Hard to watch

Posted on June 30, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Most videos of vicious criminal attacks like the ones released this week from New Orleans and Georgia carry a warning: “Contains graphic content” or “Viewer discretion advised” or “May be disturbing to some viewers” or similar. Inevitably, what frequently appears next on the screen should be extremely disturbing to all viewers.

Ironically, these types of videos are typically captured by security cameras, often without audio, and usually with a “wide angle” lens that minimizes detail. Thus they’re nowhere near as graphic as the simulated violence projected on massive movie screens, which features gruesome closeups of blood and gore and amped-up sounds for blows and gunshots.

But even the most empathetic moviegoers understand, deep beneath their artificially induced fears and horror, that these are all actors. They are people pretending to be bad guys. As soon as the camera stops filming, they all laugh and joke together.

There’s no real violence, no real blood, no real harm. Movie pseudo-violence is, in essence, a conjoined twin of fake news.

In contrast, watching security-cam footage of an attack invokes a series of shattering realizations: These really are bad guys. Those really are innocent victims. They really did get hurt. This actually happened. I’ve been in similar places and situations—it could happen to me!

In case you missed the revelatory and very disturbing videos that have gone viral in recent days, here’s a recap.

The first video shows a Bostonian pair strolling along in the French Quarter last Saturday night (in New Orleans for a religious conference, as it turns out), when suddenly a group of young men is seen running up from behind them.

One of the ambushing attackers leaps onto the back of the tourist on the left and drags him down in a choke hold, as another pummels him.

The other tourist turns, startled, to see what’s happening to his friend.

Ominously, the largest of the attackers is right behind him—unseen—with his arm back and ready to strike.

His full-force right hook blindsides and cold-cocks the tourist, who tumbles face-first onto the sidewalk, where a pool of blood forms beneath his motionless head.

In 15 short seconds, it’s all over. The victims are robbed and left to deal with the aftermath of their injuries.

The tourist knocked unconscious is still in critical condition.

Just hours earlier, a few blocks away, another video surveillance camera captured a lone man walking on a sidewalk—as another man trails him.

Suddenly the trailing man begins to trot, and as he gets within striking distance he unleashes a vicious roundhouse blow from behind to the right side of the victim’s head. When the slugged man staggers back to his feet, the attacker resumes swinging.

Ultimately the victim is able to flee across the street and out of camera range.

Over in Baxley, Ga., an assault on a female food-stand owner was video-recorded last Thursday. Two customers, a man and wife, evidently complained about their chicken being cold.

The owner apologized and refunded their money.

That wasn’t enough for the pair, who began hurling obscenities at the woman. When the owner came outside to tell them she had called the police, the female suspect went berserk in a flailing attack that broke the owner’s nose and backed her up against the wall.

What unfolds next on the video is chilling and indeed hard to watch.

The owner’s 15-year-old daughter gets out of their truck to help her mom. On the video she can be seen focusing on the female attacker. She is not watching, and does not see, the very large male attacker outside her frame of vision.

In a split second, he steps forward and drives a blindside straight-right punch into the petite teen’s face.

Her head is savagely snapped back and she is knocked off her feet. She tries to stand up but is visibly dazed as passers-by arrive to help.

“Who does that?” her mother said later in an interview. “Who punches a child like she’s a grown man standing there?”

The Baxley police chief said, in his 41 years on the force, “I have never seen anything like this.” If you watch the video, you’ll likely echo his sentiment.

Assaults are the most common of all violent crimes. Nationally, the rate of aggravated assault is nearly 50 times that of murder.

Louisiana has been a top-10 state for assaults for decades, and it also holds the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the land—for the past 27 years.

But cowardly criminals ambushing vulnerable victims pay little attention to state borders. With video cameras becoming ubiquitous, we’re all able to witness more criminal brutality at its ugliest.

Most of us cannot imagine blindsiding a stranger to steal his or her wallet, or slugging a child in the face when she’s not looking.

We must commit to more deeply study the factors that cause anybody in an advanced civilized republic to behave that way as a normal course.

It’s not only a shame that our society discounts concussions and broken jaws as “minor” injuries when dealing with violent criminals. It’s a national disgrace.

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Crime wake-up call

Posted on December 9, 2016. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , |

Amid all the lamentations about “fake news” steering people wrong, few examples are as risky—and deadly—as the continued downplaying of violent crime in the national news media.

Fortunately, thankfully, and finally, a president-elect has the gumption to not only talk about this debilitating issue, but also promise to do something about it.

Earlier this week, Donald Trump echoed his head-on approach to reducing violent crime from the campaign, and promised that his administration would always put the safety of Americans first.

The biggest threat to safety for many decades now has been violent criminals. Yet the media ranks, from the Huffington Post to the Federalist to the American Spectator to U.S. News & World Report, prior to the election and since, keep on talking about crime being at “historic lows.”

Those two words have clear meanings. “Historic” indicates a time reference in the context of past events, or a significance in history. “Low” means a minimum point, level or figure. Used together to describe violent crime, they would lead a reader to believe that violent crime is happening at a rate below almost all other periods in American history.

Conveniently, crime rates aren’t matters of opinion. The Disaster Center has comprehensively compiled FBI Uniform Crime Rate data since 1960 for the nation and individual states.

Crime rates are calculated as incidents per 100,000 population, which negates whole-number comparisons that change as population grows or shrinks. FBI violent crimes comprise murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

The U.S. overall violent crime rate in 1960 was 160.9 crimes per 100,000 people. Last year, the most recent year for which FBI data are available, the violent crime rate was 383.2.

That doesn’t sound much like an historic low.

Admittedly, national rates can be misleading, because most crime is based on state laws, and crime is committed by individuals in localities. State analyses, however, add magnitude to the mistaken claims about “historic lows” in violent crime.

In Arkansas, for example, the 1960 violent crime rate was 33 percent lower than the national rate: a mere 107.7 crimes per 100,000 population. In 2015, the Arkansas rate was 521.3–much closer to our historic high of 595.1 in 1995.

Half a century ago, California’s violent crime rate was 239, nearly two-and-a-half times ours here in Arkansas. Has violent crime in the Golden Gate state been reduced to an historic low? Decide for yourself: The 2015 rate is 426.3.

That’s not the kind of statistical increase we’ve experienced in Arkansas, but it can hardly be called low in any historical sense–except recent history.

The violent-crime rate in California nearly doubled between 1960 and 1970, and more than doubled again between 1970 and 1990. So if the historical comparison extends back only 25 years ago, then yes, California’s rates are at an historic low.

In state after state, the story’s the same. Violent-crime rates are multiples of what they were in 1960.

In neighboring Tennessee, where Memphis and Nashville rates drive the whole state up, the violent crime rate for 2015 is seven times what it was in 1960. In Missouri and Louisiana, it’s three times higher; four times higher in Oklahoma.

A look at a few battleground states may help explain why Trump’s focus on reducing crime resonated in this media-imagined era of “historic low” rates.

States like Florida, North Carolina and Michigan have a long history of high crime rates (all three had violent-crime rates well above the national average in 1960). In each of those states, the violent-crime rate in 2015 was at least double what it was 55 years ago.

Ohio voters, on the other hand, had a rate that was half the national average in 1960; in 2015 it was four times higher. Pennsylvania’s rate is three times higher than in 1960. Up in Wisconsin, the violent-crime rate is 10 times what is was in 1960.

That’s historic, all right—an all-time high for the Badger State. The murder rate there jumped by 50 percent between 2014 and 2015.

Murder rates are not always reliable indicators of crime; they are often better indicators of emergency medical services, which help victims of attempted murder survive.

But many U.S. cities have seen spikes in murder this year. Chicago is probably the most high-profile example, where killings are up 45 percent this year, but other metro areas are also reeling from bloodbath levels.

Baltimore saw the highest increase in murder rate in 2015, which eclipsed the previous record from 1993 by 15 percent. St. Louis has the highest murder rate in the land, which is a staggering 12 times the national average. Cleveland and Milwaukee saw big increases in violence and murder, as did Houston and Nashville. Detroit’s violent crime continues its widespread woes.

In the core crime areas of those cities and many more, where real victims are suffering, trying to sell the “historic lows” line is a cruel farce. Violent-crime deniers need to wake up, and when they do, they’ll understand at least one part of the Trump phenomenon better.

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Shattered crystal balls

Posted on November 11, 2016. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Democratic strategists. Republican establishment. Political insiders. Past campaign managers. Observers and pundits. Paid consultants. Pollsters. Researchers. Activists. News anchors. All wrong.

Not about Trump, mind you—but about the vast breadbasket of working American people and the issues confronting them.

Trump was Trump all along. He didn’t vary at all from his famous/infamous persona. All he had to do is what millions of voters have been hungering for someone to do for decades now: pay attention to real issues instead of pandering to special interests. Hillary Clinton didn’t lose the election. It wouldn’t have mattered who the Democratic candidate was. Any Democrat that played by the party’s playbook was destined to crash and burn.

Hillary was, in many ways and by traditional measures, a very strong Democratic candidate. Her intelligence, experience, and political and policy savvy are undeniable. Her lifelong advocacy for children—and its resulting and resounding successes—is unquestionable. Her concession speech was poised and impressive, like the woman herself.

But she was bound by conventional campaign rules and principles, which have devolved into a bipartisan electoral myopia regarding voters.

Today’s political types focus more on how to get elected, instead of how to connect with voters.

That misfocused thinking drove strategy in both parties to the detriment of each. Campaign “experts” from both sides of the aisle snickered about Trump’s disdain for the modern methodology—focus groups, data-driven analysis, micro-message testing and the like—necessary for successful election runs.

Those Saturday Night Live skits of the Republican debates were so funny because the truth was also hilarious. Trump easily bested the whole battalion of GOP-preferred primary opponents in casual, amusing fashion. The arrogance at the top of the party was so blind that even when confronted with stunning record turnouts—in many instances nearly 100 percent increases over past records—leaders couldn’t recognize Trump’s appeal wasn’t about the celebrity candidate.

It was always about regular people and their issues.

Instead of learning from watching those primaries, Democrats fell lockstep into a similar elitist march. They pushed their political heads deeper into the sand as well, seeing what they wanted to see, hearing what they wanted to hear.

Heck, even stalwart conservatives didn’t give Trump a chance. A Labor Day article in the National Review headlined the question “Does Donald Trump Have a Path to 270?”

It took only five paragraphs to render a verdict: “The answer, barring unforeseen and politically transcendent developments, is no.”

But it’s only to insulated political types that issues like violent crime, immigration, inner-city decay, jobs shipped overseas and the like were all so unforeseen. Campaign analysts and advisers look at data about those issues. Trump looked at, and reached out to touch, the people they affect.

In the final analysis, that may be the best descriptor about this election. It wasn’t about left versus right, rich versus poor, urban versus rural, black versus white or even Democratic versus Republican. It was about disconnected versus connected.

The establishment in both parties has become so distant and out of touch that the leadership couldn’t see the voters for the electorate. When Trump insisted on addressing the nation’s abhorrent violent-crime problem, pundits like Paul Krugman ridiculed it as demagoguery, and claimed crime to be at “historic” lows.

Guys like him don’t have a clue, and even worse, don’t have the gumption to go get one. His definition of “historic” must only extend to the mid-1990s, because violent crime in every state and every major city is a multiple of what it was 60 years ago.

It’s a costly, tragic scourge on society, and millions of low- and middle-income people living in fear of crime have been ignored for decades by both political parties. Little surprise Trump sounded like a savior to many of them.

Likewise with immigration, which has been atrociously dodged by career politicians. It’s not necessarily Trump’s solution to the issue—the wall—that galvanized support, but his attention to it from a common-sense level.

In retrospect, that helps explain why the incessant and ubiquitous attacks on Trump had so little effect. In trying to sully the candidate, Trump’s opponents merely validated working-class voters’ suspicions of and cynicism about a rigged establishment concerned only about re-electing itself.

Trump’s penchant for coarsely calling spades what they are often made Republican leaders wince and Democratic leaders salivate. The hapless politician class didn’t understand that using pretty words to dodge ugly problems is exactly what so many voters were completely fed up with. The irony of a billionaire’s ability to connect with and tap into average voters is just another remarkable aspect of this momentous election.

It’s too early to tell how Trump’s miraculous run will transition into governance. But any glance at the electoral map reveals a great deal more national unity than what still-shocked political establishments will admit.

Old habits, like trying to win elections by pitting factions against each other and worshipping at the politically correct altar, die hard. Both parties have badly needed overhauling, and maybe this election will be the requisite wake-up lesson. It’s certainly shaken things up.

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A fighting chance

Posted on June 28, 2016. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Just a short week after Orlando, another assault weapon shooting was in the news much closer to home.

Late Sunday night, a Jonesboro man was confronted at his front door by two men, one of which reportedly carried a shotgun.

When the pair threatened him and tried to shove their way into the house, the resident retrieved his AR-15 rifle and opened fire.

The armed assailant was killed; his suspected accomplice is in custody, charged with aggravated robbery, police said.

On Monday, several states away in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, an armed robber burst into a pharmacy, shoved his pistol in the face of a female clerk and shouted demands for money and drugs.

The pharmacy’s owner, who possessed a concealed weapons permit, was thrown a bag and ordered to fill it with Oxycodone.

Turning his back as if to obey, the owner drew his own handgun and shot the robber several times.

The assailant survived and remains in critical condition in a nearby hospital.

Two weeks earlier, another Pennsylvania pharmacy robber wasn’t so lucky.

Armed with a shotgun, which he tried to conceal behind an umbrella, a man wearing a Halloween mask entered the Levittown, PA pharmacy and charged the counter.

The pharmacy owner shouted twice that he had a gun.

As the would-be robber leaped over the cash register, the pharmacy owner—who had watched the man approach on security cameras mounted outside the store—opened fire, mortally wounding the assailant.

In each of these examples, the outcome intended by the criminal was changed by an armed victim.

In each instance, the intended victims had a fighting chance against violent lawlessness and evil—and prevailed.

No law on earth would have changed the criminals’ behavior. The only thing more gun laws might have changed is the consequences for the innocent people who were attacked.

Countless self-defense shootings are captured on surveillance videos, and easily accessed by Internet search. Almost every time, the criminals are surprised to be confronted with armed resistance.

The silent film footage typically reveals an instant change in attitude: one moment a gun-wielding, tough-talking thug is barking orders, and the next he is like a roach trying to dodge, scamper, hide—do anything—to escape the very fate he had been threatening his victims with.

As the district attorney observed of the dead robber in Levittown, “The fella asked for what he got, and he got it.

“Frankly, [the owner] should be commended,” D.A. David Heckler said, “he performed a public service in taking out this fella.”

From a fiscal standpoint, it’s certainly cheaper for the state to bury an armed robber than incarcerate him for 20 years. And the recidivism rate for dead violent criminals is zero.

News stories of thwarted crimes like these and hundreds of thousands of others are generally relegated to local coverage, while sensational shootings in which the criminal is successful command national headlines.

Who knows what might have happened differently in Orlando if, in addition to the lone armed security guard at the entrance (which the shooter outgunned immediately), a few of the 300 or so patrons inside the club had been legally carrying concealed weapons?

The outcome might have been the same; it wouldn’t have been worse.

It appears the shooter there, like so many others, would have been surprised had someone from the crowd come up shooting back. He reportedly cased the club, and was familiar with the security setup.

Chances are, had the security guard brought the gunman down before any loss of life, the story would have stayed mainly a local one.

In the end, that adage gun-control advocates hate proved true. The only thing that stopped the bad guy with a gun was a good guy with a gun—in that case, the police, who arrived too late to save 49 lives.

Orlando is an extreme incident, of course. More common shootings of any kind—single or multiple—all begin the same way, with a criminal pulling out a gun and hoping no one else there has one. The likelihood of a gunman committing his crime in full view of a police officer, who can intervene at the onset, is slim.

Most crimes for gain (as opposed to rage or passion crimes) are planned to some extent. Criminals bring guns along because the last thing they want is a fair fight.

The best hope for reducing shootings is for criminals to become more and more worried that more citizens might be ready to shoot back—or even shoot first once they realize the lethal threat.

A short anonymous essay has made the rounds on Facebook recently, which begins with this:

I stand behind you in line at the store with a smile on my face…and a handgun in my waistband and you are none the wiser, yet you are safer for having me next to you.”

If I’m with my family in a theater, or a convenience store, or a pharmacy, or a nightclub, and some criminal wants to be the only one there with a gun, I want that safety next to me. I want a fighting chance.

You should too.

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Gun culture on display

Posted on June 3, 2016. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

For most Americans, Memorial Day is a holiday weekend rich with robust dimensions.

It formally embodies somber respect for fallen soldiers, and appreciative gratitude for the blessings of liberty they died to preserve. It’s also the informal kickoff to the summer season, a time of joy that includes road trips (89 percent of holiday travelers drove to their destinations), cookouts, outdoor activities such as swimming and boating, and bargain-hunting amid holiday sales.

We lay wreaths to honor supreme sacrifice, then celebrate the fruits of freedom with festivities.

But for a growing number of citizens, Memorial Day is not a holiday at all, but instead a worrisome weekend fraught with fear and terror, maim and mayhem, blood and death. More than anything else, perhaps, modern Memorial Days (and other summer holiday weekends) are showcasing the true nature of America’s gun culture—and it’s a far cry from the picture painted by political propaganda.

Like millions of others basking in the bliss of grilled holiday burgers and nursing a sunburn, I missed the bloodbath unleashed in Chicago till I read reports of it on Tuesday.

Sixty-nine shootings rocked the Windy City from Friday till Memorial Monday. That capped a May total of 318 shootings, which left 397 Chicagoans injured and 66 dead. Amazingly, with so much lead flying over the weekend, only six victims died. That’s a dastardly, disgusting asterisk, however; the relatively low death toll masks the violence, and minimizes the outrage.

Propaganda is a powerful tool, and in no subject is it more expertly applied than gun crime. The “gun culture” as presented, discussed and analyzed in the mass media is a fiction of Orwellian magnitude. Its imagery of unregulated gun shows, uneducated gun owners, and trigger-happy rednecks is false fodder for gun-control advocacy as a legislative end—not a social solution that actually saves lives.

The sad shooting snapshot that was Chicago on Memorial Day will play out all summer long, in every major metropolitan statistical area.

But not in every metro neighborhood.

A map of shootings from May in Chicago reveals the discriminatory nature of criminal gunplay. When overlaid on a demographic map, the little dots that represent shootings are overwhelmingly located in black and Hispanic population centers. The shooters and the victims are overwhelmingly minorities. A majority of the victims are also male, and either criminals themselves or associating with criminals.

The youngest homicide victim over the weekend in Chicago was a 15-year-old girl, who was a passenger in a car with two known gang members when it was fired upon at 1:30 Saturday morning.

This is the monumental fraud that is being furtively propagated on us all. Gun laws don’t matter to the lawless. No gun-control measure—from magazine capacity limits to assault-weapon bans—would have saved that teenage girl and spared her family’s grief.

With so many black lives lost in Chicago in an unusually violent May, one might have expected some comment or acknowledgement from the Black Lives Matter movement.

But special interests are exceedingly narrow; despite their often noble-sounding names, they cling tight and hold close to their core issue. Had a white cop shot a black victim in Chicago, the pre-ordained protests would have materialized en masse. While black lives lost in the business-as-usual intra-racial crime of urban areas like Chicago’s West and South sides do actually matter, the Black Lives Matter is really only interested in grinding the racist axe.

Another fairy-tale aspect of America’s gun crime is that it’s not even a gun issue but a geographic one. Shootings are remarkably concentrated in the largest American cities, because that’s where the gangs are.

The FBI Uniform Crime Report tracks violent crime and murder rates by cities, which it categorizes by population size. When aggregated according to city categories, it becomes clear that our national “average” statistics on crime serve to disguise some incredibly high-crime urban areas.

Chicago, despite being one-third the size of New York City, has a murder rate four times higher. But Chicago doesn’t even crack the top 10 cities above 250,000 for murder. St. Louis’ rate is 10 times that of New York City.

The 76 cities in that largest category (which represents about 18 percent of the nation’s population) have a collective average murder rate of 9.27 per 100,000 population. In contrast, there are 3,056 cities with populations between 10,000 and 99,999 and 5,227 cities with populations between 1,000 and 9,999 in the FBI data. Together they represent 36 percent of the nation’s citizenry. Their collective murder rates are 2.98 and 2.46.

The gang problem, which is inherently criminal, is America’s main gun problem. They’re illegally armed to the teeth, and ruthless in their recklessness regarding collateral damage.

So why do liberal politicians insist on legislating to the exception—further regulation of gun owners who aren’t shooting people—rather than the rule?

No community should have to dodge bullets and bury innocents over a holiday weekend as if it were in a Third World ghetto.

Gangs, not guns, are the cancer. Where’s the leadership on curing that?

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Pre-K’s pre-emptive power

Posted on April 8, 2016. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

There are few statistical slam-dunks in public policy.

Most social issues have multidimensional complexity comprising various factors, each with the singular capacity to wildly skew analysis—and thus skewer the effectiveness of social programs designed to solve them. That’s why some programs wind up doing the exact opposite of their intended purpose, and making things worse.

Occasionally, however, an idea materializes whose time has not only come, but also arrives accompanied by great opportunity.

Pre-kindergarten education is that idea, and the time and place to seize national leadership on it is Arkansas 2016.

For some (and perhaps for many), “preschool” has knee-jerk connotations derived from the general partisan politicization surrounding education issues. That reflex is a hindrance to clear thinking. Even the slightest deliberation over the factual realities suggest that support for more pre-K funding is simply smart common sense.

Here are a few ways high quality pre-K reduces costs and returns to society, by some analytical estimates, up to $16 for every $1 in program cost.

It produces staggering results in lowering crime. Good luck finding any single public initiative with demonstrated reductions of arrests and sentencing among low-income teens and twentysomethings that can rival those achieved by pre-kindergarten enrollment.

The criminals 20 years from now are today’s toddlers, and research from the Perry Preschool Study (which followed subjects through age 40) showed enormous reductions in criminality from high-risk children who participated in a high-quality pre-K program. At age 40, the pre-K students had been sentenced for a crime 46 percent less often than their peers in a control group who did not attend pre-K. The pre-K group also had a 33 percent lower arrest rate for violent crimes. The drop in drug-crime arrests for the pre-K students was a remarkable 58 percent.

Reductions of that magnitude are almost unimaginable in a day and time in which a 3 or 4 percent drop in crime rates makes headlines. And here in Arkansas we suffer some disproportionate victimization in some violent categories.

If you’re anti-crime, you should be pro-preschool.

It focuses on reading readiness. Literacy is absolutely fundamental to learning, and we know that if a child arrives at kindergarten behind on his letters, he’s unlikely to ever catch up. Nearly nine out of 10 (88 percent) poor readers in the first grade are still poor readers in the fourth grade, according to Pew Charitable Trusts data. And 75 percent of poor third-grade readers turn into poor high school readers.

Model pre-K programs have curricula that ready students for reading so they don’t start out behind. I’m a believer that all real learning starts with reading, and the earlier a child becomes a good reader, the better that child will do in school. In a state like Arkansas that gets double-whammied by high child poverty and low child literacy rates, pre-K spells extraordinary potential.

If you’re pro-reading, you should be pro-preschool.

It encourages better parenting. One of the requirements for a quality pre-K program is interactivity and feedback from parents, at a more involved level than a typical often-skipped parent-teacher conference in regular school. High-risk children often come from troubled family environments, and pre-K can introduce some measure of stability for them.

Research data also show that pre-K students in high-risk categories benefited later in life as parents themselves: Pre-K female participants in studies had significantly fewer teen pregnancies and fewer abortions.

Pre-K participants in the Perry School Study at age 40 were four times more likely to do volunteer community work than the control group.

If you’re pro-family and pro-life, you should be pro-preschool.

It leads to better employment and earning power. Farsighted business leaders and organizations across the country are recognizing the significant difference pre-K programs can make in the later working lives of children. They know the toddlers of today will be the emerging work force 20 years from now, and they view pre-K as particularly relevant in economically depressed areas as a job-training factor.

The studies show higher employment and wages among low-income children who attend pre-K, and the Perry data featured a 36 percent increase in median annual earnings at age 40.

So chambers of commerce are lining up in support, as reported in Jonesboro last week, where the number of pre-K students and classes in the Jonesboro Public School district have doubled since 2004—and there’s a waiting list.

If you’re pro-business, you should be pro-preschool.

Pre-K kids are better prepared for K-12. In some respects, all the previous benefits are icing on the primary purpose cake. At the heart of quality pre-K is its highly demonstrated ability to help kids do better in school, especially those also confronted with poverty.

Unlike so many social-engineering ideas, pre-K offers proven results—provided that key quality indicators are in place: qualified teachers, small classes, effective curricula, systematic parental interaction.

There are lobbies, special interests and political opportunists who all hope to make a football of pre-K for their own ends. But it need not be partisan, nor even a public/private issue.

It’s just a good idea in general, and a great idea for a state like Arkansas.

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Year of Opportunity

Posted on January 2, 2015. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

It’s been many years since “Land of Opportunity” graced our license plates as the state motto, but I always liked its idealistic message.

How inspiring to live in a place declared to be full of possibilities!

How uplifting to have the whole state essentially proclaim a welcome to those with high aspirations.

And how appropriate, in the still-rippling wake of historic elections, to designate 2015 as a Year of Opportunity in Arkansas.

The electorate rightly has some great expectations, even if not fully expressed, about political change translating into governmental achievement.

The good news is that there is much room for improvement, which ironically is also the bad news. Change takes courage—much more than election campaigns do.

Big change takes a lot of courage, plus vision, dedication and tenacity. And yet, elevating Arkansas out of the mid- to low 40s in derogatory state-ranking categories will never be accomplished through seeking small, incremental advancements.

A new year, with a newly elected changing of the guard, calls for bold, new approaches.

My suggestion at this annual observation of the turning year is to approach our state challenges with a new commitment to speak for–shout for, if necessary–those whose voices are rarely heard.

They are the thousands of families of victims of violent crime whose woe and shattered lives languish in the shadows while headline-grabbing trials highlight criminals as causes célèbre for this issue or that.

They are the generations of kids trapped in schools where learning is the exception rather than the rule, while educators earnestly toil to tweak a “system” rather than teach individual students.

In short, they are casualties of modern social policies that badly need rethinking. And the best way to rethink them is with an innovative perspective from the people who pay the highest price when misgovernment prevails.

Victims need a voice

There is simply no reason for our state crime rates to ever exceed the national average. We’re too small and too poor to have to also suffer the ignominy of rampant criminality.

Let’s start the New Year off with a resolution to give victims the loudest voice in shaping crime policy.

Instead of giving ear service to highly funded special-interest outfits and “studies,” let’s take to the streets and go door to door in our most crime-ridden neighborhoods to ask people for ideas about reducing crime.

I have an idea of what citizens who have to live in the midst of thugs might say about improving the justice system, but let’s hear it from the front lines in their own plain words.

They’ll be a fount of fresh clarity on issues such as profiling, gangs, gun control, loitering laws, police presence and more. Better than anyone, they understand the fear and tragedy of crime far beyond its statistical analysis.

If the legislature can’t fund a task force to conduct extensive community surveys, let university research classes do it.

It’s wearisome to watch protests in support of criminals. There needs to be a movement to actively and aggressively support those suffering most under the scourge of high crime rates.

They likely will strip away all the politically correct claptrap and suggest common-sense solutions. Let 2015 be the year we give them that opportunity.

Ask the ed experts

How all the truisms about education, which were so well understood generations ago, have gotten trampled beneath such a bloated bureaucracy is a mystery that defies explanation.

Per-pupil spending is at an all-time high. Yet learning achievement hasn’t kept pace (indeed, in many schools it’s regressed).

In any other business, that’s a formula for bankruptcy and oblivion. Only in government enterprises do bankrupt ideas continue to get bankrolled.

It’s time to ask the real experts—teachers—for their input. We need a referendum on what’s right and wrong with education from those at the heart of its delivery.

We all know teachers and have probably been privy to their hand-wringing, shoulder-shrugging and head-shaking reactions to the various Education Department experiments du jour.

Teachers’ insights into detrimental changes in schooling are rooted in up-close and personal experiences in real classrooms—not on the latest theories emanating from so-called think tanks with ulterior agendas.

Let’s resolve here in the middle of the school year to empower teachers, students and parents with the loudest voices in structuring education priorities that line funding up with the most fundamental problems.

Lack of discipline, for example, is an oft-mentioned culprit in poorly performing schools, but solving it is never a conspicuous education budget line item.

Teachers will have loud and clear ideas about everything ranging from discipline to paperwork to consolidation to class size to standardized testing to long-distance learning and more—if we’ll only ask.

Educrats with their politically correct playbooks have held sway long enough.

Let 2015 be the year we take the opportunity to restore students and teachers to positions of prominence in our school policymaking.

Speak now

Crime victims and teachers, parents or students need not wait on state surveys to be heard. Email me at dana.d.kelley@icloud.com and I’ll share your collective voices in a coming column.

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Moonbeams gone missing

Posted on October 10, 2014. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

I didn’t expect any company when I went outside in the wee hours on Wednesday morning to look at the sky.

The tad of Indian Summer must have re-energized a couple of our infamous state insects, which greeted me with fittingly vampiric fervor on the occasion of the “Blood Moon.”

It was a fabulous October night to be outdoors, with cool temperatures and shimmering stars in the clear autumn air.

Over roughly an hour’s time, the sun’s reflection shining as a glorious full moon was reduced to a darkened disc, from luminous lunar beacon to shadow-shrouded celestial body.

It was as though some cosmic light switch had been flipped off.

Long before it became a legal term used to write rights into the constitution, a penumbra was one of three parts of a shadow, that section in which only a portion of the light source is obscured by the occluding body.

It’s how an eclipse begins, and is an inspiring phenomenon to behold.

No wonder a younger humanity quaked and quivered over the unknown power that could smother the lunar lamp of their skies. Had the maker of heaven and earth masked the moon for a reason? A portending prophecy, perhaps? An imminent disaster?

Even the most level-headed ancients must have faltered slightly when Chicken Littles pointed with sky-falling terror to an extinguished moon.

Was the descent of darkness to next befall the earth? If Luna could lose its luster, would Sol soon follow suit?

A train rumbled in the distance, reminding me that fear is dispatched best with knowledge and technology.

The specter before me once unfolded to mankind as a fearful, firmament cataclysm.

Yet no fright accompanied Wednesday’s pre-dawn spectacle.

It was only interplanetary sleight-of-hand. A disappearing act, an illusory marvel in the early morning atmosphere. A rare firsthand affirmation of change as constant in our world, our solar system and our galactic universe.

Life is motion.

Gravity-planted with our feet on the ground, it’s hard to comprehend that the earth and sun and moon are in perpetual flight, spinning and circling with metered precision.

Watching the nighttime shadow of my street stretch all the way to the moon, and methodically move across the lunar visage, was a masterful visual documentary. I gleaned a physical sense of the earth’s rotation and the moon’s revolution–proof positive of science triumphing myth, of fact confirming theory.

Then, as ordained by the creator to whom we owe well-ordered orbits in addition to our natural rights, the return to astral normalcy slowly ascended as the world turned and the moon set in the west.

Out of darkness came light—a recurring theme rooted in both man and nature—as first a sliver of moon was re-lit and grew, surely and steadily pushing penumbra shadow from its cratered face.

Spectacularly, as the moon sank beneath the western horizon, the east was ablaze.

Day following night. A course held true. Everything in its season.

Technically, I witnessed a lunar eclipse. But as stargazing experiences go, enhanced by the stirring October breeze, it was illuminating and enlightening.

Too close for comfort

Just after midnight on Monday night, a Craighead County deputy pulled over a pickup that had wandered over the centerline and then failed to use a turn signal.

At that point, nobody knows whether the ensuing traffic stop will be routine or turn deadly.

Not the police officer. Not the driver. And none of the millions of citizens asleep in their beds.

Only a day or two later, when the incident makes the local news, do the details unfold.

The story they tell is a scary one, despite its safe if not happy ending.

Walking up to the driver’s window, the officer smelled alcohol. He didn’t yet know that the driver was a parolee, with a suspended driver’s license, driving a truck with a Pontiac car’s license plate on it.

According to reports, he wouldn’t learn until a few minutes later that the driver had nearly $6,000 worth of meth with him, and was carrying a loaded .40-cal. handgun in a Cheetos bag.

Or that the driver had been convicted of felony battery in 2013 in the six-on-one beating of a man—and also of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Thankfully and luckily, the arrest early Tuesday morning came off uneventfully.

The driver faces several charges related to the drugs, the gun and the un-seat-belted 5-year-old child he had in the vehicle with him at 2:15 a.m.

If justice prevails, the driver will be locked up where he belongs for a long time.

But that’s a big if—he should have already been locked up.

This non-headline incident should serve as smelling salts to society as evidence, once again, that violent criminals don’t change their stripes if let out of prison. They arm themselves (this driver’s gun was stolen, if you’re wondering how he passed the background-check law), and soon begin endangering others.

Because nothing bad happened, and no one was hurt, we’ll collectively put our heads back in the sand.

Until something does, and someone is.

It’s too bad we don’t learn more from near-tragedies.

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