools instead (or private secular schools, for that matter). Robert Enlow, head of the estimable Foundation for Educational Choice, hailed the verdict, saying, “Every state that is considering a tax-credit program can rest easy.” As a religious agnostic, I also hail the ruling. If you want to send your kids to a religious school, it seems obvious that you should have that right — it doesn’t harm me in the least.

Predictably, educrat Francisco Negron, head lawyer for thee National School Boards Association, the major organization representing state public school systems, condemned the ruling, rightly viewing it as another blow to the public school monopoly. Indeed, yes sir, it is a blow — to those disgusting swamps of governmental failure, which deserve all the efforts we can make to drain them, since they are destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, every year. Negron’s specific complaint, that allowing tax deductions for private schools lowers the resources available for public schools, is specious. Yes, allowing tax credits reduces funds available to the public schools, but it also reduces the number of their students, hence their costs.

Those who find little difference between the political parities should note that all of Bush’s Court appointees voted for the ruling, and all of Obama’s and Clinton’s voted against it. The Obama administration supported the law officially, but the people whom Obama put on the Court voted against it.  Justice Kagan — Obama’s most recent pick for the court — wrote the dissenting opinion. This is a classic progressive liberal trick: feign support for popular initiatives, but pack the courts with judges who will rule them unconstitutional.




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