Updated: April 15, 2015 at 10:47 am
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on opting out of standardized testing in schools.
Here's a question you definitely won't see on the Common Core assessment tests that will be administered beginning April 14.
Which group is this hullabaloo about standardized testing all about?
A) Teachers and their unions.
B) Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state education officials.
C) Charter school supporters.
D) All of the above.
E) Parents and kids.
The correct answer is D. If you answered E, you need to do your homework before choosing sides on the opt-in or opt-out debate. A great place to start would be reporter Justin Murphy's comprehensive report (http://goo.gl/A1bf0J) on the pros and cons of having students sit out these exams.
Using standardized testing to measure students against common standards is not new, it's decades old. And there have always been questions and concerns about the right way to conduct standardized testing.
When No Child Left Behind came along in 2001, it placed an even stronger emphasis on linking test scores to school performance. That created a hullabaloo, too. It was largely coming from administrators, teachers and parents. They were worried about the kids.
"Teaching to the test" became a sinister household phrase. If the kids had to spend so much time preparing for boring, multiple choice tests, would there still be time to nurture their imaginations through hands-on science experiments and student-led reproductions of Stone Soup? Would these tests stifle their development into truly innovative and passionate grownups who could make the world a better place?
That worthy concern is lost in the current hullabaloo. The only child-centric argument most opt-out supporters have is, "Tests stress kids out." But these tests have no consequence on the child's grade or ability to advance, so that's not what is causing them to fret.
It is teachers (and, therefore, parents) who are feeling anxious, and kids know it. Teachers have been whipped into a frenzy by union leaders who have lost their decades-long chokehold on state government, its citizens and the educational system.
The unions are employing this tactic to fight politicians who may, or may not, have a clue how to truly educate a child — but know the union way doesn't work, especially in disaster zones like the City School District, where schools could lose funding if too many students opt out.
Parents, before you opt out, know who you're really opting out for.
The Times Union of Albany on pork barrel spending in the New York state budget.
How can more than half a million dollars make it into a budget for a group that New York state doesn't even know is legitimate?
With the perennial talk of rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, it's astounding that such a question even has to be asked. Yet here we are, years after the state vowed to tighten up the Legislature's pork barrel system, wondering who is minding the store. And not for the first time, either.
The questionable outlay is for $505,000 to a Brooklyn organization called Relief Services, said to be a mental health services referral provider. State records, such as they are, show the group received at least $1.275 million between 2006 and 2010.
In reality, the number is considerably higher — nearly $3 million, explains the Times Union's Chris Bragg. That figure comes from a report by the state's Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, a panel created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo but shut down last year by the governor even with open investigations.
The commission found the group operating out of a small storefront that "appears to house several interconnected nonprofit organizations that receive state funding to provide various medical services." But, said the commission's co-chair, William Fitzpatrick, the funds "certainly didn't go to improve the health of anybody in New York City."
Supporters say the organization does good work, but surveillance video found few people went in and out, and calls to the group's hotline went to voice mail. The sole person in the office told investigators that most of the organization's operations were in other states and abroad.
Yet the group, chaired by lobbyist Shiya Ostreicher, is in line for the $505,000 state grant, part of $87 million in what's formally known as legislative member items that have been rolled over, year after year, since new pork was eliminated from the budget in 2009.
With U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said to have picked up some of Moreland's cases, this grant may join other embarrassing slices of the pork saga, like the allocation this year of $24,000 in budget for ACORN — a community group that went out of business in 2010.
Mr. Cuomo, of course, should be going through the budget with his veto pen to cross out questionable, if not downright nonsensical, spending. But there's a bigger issue: the need for more transparency in the budget.
That includes giving lawmakers and the public at least the three days mandated by the state constitution for review of budget bills and other legislation, rather than rushing them through with the ink barely dry. It includes, too, more public availability on the part of the governor and legislative leaders to answer questions about what's in the budget deal, before the vote.
And as for that $87 million in member items still sitting around, the state should compile the details in an up-to-date database and make it readily available to the public. If lawmakers and the administration can't separate the pork fat from the meat after five years, maybe some sharp citizen eyes will get the job done.
The New York Times on the sentencing of former Blackrock security contractors for killings in Iraq.
For years, it seemed inconceivable to Iraqis that the American justice system would ever punish the private security contractors who wantonly opened fire in a busy Baghdad traffic circle in September 2007, killing 17 civilians.
Yet, on Monday, a judge in Washington imposed lengthy sentences on four former employees of the notorious security firm then known as Blackwater. These men, who came to embody the American government's often heavy-handed and at times careless conduct during the Iraq war, asked for leniency but were defiant in asserting their innocence. District Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced one of the men, Nicholas Slatten, to life in prison. The other three, Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty, were sentenced to 30 years in prison. Mr. Slatten, who was the first to open fire that day, was convicted of murder. His former colleagues were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to commit a violent offense.
The sentences represented a victory for the Justice Department, which faced a litany of setbacks and challenges over the years as it struggled to make sense of the events of that day and gather evidence that could be admissible in court.
"What happened on Sept. 16, 2007, was nothing short of an atrocity," T. Patrick Martin, one of the prosecutors who handled the case, said Monday.
The team of F.B.I. agents and federal prosecutors who oversaw the case should be commended for their perseverance. In 2009, a judge dismissed the initial set of charges filed against five Blackwater guards because the case had relied on affidavits the men submitted shortly after the massacre, having been promised immunity. That could have ended the legal proceeding. But prosecutors managed to build a case in 14 of the deaths relying on the testimony of Iraqi witnesses and former Blackwater guards, including one who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and has yet to be sentenced.
The Nisour Square massacre was among the most abominable acts committed by Americans during the Iraq war. Shortly after the shooting, the company changed its name to Xe Services, as though a new brand could wash away its blood-soaked past. The State Department continued doing business with the company, which provided security to American diplomats and intelligence personnel and had won more than $1 billion in government contracts.
The abusive conduct of many Blackwater guards, and the sense that Washington condoned it, fueled the notion that Americans regarded Iraqis as dispensable. That view became widespread, lending legitimacy to Sunni and Shiite extremist groups that killed and maimed thousands of American troops.
The legacy of the United States' war in Iraq will be forever tarnished by the haunting images of torture at Abu Ghraib prison that emerged in 2003 and the massacre of civilians in Haditha by American Marines in 2005. By bringing some of the Blackwater gunmen to justice, the American government has taken an important, if belated, step toward making amends.
The New York Daily News on Congress and the international nuclear deal with Iran.
Forced into retreat by deepening skepticism in Washington, the White House signaled that President Obama would sign a bill granting Congress the power to review any nuclear deal he strikes with Iran.
Presidential aides bathed the turnaround in buckets of eyewash: They claimed minor amendments by Senate Democrats had made Obama comfortable with legislation that he had previously described as an impermissible intrusion on presidential power and a threat to the whole pact.
In fact, the Senate was poised to shove the measure down Obama's throat by a veto-proof majority. A great big thank you to Sen. Chuck Schumer for stepping to the Democratic fore as a champion of scrutinizing the President's handiwork.
Far too belatedly, on Tuesday Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand joined the bandwagon.
Among the tide-turners for Obama was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who thought it high time to give the mullahs a missile-defense system that will all but end any military threat to an Iranian nuclear program.
Sticking a thumb in Obama's eye, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said selling Iran long-range S-300 batteries "was done in the spirit of good will in order to encourage progress in the talks" between the Iranians and Western powers.
Russian media also reported that Moscow and Tehran had also worked out an embargo-evading arrangement under which Iran would send a half-million barrels of oil daily to Russia in exchange for food staples and goods.
So much for Obama's insistence that hard-won sanctions against Iran would "snap back" if the mullahs turn out to cheat on Obama's deal. Thanks to Putin, those sanctions haven't even survived the negotiations.
The mobile missile system can fend off up to 124 missiles or 30 aircraft at a time, totally blowing away Obama administration contentions that, if need be, the U.S. could hammer a rogue Iranian nuke effort from the air.
"We have the capability to shut down, set back and destroy the Iranian nuclear program, and I believe the Iranians know that and understand that," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had said in selling Obama's deal.
Correctly, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz saw the Russian missile sale as "the direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is receiving from the nuclear deal being made with it."
Rather than insist that Iran cancel the missile order, a State Department spokeswoman offered hand-wringing capitulation.
"We don't believe it's constructive at this time for Russia to move forward with this," she said, adding, "We don't think this will have an impact on unity in terms of inside the negotiating room."
Where Putin has a chair.
A roused and courageous Congress is the only hope.
The Daily Gazette of Schenectady on when government should stay out of peoples' affairs.
In Ogden, Utah, earlier this month, a father brought home some big empty cardboard boxes from work, taped them together, and built a giant castle for his two little children and their friends to play in.
A day later, he got a notice from the town saying the structure violated the local regulations against having "junk or salvage material" in a yard. He would either have to remove it within 15 days or pay a $125 fine.
In Wichita, Kan., a mother bought a high school letter jacket for her son, who suffers from autism and Down Syndrome, as a gift because he's such a fan of the sport and the high school's basketball team.
After a parent complained, the school district told the boy he couldn't wear the jacket because he wasn't an official member of the team.
And here in Saratoga Springs, the City Council is considering requiring street performers — often college kids, older performers and wannabee contenders on The Voice — to purchase a permit and follow specific guidelines in order to perform on city sidewalks.
The street performers are one of the charming elements of Saratoga Springs' vibrant arts community and one reason why many people enjoy visiting downtown (where they patronize the businesses).
As far as anyone has said, there haven't been any major incidents of them invading people's space, panhandling, blocking the entrances to businesses or creating a dangerous situation for pedestrians or motorists. It's just something the city felt compelled to act on.
What is it about government these days that it feels the need to intrude on every single aspect of our lives, even if the individuals involved are doing no genuine harm?
The father with the cardboard fort wasn't hurting anyone; he was just being a dad. He didn't have junk cars piled up in his yard, creating an permanent eyesore or a health hazard. And the fort wasn't meant to be permanent. The first time it rained, the fort was coming down on its own. Did the government really need to intervene here?
In the case of boy with the letterman's jacket, was letting him wear his own special jacket really taking away from the prestige of players who earned a letter in basketball?
Was anyone actually harmed by this boy's mother providing a small degree of enjoyment in her son's life?
These are three examples from just the last week. But these kinds of government intrusions go on all the time around the country, and they need to stop.
There are plenty of areas where government needs to be involved in order to ensure the public's safety and to protect the quality of life for all members of the community. But oftentimes these days, the government feels compelled to take action in every situation, whether it needs to or not.
Government officials need to stop and think before acting. They need to let the people resolve some issues themselves. They need to use some common sense and realize they don't have to get in the middle of every situation.
Let the kids play in their cardboard castles. Let the boy wear his varsity jacket. And let the music play in the streets of Saratoga Springs.
This is the stuff of life.
Government needs to stay out of it as much as possible.