Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:
The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle on policy hitting a sour note:
The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center tried to play it strictly by the book.
Instead, it provided a textbook example of overreacting.
The week before Christmas, officials at the hospital's Downtown campus put their collective foot down in enforcing a policy of banning carolers from singing religious Christmas music in the hospital's public patient areas. As a result, high-school students from Augusta's Alleluia Community School decided not to perform their annual caroling.
We don't know the precise religious makeup of the local VA's patient population. But we would guess that the hospital's complaint box isn't stuffed with indignant comments from patients who don't want to hear Christmas songs. The Alleluia group reported no problems when it caroled at the VA's Uptown campus in 2011 and 2012.
The hospital seems to be adhering to a Veterans Health Administration handbook policy that, as stated in one subsection, requires chaplains to ensure "that religion is not imposed on any patient either overtly or subtly."
But the word "imposed" seems to imply that religious content would be forced on a patient, or that a zealous proselytizer would take advantage of a patient by demanding his or her attention. Do hospital officials really believe that the distant sound of caroling grabs patients by their hospital gowns and compels them to convert to Christianity?
It's merely singing. As a form of religious expression, that can be very mild. Does the chime of a ghanta meditation bell somehow "impose" Hinduism or Buddhism on the listener?
In other instances, the government bends over backward to honor veterans' freedom of religion. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs even approved the hammer of Thor as one of about 60 religious symbols that can be inscribed on veterans' government-issued gravestones and memorial markers.
But do veterans really have to be protected from certain holiday singing? Caroling scarcely qualifies as imposing religious persecution. For a sense of perspective, read recent news stories about the bloody, violent purge of Christianity in other parts of the world. On Christmas Day, 15 Christians died in a church bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, where Christianity has been practiced since the first century A.D.
It appears that the VA is trying to outlaw being offended. But after word of the Augusta caroling decision hit national news wires this week, the hospital inadvertently cast a wider net to offend many more people.
Alleluia students have caroled before at the VA without incident. This year's VA decision marked a disproportionate response to something that never appeared to have been a problem.
The Times, Gainesville, Ga., on school progress as a good start for 2014:
With a new year bringing both a fresh session of the Georgia legislature and statewide elections, look for education to be a prominent recurring topic in state politics in 2014.
After years of budget cuts in reaction to the recession and dwindling tax revenues, state officials are promising to restore education funds to help boost performances of Georgia's students.
It's a worthwhile effort, no matter what has occurred before, and welcome news for parents who want to ensure their children have the best schools available.
As 2013 ends, both Gainesville and Hall County can crow a bit about their recent success.
Both school systems have posted a rise in graduation rates, a steady rise over the last two years. Hall County students graduated from high school at a 77.5 percent rate this year, up from 74.4 percent last year. That exceeds the state's rate of 71.5 percent, which also is on the rise.
Gainesville's four-year graduation rate climbed to 70.1 percent for 2013 from 66.5 percent in 2012.
Gainesville's rate actually is even better for five-year students, 78 percent. That has led district officials to consider reducing the graduation credit requirement from 24 units to the statewide standard of 23. Such a move wouldn't affect students' learning — the classes would be just as challenging — but allow more to graduate within the four-year window.
These improvements didn't happen by accident. Local schools are making a concerted effort to target struggling students and involve parents to help guide their children on a path toward a diploma.
"I think it's made a big difference, some of the things we do," said North Hall High principal Joe Gheesling, whose school posted a 95 percent graduation rate.
"We have conscientious students, we have dedicated teachers, and we have determined principals," said Eloise Barron, Hall's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
Even the schools for nontraditional students had their graduation rates rise: Hall's Lanier Charter Career Academy, 20.3 percent in 2013 up from 18.2 percent, and Gainesville's Wood's Mill Academy, 29.9 percent up from 26.9 percent. ...
In the last two years, Hall grew 58 percent in charter enrollment, topping districts in San Diego and Florida as the nation's highest rate. According to the report, 8,633 students were enrolled in the county's charter programs for the 2012-13 school year, 32 percent of the district's student population, the nation's sixth highest percentage. ...
Gainesville's entire system qualifies for charter school status.
The advantages, and results, of charter schools has been debated in recent years, many claiming that the more nontraditional teaching methods used there haven't resulted in better grades or test scores. But it's not hard to find a correlation between the local systems' charter school efforts and better results in grades, test scores and graduation rates.
Look for more such efforts in the years to come as students respond to these innovative teaching methods that go beyond "teaching to the test" or basic memorization to achieve grades. Our state's workforce needs strong critical thinkers who can take what they've learned in science, engineering and other disciplines and apply it to the problems industries face.
Yet one challenge remains: Test scores and graduation rates still are lower at schools in lower-income communities. Title 1 schools with a majority of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches lag behind their more affluent counterparts. That comes as no surprise, really, but needs to be addressed through targeted programs and funding efforts for schools in need.
Students from families with means are going to have a natural advantage: more access to technology, active parental support and facilities such as libraries and museums that can supplement learning. A home environment that values education is a key to driving children to succeed, but isn't always easy to come by.
Another obstacle is language. In Gainesville, just 47.9 percent of students still learning English graduated in four years; Hall's rate is 57.2 percent. Continuing efforts to assist these and other at-risk students will pay off when more of them can earn a diploma to become productive members of the community.
The success the local school districts have achieved is a good start to making sure no child is left behind. Now it's up to state leaders, from the governor down to county and city officials, to ensure they have the resources needed to keep moving forward.
The Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal on maritime disaster awaiting unless steps are taken:
It is not a wildly risky prediction to say that we have a maritime disaster somewhere in our future.
Cruise ships are getting ever larger and carrying ever larger numbers of passengers, more than could be comfortably or efficiently removed from the ship in the event of a fire or a sinking.
In January 2012, the U.S. Costa Concordia, with 4,252 people aboard, ran aground on a clearly visible island off the coast of Italy, with the loss of 32 lives. Because of delays in implementing safety procedures and language barriers among the crew and passengers, the ship was not abandoned in an orderly fashion, and the captain, rather than stick with his ship as law and tradition demand, left about an hour before most of his passengers.
Last February, a small fire that should have easily been contained caused the Carnival Triumph to drift helplessly around the Gulf of Mexico for four days without cooked food and without proper sewage disposal in parts of the ship. The ship and its hungry and filthy passengers were eventually towed ashore.
The size of these ships seems to exacerbate the problems once trouble strikes. And the ships keep getting bigger. Currently, the world's largest cruise ship is Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas with 2,706 rooms capable of accommodating 6,300 passengers and 2,394 crew members on 16 decks. There are 22 restaurants, 20 bars, a shopping mall and a casino. The Allure's size would make it one of the world's 30 largest hotels accommodated in a single structure.
The Chicago Hyatt Regency, generally accounted as a large hotel, has 2,026 rooms. Unlike land-based hotels, the passengers on a cruise ship cannot go outside and stand on the sidewalk when trouble strikes.
The likelihood is that cruise ships will become bigger and more opulent simply because cruising has become so popular. In figures cited by The New York Times, the trade association of cruise lines said its North American members carried 17 million passengers in 2012, up from 7 million in 2000.
The responsibility for insuring that the ships are safe, well maintained and manned by adequately trained crews seems scattered across a variety of public and private agencies, the cruise lines themselves and the countries under whose flags of convenience they sail. Meanwhile, the sheer size of the ships demands a greater reliance on automation.
With ever more and ever larger ships headed to a relatively limited number of destinations, it would seem that maritime trouble of some kind is inevitable.