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Does a Kursk lurk in our own...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Does a Kursk lurk in our own future?

As a longtime student of Norman Polmar's writings, I was greatly interested in his comments regarding the Kursk tragedy ("American Navy missed chance to rescue sub," Opinion Commenatary, Aug. 23).

However, I would ask Mr. Polmar and others interpreting the incident as an indicator of the dangerous state to which Russia's military has declined, to apply the Kursk's lessons closer to home. There is a Kursk in our own future.

Since the end of the Cold War, our military budgets have shrunk considerably. Funding cuts have directly affected such critical areas as new technologies to help maintain our older equipment, spare parts, research and development, retention of quality service members and new procurement.

The result is that our service members must spend more time maintaining aging equipment that is more prone to failure because there are fewer new parts to fix it.

Thus the death of the Russian Navy is being repeated in our own military, albeit not as fast or as dramatically.

Russia cut funding for such critical military needs as maintenance, pay and benefits, research and development and parts, resulting in under-trained conscripts risking their lives on dangerously under-maintained technology.

The price for Russia's "procurement holiday" is a needless pile of scrap metal and lifeless bodies on the bottom of the Barents Sea.

To prevent an American Kursk, we must support ongoing, but under-resourced, American efforts to bridge the gap between our legacy systems and future procurement.

We're forcing our service members -- who are spread too thin, worked too hard and paid too little -- to spend time and resources we don't have maintaining equipment that's aging, breaks down more often and is more costly to fix.

Because we have to spend more time and funding on maintenance, we're spending less on new procurement, training and readiness.

The American military is well into its own death spiral.

Credible voices like Mr. Polmar's must advocate ending it, before we, too, figuratively, find ourselves gasping for breath on the ocean floor, victims of our own technology -- which turned on us because we would not care for it properly.

John Milliman, Leonardtown

Arab leaders treat refugees as pawns

In her article "Palestinians have a right to go home" (Sept. 3), Phyllis Bennis did not accurately discuss the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem or United Nations Resolution 194.

The initial U.N. partition plan was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the surrounding Arab nations. The combined Arab armies attacked the Jewish population in a blunder of historic proportions. Six thousand Jews lost their lives defending themselves.

In starting the war, the Arabs set off a chain of events that led to the fleeing of refugees.

Often these refugees were encouraged by their leadership to flee temporarily, until after the Jewish state was destroyed, and promised double their land after the Arab victory.

Ms. Bennis conveniently mischaracterized U.N. resolution 194 by claiming that it required Israel to recognize the right of Arab refugees to return home.

What she left out is that the resolution did not guarantee the right of return. It included equally weighted alternatives such as "resettlement" and "compensation."

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were thrown out of Arab countries after the creation of Israel. They left penniless with only the shirts on their backs and were quickly resettled in Israel.

Contrast this with Arab refugees who fled to some of the wealthiest countries in the world and have been used as pawns by their leadership over the past 50 years.

In fact, although many are now living under the control of the Palestinian Authority, no effort has been made to enhance their lives, despite billions of dollars in foreign aid dispensed for this purpose.

Michael Langbaum, Baltimore

Arab refugees, unfortunate as they may be, are part of the worldwide exchange of populations -- which has been occurring throughout recorded history.

The plight of these Arab refugees is a product of the cynical and unconscionable treatment of their fellow Arabs by the host countries. These Arabs were often promised a utopia by their leaders, after the Jews were "driven into the sea."

The worldwide practice of absorbing refugees into host nations, which Israel has followed, has not been Arab policy.

These unfortunate refugees have been used as political pawns, supported by the United Nations and generally denied citizenship in the host countries -- and maintained in camps as a breeding ground for terrorists.

S. D. Gaby, Baltimore

Backing public libraries

The Sun should be commended for its editorial "Lost: school libraries" (Sept. 1). I wholeheartedly concur that the "most important thing Baltimore libraries need" is "a champion."

When the Enoch Pratt Free Library decided to close its St. Paul Street branch, one little-noted fact was that the adjacent Margaret Brent Elementary School didn't have a library, presumably because of its proximity to that branch.

Thus the closure of that branch library also eliminated library access for that school's children.

While individual writers in The Sun eloquently bemoaned the loss of the branch, therefore qualifying as "champions" of learning, the position of the editorial board was quite different.

Especially memorable was an editorial saying that the library should close ("Library branch must be closed," Sept. 18, 1997).

Fortunately, the St. Paul Street Library has reopened as the Charles Village Learning Place because of the extraordinary efforts of a number of champions of childhood learning. And, in my opinion, that library now, better serves the surrounding area.

But for libraries' champions to succeed, they need allies in positions of power. The Sun could have been such an ally when the Pratt decided to close the St. Paul Street branch and neighborhood activists sued to keep it open.

However, instead of being an ally, the editorial board of The Sun was an opponent, supporting the library's closure.

David Durfee Jr., Baltimore

U.S. military aid won't bring peace to Colombia

The Sun's editorial praising Colombian President Andres Pastrana's Plan Colombia and the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package that helps fund it was based on a leap of faith with no landing in sight ("Flying down to Cartagena," Aug. 30).

Not once did it mention the extent of the Colombian military's corruption, and it only perfunctorily referred to the violence of the nation's armed forces.

It also trivialized the role of the army's brutal collaborators, the right-wing paramilitary forces of the United Self Defense Groups of Colombia, which the country's president maintains are together responsible for 80 percent of the country's political killings.

After admirably listing many of the ingredients of Colombia's present miasma, the editorial limply concluded that the status quo is better than nothing.

In fact, U.S. aid will not bring this war-torn nation peace, but is certain to escalate the violence that daily plagues its people.

Although the editorial alluded to President Clinton waiving the human rights standards for Colombia, it didn't explain that if he hadn't, U.S. aid legally could have gone to only one military unit considered "clean" enough to qualify for such assistance.

The Sun's editorial suggested that "from a human rights standpoint" it would be worse to withhold the aid, but provided no evidence for this exotic notion.

And while the editorial noted that 80 percent of U.S. aid is for the military, it all but trivialized Colombia's desperate economic straits, which feature a 20 percent unemployment rate and a 50 percent poverty rate.

The issue here is the White House's single-minded quest to reduce the domestic drug supply at any cost, even if it means greatly magnifying Colombia's increasingly bloody internal conflict.

Providing more sophisticated (and more lethal) equipment to abusive military units can only exacerbate violence and injustice, while bringing no peace.

Larry Birns, Julie Dasenbrock, Washington

The writers are, respectively, the director and a policy associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Privatizing schools isn't road to reform

I agree with The Sun that no school reform "effort has a prayer of succeeding without teachers on board" ("Nattering nabobs stifle school reforms," editorial, Aug. 25).

On May 11, I became the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU). I campaigned as a supporter of the school reform movement.

Since May, I have been collaborating with the state superintendent of education, the chair of Baltimore's New Board of School Commissioners, the new CEO of the city schools, legislative leaders, community leaders, parents and teachers on school reform.

The BTU intends to support teacher performance initiatives and focused professional development that will better prepare our teachers to instruct our diverse student population.

However, there is no one-to-one relationship between teacher performance and failing schools; such schools are the result of many complex socioeconomic factors.

Accordingly, the BTU must remain vigilant in opposing any attempt by the state to avoid accountability for failing schools by blaming their performance on teachers, then seeking to avoid its responsibilities by turning schools over to a private contractor.

The public tends to forget that in 1988 the BTU led the charge for school reform -- supporting the restructuring of 14 city schools. And in 1993, the BTU supported Baltimore's experiment with the privatization of public schools.

The experiment failed. Test scores did not improve as expected; costs-per-pupil were much higher than predicted and promised; and experienced public school teachers and paraprofessionals were displaced by employees of a private company, who were less experienced and less successful in the classroom.

Finally, because the company was a private concern, it could not be held accountable for its failures in the way public officials and public employees would have been.

The state has no tangible evidence that its second experiment with privatization is likely to work any better than the first. Indeed, the state superintendent of schools has conceded that the experiment could cost taxpayers as much as $3,000 per child more than they are currently paying to educate the children involved.

The BTU feels that instead of speculating with public dollars on a private contractor without proven practices, we can make better use of scarce public school funding resources by investing them in proven practices.

Money should be spent to:

Invest in professional development that is inseparable from the work teachers do in the classroom.

Expand before and after-school tutorial programs for low-performing schools.

Design a program that will reconnect the home, school and community.

Provide more paraprofessionals and educational resources in the classroom.

Improve the quality of special education programs and practices.

Expand support and social intervention programs for at-risk students who live in environments dominated by broken homes, crimes, drugs and violence.

Sharon Y. Blake, Baltimore

The writer is president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Bush will do more for schools

As much as some in the media and Al Gore's campaign continue to shove the nation's public education and literacy crisis under the rug, it surely deserves at least as much airing over the next couple months as such proven Democratic attention-grabbers as prescription drug giveaways or tuition tax credits for the well-heeled.

That's why I was so pleased that The Sun's Mike Bowler so forthrightly addressed the issue in his "Education Beat" column ("Reading may be issue in presidential election," Aug. 27).

Although Mr. Bowler took pains to be balanced, it's apparent Mr. Gore wants to continue the failed Clinton-Gore policy of indiscriminately throwing federal money at often-bloated public systems.

Mr. Gore would raise salaries of teachers yet again, without regard to performance, and cut class sizes -- in an ongoing effort to buy off teacher unions.

Mr. Gore's unproven approach should remind Baltimoreans of what the incoming Kurt L. Schmoke administration did years ago to make Baltimore the "city that reads" -- cutting class sizes and otherwise acceding to teacher union demands.

As desirable as lower student-teacher ratios would be in some instances, does anyone really believe that by ballyhooing smaller classes and pushing ever-higher per pupil expenditures (now approximately $8,000) the Schmoke administration achieved any notable success or broke the downward spiral of local public education?

In contrast to Mr. Gore's politically inspired approach, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has focused on what actually works to improve youngsters' educational achievement and can point to a six-year stellar record of progress in Texas to prove he knows what he's doing.

During this presidential race, I think Mr. Bush can legitimately ask public school parents, "Are your kids better off educationally than they were eight years ago?"

If they're uncertain what the answer is, or the answer is no, they would be smart to reflect on what's really at stake for their children and the nation's children -- and vote accordingly.

Dick Fairbanks, Baltimore

The writer is vice chairman of the Baltimore Republican Party.

Reconsider role of MSPAP tests

Kudos to The Sun for Phil Greenfield's commentary on MSPAP ("MSPAP needs impartial study," Sept. 3). His recommendation that the governor appoint a Commission on Educational Reform independent from the Maryland State Department of Education makes absolute sense and the questions he suggests it study are the right ones.

The commission could begin its examination of the MSPAP test by referring to the Abell Foundation study, which as Mr. Greenfield makes clear, might just be impartial in the first place.

The commission could also examine the recommendations laid out in the Maryland State Teachers Association's 1998 report.

A commission would have to be empowered to drive change and charged with deadlines for making recommendations and beginning to implement change.

With each passing year, Maryland's children continue to have their very futures affected by the enormous impact of MSPAP. If the governor does not appoint a commission to tackle this issue in a timely manner, the state PTA should make its voice heard.

Perhaps, if real progress has not been accomplished by the spring of 2001, it should call on its members to keep their children out of the classroom during testing week.

Then the governor would be forced to address the MSPAP problem. With little attendance, the test would be rendered statistically useless for that year -- and no school or teacher would face reprisals from the State Department of Education.

Jennifer Robinson Monkton

Many thanks to Phil Greenfield ("MSPAP needs impartial study," Sept. 3). As a parent of a high school student in the Baltimore County schools, I recognized early the damage the MSPAP was inflicting on county children.

One only needs to talk to any ninth-grade teacher concerning the amount of remediation kids coming from middle school require each year to understand that this disastrous social engineering experiment (one we parents have allowed to transpire) has failed.

How typical of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to try to discredit the Abell Foundation report. It's no wonder Baltimore County school administrators are so unaccountable to parents: They have Ms. Grasmick as a role model.

It's a shame The Sun has to embarrass these educrats, who are so quick to embrace the latest education fads at the expense of our kids, to get their attention.

Too bad parents can't sue for education malpractice.

Ed Reed, Owings Mills

QUESTION OF THE MONTH

Got a trashy story to tell?

If you know of places in Baltimore where the trash piles higher than the weeds, share it with us. Take a photo, write the address on the back and send it in.

Or send us a letter describing the problem in your neighborhood and how you'd like to see it addressed.

We are looking for 250 words or less; the deadline is Sept. 25. Letters become the property of The Sun, which reserves the right to edit them. By submitting a letter, the author grants The Sun an irrevocable, non-exclusive right and license to use and republish the letter, in whole or in part, in all media and to authorize others to reprint it.

Letters should include your name and address, along with a day and evening telephone number. E-mail us: letters@baltsun.com; write us: Letters to the Editor, The Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278-0001; fax us: 410-332-6977.

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