Monday, October 4, 2010

Our View -- Careful steps toward medical marijuana

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 27, 2010.

Back in 1979, then state representatives Dale Hibbs (R-Iowa City) and Bob Arnould (D-Davenport) helped shepherd a bill through the Iowa House that would have allowed marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes in the state. With bipartisan support, Hibbs said he and Arnould managed to get the bill out of committee and onto the House floor for a full debate.

After a few hours of grueling political circus, however, Hibbs said he decided to withdraw the bill because it was abundantly clear that there wasn't the support necessary to pass the measure in that legislative session -- nor in any session in the near future.

It turns out that Hibbs, Arnould and the other sponsors of the bill were a few decades ahead of their time. Their bill came two decades before the University of Iowa held the first ever conference on the question of marijuana's medicinal value in 2000. And their bill came three decades before the Iowa Board of Pharmacy, after hosting a series of public forums across the state, unanimously voted to ask the Iowa Legislature to legalize the drug for medical use to change the classification of marijuana from a Schedule I drug (the most tightly regulated category for drugs) to a Schedule II drug (a category that already includes substances such as Demerol, opium and morphine).

"It makes me happy," Hibbs said. "It shows we were right 30 years ago."

Reasonable people can disagree whether Iowa should approve marijuana for medical purposes. The medical marijuana supporters say marijuana can help underweight patients increase their appetites as well as reduce pain, reduce muscle spasms and relieve nausea. Those benefits would help many cancer patients and AIDS sufferers. Skeptics worry that legalizing the drug for therapeutic use would lead to more recreational abuse -- which in turn would lead to users trying other illegal drugs.

But after the public forums and the board's recent recommendation, it's becoming harder and harder for opponents to argue that marijuana has "no accepted medical use for treatment in the United States."

During the October forum in Iowa City, for example, Larry Quigley told the Board of Pharmacy that marijuana has quelled the pain and spasms better than any other prescription drug he has taken since suffering a spinal cord injury 28 years earlier. Local ophthalmologist John Stamler likewise touted the benefits of marijuana in treating glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. And Lisa Jackson of Crawfordsville, who has fibromyalgia, explained how marijuana is the only drug that has allowed her to function.

"I was taken aback by the chronic pain people are dealing with, and they have taken every narcotic man has made with no relief and major side effects," said state Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City), who has sponsored several bills on medical marijuana in recent years. "But everyone is in fear of the law."

Although only the Legislature can change a drug's classification, the pharmacy board's recommendation hopefully will be an important component of any changes that the Legislature makes.

We're glad the conversation about medicinal marijuana use has reached this high level -- both in terms of mature discussion and political visibility. But just as some local law enforcement and hospice officials recently said to the Press-Citizen, we think it's extremely important for lawmakers to be very careful in how they draft the bill that changes the drug's classification.

Our state legislators need to learn from the successes and problems seen in the states that have passed provisions for medical marijuana. They need to ensure that whatever bill they pass includes a well-regulated system by which the chronically ill can have access to the benefits marijuana provides but that can't be easily manipulated and abused by recreational users.

Our View -- Questions linger after Hanson's resignation

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 26, 2010.

The Iowa City School Board unanimously accepted City High Principal Mark Hanson's resignation earlier this week, but community members still want to know exactly why Hanson is leaving ("Board accepts resignation," Feb. 24).

Dozens of City High parents and students attended Tuesday's school board meeting to ask questions and to urge the board to reject Hanson's resignation. But after the board went into closed session -- at Hanson's request -- those parents and students were left disappointed and angry.

Their confusion is understandable. If Hanson had submitted his letter of resignation a few years ago, very few people would have questioned the reason. Back during the 2007-08 school year, for example, City High was experiencing a spike in the number of incidents of student-to-student violence. Parents and other community members were demanding a restoration of order and repeatedly pointing out that a school administrator's No. 1 priority is maintaining a safe learning environment.

If Hanson's resignation had come during the worst of those problems, then the reason would have seemed obvious. But the number of violent incidents has dropped over the past years as Hanson and district administrators clamped down on student movement in the halls during class periods, implemented no-tolerance policies, expanded the off-site behavior problems classroom and opened a Welcome Center at City High to help students new to the district learn what kinds of behavior are completely unacceptable.

That's why it's unclear as to why, in June of 2009, the district gave Hanson only a one-year contract. That's why it's unclear as to why, in September of 2009, Hanson informed City High staff he would be leaving his position after the 2009-10 school year. And that's why it's unclear why Hanson agreed to submit a letter of resignation rather than force his termination and then appeal it to the school board.

Hanson's supporters on Tuesday said they're angry because they think Hanson has done a good job during his tenure as principal. They also could rightly assume that, because Hanson is an important public employee, they have a right -- as citizens and taxpayers -- to participate in the decision and to know what exactly is going on.

Unfortunately, they don't have such a right under Iowa law -- or at least not to the extent that they want. As in most states, job performance records are specifically exempted from disclosure under the Iowa open records law. And one of the reasons the Iowa open meetings law allows public boards to go into closed session is "to evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance or discharge is being considered when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual's reputation and that individual requests a closed session."

School district officials have repeatedly declined to answer key questions about Hanson's departure, saying it is a personnel issue. And Hanson himself made a written request that the board discuss his resignation in closed session.

That's why there is no official, public explanation for why Hanson is leaving City High. Last fall, Hanson's mother said Hanson was being forced to leave because of a column he wrote that appeared in the Press-Citizen in May. In that column, Hanson wrote how boundary changes were needed to balance high school enrollment and distribution of students qualifying for free- and reduced-lunch programs.

But, as Associate Superintendent Jim Behle said at the time, district policy forbids staff members from being punished for "expressing an ethical dissent." If Hanson were being punished for submitting the column, it would be a violation of that district policy -- suggesting that Hanson could make a case for appeal. But because the board decided to begin the current redistricting process within a few months after the column was printed, it seems unlikely that it was a major factor in the decision for a one-year contract.

Given the restrictions in state law, we're not surprised that officials are not answering key questions. To do so would be irresponsible and could expose the district to potential litigation. Hanson, however, is free to comment or refuse to comment as he so chooses.

We've likewise asked the district to release the public documents related to the resignation -- namely, any settlements between the district and Hanson. We'll print that information when it becomes available.

Our View: Watching the evolution of a public university

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 20, 2010.

The negative consequences of an emerging "new normal" for public universities became uncomfortably clear a few weeks ago after some unofficial recommendations of the University of Iowa Task Force on Graduate Education leaked out. The task force -- one of six strategic initiatives task forces -- has evaluated more than 100 graduate programs on campus and rated them excellent, strong, good or weak. The baker's dozen of programs initially labeled "weak" often included a recommendation to close down or to merge. But after some pushback from the program faculty and alumni, the language was changed to "additional evaluation required."

The task force's recommendations cut to the heart of how Research 1 public universities have balanced research, teaching and service for at least a generation. UI faculty members justify their salary by focusing on the production of cutting-edge research -- making new discoveries, writing books and organizing centers and institutes that become go-to places for national media and public officials looking to talk to "experts."

To keep churning out that high-level research, the university has depended on attracting well-qualified graduate students to serve as research assistants, teaching assistants (to help those faculty members who teach large, lecture hall classes) or general instructors (to teach their own undergraduate classes under the supervision of one of those faculty members).

For faculty, programs and departments that are able to attract large grants and other external funding -- primarily in the hard sciences -- this research-teaching-service model is still working fairly well. For faculty, programs and departments that depend on state allocations and other internal funding -- primarily in the humanities -- the model is wholly unsustainable in the present economic environment.

That's why it's not surprising that many of the threatened graduate programs are in the humanities. Although generations of scholarship have rewarded more and more narrow specialization in these fields, the graduate programs' very survival now depends on figuring out how to attract more undergraduate butts in seats.

On top of that, many state legislators -- the people who decide how much state funding UI receives -- don't seem to care about how well qualified graduate assistants are. They want to see high-salaried UI professors themselves in the classroom teaching the next generation of Iowans (and Chicagolanders).

The faculty and administrators of the threatened programs say that the task force members seem to be missing a key point: That cutting back on graduate programs will cut back on the quality of the graduate students and faculty attracted to a department, which then will cut back on the quality of the undergraduate program.

But the task force is responding to a larger trend in which public universities nationwide, in order to justify their public role, are de-emphasizing the importance of their graduate programs and changing the research-teaching-service model into a teaching-service-research model.

It's unclear what the final recommendations, released Monday, of the Task Force on Graduate Education will lead to. After all, that task force's recommendations will have to be added to the recommendations of the other five task forces, and then UI officials will have the challenge of coming up with a new model for how all those different components work together.

No one yet knows that that new model will look like or how it will function. But today's Press-Citizen begins a three-part series -- "Is this the new UI?" -- exploring the options for the public university of the present and future.

Our View - Urban chicken issue not going away in Iowa City

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 16, 2010.

Iowa City residents' discussion of urban chickens is going to go on whether the Iowa City Council takes up the issue or not. That's because the New Pioneer Food Co-op is going to host two free public forums on the topic next month ("Urban chicken debate returns," Feb. 11).

At this point, it seems that there are not enough City Council votes to revive the chicken discussion ("Chickens lacking council's support," Feb. 12). We've previously editorialized that "the council is chicken when it comes to chickens" and pointed out that, with hundreds of petitioners asking the council to consider the issue, councilors should be responsive.

Our guess is that there is going to be far more clucking about this whole thing because the council won't take up the issue than there would be if it just made a decision, one way or the other.

New Pioneer education and member services manager Theresa Carbrey said the co-op is trying to encourage more local food production.

"This is as local as it can get -- in your own backyard," she said.

The first forum titled "Raising Urban Chickens" will be from 6 to 7:30 p.m. March 2 at the Coralville co-op. It will feature speaker Misha Goodman, director of the Iowa City/Coralville Animal Care and Adoption Center. She will offer tips raising urban chickens.

The second forum titled "We Love Backyard Chickens" will be from 6 to 7:30 p.m. March 11 at the Coralville co-op. It will feature speakers Stacey Driscoll and Alicia Diehl of IC Friends of Urban Chickens. A pro-urban chicken event, it will look at the joys and challenges of urban chickening.

We suggest the council commit to taking this issue back up within the next year, put it to a vote and then move on.

Our View - Looks like UI wants to put the 'no' in 'porno'

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 11, 2010.

So let's get this straight.

University of Iowa officials were unaware that the university's student-run theater, the Bijou, was planning to show a 1970s "erotic, camp classic" titled "Disco Dolls in Hot Skin" this weekend. In fact, they seemed to be unaware that the Bijou had been showing a porno once a year to well-attended audiences of people 18 and older.

But when a Press-Citizen reporter called to ask about the tradition and the First Amendment issues raised by showing pornos in student-run theaters, UI officials suddenly decided to overturn that tradition and declare that the Bijou cannot show the film.

Tom Rocklin, interim vice president for student services, sent out a notice Tuesday afternoon stating that after he learned about the film earlier in the day, he ordered the Bijou directors to cancel their plans.

"It is clearly not in the public interest for a public facility at a public institution to be showing a film of this nature. If showing the film were essential to an educational objective, the situation would be different. The intent in this case was to provide entertainment," Rocklin said in an e-mail.

But it's not clear if showing the film would violate any state, county or university rules. And if it does violate any of those rules, then the Bijou has been out of compliance for decades for screening such erotic, camp classics.

Before Rocklin sent his message, Evan Meaney, the executive director of the Bijou, told the Press-Citizen that he expected UI administrators to support "Disco Dolls" as they had in the past. After all, he said, the Bijou previously never had to get films pre-approved.

Unfortunately for Meaney, the political climate of the state has changed in the past few years. With UI administrators having received a lot of bad PR from a series of bad decisions, the university is particularly aware of how negatively a headline such as "Student-run theater shows pornos annually" would be received, criticized and denounced by lawmakers from other parts of the state.

While there are many reasons to prohibit a student-run theater from showing pornos for mere entertainment -- such as the role pornography plays in continuing sexism and the subjugation of women -- UI officials seem to have made this quick decision essentially to avoid another storm of negative PR.

In so doing, however, they are opening up a similarly sized storm of negative PR as the university, for the first time in recent memory, is banning a film that the Bijou already had been working to bring to campus. The decision now raises questions about whether the university is going to set standards for the level of violence, gore of obscene dialogue that the can be included in the films the Bijou brings to campus.

As Meaney said hours before the film was canceled, "Pornography tests the limits of the First Amendment and artistic expression. I am not going to say this film is a functioning form of art, but nudity and sexuality has always tested the limits of what people think is proper."

The most un-Hunter Thompson Vegas book

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 10, 2010.

By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa Cityscapes

Last year, John D'Agata, an associate professor at the University of Iowa, explained to me his vision of what literary nonfiction writing is all about.

Beholden neither to a journalist's commitment to veracity nor to the strictures of academic argument, he said, the creative nonfiction writer is free to produce essays that allow readers to experience the world -- essays that strive to "enact the world."

"If the critic fails to prove his case, then his essay is a failure," D'Agata said. "For us, it's quite the opposite. There are no promises made. No guarantees that answers will be found or that problems will be solved."

In "About a Mountain," D'Agata lives up to that vision by providing an enjoyable, fast-paced yet highly literary account of the federal government's plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

But that's far too straight-forward a summary of the many things included in this book. Yes, D'Agata provides in-depth readings of the lengthy congressional debates on Yucca Mountain -- and it's simply amazing how many inconsistencies one writer can find and lampoon when reading through transcripts and news reports. But "About a Mountain" also manages to tell very personal and human stories of the seductive allure of Los Vegas.

D'Agata himself is a constant presence in the book as he narrates his experiences in Las Vegas doing research. But "About a Mountain" has nothing in common with the gonzo journalism of earlier generations. In fact, Scott Dickensheets of the Los Vegas Weekly says that it's hard to think of "a Vegas book that's more opposite of the Hunter Thompson approach."

Instead, D'Agata lives up to his vision of having the facts and stories in nonfiction proceed "less journalistically and more processionally." He moves effortlessly between readings of government policy documents, accounts on the history of nuclear waste, passages about his mother and efforts to put a human face on Vegas's high suicide rate. And in the book's best chapter, D'Agata describes and enacts the linguistic difficulty of writing a sign that still will convey "DANGER" to whatever humans happen to be strolling around the still radioactive Yucca site 10,000 years from now.

D'Agata promises neither answers nor solutions, but if you need help figuring out what unifying narrative force helps tie all this together into one book, you can ask him in person after he reads at 7 p.m. today in Van Allen Hall 2 or during the book signing at Prairie Lights afterward.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

Our View - NEA celebrates reading with 'Fahrenheit 451'

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 10, 2010.

When Ray Bradbury first published "Fahrenheit 451" back in 1953, the first-time sci-fi novelist was reacting largely against the McCarythism that permeated what he viewed as a fear-based, conformist culture. He likewise was reacting against other frightening facts of recent world history -- from Hitler's torching of books in Germany in 1934 to the rumor of Stalin employing "match people" throughout the U.S.S.R.

Pulling upon some of the persistent themes in his earlier short stories, Bradbury quickly turned a 25,000-word novella into a 50,000-word novel about a future society in which firemen start fires rather than stop them. He imagined a world in which television screens were so flat that they could be hung on walls, in which drivers could hum by at 75 miles an hour and in which the list of forbidden books could fill books of their own.

As explained in the novel, the social change didn't begin with any overt government coercion. It, instead, was cultural development in which people just started paying less attention to words and complex ideas and more attention to images and easily digestible pabulum. Once the universities closed from lack of interest and once the term intellectual became a swear word, the only reading materials left were comic books, pornography and a few technical manuals.

"I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths," Faber, a former literature professor, explains to Bradbury's protagonist. "No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters."

Unfortunately, the cultural trends Bradbury was critiquing in the 1950s didn't end with the Cold War. Instead, as Bradbury explained in his introduction a 40th anniversary edition of the book, "Fahrenheit 451" seems to be more and more prophetic with every passing year.

"There remains only to mention a prediction that my Fire Chief, Beatty, made in 1953, halfway through my book," Bradbury wrote in 1993. "It had to do with books being burned without matches or fire. Because you don't have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with nonreaders, nonlearners, nonknowers? If the world wide-screen-basketballs and -footballs itself to drown in MTV, no Beattys are needed to ignite the kerosene or hunt the reader. If the primary grades suffer meltdown and vanish through the cracks and ventilators of the schoolroom, who, after a while, will know or care."

That's why "Fahrenheit 451" seems such an obvious choice for the National Endowment for the Arts' annual program, "The Big Read" ( With the program's goal of sparking and kindling a love of reading, we can't think of a better book for igniting local discussions than Bradbury's dystopic vision of book-burning society.

We encourage our readers -- and we're extremely thankful that you all are still "readers" -- to read (or reread) Bradbury's classic and to participate in the many local events taking place until March 3. (For a full schedule, visit the-big-read.)

And to get the discussion rolling, we'd suggest that one of the main points to take away from "Fahrenheit 451" is the fictional Faber's observation that the medium (books), in fact, matters much less than the message being conveyed.

"The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not," Faber explains. "No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! ... Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."

Our View - Expanding Iowa's sense of family to gays and lesbians

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 9, 2010.

In the past, generations of gay and lesbian activists have described "queer identity" primarily as being in opposition to anything that smacks of "heteronorminativity." To many of those activists, gay and lesbian parenthood was, considered at best, a relic of the closeted past -- reminders of the mistaken marriages that took place before people were free to come out earlier in life.

But the large number of interviews included in Ellen Lewin's books -- "Lesbian Mothers: Accounts of Gender in American Culture" (1993) and "Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment" (1998) -- have demonstrated:

• That many gay and lesbian couples want to expand their own families by adding children.

• And that the family ties and commitment ceremonies between gay and lesbian couples can be just as "revolutionary" as any more traditionally defined examples of activism.

Lewin, a University of Iowa professor of anthropology and women's studies, proves those points anew in her most recent book, "Gay Fatherhood," in which she interviews various gay men about how they carved out identities for themselves as fathers in a culture that told them repeatedly how "it wasn't appropriate for them to want to have children." In the course of these interviews, Lewin found that the oppositional pressures experienced by gay men seeking to become fathers were "even more intense than those experienced by women." One of the couples, in fact, goes as far as to say, "We're not gay anymore. We're parents."

The strength of Lewin's book lies in the wide variety of men she interviewed:

• Couples who live in the established gay neighborhoods of Chicago and San Francisco.

• Couples whose have moved out of the gay neighborhoods into more family friendly suburbs.

• Single men who seek to prove their own maturity and stability by willingly looking for people to take care of.

• Couples with enough disposable income to hire a surrogate mother to ensure a biological link between them and their children.

• And a generation and a half of gay men who have opted for adoption -- usually accepting children who traditionally have been overlooked because of health, physical disabilities or skin color.

It's these detailed accounts of transformed identity that makes "Gay Fatherhood" a good read for any parent -- gay, straight; male, female; partnered, single; biological, adopted. Lewin may have found the pressures were more "intense" for gay fathers than for lesbian mothers, but the issues of identity brought on by parenthood seem to represent differences of degree more than differences of kind.

Lewin's book reminds us all that just as there is no monolithic model for what it means to be gay or lesbian, there also is no monolithic model for what it means to be a parent. And that's an important lesson for all Iowans to learn -- especially those who worry that last year's state Supreme Court ruling will somehow erode the foundation of the family in the state.

Rather than erode Iowa's sense of family, gay and lesbian parents are helping to expand it.

Our View - Why school boards need to address poverty rates

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 6, 2010.

"In discussing the difficulties of making high-poverty schools work, it is important to draw a distinction between the problems associated with concentrations of school poverty and beliefs about the ability of poor children to learn. Many people confuse the first with the second. Evidence suggests that children from all socioeconomic groups can learn to high levels if given the right environment. High-poverty schools, however, do not normally provide the positive learning environment that children need and deserve." -- Richard D. Kahlenberg, "Turnaround Schools That Work: Moving Beyond Separate but Equal" (2009).

In the week since the Iowa City School District announced that its redistricting committee would be bringing "Scenario 2" for public forums, we've heard a number of questions such as:

• "Why are they focusing on tearing down 'good schools' rather than on building up 'bad schools'?"

• "Why don't they focus on improving the performance at the underachieving schools rather than messing up what seems to be working at other schools throughout the district?"

• "Why do they want to bring down schools that are performing in the top 90th percentile so that all the schools in the district wind up performing in a mediocre 70th percentile?"

Although we understand why many parents are concerned about so many boundary changes happening so quickly, we still agree that the time has come for the district to call for a districtwide boundary change. With eastside elementaries facing capacity issues and with west-side schools continuing to experience growth, major boundary shifts seem inevitable.

And after reporting the test scores and other data for the various elementary schools for the past few years, we agreed with the board's decision last year to take one step toward addressing an "achievement gap" between the schools by including "demographic considerations" as one of the criteria used for redrawing those lines.

But we also think it's necessary to have those demographic considerations (specifically free and reduced lunch rates) be balanced against three other criteria:

• keeping neighborhoods together when possible,

• using building space efficiently and

• not adding to the district's operational costs.

That way, it would be impossible for the committee or the board to recommend any large-scale "forced busing" plan that would severely disrupt neighborhoods and send transportation costs through the roof.

Balancing poverty numbers

"Scenario 2," at best, is a good starting template for showing what happens when school officials try to balance those criteria for the Iowa City School District. The scenario would help make school boundaries a little more geographically coherent, but it also includes some features that seem "unfair" and that smack a little too much of "forced busing" -- especially when it comes to reassigning the sections of Lemme to Wood and reassigning sections of Wood to Lemme.

It is a fair question to ask why the scenario includes such a busing swap between Lemme and Wood yet offers no similar busing strategy to increase the lunch-assisted rates at Wickham and Shimek. But after acknowledging that unfairness, it's still important to keep in mind that we're talking about relatively short distances between the eastside schools. While there has been a lot of talk about students "having to be bused across town," the busing distances involved in the proposal having nothing in common with massive distances that some families have been forced to travel in large metropolitan areas.

"This is a 15-minute town," Peter Hlebowitsh, UI professor of teaching and learning, said of Iowa City. "It really isn't overwhelmingly onerous to get your kid from one school from the next."

Hlebowitsh agrees that changing the demographics is a "necessary" step if the district wants to keep addressing the "achievement gap." But he also said changing demographics is not a "sufficient" step and that the district must still place an emphasis on preschool, after-school and summer learning opportunities.

Noga O'Connor, a visiting assistant professor of education at UI, goes even further when discussing what the education research says about the benefits of improving the balance of demographics.

"Even if we change nothing else -- not hiring more teachers, not providing additional teacher training, not making curricular changes -- we still will see results," she said.

O'Connor said studies show that students from higher-poverty schools will perform better when moved to a more mixed environment, and those students will not bring down the performance of the "strong students" already there. Although a school's overall scores may dip for a while, the performance of individual students -- and the district as a whole -- will be improved.

Luckily, the Iowa City area schools with high concentrations of poverty aren't suffering from inadequate facilities or lesser quality teachers. If anything, the district has been throwing everything it has -- including some of its more energetic, creative and idealistic teachers -- into working to help disadvantaged children not get left behind.

And when good teachers have a few students who are academically behind or challenged by severe poverty, they can work with the students individually to help them catch up. But when those numbers start ratcheting up to more than half of the class, then even the best of teachers face a struggle.

As education scholar Richard Kahlenberg writes, "Research has long found that integration is not a zero-sum game: low-income students can benefit from economically integrated schools and middle-class achievement does not decline so long as a strong core of middle-class children are present."

Endogenous effect

Not everyone agrees that benefits of improving the balance of poverty numbers would outweigh the social costs involved with so utterly disrupting longstanding school communities in the Iowa City area.

Gerard Rushton, the UI geography professor who has been working with the district on enrollment projections since the 1980s, said he is concerned that implementing the boundary changes proposed in "Scenario 2" would be undermined by the "endogenous effect." That is, the decisions made by the board to solve a perceived problem may, in fact, actually cause or worsen the problem.

District officials, for example, have proposed changing the boundaries because they want to create a better balance of poverty rates. But the changes may not have the desired effect, Rushton said, because they could trigger a new round of "white flight" in which more affluent families decide to open enroll out of the higher-poverty schools to which they've been reassigned -- especially if those newly assigned schools are "in need of assistance."

And even if the poverty rates were evened out successfully among the schools, Rushton said that implementing Scenario 2 would still undermine the benefits that are supposed to come with successfully balancing out the rates.

After all, educators focus on lunch-assisted rates only as a means of improving the educational environment offered in a school. This is because:

• Recent court opinions have upheld the right of districts to use socio-economic factors -- as opposed to race -- as a means of determining what students go to what school.

• Because there are the strong associational links between behavioral problems -- including poorer academic performance -- in schools with a high concentration of children who live in poverty.

• Because there are strong associational links between academic success in low-poverty schools and higher rates of parental involvement. (A 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, found that low-income parents are four times less likely than more-affluent parents to be members of PTA and only half as likely to volunteer in the classroom or to serve on a committee.)

Rushton said he thinks the process should include a fifth criterion asking the committee to recognize the value of the traditional communities and educational structures that have been built around schools for decades. If those long-standing ties are severed by sending families to other schools -- even to nearby ones -- then all that collected institutional memory gets lost. Suddenly every school has to start over at square one when it comes to finding out the best way to involve parents in the educational process.

"The costs are not just in the schools where you are increasing the percentage but also where you are reducing the percentage," Rushton said. "You are going to have to adapt to that new composition. And that will take a lot of work. That will take a lot of effort. ... So it basically becomes a non sequitur."

Moving forward

Our community has long recognized that high-concentrated poverty harms children. And many in our community recognize that ending high-poverty, concentrated schools is a must.

Because the research shows that dispersing poverty rates helps poor children without hurting middle-class and affluent children, we think the school district does need to include "demographic considerations" when redrawing boundary lines. It's not an issue of being "politically correct," it's an issue of helping to improve the learning environments for the district overall.

"It's the starting gate analogy," Hlebowitsh said. "It's not that poor kids can't learn or are less capable, but they do have to run a lot longer to make it. ... There are real deprivations with poverty. It's not just an abstract idea."

"Scenario 2" meets the board's criteria in that it would bring down lunch-assistance rates in the high poverty elementaries of Hills, Kirkwood, Mann, Twain and Wood. Unfortunately, it does so by dramatically increasing the rates at Horn, Longfellow and Lincoln and while not changing the single-digit rates at Shimek and Wickham.

"Scenario 2" is far from a perfect balance of the board's four criteria. But it does represent a large step in the right direction precisely because it views improving socio-economic rates to be as important as the other three criteria.

As the redistricting committee and the board address the public's concerns about the scenario, they should not lessen the importance of improving the balance of poverty rates throughout the district.

Our View - Challenge for supporting gay, lesbian teens

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 5, 2010.

When Nick Pace was serving as principal of a small Iowa high school, he didn't quite know how to respond when one of his students came out of the closet. He was concerned with how the other students would react and what safety measures he would have to put in place to protect his only openly gay student. And even after there seemed to be no immediate threats to the student or to the school, he kept worrying whether what future event would spark a backlash, especially:

• When the student brought a date to the school dance for the first time and

• When the student, as part of the graduate ceremony, was awarded a Matthew Shepard scholarship for outstanding gay and lesbian youth.

Although there had been some isolated incidents, Pace thought that both he and his student had lucked out. He thought his high school -- not necessarily because of his leadership -- was somehow unusually tolerant or that some perfect storm of factors had made his student's coming out far less of a dramatic issue than he anticipated.

After Pace moved on from being a high school principal and began teaching future principals at the University of Northern Iowa, he started analyzing that experience. He realized that, in the midst of his administrative duties, he had looked upon his student primarily as a complicated problem to be solved. The experience made Pace curious to hear more about how his student had perceived his high school years as well as to learn more about just how common his own administrative experience was.

Noting a lack on information in the educational literature, Pace decided to interview more gay and lesbian students from Iowa high schools. Because he knew most principals would be skeptical of such a project -- back when he was a principal, Pace writes, he would not have recommended any students talking to such a researcher -- he decided to focus on the winners of Matthew Shepard scholarships. The decision gave him access to openly gay and lesbian Iowa high school seniors who have distinguished themselves in their schools and communities. Although each of the students Pace profiles has his or her individual stories to tell, all the interviewees have excelled in academic aptitude and achievement as well as in community service.

The result of this research is "The Principal's Challenge: Learning from Gay and Lesbian Students," in which Pace shows how his small, rural high school's reaction to its first openly gay student proves to be the rule rather than the exception in Iowa schools. Each of the students, who are identified only by pseudonym, do tell stories about incidents of physical and verbal intimidation, and some talk openly about the failure of family and friends to support their decision to come out. But all of them also have stories to explain how they did manage to stay connected and focused through the efforts of parents, teachers, staff, pastors and other youth leaders.

Given that Pace limited himself to interviewing award-winning gay and lesbian students, it's not surprising that his book has an overwhelmingly optimistic tone. And his overall message seems to echo the sentiment behind the Matthew Shepard Foundation and its scholarship: That despite the real risks that gay and lesbian teenagers face, there are also real benefits to be had by coming out earlier than later.

And that message is still important to spread, even in a state that bestows the same legal status to families headed by same-sex couples as those headed by heterosexual couples. "The Principal's Challenge" becomes a challenge not only for school administrators, but for anyone trying to help gay and lesbian teenagers learn to take pride in themselves.

Our View - Openness laws are only good when enforced

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 4, 2010.

We've long been pushing Iowa legislators to help Iowa move from a failing grade in government openness (according to a 2008 study by the Better Government Association) and toward creating one of the strongest agencies in any state for enforcing the letter and spirit of the state's sunshine laws. That why the Press-Citizen, along with the Iowa Newspaper Association, is calling on the Legislature to amended the state's open meetings and public records laws to address current issues.

An amendment to House File 777 would call on the Iowa Legislature to finally move past lips ervice about government openness and create a new enforcement agency to deal exclusively with open records and open meetings complaints at no cost to the complainants.

Iowa's sunshine laws, after all, only matter if they are enforced. Iowa Ombudsman and Citizen's Aide William Angrick has been a staunch advocate for openness. The number of complaints and requests for information about Iowa's open meetings and open records laws keeps increasing. Yet the ombudsman doesn't have the authority to force compliance; he just has a bully pulpit from which to question and to request a limited amount of more information.

The Iowa Attorney General's Office and county attorneys have the legal authority to enforce open meetings and open records laws, but they seldom -- if ever -- take legal action to hold violators accountable. Indeed, the attorneys face a glaring conflict in terms of whose interest they represent when a violation is reported: the citizens making the complaint or the government officials accused of violation.

The proposed new agency would have the authority to:

• Issue subpoenas enforceable in court for the purpose of investigating complaints.

• Issue orders determining whether there has been a violation of chapter 21 or 22.

• Require compliance with specified provisions of those chapters.

• Impose civil penalties for violations.

The agency also would make training opportunities available to all governmental bodies and the public -- although we've found that many violations come from public officials who know the law well and are trying to skirt it.

And the agency would make recommendations to the governor and Legislature relating to issues involving public access to meetings and records of a government body including:

• Public employment applications.

• Tentative, preliminary or draft material.

• Serial meetings of less than a majority of a governmental body.

We think these are common sense ways to ensure that the public's business is done in the public. It's time that Iowa create a nonpartisan public information board, one that would have the authority to investigate complaints and to fine violators.

Press-Citizen's online comments: The good, the bad and the ugly

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 3, 2010.

By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa Cityscapes

In September 2006, the Iowa City Press-Citizen launched story chat -- a feature allowing readers the opportunity to register with, choose a username and begin posting comments to the stories, columns and letters online.

In the nearly 3½ years since that time, Press-Citizen editors have participated in many discussions about the degree to which the anonymity afforded to online commenters and bloggers affects one of the essential roles newspapers play in helping democracy thrive: ensuring that minority viewpoints are protected against the tyranny of the majority.

In that time, we've gone back and forth as to whether online, anonymous comments:

• Represent a revolution in citizen journalism (which is good),

• Provide a crass way to drive up online traffic statistics at the expense of reasoned, vetted, well-edited news and opinion (which is bad) or

• Do a lot of both (which is just ugly).

In the past few years, we've found that, at times, cyber-anonymity is the only way to allow contrary opinions to be raised without retaliation against those who dare speak out against majority opinion, public officials and institutions.

At other times, however, it's a way for bitter people or bullies to sound off. And in the past 3½ years, we've had to kick off many participants for grossly inappropriate commentary that clearly violates the Press-Citizen's "Terms of Service."

But that at times ugly mix also is why scholars from the University of Iowa Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI) became interested in focusing on the Press-Citizen's online conversations during the first session of a three-part public rhetoric seminar, "Media, Space, and Race: The Case of Iowa City's 'Southeast Side.'"

As stories about Iowa City's southeast-side neighborhoods, public-assisted housing programs and urban migrants have become hot topics in local politics, the Press-Citizen's online commenters have been trying to answer difficult questions about media, space and race within the limits placed on them at

Because POROI seminars usually focus on a single document, for tonight's session, I chose a story chat thread that began in response to a news report about a Dec. 1 meeting in which Iowa City Council approved the second reading of the city's curfew ordinance. A PDF document of the 112 comments on the Dec. 2 story is available at

Tonight's session, "Words Matter: Online Postings in the Iowa City Press-Citizen," will include a few introductory remarks from me, some prepared commentary by UI professors Frank Durham and André Brock and then a period of questions from the audience.

Although the story chat thread itself is the main document to read for the session, anyone interested in participating in tonight's discussion also might be interested in looking at:

• A transcript of the Dec. 1 Iowa City Council meeting (,

• The text of the curfew ordinance that was approved ( site/CMSv2/Auto/media/release5883/1223200984850. pdf) and

• A copy of the P-C's "Terms of Service" (

Tonight's forum isn't likely to "solve" any of our community's complicated problems. But it hopefully will offer a chance to step back and learn about the good, bad and ugly ways we talk about our community.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 887-5435. For information on "Media, Space and Race," visit or

Our View: How to read the district's redistricting scenarios

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 3, 2010.

On Thursday and Friday, the Iowa City School District will be holding public forums on one of the scenarios under consideration by the 38-member redistricting committee.

The good news is that the district and the committee have made the maps for "Scenario 2" available to the public nearly a week before the forums. Besides the small versions of the maps printed today, the Press-Citizen printed a full-size version of the elementary school map on Saturday. And electronic versions of the elementary, junior high and senior high maps are available on the district's Web site,

The bad news is that the maps are not readily understandable just by looking at them. They require some time, examination and explanation to understand fully.

The printed school names and purple boundary lines featured on the maps, for example, represent the existing school attendance areas. And it's sometimes confusing for readers to realize that they need to pay attention solely to the color coding for the different schools if they are going to understand the proposed new boundaries.

It's also important to remember that the scenario represents the efforts by the committee, consultants and district officials to balance the four redistricting criteria set by the School Board last year:

• Keeping neighborhoods and neighborhood schools intact (assigning students to the nearest school as much as possible).

• Demographic considerations (elementary boundaries are designed to reduce socio-economic percentages to no more than 20 percentage points above the district average of 30 percent).

• Addressing projected enrollments and ensuring that available building space is used efficiently.

• Ensuring that the proposed changes won't add to the district's operational budget.

The scenario addresses much of the strange gerrymandering that been part of the current school boundaries for far too long -- such as sending students from the west side's Hawkeye Court and Hawkeye Drive across the river to Mann (and to South East and City), sending students from north of Interstate 80 across other school's attendance areas to get to Lincoln and sending Pheasant Ridge students past Horn to Roosevelt. We're happy to see that the proposed junior and senior high boundaries are, at least, all contiguous.

But the scenario also adds some strange gerrymandering of its own. Students from Windsor Ridge, who currently get bused to Longfellow, would continue to be bused but now would go to Hoover. Students from the Lakeside area would be pulled from the Wood attendance area and bused over to Lemme. And at the same time, the Lemme attendance area would be reduced dramatically and some its current students would be divided among Mann and Hoover (which makes geographic sense) as well as Twain and Wood (which would require driving them right past Lemme and Lucas).

District officials say that partitioning the current Lemme attendance area was necessary in order to address the demographic and building use criteria. Because Lemme is already over capacity, its boundaries needed to be contracted. And since the students from the east side of Scott Boulevard already were being bused to Lemme, they could just as easily get bused a little further to Mann, Hoover, Twain and Wood.

But the partitioning of Lemme seems to be a quick jamming of some final pieces into a puzzle that's otherwise fairly complete. Yes, "Scenario 2" utterly fails to balance out the single-digit free and reduced lunch rates among the student populations at Wickham and Shimek. But the plan does help balance out significantly the rates at Horn, Longfellow and Weber as it brings down the more than 50 percent rates at Hills, Kirkwood, Mann, Twain and Wood.

The elementary with the biggest change, of course, is Lincoln. Under Scenario 2, Lincoln's free and reduced lunch rate would shoot up an order of magnitude from about 4 percent to more than 40 percent. And its students would go on to South East and City rather than to Northwest and West.

We can understand how the Lincoln community would be concerned about such drastic changes to their neighborhood school. But because the new Lincoln area would be both contiguous and within close geographic proximity to the school, Lincoln would actually become a "neighborhood school" -- in the strictest sense of the term. If anything, the Lincoln portion of Scenario 2 demonstrates what happens when the four criteria work together well.

District officials emphasize that Scenario 2 is still open for comments and changes. But they also say that the scenario does the best job so far of balancing the board's four criteria. Although the committee may change some boundaries here and there, the committee's final two or three recommendations probably will rely on Scenario 2 as a basic template.

That's why it is important for all district families and other concerned citizens to take part in the public forums at 7 p.m. Thursday in Parkview Church, 15 Foster Road., and 7 p.m. Friday in the Amos Dean Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel, 210 S. Dubuque St. Please visit the district site, read the maps and proposals carefully and come ready to ask questions and provide comment.

If you can't attend the forums, you can still send your written comments to the district's designated e-mail account at (And please feel free to copy the e-mail to as well.)