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Columns

  • Raising bar for entry into college is crucial

    Every few years we debate raising entrance requirements to enter the state’s universities, and then nothing happens.
    Recently, NMSU regents voted to raise admissions standards from a 2.5 GPA to 2.75. UNM, which inched up from 2.25 to 2.5 in the last few years, is making noises about following suit.
    This would be good for everybody, but most importantly, it would be good for students.
    For years, our institutions of higher education have been victims of their own successful recruiting. “Register for college,” the sirens sing. “It’s your ticket to future success.”
    Not if you’re unprepared. Every year hundreds of young people who fared poorly in high school and slipped under the bar to enter college; they struggle with the material and drop out after a year or two – often with student loans attached like a ball and chain. How is this serving them on their future path?
    Numbers tell the story. According to NMSU, half its students entering with less than a 2.75 GPA will drop out the first year, and 85 percent won’t graduate in six years. The same discussion is going on all over the country because studies show that high school grades are the best indicator of college success.
    The real wonder is that this has gone on so long. It reflects denial up and down the line.

  • Pollution upsets the apple carts

    Social media are notorious for upsetting political apple carts. Pollution had the same power a century earlier and shows it still today.
    Pollution has special ways to sneak past borders, leave tracks and scramble politics in its path. History is rich in entanglements of people with pollution, companies and governments.
    A prime example occurred in the 1800s near Copperhill, Tennessee, which abuts the Georgia state line. Your guess is right about copper in those Tennessee hills: The ore was mined and the first smelter in the district was built in 1854.
    By 1861, smelter emissions of sulfur dioxide (“SO2”) were killing off vegetation for miles around and spreading damage wider. Landowners filed a lawsuit in 1904, but Tennessee courts ruled the counties gained more value from the copper than they lost in damage.
    The tangles spread. In 1906, the United States Supreme Court heard Georgia’s claim that Tennessee Copper Company was taking away Georgia’s sovereign rights of control over its land and air. The Court found for Georgia but denied the injunction that was sought, because by then TCC was building a plant to capture the SO2.

  • The ins and outs of 529 college savings plans

    For many people, their biggest expenses in life are funding retirement, buying a home and paying for their children’s college education — or a portion of it, anyway. Setting aside money for these and other financial goals is difficult, especially when you’re trying to save for them all simultaneously and from a young age.
    One of the more popular college savings vehicles is the 529 College Savings Plan. Every state and Washington, D.C. offers at least one 529 plan option, although most offer several. Key features include:
    • You make contributions using after-tax dollars; their investment earnings grow tax-free.
    • Withdrawals aren’t taxed if they’re used to pay for qualified higher-education expenses (e.g., tuition, room and board, fees, books, supplies and equipment).
    • If you withdraw the money for non-qualified expenses, you’ll have to pay income tax and a 10 percent penalty tax on the earnings portion of the withdrawal — plus possible state penalties, depending on where you live.
    • Many states that have a state income tax give accountholders a full or partial tax deduction for contributions made to their own state’s plan. Three states (Indiana, Utah and Vermont) also offer tax credits for contributions.

  • Standardized tests are the wrong way to go

    As mothers helping to lead the fight against harmful policies inflicted on our children in New Mexico and Tennessee, we felt compelled to respond to the July 24 opinion piece written by education leaders Hanna Skandera and Kevin Huffman that appeared in the Washington Post.
    In classrooms across New Mexico and Tennessee, standardized tests are taking away valuable classroom learning. Of the 174 days our children attend school in New Mexico, 76 of those days are impacted by some standardized test or another. In Tennessee, teachers estimate that at least 1/3 of the year is devoted to testing or test preparation.
    Meanwhile, classroom budgets in New Mexico and Tennessee have shrunk while class sizes have increased. Millions are being diverted to standardized test companies. Skandera holds much-needed revenues hostage by requiring districts to agree to give certain tests like DIBELS in order to receive “grant money.”
    Despite what Huffman and Skandera claim, parents and teachers have never said the old way our states evaluated teachers is the only way to do so. What we have said is that linking a teacher’s evaluation score to standardized tests is the wrong way to go.

  • Clubbing the graduation rate

    Newspapers recently cheered the announcement by the United States Department of Education that, for the first time in U.S. history, high school graduation rates had exceeded the 80 percent threshold.
    This is fantastic news! Just think, one out of five students doesn’t graduate! Now that is truly a reason to celebrate!
    Hmmmm, when you say it that way, it doesn’t prompt the masses to start dancing in the streets, does it?
    And when you consider the additional fact that a significant percentage of those who do graduate are not “college ready,” there’s even less reason to start shooting off fireworks. Less than half of students entering college are sufficiently prepared for college level coursework.
    And so I found it very encouraging when I read another report about how high school clubs aid in educational progress. It’s not hard to understand why joining a club would help improve a student’s class work. Much of the difficulty students encounter in high school has little to do with what’s written in textbooks and much more to do with the learning environment in which they are immersed for four years.
    Joining a single club can significantly improve a student’s chance of graduating. What more reason do we need that that to strongly encourage our students to join a club?

  • Seek details before owning pet pygmy goats

    With their playful temperaments and small, compact size, it is no surprise that pygmy goats are often sought after as pets. However, since goats are deemed livestock, you must check with your homeowners’ association or deed restriction before bringing one home. If in doing this you discover it is allowed, here are some tips for keeping your pet pygmy goats happy and healthy in their new home.
    “Although some people do keep their pet goats indoors, they are not easy to house train and due to their activity level, curiosity, and dietary needs, we recommend they are kept outdoors,” said Dr. Philippa Sprake, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “They should have an outside area to play and a shelter from the elements, where hay, straw, or shavings serve as good bedding sources.”
    Their bedding, of whichever type you choose, should be changed regularly depending on the weather, size of shelter and number of goats. Keep in mind that goats do not like getting wet, and they also require a cool area to withstand the summer heat. Since goats are herd animals, having at least two housed together will help to decrease stress and allow them company.

  • Doing business with the private sector

    To serve the people of New Mexico, state government relies on goods and services provided by private-sector businesses. To ensure it spends taxpayer dollars responsibly and gets the best products at the best price, the state uses a competitive purchasing system.
    Thousands of businesses each year participate in this $5 billion economy, selling the state everything from cars, trucks, pencils and supercomputers to support services for crime victims, architectural services and museum exhibits.
    These businesses all start by learning how to navigate the procurement system — a set of procedures designed to protect public resources. The process isn’t complicated, but it can take time.
    Governor Susana Martinez created a Procurement Reform Task Force in early 2011. Led by the General Services Department, it has produced dramatic system improvements.
    All chief purchasing officers from state agencies and local governments are now required to register with the State Purchasing Agent. And starting in January, 2015, chief purchasing officers must pass a certification exam to make purchases for their agencies.

  • The cost of compassion

    At a Fourth of July potluck, we asked a neighbor who commutes to California for work how he was doing. Instead of small talk, we got a tirade about how he was working to support all those jobless loafers living on government handouts. A grandmother sitting with us pointed out, gently, that we’re paying for two wars that weren’t in the budget.
    Since that conversation, the news has brought us the faces of Central American children seeking safety within our borders and the bludgeoning death of two homeless men in Albuquerque. Which makes me wonder, whatever happened to compassion? The answer is, it’s still alive, but it’s being tested.
    This neighbor is in California because he lost his manufacturing job and was out of work for months before finding another job. Fortunately, his wife was still working, so they didn’t lose everything. Lots of people have relocated and made sacrifices to get work. They can look at it two ways: If I can find work, the rest of you shiftless people can find work. Or, hey, it’s really tough out there and people could use a hand.

  • Confronting our troubles: Mumbling and the Ross Perot fantasy

    Conversations about our economic, ah, problem, mess, disaster, lack of an economy… (you pick the word or phrase) are happening behind the scenes. I have few further specifics. Even if I had more, probably I couldn’t share. Our leaders — call them “power brokers” — are worried, as well they should be. In larger communities, the power brokers may even have regular, scheduled gatherings. In small towns, it would be the café across from the courthouse.
    When the broker conversations propose action, especially specific and public action, taking on Person or Organization A, and seek people to lead the charge, the candidates for the civic role tend to say, “I have a contract with Organization A and can’t afford to lose it.” Or, “I can’t take the risk.” Or, “I’m just too busy.” Or, “Another power broker opposes this action and I can’t annoy this other power broker.” Or whatever.
    The result is no action and continued wringing of hands.
    An informal survey of theoretically potential cage-rattling, meet-the-challenge organizations leads nowhere.

  • Healthcare access: Are some more entitled?

    Healthcare policy is an endless debate in the United States, and in New Mexico the debate has its own special complications.
    Thoughts about how theories and ethics bump up against pragmatic realities come to mind in the wake of two recent public discussions I attended.
    Is there such a thing as “deserving” healthcare, and do some people deserve more than others? Should some people be more entitled to access healthcare, or better quality healthcare, than others? (“Entitled” is a loaded word. I used it deliberately to provoke your thoughts.)
    Should those who can afford to pay for it have a greater right than those who don’t? Should smokers, or fat people, or drug addicts have less access, or be forced to pay more than others? Should young people be at the front of the line and old people forced to the back? These questions arise starkly when we consider extremely limited resources such as organs for transplant, but they permeate the entire healthcare system.
    To develop the system we really want, we have to know what our values are. This message emerged from a presentation titled “Balancing Universal Healthcare with Medical Rationing,” by David Teutsch, a rabbi and ethicist, speaking recently to a New Mexico audience.