Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Raining on the Kentucky Senate Campaign

Kentucky Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Rand Paul has been questioned as to whether he would vote for Mitch McConnell as Senate Minority Leader if elected, and some have thought his answers to be ambiguous. Sen. McConnell supported Dr. Paul's opponent in the primary campaign.

However, Dr. Paul is not the only candidate for that Senate seat that is having trouble supporting current Senate leadership. His opponent, Jack Conway, effectively threw current Majority Leader under the bus during an interview this morning on WHAS radio. Asked whether he would support Mr. Reid if elected, Mr. Conway would only say that answering such a question would be premature given the fact that Mr. Reid is in an election campaign that he may not win against Sharon Angle.

Meanwhile, word around the NCSL meeting is that Dr. Paul is having trouble raising money from traditional Republican sources. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush was brought in this week for a fundraiser, but some party leaders resisted considerable arm twisting aimed at getting them to attend. Shortly after Dr. Paul won his primary, he became embroiled in a needless controversy over whether he would have supported the Voting Rights Act 40 years ago, and some political leaders fear associating their names with him based on that issue. In addition, Republicans who know the views of his father, Texas congressman Ron Paul, consider him to be radical and suggest that the younger Paul may not have fallen far from the tree.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jeb Bush Speaks at NCSL on Education Reform

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush spoke this morning to the National Conference of State Legislatures on the subject of educational reform. While that subject is worthy of attention for its own sake, Republicans in attendance may well have been distracted by thoughts of what might be if his last name were something different.

For this writer, who had never seen Mr. Bush in person before, it was striking how different he is from his brother and his father. In terms of appearance, speaking style, mannerisms, and voice, he bears little resemblance to the other members of his family. His speech before the NCSL was delivered rapidly while reading occasionally from a printed manuscript. He came across as both knowledgeable and passionate on the issue of educational reform.

According to Mr. Bush, any effort at educational reform must begin with the premise that all children are capable of learning. While it can be admitted that factors such as poverty and family background play a role, they cannot be used as excuses when students and schools perform poorly. Indeed, students from challenging backbrounds have the most need of quality education, since there is little chance that they will escape poverty otherwise. He particularly emphasized the first three school years, arguing that since in the first three years students "learn to read and thereafter read to learn", children who cannot read at or near grade level after third grade have little chance of catching up. As such, he implemented a policy of eliminating social promotions after third grade. While that initially increased the numbers of "retentions," data indicate that it paid off over the long term.

Saying that entrenched interests must be challenged, Mr. Bush argued for a series of reforms that he implemented while governor of Florida. He placed particular importance on improving teacher quality, and he contended that teachers of high priority subjects such as math and science, as well as quality teachers taking positions in high poverty areas, should receive higher pay in order to get the best teachers to the highest areas of need. Accountability is also crucial -- he favors periodic testing (not just annual, as periodic testing allows results to be evaluated and reacted to over the year) and cash payments to schools that show high performance or improvement. While he favors school choice, he pointed out that vouchers alone are not sufficient as educational reform, as the majority of eligible students will not take advantage of the opportunity.

Mr. Bush presented some impressive data showing that the reforms in Florida had been effective, particularly among minority populations.

For those wondering, Mr. Bush said later that he had no plans to run for President. It is just as well. His name would be difficult to overcome, regardless of his virtues.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pelosi, McConnell Address State Legislators

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell separately addressed a general session of the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in Louisville, Kentucky today.

Ms. Pelosi presented fiercely partisan remarks in which she angrily denounced Senate Republicans for obstructing Democratic initiatives and encouraged state legislators essentially to become lobbyists and demand that Congress send more money to the states. She also again repeated recent bizarre remarks that extending unemployment benefits is "the most efficient way" to increase economic growth. While many good reasons can be given for extending benefits, that statement invites ridicule and causes one to wonder why the Speaker continues to use it.

For his part, Mr. McConnell began by stating that Republicans and Democrats in Washington "get along," but simply have honest disagreements on spending and federalism. He emphasized the unpopularity of Democratic proposals in recent polls and urged state lawmakers to notice that increasing federal authority resulted in a reduction in state authority and flexibility.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Health Care Reform Discussed at NCSL

Those wishing for bipartisanship on health care reform could have found it today in Louisville, Kentucky, where several hundred attendees at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures attended a seven hour meeting on "The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the States." Legislators of both parties from already cash strapped states worried throughout about how they would pay for unfunded mandates contained in the historic legislation. While the meeting was cordial throughout, it was dominated by concerns over state finances coupled with questions as to how states would get programs in place ahead of the 2014 effective date for much of the legislation.

Opening the day long session, Joy Wilson of NCSL, in the course of summarizing the provisions of the Act, declared financing to be a "big problem" for the states, adding that the law contains no or limited funding for complex new eligibility system upgrades. States will be forced to add both staffing and infrastructure to implement the new requirements. She also noted that the law's exclusion of illegal immigrants creates problems. While many conservatives praise that nod to law and order, Ms. Wilson noted that it pushed a federal problem (illegal immigration) on to the states, since illegal immigrants will require uncompensated health care services. Including illegals, a representative from CMS estimated that the reform act will leave 22 million people uninsured.

While the state legislators are glad that state authority in the health care arena was retained, they expressed some frustration that much of the collaboration to date has been with state executive branches, bypassing state legislative bodies. Peggy Welch, a state representative from Indiana, told federal attendees that "state legislators need to have a voice in implementation." Meanwhile, even as presenters warned lawmakers that legislation needed to be ready at the start of 2011 in order to develop state processes within the mandated timeframes, federal officials acknowledged that they lacked answers on key issues. Thus, Jay Anguff of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services admitted that they did not yet know what would be included in essential benefit packages required of health plans participating in the exchanges. He also could not identify the means of establishing the quality ratings to be provided to consumers seeking health coverage through the exchanges. Preparing legislation even while answers to such basic questions remain unknown creates challenges, particularly in "red states," where a majority of voters adamantly oppose the federal law.

Indeed, the cordial tone of the day's program was interrupted only once, when Charles Scott, a Wyoming legislator, suggested that policymakers should broach the question of repeal. That was too much for Iowa senator Jack Hatch, who said he was "not tolerant" of such ideas and argued that state legislators needed to embrace their role in seeing that the lives of their constituents were improved.

Even apart from state fiscal concerns, such improvement may be hard to come by. A panel including Dr. Michael Karpf of the University of Kentucky warned of an impending doctor shortage that preceded reform that will be even worse because of it. Expressing reluctance to accept reforms that would expand the role of advance practice nurses to meet these needs, Dr. Karpf put much hope in possible changes in reimbursement methodologies that would facilitate the development of a health care delivery model known as the "medical home." While that model is becoming an increasingly popular model for reform advocates because it creates more collaboration between specialists caring for a patient while also more properly aligning incentives for health care providers, it should also be noted that it resembles in many ways the closed panel HMO's attempted in the early 1990's and rejected by consumers (and their employers) who wanted a wider selection of health care providers.

Those who thought the passage of reform was a chaotic process may find that they haven't seen anything yet.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Near Myth of the Student Athlete

I heard Bobby Cremins speak at a conference this morning. Mr. Cremins coached for many years at Georgia Tech, where he led the Yellow Jackets to several ACC championships. After a half a dozen years out of coaching, he returned to the profession to coach at the College of Charlestown. This morning, he provided a simple, yet funny and passionate, presentation, during which he talked about rediscovering purpose for life in his return to coaching.

During the question and answer period, a woman asked about the credibility of the idea of the "student-athlete." Mr. Cremins stammered, but, to his credit, did not evade in his response. He essentially explained that retaining the notion of the student athlete was "a challenge." He identified some of the problems related to that challenge -- kids only wanting to use athletics as a stepping stone to the NBA, sports agents that manipulate those kids, and so forth. He did not talk about the fact that many of the boosters, employees, and athletes in such programs have little interest in the academic life of the university.

I am a huge sports fan, and not many years ago I was a huge college sports fan, but increasingly I see college sports as exploitative and not consistent with the larger goals of the university. College athletics, while a loss leader at many smaller schools, produces enormous revenue and publicity at larger programs through the efforts of many young athletes who have little interest in academics. Indeed, while it is undoubtedly true that sports provides a means to a college education for some kids that might not otherwise get it, in far too many situations, the kids that are recruited lack the skills needed either to complete or benefit from that education. This can only be described as exploitative.

Most of the arguments in favor of collegiate athletics as currently constituted are more emotional than reasonable. A rational basis for the existence of sports programs attached to universities is hard to come by.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Why I Am Against "God and Country"

Across the country on this Independence Day weekend, thousands of churches will hold patriotic celebrations while millions of people will declare their love for "God and country." There will even be crosses draped with American flags. This is profoundly wrong, and in some instances it is even idolatrous.

That is not to say that it is wrong for Christians to love their country. Indeed, it is right. When Jesus told a questioner to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Mark 12:17), He was speaking directly to a question about the duty to pay taxes; however, the statement would also apply to the notion of rendering appreciation for good government, including a government that acknowledges a right to worship freely. The Apostle Paul also expressed in an appropriate way his special love for those sharing his national identity when he spoke of his "heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel" (Rom. 10:1). Paul prayed especially fervently for the salvation of Israel because of the love derived from the common heritage that he had with that nation.

While Christians can, and often should, love their country, an allegiance to Christ and love for country are entirely different matters that would best be kept separate. Indeed, the all too common positioning of Christianity as a subset of American or western culture has damaged the standing of the Church both in the United States and abroad. The Kingdom of God has no borders -- it is composed of "every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9). While we must render to Caesar what belongs to him, we are also under obligation to render to God what is His. Our ultimate allegiances do not belong to any temporal government or nation, but to the eternal Kingdom of the "King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God" "who loved us and gave himself for us" (I Tim. 1:17 and Eph. 5:2).

In the 5th century, as the Roman Empire reached its conclusion with the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths, St. Augustine wrote his powerful treatise, "The City of God." Contrasting the eternal city of God with the temporary cities of man, Augustine made clear that the ultimate dependence of believers was on the former, which would not and could not fail. This was an important message to believers in an era in which the Church had become overly dependent upon and identified with Rome and needed to be reminded that the destruction of Rome did not portend the destruction of the Church.

Christians can and should be thankful for the United States of America, but we should never think that our ultimate dependencies and hopes lie with the nation. Demographic, fiscal, and cultural realities facing the western world may or may not lead us to a place where we need to learn the same lesson that Augustine taught to his followers. Regardless, believers gathering in churches must remember that we seek a Kingdom "whose builder and founder is God" (Heb. 11:10).