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Bah, Humbug in the Big Apple, Celebrities Get Schooled, and Butter Versus Butter

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, Dec. 10-16.

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As we enter the thick of the holiday season, teachers in New York City are only getting a paper-thin sliver of cheer: Parents are being asked to comply with a new rule limiting gifts to $5 or less. The idea, the city’s chancellor says, is to keep gifts “principally sentimental in nature and of insignificant financial value.” While some teachers are grumbling about the low dollar limit, particularly since they haven’t been given a raise since their last contract expired in May 2003, administrators say the rule takes pressure off parents unsure of how much to spend. One educator puts things in perspective this way: “Teachers should be paid enough so that parents don’t feel the need to give gifts ... and teachers don’t feel they need to accept them.”

An attempt at perspective drew some unwanted attention to the Cary Christian School in North Carolina after 9th graders read “Southern Slavery, As It Was” for a unit on the Civil War. The booklet, one of whose authors is on the board of an organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, suggests that slavery was “not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity” but rather one “based upon mutual affection and confidence.” Principal Larry Stephenson says the school is trying to expose students to different ideas. It’s hard, he adds, to find writings that discuss slavery from either a pro-South or Biblical standpoint, and this particular publication does both. “You can have two different sides, a Northern perspective and a Southern perspective,” he explains. The booklet’s other author may well offer the latter when he speaks at the school’s graduation in May.

Someone also known for his opinions on race relations has been seen around schools in Philadelphia. Best known for his eponymous 1980s sitcom and for voicing Fat Albert the decade before that, Bill Cosby is back on the air with “Dr. Cosby—School of Life,” a program on study skills airing on the Philadelphia district’s cable TV channel. Lest we forget, Cosby holds a doctorate in education, and he volunteered to develop the series to inspire students and offer advice, such as spending four hours a day studying.

Another celebrity, first daughter Jenna Bush, appears poised to teach at a Washington, D.C., charter school serving low-income children. The White House confirms that she’ll teach in the city, but officials at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, where she’s applied for a job, won’t say whether the 22-year-old is being considered for employment. The 250-student school, according to one official, emphasizes citizenship and “increasing students’ knowledge of other cultures.” It wouldn’t be the first time that a first family member has been involved with D.C. public schools—Amy Carter attended one.

Let’s move away from celebrity gossip and on to a weightier subject—comic books. Individual teachers have long been impressed by the literary merit of graphic novels (or at least have been willing to tolerate the medium to draw in reluctant readers). But now Maryland has created a comic book curriculum, to be rolled out statewide next fall. Intended to supplement, not supplant, traditional reading material, comics will be used to encourage reading and illustrate such concepts as mythology. They’ve come a long way in 50 years, when the genre was blamed for everything from illiteracy to promiscuity. Some educators remain wary, claiming that comics require different reading skills than regular books. But noting that the percentage of adults who read anything continues to drop, one expert said, “The biggest problem is ‘aliteracy,’ not illiteracy.”

The flip side of comedy, it’s been famously said, is tragedy, and one recent statistic plucked from the miasma pervading state budgets hints that one may be in the works. For the first time ever, the majority of states are spending more on health care for the poor than on education. Instead of the classic guns-versus-butter dilemma of the Economics 101 variety, an era of cash-starved state coffers has changed the equation to butter versus butter as lawmakers are forced to consider cuts in one social program to help fund the other. “We don’t like to see these programs played against one another, but this is what is happening,” says an NEA spokesman. In Tennessee, for example, officials plan to slash 430,000 recipients from state Medicaid rolls, with the savings potentially funneled to schools, pitting education and health advocates against each other.

This puts educators in an awkward position: We all remember the pro-school bumper sticker advocating a world where the Air Force has to hold bake sales to buy bombers, but do we really want to make the same wish about hospitals and CT scanners?

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