Tennessee 'Don't Say Gay' bill clears a hurdle in state House

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A bill that would ban teaching Tennessee kids about homosexuality before they reach the ninth grade was approved by a state House subcommittee Wednesday, reigniting an emotional debate in the buckle of the Bible Belt.

The bill, which would limit class discussions to "natural human reproduction science" in public schools, passed the House education subcommittee, which keeps it on track for consideration by the full House, according to reports in the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville Scene.

To supporters, the bill gives parents control over how and when to educate their children about what is still, to some, a sensitive topic.

"The basic right as an American is my right to life, my right to liberty and my right to the pursuit of happiness," Democratic state Rep. John DeBerry said, according to the Tennessean. "Within that includes being able to run my home, raise my children as I see fit and indoctrinate them as I see fit."

Wednesday's hearing attracted a large crowd, including many high school students involved in gay-straight alliance groups at Nashville high schools. Some students stood on a busy street with their mouths covered in purple tape.

Only one subcommittee member opposed the measure. "It looks to me like a solution looking for a problem," Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat, told the Tennessean.

The bill, authored by Republican lawmaker Stacey Campfield, passed the state Senate last year. Campfield prefers to call it a "Don't Teach Gay" bill, and has said it is necessary because homosexuality is more dangerous than heterosexuality.

Campfield recently incorrectly asserted on a a satellite radio talk show that the HIV epidemic began when a gay airline employee had sex with a monkey. His statements have earned him national attention and the ire of gay rights supporters both nationally and locally: A restaurant in his hometown of Knoxville recently refused to serve him.

Jeff Woods, a reporter at the Nashville Scene, noted that Wednesday's debate over the bill took a detour into the merits of the popular TV sitcom "Modern Family," which prominently features a gay couple.

A preacher told the committee that if the bill became law, kids might find out about gay people anyway if they tuned in to the show.

The subcommittee chair, Rep. Joey Hensley, said that he didn't think that "Modern Family" was an "appropriate" show for children.

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Photo: Opponents of a bill seeking to prohibit the teaching of gay issues to elementary and middle school students wear purple to a meeting of the House Education Subcommittee in Nashville on Wednesday. The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald advanced on a voice vote. Credit: Erik Schelzig/Associated Press


U.S. colleges: What bad economy? Gifts rise 8.2% to $30.3 billion

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Donations to U.S. colleges and universities rose 8.2% last year as institutions of higher education improved their financial condition after some tough economic years, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Council for Aid to Education.

The survey showed that charitable contributions reached $30.3 billion in 2011, the second time the total had crossed the $30-billion mark -- but it was still down from the $31.6 billion record in 2008. Adjusted for inflation, last year’s increase is 4.8% over 2010, according to the Voluntary Support of Education survey.

The good fundraising news doesn’t automatically mean that parents and students won’t face tuition increases.

According to the council, 13.6% of the giving went to capital purposes such as endowments and buildings, while 4.7% went to operations. Because not all dollars can be used to defray current-year expenses, last year’s giving accounts for 3.8% of expenditures, one of the major drivers in tuition.

As is common in such giving, rich universities will continue to get richer while the less well-endowed will have to enjoy college spirit, rather than money.

Of the $30.3 billion collected, $8.2 billion was raised by the top 20 institutions, about 2% of the 1,009 respondents in the annual survey. Fundraising in the top tier grew by 15.3% over the year before.

The top quarter of those responding to the survey accounted for 86.3% of all giving, while the bottom quarter received just 1%.

It is not surprising that the rich schools gets richer and draw more contributions. The top schools read like a who’s who of educational ties. They tend to graduate alumni who move into the top spots of their professions and are able to give at that level. In addition, those schools are the ones with the most cutting-edge research and reputations, hence they can attract charitable dollars at a faster rate.

Once again, the top fundraising school was Stanford University, followed by Harvard University, the one-two combination in 2010 and 2006. Yale University, which had fallen to seventh in 2010 returned to its No. 3 perch. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University round out the top five.

Even though it was the top school receiving $709.4 million, Stanford’s take was down 22.1% from 2006. By contrast, MIT received $534.3 million last year, up 126.8% from 2006 when it ranked 21.

The other high-performing schools over time were the University of California at San Francisco, which jumped from 26th to ninth place from 2006 to 2011, and the University of Texas at Austin which went from 29th place to 11th in the same period.

The University of Southern California, which was fourth last year, dropped to 10th. It received $402.4 million in 2011, a 5.5% decrease from 2010 but just a 0.8% slide from 2006.

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Photo: Bicyclists ride on Palm Drive toward the Stanford University campus. Stanford received the largest amount of charitable donations in 2011. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press


No Child Left Behind: Obama administration grants 10 waivers

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The Obama administration has given 10 states a waiver from the federal law known as No Child Left Behind -- once a bipartisan hope to raise education standards, but now generally regarded as too cumbersome and draconian.

The White House announced the first round of waivers for 10 states Thursday morning. The administration had said that it would grant the waivers because efforts to revise the 10-year-old law have become bogged down in Congress even though members of both political parties agree that the law has problems and is in need of major changes.

“After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility,” President Obama said in a statement released with the announcement.

“Today, we’re giving 10 states the green light to continue making reforms that are best for them. Because if we’re serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren’t going to come from Washington alone. Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.”

Obama is scheduled to make a formal announcement later Thursday and will call on Congress to go back to work on revising the law, which was designed to get students up to standards in reading and mathematics by 2014. States sought the waivers because they have been unable to meet the goal and could face sanctions from the federal government for the failure.

The first states to receive the waivers are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee, the White House said. The administration said it is continuing to work with New Mexico, the only state not to receive a waiver in this first round.

Twenty-eight other states along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have said they would seek a waiver.

No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan effort pushed during the Bush administration to build a degree of accountability into education by stressing standardized testing. If schools fail to show progress, they face sanctions.

Educators complained that the law forced classes to become laboratories for drills designed to improve test scores, rather than teach. Some politicians complained that the law created too large a role for the federal government in education issues, generally a local concern.

In Thursday’s announcement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that current law drives down standards, weakens accountability, causes narrowing of the curriculum and labels too many schools as failing. Moreover, the law mandates unworkable remedies at the federal level instead of allowing local educators to make spending decisions.

“Rather than dictating educational decisions from Washington, we want state and local educators to decide how to best meet the individual needs of students,” Duncan stated.

The administration is not abandoning standards, however, the White House said.

“To get flexibility from NCLB, states must adopt and have a plan to implement college and career-ready standards. They must also create comprehensive systems of teacher and principal development, evaluation and support that include factors beyond test scores, such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback,” according to the administration.

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Photo: President Obama, center, greets members of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness last month while Education Secretary Arne Duncan, second from left, looks over documents. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Bloomberg


Adrenaline junkie plans extreme leap -- from space

Felix_Baumgartner
You've heard of skydiving, right? How about space-diving?

Felix Baumgartner is an Austrian skydiver, BASE jumper and adrenaline junkie who hopes to set the record this summer for the highest skydive ever.

If all goes well, Baumgartner will use a pressurized capsule attached to a high-altitude helium balloon for a "stratospheric flight" to more than 120,000 feet. "He will then exit the capsule and jump -- protected only by a pressurized 'space' suit and helmet supplied with oxygen -- in an attempt to become the first person to break the speed of sound and reach supersonic speeds in free-fall before parachuting to the ground," according to jump plans.

The only thing not surprising about this endeavor? Extreme sports elixir Red Bull is sponsoring the whole thing.

The jump is slated for later this summer, above Roswell, N.M. Given the complexities of the effort, no exact date is scheduled. Experts will start by looking for a perfect three-day weather window -- clear skies, perfect temperatures, no winds -- and then choose a jump time.

Clear skies are a must, spokeswoman Trish Medalen told The Times, explaining that Baumgartner will need all the visibility he can get to reorient himself on the way down.

Followers of Baumgartner's career know he has a passion for doing the unthinkable. (He flew across the English channel in 2003 using a carbon wing, hitting 220 miles per hour. You can watch that jaw-dropping video here.)

The upcoming mission, called Red Bull Stratos, is being documented online. The mission is also being chronicled by both the BBC and the National Geographic Channel for a feature-length TV film. The project has been underway for quite some time, but has been gaining momentum in recent days with its formal announcement.

If successful -- and really, what could go wrong? -- the jump aims to set several world records. Baumgartner hopes to become the first person to break the speed of sound and achieve Mach 1 in free-fall, estimated at 690 mph; to set the record for a free-fall from highest altitude (120,000 feet); to set the record for longest free-fall time (five minutes 35 seconds or more) and to set the record for highest manned balloon flight.

The Red Bull Stratos team includes international experts in medicine, science, engineering, aviation, and design, as well as a former NASA crew surgeon. But there are two centerpieces.

One is ice-water-in-his-veins Baumgartner. The other is a man who is little-known to the masses, but is a legend in the aviation community: Joe Kittinger.

Kittinger, who might be the reason the word "daredevil" was invented, holds a variety of aviation records, including longest, highest and fastest skydive, from about 19 miles up. A fighter pilot in Vietnam, he was shot down and spent nearly a year in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton"; he was later inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Kittinger's experience is crucial to the success of the jump, folks associated with the effort say, and he's helping to train Baumgartner every step of the way. He is also slated to be the primary point of contact with Baumgartner during his ascent.

The jump's mission statement takes great pains to point out the jump's contributions to the scientific community, including aiding in the development of protocols for exposure to high altitude and high acceleration.

Of all that and more, we have no doubt. But the real reason we're interested and why all the world's eyes will be trained on Baumgartner's planned jump? It's just stinkin' cool.

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Photo: Felix Baumgartner trying out his space suit, specially designed for the jump. Credit: Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool


Uggs banned at Pennsylvania school to deter cellphone smugglers

Uggs

Uggs may be ugly in some fashionistas' eyes, but should they be banned?

Yes, according to a Pennsylvania school principal who says the ubiquitous fur-lined, comfy boots and their imitators have become the hiding place of choice for cellphones and other gadgets that aren't supposed to be brought to class.

The ban takes effect Monday at Pottstown Middle School outside Philadelphia, where the principal, Gail M. Cooper, announced the rule last week in a letter to parents. The ban applies to boots that do not fit tightly around the calf or ankle, such as open-top Uggs. Boots with zippers or laces may still be worn, as long as they remain zipped and tied.

“We have been experiencing problems with some students wearing open top boots and carrying items in their boots that are prohibited in school,” Cooper's letter read, according to the Mercury newspaper. "Following several problems with these items, I have banned the outdoor, open top boots from our classrooms,” she wrote.

Under the school's policy, pupils who bring cellphones to school must leave them in their lockers and keep them turned off until the school day ends. But some boots fit in a way that allows kids to evade the rule, John Armato of the Pottstown School District told the Mercury. Fashion-conscious students may wear their Uggs to campus, but they'll have to change shoes before entering class.

The Mercury said the reaction to the ban had been overwhelmingly negative, and some of the comments on the newspaper's Facebook fan page reflected a mix of anger and amused incredulity. "Crazytown!!!" wrote one woman. "Ban their clothes and make them go to school naked," another said, pointing out that pants pockets also offer good hiding spots for gadgets.

But the school said it would not back down and noted that it had received support from some parents, such as Gail Beasley, who told the Mercury that "rude and ignorant" children got what they deserved. "Those kids ought to be glad that's all she's banning," Beasley said.

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Photo: Uggs have been banned by a suburban Philadelphia middle school principal after some kids smuggled cellphones into class with them. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times


Washington, D.C. -- not New York -- is 'most literate' city in U.S.

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The nation's capital has scored top literacy honors for the second year in a row, ranking No. 1 as the "most literate" city in America.

(We'll pause here for snarky commentary, such as this one making the rounds: "Considering the fact that it appears that no one in Congress reads the laws they vote on, this is remarkable news.")

Perhaps even more remarkable? New York City didn't even make the Top 10, tying with Austin, Texas, for the No. 22 slot.

That's puzzling if you've ever been on a New York City subway: It seems as if half the riders spend their commute buried in a bestseller, an e-book, a tabloid newspaper, or a smartphone screen. (That's still reading, right?) That's gotta sting a city that prides itself as being the heart of the publishing world, not to mention home of the literary elite.

Rounding out the Top 5 on the list at Nos. 2 through 5 are Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Boston.

The list is put together by Central Connecticut State University, which ranks the literacy of the nation's largest communities based on several indicators including number of bookstores, e-book sales, library resources, newspaper circulation, other periodical publishing resources, Internet resources and education.

Los Angeles lands at No. 59 in the rankings. And at the end of the list? Three of the bottom five are in California: Fresno (No. 71), Stockton (No. 72) and Bakersfield (No. 75).

Dr. Jack Miller, university president and study author, said the 2011 edition of the annual survey also took a look at the relationship between wealth and literacy by using income data from the U.S. census. Perhaps surprisingly, he said in a statement: "I learned that wealthier cites are no more likely to rank highly in literacy than poorer cities."

He cited the following example: Cleveland ranks second-lowest for median family income according to the research, yet boasts a thriving library system, local newspaper and magazine, and as a result lands at No. 13 on the survey.

"This demonstrates that if cities are truly committed to literacy, they can find a way past poverty and other socio-cultural challenges to create and sustain rich resources for reading," he said.

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Photo: The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Credit: Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images


USDA school lunch rules 'best ever' -- though pizza is still a 'vegetable'

 Michelle Obama announced school lunch upgrades in Virginia.

Yes, there's plenty to celebrate with the USDA's new school meal standards, promoted Wednesday by First Lady Michelle Obama at a Virginia elementary school. Still, French fries will flow in school cafeterias.

The new rules are the first such standards to include whole grains and limits on sodium and trans fats,  and they'll "double the amount of fruits and vegetables" served to kids, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

This makes them the "best ever," she said in an interview Wednesday with the Los Angeles Times. And yet, there are a couple of things she was less enthusiastic about -- the things "Congress meddled with."

First off: French fries.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to limit the amount of French fries to no more than two servings a week, "and Congress stepped in and said the USDA couldn't put any limits on any vegetables," Wootan said. Lawmakers apparently bowed to food lobbyists. 

Second: pizza -- it's still a vegetable.

The USDA no longer wanted pizza to count as a vegetable, Wootan said. "Congress interfered with that too."

The good news is, under the new rules, pizza can't be the only "vegetable" on a student's tray. There has to be an "additional side of vegetables with it, and the pizza will have whole-grain crust and be lower in sodium."

Positive changes, though, are plentiful, Wootan said -- the use of low-fat and nonfat milk, an emphasis on whole grains and an effort to control the amount of sodium in children's meals.

Up until now, there's been "no limit on sodium," she said, only a recommendation, "which schools are free to, and do, ignore."

The average high school lunch contains almost 1,600 milligrams of sodium, she said, more than half the recommended daily sodium intake for a high school-age student.

"These nutrition standards are a huge step forward from where the current standards are and from where most schools are today," Wootan said.  "It does mean that we all need to pull together -- parents, food manufacturers, food service workers, principals, USDA, to help schools meet these standards. It's not enough just to have standards on paper."

The changes to school meal standards are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by the first lady and passed in 2010.

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Photo: First Lady Michelle Obama has lunch with children at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday. Celebrity cook Rachael Ray is at left. The first lady announced the school meal changes at the school alongside Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press


Florida (with B grade) leads states in teacher-quality survey

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This post has been updated. Please see note at bottom for details.

Seven states that toughened how they deal with teacher effectiveness earned the top grades this year in an annual survey by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research group primarily funded by leading foundations.

Florida, which weakened tenure for teachers while stiffening evaluation practices, led the way nationally, earning a B grade from the group. Florida also led all states in 2009, but with a C grade. (California received a D+ in 2011 and 2009.)

The survey, released Wednesday, measures five areas in determining each state’s grade, but three go to the heart of the ongoing debate over teacher quality and its role in the education system. Those areas focus on how states identify and retain effective teachers while helping ineffective ones leave. The other criteria are how states deliver well-prepared teachers and how they expand the pool of teachers.

“New state policies for identifying effective teachers and exiting ineffective ones contributed" to the highest grades in the report, titled “2011 State Teacher Policy Yearbook.” The council, a research and policy group that examines issues related to teaching quality, is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.

The current report, the fifth annual edition of the yearbook, puts the National Council on Teacher Policy at the center of the increasingly contentious debate over teacher-quality issues.

Financially pressed school districts have been seeking greater control over teacher performances in the classroom, tying tenure to student performance or using evaluations linked to pupil test scores in determining financial compensation. Unions have fought back, arguing that such attributes as pay and tenure have traditionally been matters for collective bargaining and that any changes have to ensure fairness and prevent arbitrary decisions by administrators.

The wind is clearly at the backs of education reformers. States including Missouri, Connecticut, Louisiana and New Jersey and cities including New York have seen negotiating battles that revolve in part around evaluations.

In 2009, no state required student performance to be a key factor in awarding tenure; today, eight states do, according to the yearbook’s analysis. Four other states want evidence of student performance before awarding tenure to teachers.

Eleven states require districts to consider teacher performance when deciding who will be terminated even in layoffs caused by financial problems. About half of all states require that classroom effectiveness be given some weight in teacher evaluations, the yearbook found.

According to the yearbook analysis, Florida is followed by Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Tennessee, all with B-. Indiana, Michigan and Ohio all earned a C+, with no other state earning above a C. Overall, 28 states improved their grades in 2011 when compared with 2009, according to the report.

The highest performing states were helped by their teacher policies, the analysis shows. Rhode Island earned an A- for its efforts at identifying effective teachers, while Colorado, Oklahoma and Illinois earned an A for helping ineffective teachers leave. Both scores helped bring up the overall state grade.

Updated 11:56 a.m., Jan. 25:  The following is a union response to the report: 

“Ten years of No Child Left Behind has proven that simply doubling down on a test-based accountability system doesn't lead to sustained student achievement," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an emailed statement.

"So it’s a shame that some states — presumably because of tight economic times — seem to be following suit. We can’t test or fire our way to better schools and better teaching. We must find ways to continuously improve instruction, and teacher evaluations are a good tool for that when they are based on many measures, not just test scores, and provide the right help, resources and tools for continuous improvement. If we think about evaluations in terms of improving skills, not about firing employees — like sports teams and successful businesses do — we could stop the constant teacher turnover that’s costing the nation more than $7 billion annually and we’d have greatly improved teacher quality.”

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Photo: Students try their hand at penmanship in this California classroom in 2006. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times


Oral Roberts' son, a former university president, accused of DUI

RobertsRichard Roberts, former president of Tulsa's Oral Roberts University and son of the school's namesake Pentecostal televangelist, was arrested early Tuesday on suspicion of DUI and speeding, officials told The Times.

Shortly after midnight Tuesday, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper caught Roberts driving a black 2006 Mercedes at 93 mph in a 65 mph zone on a highway west of U.S. 169, according to an arrest report officials provided to The Times that was also referred to by the Tulsa World.

After stopping Roberts, 63, the trooper noted that he smelled strongly of alcohol, according to the report.
Roberts failed two coordination tests and his blood-alcohol level was tested at .11%, well above the legal limit of .08%, according to the arrest report.

Roberts was booked into the Tulsa jail and released a few hours later on $1,100 bail, officials told The Times.

Roberts resigned as president of the Tulsa-based university, known for its towering sculpture of praying hands, in 2007 after he and his family were accused of abusing university and ministry resources. Faculty and students at the university have been required to sign an honor code promising not to drink alcohol.

He received the honorary title of president emeritus of the university in 2008.

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Photo: Richard Roberts, former president of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., shown in file photo was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of drunk driving. Credit: John Clanton / Tulsa World


Band hazing: 4 more charged at Florida A&M; none linked to death

FAMU
Four more Florida A&M band members have been arrested and accused of hazing fellow band members by beating and paddling them during fall initiations, according to police reports made public Friday.

The arrests are the latest in a string of hazing incidents rocking the university, prompting the formation of a task force to investigate claims that the famed Marching 100 has a rampant culture of hazing. The outcry has also led some to suggest that the university’s president be suspended.

In November, Robert Champion, a rising drum major, died after being attacked on a bus after a football game in Orlando. His death was ruled a homicide, but no charges have been filed.

In the charges announced Friday, university police arrested Hakeem Birch, 21, Brandon Benson, 23, Anthony Mingo, 22, and Denise Bailey, 22. They were charged with hazing in connection with a September incident in Tallahassee, according to a police report.

The band members forced four other students in the clarinet section, known as the Clones, to stand in a line according to height and endure beatings while continuing to play and exercise, the police report said.

Three other band members were arrested in October and accused of beating a female band member who suffered a broken thigh bone.

None of the arrests is related to Champion’s death, authorities said..

In a statement, university spokeswoman Sharon Saunders said the university is encouraging any possible hazing victims to notify police.

"We are committed to ending hazing at FAMU," she wrote. "We are taking decisive action to ensure the safety of all students and create a permanent culture change."

The Orlando Sentinel has reported that, in the years leading up to Champion’s death, parents had begged university officials to do more to prevent hazing. Among the officials was President James Ammons, whom Florida Gov. Rick Scott has called on to temporarily step aside while hazing claims are investigated.

He kept his job but was publicly reprimanded by the school’s board of trustees. Band director Julian White has been placed on temporary leave, however, while state and university police investigate.

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Photo: Tommy Mitchell, president of the Florida A&M University National Alumni Assn., speaks at a news conference with other university supporters last month to show support for univeristy President James Ammons. The school's trustees publicly reprimanded Ammons after Gov. Rick Scott's requested that he be suspended while authorities investigate the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion. Credit: Bill Cotterell/Associated Press via Tallahassee Democrat


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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