Saturday, September 15, 2012

The risk of fleeing Afghanistan

In the suburbs of Afghanistan's capital on the third floor of a modest apartment building live newlyweds Mushtaq and Haleema Changezi. They tied the knot in a traditional ceremony just four months ago, yet their families are wondering why they haven't started a family. "This is supposed to be a new chapter in our lives -- we should be excited," explained 27-year-old Haleema. "But there is no future for us here in Afghanistan, so how can we possibly start a family?" Haleema has a double masters degree in economics and accounting. She has applied for dozens of jobs in Kabul but can't get one interview. Her 30-year-old husband works for a production house in multimedia design -- his salary is just enough to support them. They are both Hazaras -- Persian-speaking ethnic Afghans who over the years have been persecuted and discriminated against.The couple feels this is still the case and the reason why so many Hazaras have left their homeland for foreign shores. "In our country there are NATO forces, the aid of foreign countries and yet we don't feel we have a life or a future. What's going to happen when the foreign forces leave in 2014? There is no future for us in Afghanistan," she said. This is a familiar story, not just among the Hazara community but also across the Afghan community in general -- many are fearful of what will happen to their country once coalition forces leave in two years time.Despite assurances from ISAF -- the International Security Assistance Force -- that includes U.S. and NATO forces, there has been an increase in violence across the country. Analysts say the Taliban are no longer based only in their Helmand province heartland in the country's south and along the eastern border with Pakistan. They are now spread out across all 34 provinces using suicide attacks and IEDs -- Improvised Explosive Devices -- to target coalition and Afghan forces, as well as innocent Afghan civilians.This resurgence has frightened many Afghanis, including Haji Ali Mohammad. He decided to send his two sons and nephew to Australia to escape the war-ravaged nation. "They were going to Australia for work, to make a better life, a good and peaceful life, away from the Taliban. Our life is dangerous here -- we don't feel secure," he said. His sons, 19-year-old Akbar and 22-year-old Javid, joined their cousin, 20-year-old Hashim, on their 11,000-kilometer journey. Organized by people smugglers they flew to Dubai and then to Thailand where they picked up visas. From there, they caught a plane to Malaysia where the trio traveled by boat to Indonesia. The three eventually boarded a leaky wooden fishing vessel bound for Australia's Christmas Island. "The last time I spoke to them, they said we're leaving tonight. The next time we call you we'll be in our new home -- Australia," said Mohammad. A few days later, he received a call. On the phone was another passenger from the fishing vessel. He said within a few hours of leaving shore the boat began to sink. Of the 18 men on board, only 10 survived. Among the dead were Mohammad's sons and nephew."The people who survived, held onto broken pieces of ship until the rescue boats arrived. My boys knew how to swim but not in that much water for hours on end," Mohammad said. The father of 11 children then broke down in tears. "A bright day turned into a dark night. The anniversary of their deaths is approaching. I miss them constantly." Thousands of Afghan asylum seekers attempt the long and treacherous journey to Australia every year. Frustrated with waiting for political asylum though the official channels, they pay smugglers up to US$20,000 per person -- and there's no guarantee, just the promise of a brighter future. For Mushtaq and Haleema Changazi they are trying the legal route and for good reason. Haleema's 28-year-old brother, Ishaq, set off earlier this year because he didn't want to wait any longer. "The last time we spoke he was on the boat in Jakarta and he was saying that maybe in two to three hours, there would be no signal and this was his last call," she said. "After that there was no news from him and we haven't heard from him for the last 3 months." With tears rolling down her face, Haleema says while her family pray they will hear from him soon, she knows there's little hope. "I hear the reports about the boats sinking. I know what's happening. I know they're all prepared to die for a better life in Australia -- including my brother."

President Zardari asks US to end drone strikes, remove mistrust

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari Saturday reiterated demand for ending US drone attacks on militants in its tribal areas and called for removing a “trust deficit” with the United States. Zardari’s remarks came after talks with US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, who arrived in the Pakistani capital on Friday for meetings with top officials. “They discussed bilateral relations, the fight against militancy, the regional situation, drug trafficking and drone attacks,” presidential spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar told reporters. Zardari “reiterated his call for an end to the drone attacks, terming them counterproductive in the fight against militancy and in the battle of winning hearts”, Babar said. “We need to discuss alternatives on the question of drone attacks,” Babar quoted Zardari as saying. Zardari said “the goal of establishing a long-term, sustained and durable Pakistan-US equation would remain elusive until the issue of trust deficit was addressed in an effective manner”. Attacks by unmanned US aircraft are deeply unpopular in Pakistan, which says they violate its sovereignty and fan anti-US sentiment, but American officials are said to believe they are too important to give up. ‘US a major development partner’ Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf also held talks with Grossman and said his country regarded its relations with the United States as “very important”, and that Pakistan valued it as a major development partner. “We have a shared objective in fighting terrorism and need to cooperate more to get rid of this menace,” said a statement issued by Ashraf’s office. Grossman had said future relations between Pakistan and the United States should be based on market access and trade, it said. The US government was working on a bilateral investment treaty to “facilitate” US investment in Pakistan and improve market access, according to the statement, adding Washington has promised 200 million dollars for the construction of the Diamer-Basha dam in northern Pakistan. A statement issued by the US embassy in Islamabad said Grossman had also held talks with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani, Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani and parliamentarians. The US envoy also raised the case of Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who was jailed in May for 33 years after he was arrested following the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by US troops a year earlier. However, the statement did not mention the response by Pakistani officials. The US had earlier admitted Afridi was working with US intelligence by collecting DNA to verify bin Laden’s presence in the northern town of Abbottabad — although he was eventually jailed for alleged ties to a warlord. The relationship between Islamabad and Washington has been rocky for years, and relations have only just resumed after nosediving following the raid that killed bin Laden and an air raid that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops. Washington considers Pakistan’s semi-autonomous northwestern tribal belt as the main hub of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants plotting attacks on the West and in Afghanistan. Grossman in the talks also addressed the issue of an anti-Islam video produced in the United States and circulating on the Internet that has led to protests in a number of countries. He stated very clearly, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done, “that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video”, said the embassy statement. The movie, “Innocence of Muslims”, portrays Muslims as immoral and gratuitously violent. A mob stormed the US consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi on Tuesday, killing the US ambassador and several other staff, as part of a wave of protests over the video across the Islamic world. Separately, the Pakistani foreign ministry in a statement said Khar will visit the US from September 18-22. Khar will hold talks with Clinton and other senior US officials, and also meet with lawmakers, academics and visit think-tanks, it said. She will later proceed to New York to join a delegation led by Zardari to participate in the forthcoming United Nations General Assembly session, it said.

Sherry Rehman nominated for Smith College Medal

Rehman has been picked to receive the prestigious Smith College Medal for her achievements. Ambassador Rehman is among five distinguished professionals chosen for the award for the year 2013. Established in 1962 to recognize women who exemplify in their lives and work ‘the true purpose’ of a liberal arts education, the honor will be bestowed at Rally Day on Thursday, February 21. The following alumnae will receive awards: Gail Paster, Class of 1966, Shakespearean scholar; Kay Holekamp, Class of 1973, zoologist and field biologist; Janet McKinley, Class of 1976, global investor and philanthropist; Anne De Groot, Class of 1978, scientist and entrepreneur; and Sherry Rehman, Class of 1985, Pakistan Ambassador to the United States. Rally Day is a time for the Smith community to gather, remember the past, look to the future and celebrate student life. The occasion marks the first time that seniors publicly wear their gowns along with inventive hats in keeping with the spirited, “rallying” nature of the day. Classes are cancelled. In addition to celebrating the medalists, Rally Day has become the occasion that President Carol Christ announces the commencement speaker. It is worthy to note here that recently described as a “rock star of the world of Shakespeare,” Gail Paster first gained recognition for her scholarship while at George Washington University, while Kay Holekamp has led groundbreaking studies of spotted hyenas in the Masai Mara, Kenya for more than two decades. After an extraordinary career in the investment sector devoted to stewardship of clients’ life savings, Janet McKinley retired to partner with organizations intent on creating lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and social injustice. Whereas, internationally known for her research on the immune system’s response to vaccinations, Anne De Groot has explored the “genome-to-vaccine” approach to solving some of the world’s biggest infectious disease problems.

The UN probes Pakistani disappearances
Pakistan Supreme Court's Chief Justice has refused to meet a UN delegation which is in Pakistan on a 10-day mission to investigate cases of missing people, allegedly picked up by country's intelligence agencies. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances arrived in Pakistan on Sunday at the invitation of the Pakistani government. During the visit, the delegation will meet Pakistani government officials, security personnel, jurists, civil society activists and family members of missing people to prepare its report. "The UN experts will gather information on cases of enforced disappearances," the UN said in an earlier statement. The delegation will study "measures adopted by the (Pakistani) state to prevent and eradicate enforced disappearances, including issues related to truth, justice and reparation for the victims of enforced disappearances." On Tuesday, the delegation, led by Olivier de Frouvill, met Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. However, the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has reportedly turned down the delegation's request for a meeting. The Supreme Court said in a statement that the cases of missing persons were pending in the apex court, and for that reason it would not be appropriate for the chief justice to meet the UN officials.It is the first time that Pakistani courts are questioning military agencies and their constitutional jurisdiction; however, observers say that the country's military and its spy agencies remain beyond the reach of Pakistan's criminal justice system. Human rights organizations have long criticized Pakistan's spy agencies - the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in particular - for acting as "a state within a state," even kidnapping political and social activists with impunity. The Pakistani government and the ISI deny these allegations. The government acknowledges some 400 cases of missing people, allegedly picked up by intelligence operatives on suspicion of “anti-state" activities. Pakistani activists, however, put the number of missing persons at over 1,000. Many of those picked up illegally are thought to be members of Baluch insurgent groups operating in the western province of Baluchistan that borders Iran. Amina Masood Janjua, chairperson of Defense of Human Rights organization, whose own husband was allegedly picked up by security agencies, told DW that she had a meeting with the UN delegation and shared her findings with the UN experts. "The government does not pay heed to our demands and concerns. We hope that the Pakistani authorities will at least listen to the UN delegation," Janjua said.Opposition parties criticized President Asif Ali Zardari's PPP government for allowing the UN to probe a "domestic issue." "The visit of the UN group is a proof that the PPP government has failed to provide justice to Pakistani people," Riaz Hussain Pirzada, opposition leader and member of the lower house of Pakistani parliament, told DW. Opposition groups also say that the UN delegation is bypassing the jurisdiction of the Pakistani Supreme Court. But the Pakistani government says the visit of the UN delegation will not have any influence on the ongoing Supreme Court investigations. "The visit of the group will provide an opportunity to highlight the efforts being undertaken by the government to address this important issue and to further improve the relevant procedures," Pakistan's foreign ministry said in a statement.Many pro-military and right-wing groups in Pakistan accuse international human rights organizations of interfering in Pakistan's “internal affairs.” Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) rejects such criticism. "It is the responsibility of every citizen of the world to raise their voice against human rights violations that are perpetrated anywhere in the world," Ali told DW. Rights activist and retired Justice Tariq told DW that the UN delegation's findings will have serious implications for Pakistan and the Pakistani government. "Missing people's cases are the responsibility of the Pakistani executive. If the UN delegation gives out a negative report on these cases, it will damage the reputation of Pakistan," said Tariq. Some political observers also say that the Pakistani judiciary is more interested in opening graft cases against President Zardari and his ministers than bringing the powerful military generals and intelligence agencies' heads to justice. Therefore, they say, it becomes crucial that the case of missing persons is investigated by independent international organizations.

UN team arrives in Quetta on 10-day mission

The United Nations’ delegation assigned to investigate the case of missing persons of Balochistan, has arrived in Quetta today, on Saturday, Aaj News reported. The four member delegation set foot in Quetta, accompanied by members from the High Commissioner’s office for Human Rights. Their mission here in Pakistan is to interact with the relatives of missing people along with Balochistan’s various political, social and civil society leaders and representatives to gather information about the missing people, in order to pin point the reason behind so many enforced kidnappings in Balochistan. Invitation to the UN delegation to visit Pakistan on a fact finding mission, has raised questions against the Government as the Supreme Court is currently investigating these cases by questioning the Army and FC regarding high number of enforced kidnappings in the province. Earlier, the UN delegation showed interest in meeting Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, but had to face refusal fromthe CJ as he thought that it would not be suitable to discuss a case which is currently under prosecution in court. According to a global Human Rights estimate, thousands of ordinary civilians and activists were detained, allegedly by intelligence agencies and security agencies in the past. Many of them still kept in secret prisons, never to be heard of again.


Balochistan is presently ruled by death squads and the state machinery had failed to trace the death squads and bust all of them or bring them to justice by allowing the laws of the land to take its natural course. Thanks to the former President, General ® Pervez Musharraf, who initiated killing of innocent people only to satisfy his ego. Nawab Bugti and other Baloch leaders were more respected people and enjoyed a better reputation in the eyes of the people of Pakistan which the General resented as a mediocre. Since then, there are death squads are operating and the innocent intellectuals, journalists, senior political leaders, teachers, university professors, doctors, engineers, lawyers, students, musicians and other professionals are being killed with complete impunity. Similarly, no one endorse the killing of innocent and non combatants by the militants and there is no justification for targeting civilians and unarmed people on any pretext. It is a fascist approach to kill the opponents. There is a thin line between legitimate struggle for national rights and terrorism. The Tamil Tigers were involved in fascist killing of innocent people for which the whole declared them as terrorist group for their acts of terrorism and finally eliminated from the political scene of Sri Lanka. It was a Mafia and a fascist movement had nothing to do with the rights of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. The militant groups should not follow the footprints of Tamil Tigers and spare the innocent people or non combatants so that they should be dubbed as terrorists. The State is least interested to trace the death squads and Government functionaries are blaming hostile intelligence agencies for the killing of Baloch political opponents of the Government. So far the State functionaries had failed to provide any evidence before the people in general and the Supreme Court of Pakistan indicating that hostile intelligence agencies are involved in target killing of Baloch people. On the contrary, Voice of Baloch Missing Persons claimed that 480 mutilated bodies were found. They were all missing persons with proof that they were picked up by the state functionaries and their bodies were thrown at the public places. In this background, the UN Working Group is visiting Pakistan on the invitation of the Government of Pakistan to ascertain the facts about the enforced disappearances. There were score of protest demonstrations outside the UN Headquarters in New York and Geneva claiming enforced disappearances for which the Government is blamed. On this pressure, the UN had formed the Working Group to ascertain the facts. The UN Group is expected to present the report before the UN Human Rights Commission sometime in March next. The Pakistan Government is bound to facilitate the UN Working Group on enforced disappearances. It is hoped that during the fact finding mission, UN will able to pinpoint the groups operating death squads in Balochistan and elsewhere. Killing of innocent people, including tribal elders, political activists and intellectuals are reported from Khuzdar, Kalat, Mastung, Awaran, Gwadar, Pasni, Buleida, Turbat, Tump, Mand and its border regions close to Iran, Panjgur, Bugti and Marri Tribal territories. In recent days, four dead bodies were found in Kalat. Earlier, four innocent youth were gunned down presumably on revenge killing, seven persons, including a tribal elder Saeed Qalandrani, were gunned down and killed in the similar pattern in Khuzdar. There should be an end to these senseless killing of innocent people allowing politics to take its natural and peaceful course. Pakistan is located in a very dangerous region where world powers are in conflict with regional States for one reason or the other. If there is no peace in Pakistan, the world power will take full advantage to implicate or drag Pakistan into the regional conflict to the disadvantage of the Baloch people in particular and Pakistan as a State in general. It is in the interest of all concerned that there should be peace in Balochistan and all the groups should wind up their death squads before they are exposed and destroyed by more powerful forces present in the region.

The Balochistan mayhem
The savage Mastung slaughter and the barbaric Khuzdar carnage brings out compellingly that the Balochistan problem is not what the political eminences, pundits, commentariat, civil society and even judiciary have given themselves to believe. The evil phenomenon of missing persons is certainly an issue and very tragic one at that. But it alone is not the Balochistan problem. It is the issue of the wholesale mayhem on so cruelly in the province with impunity. It is the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Punjabi-settlers and the Pakhtuns in the Baloch areas. It is the methodical turfing out of Urdu-speaking migrants. It is the organised killings of Hazaras. It is the death and maiming of the Baloch children, women and men in the insurgents’ landmine and IED blasts. It is the blood-drenched violence of foreign-funded and -armed proxies. It is their targeted killings of uniformed personnel and civilians alike. And it is the struggle of an enslaved people to get out of the stiflingly suffocating stranglehold of hereditary sardars, chieftains and their scions. It is the development of a land kept perpetually backward by local elites in collusion with their allies in the central power to the exclusive benefit of the regional powerbrokers and to the full detriment of the hapless and voiceless people in their serfdoms. Above all, it is the issue of governance, which for the present is non-existent to all intent and purposes. The multifaceted mayhem Balochistan is entangled presently necessarily requires an administrator of great vision, wisdom and imagination to steer the province out of the quagmire with an adept administrative skill and powerful development hand. But to its and its residents’ great grief, it has been landed with Nawab Aslam Riasani as its chief executive, who even doesn’t stay put in his domain and lives most of the time away from it but gets furious when told of this. He has almost the whole bunch of the provincial lawmakers in his ministry. They include sardars, chieftains and self-styled nationalists. Yet Balochistan is only sinking deeper and deeper in the mayhem. It is this mayhem that needs to be tackled if Balochistan is to return to normality, peace and tranquility for it to develop and advance and for its residents to live in safety and security and prosper. The vile incidence of missing persons should definitely come to an end. It is too tragic, and absolutely unacceptable and impermissible. But deaths in ethnic cleansings, sectarian massacres, targeted murders and terrorist slaughters are no lesser doleful. Surely, the kith and kin of the victims do not go out singing and dancing. The relations of the missing could at least have a hope, even if a distant one, of their loved one being alive and some day returning home. But these victims’ have not even that much. Their loss is for ever. And drooping with unbearable grief, they could have no stomach at all to make a “V” sign with their fingers, as do the missing persons’ while coming to the courts hearing their cases or staging protest demonstrations on the streets and before the press clubs or the parliament. And in spite of all the sympathy and compassion for the missing persons and their families, it is too much to give credence to the assertions that missing persons total to something like 14,000. That is just an offense to credulity. And while there is no doubt whatsoever about the fate of those who are felled by targeted killings, sectarian murders, ethnic cleansings and terrorist bombs and bullets, this clarity is just not there about the missing persons. A cloud of all sorts of suspicions, doubts and surmises cloak the vicious phenomenon of disappeared persons. One even wouldn’t know for sure if some of these unfortunate people have been done in really in fratricidal fracas, factional feuds and reprisals. In any case, the mayhem that Balochistan is presently bogged down in so terribly needs to be addressed as the highest state priority. It is certainly sitting on a powder-keg ticking to explode, albeit not the way the ignorant and uniformed pundits of all hues and stripes talk so glibly. It is not secession but an ethnic, sectarian and factional conflagration that will reduce it into a piece of land engulfed in total chaos and anarchy. Both the Quetta hierarchy and Islamabad establishment must know this. And they must get into the act right now to avert that horrific eventuality. Tomorrow will be too late.

Zardari concedes PPP failure in checking inflation

President Asif Ali Zardari
has said that the PPP-led coalition government could not come up to its expectation on the debilitating energy crisis. In an informal chat with the BBC after a luncheon at the Presidency on Thursday, the president said that he would have to supervise efforts to at least bring down the frequency and duration of power outages, if not end the crisis. During the four-and-a-half year rule of the PPP, 3,500 megawatt electricity was added to the national grid – but the power crisis could not be overcome, according to the president. Zardari also endorsed the impression that the PPP government has failed to check rising inflation in the country. He, however, blamed it on increasing oil prices in the international market and global financial crisis. Zardari said he was the first president in the history of Pakistan to have voluntarily relinquished his powers to strengthen parliament. “Mian Nawaz Sharif (chief of main opposition party) not only appreciated this but also said that he could not believe a president could voluntarily clip his powers,” he added. President Zardari, who is also the co-chairman of the ruling party, said that he introduced major changes in the Constitution to devolve powers to the federating units. He added that the PPP gave autonomy to the Gilgit-Baltistan region and strengthened state institutions. The president promised that the next parliamentary election would be held on time and the PPP would ensure maximum transparency and fairness to assuage the opposition’s concerns. He sought to dispel the impression that the PPP wanted to delay the elections. Asked about a caretaker set-up, Zardari said the government has not started spadework for this. However, he added that an interim government would be put in place with consensus and nobody would have objection to it. It would be the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history and this would strengthen the democratic process, he added.

2 U.S. Marines die in 'sustained attack' on Afghan base

Two U.S. service members were killed early Saturday during a "sustained attack" at a joint base in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, military officials said. The slain Americans were both Marines, a U.S. defense official said, while three or four troops were wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility. Between 16 and 20 insurgents were killed, said Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force. Attackers used a combination of small firearms and rocket-propelled grenades in their attack, according to the official. They may have breached the "outer perimeter" of the base -- which includes the American-run Camp Leatherneck and the British-run Camp Bastion -- added the official. Maj. Martin Crighton, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, said the base came under indirect fire. He said there were no organized demonstrations outside its gates -- as have sprung up worldwide in recent days, targeting U.S. authorities following the release of a privately produced anti-Islam video -- prior to the attack. A Taliban spokesman said the attack was in response to the film. The situation was under control early Sunday and security patrols were assessing damage, said the U.S. defense official. A week ago Friday, Prince Harry -- an Apache helicopter pilot in the British military -- arrived in Afghanistan to begin his four-month deployment, Britain's Ministry of Defence said. He was to be based at Camp Bastion, which is in what is considered the Taliban heartland, with the 100-strong 662 Squadron, 3 Regiment Army Air Corps. Harry, the grandson of Queen Elizabeth II and third in line to the British throne, is a captain in Britain's Army Air Corps. The prince "was in no way in any danger" during the latest attack, Crighton said.

U.S. :Split over poverty's role in learning

Strike highlights split over poverty's role in learning
The Chicago teachers strike, which appeared headed toward a resolution Friday, has underscored a fundamental split over the biggest issue confronting America's public schools: how to provide a decent education to children mired in poverty. Across the U.S., poverty is irrefutably linked to poor academic performance. On last year's national reading exam, nine-year-olds from low-income families scored nearly three full grade levels below their wealthier peers. The gap was nearly as large in math. The poor performance of poor students accounts for all of the achievement gap between U.S. students and their peers in academic powerhouses such as South Korea and Finland. On the latest international reading test, U.S. teens from more affluent schools were at the very top of global rankings, while those from schools with high poverty rates were near the bottom. To many educators, including the teachers walking the picket lines in Chicago, the inescapable conclusion is that schools serving low-income communities can be improved only by addressing the social ills associated with poverty. EMPTY STOMACHS, ABUSED PSYCHES Chicago teachers speak of children coming to school hungry and unwashed, with throbbing toothaches, without proper shoes. They talk of kids, scarred by violence, who desperately need counselors in schools that have none. They note that Chicago, where 87 percent of students qualify for federally subsidized meals, spends less than half as much per student as wealthy suburbs; the union says 160 of the city's elementary schools don't even have a library. "I am hitting it hard in the classroom, giving it everything I have," said Romanetha Walker Looper, who teaches middle-school science. "But the students at my school..." She stopped, unable to put their struggles into words. "I'm their mother, teacher, nurse and psychologist," she said. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, bluntly attributes poor student performance on standardized tests not to teachers or school administrators but to "factors beyond our control." Yet a rival philosophy, which first gained traction with the "no child left behind" initiative, holds that such talk amounts to so many excuses. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other education reformers argue that if kids are falling behind it's because their schools -- and their teachers -- are failing them. So public education needs a radical makeover. The reformers' agenda starts with sorting schools by test scores and taking action against the worst by firing teachers, bringing in private management or shutting the school down altogether. Another key tactic: Hold teachers accountable for raising their students' standardized test scores. Reformers, both Democrats and Republicans, have called improving urban schools the civil rights challenge of our time, saying society can no longer tolerate such vast inequalities in opportunity and achievement. Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools and a leading reform advocate, put it this way in a recent piece for the Huffington Post: "Poverty presents huge challenges in our schools. But expectations of academic success for a child should never hinge on the circumstances of his or her birth." A COCOON OF SUPPORT SERVICES The reform movement has enjoyed a powerful wave of bi-partisan political support in recent years, from President Barack Obama on down. Yet in a few corners of the nation, with much less fanfare, the unions' preferred approach is being tested. In Cincinnati, for instance, the public school district and an array of corporate and philanthropic donors have spent tens of millions over the past decade to wrap nearly every school in a cocoon of support services. Most schools in poor neighborhoods have a full-time resource coordinator on staff to connect struggling families to the help they need. Often they don't have far to go: Many schools have food banks, health clinics and counseling centers on site. The schools are open into the evening for clubs, sports, tutoring, parenting classes and support groups. The result: Kids are staying -- and succeeding -- in school like never before. In 2000, just 51 percent of ninth-graders made it to graduation. A decade later, the graduation rate hit 82 percent, district figures show. The impoverished mining communities in McDowell County, West Virginia, are trying a similar tactic: They've built a coalition of 80 public and private groups, including the teachers union, to boost school achievement explicitly by tackling poverty. Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University and a supporter of this approach, says it has worked before. During the War on Poverty in the 1960s and '70s, government invested in preschool, teacher training and urban development. The gap between the reading skills of black and white high-school students shrank by two-thirds and high school graduation rates for black students more than doubled, Darling-Hammond said. More recently, in the late 1990s, New Jersey began investing huge sums in its poor urban schools after courts repeatedly ordered it to erase inequities. Black and Hispanic students made rapid gains in both reading and math at the fourth-grade level, according to federal testing data, though the achievement gap didn't budge for older students. "Kids in poverty can learn at much higher rates when they have the resources they need," Darling-Hammond said. When they don't get those resources and fail, she added, "you can't land all that on the backs of teachers." HEAVY HOMEWORK, EXACTING STANDARDS Reformers respond that kids need help now and can't wait until society finds the will or the means to fight a new war on poverty. Their overhaul agenda does cost money. Districts that embark on reform may spend heavily to develop new standardized tests to measure teacher efficacy. They may also hire private managers to run schools deemed in need of an overhaul. Philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have invested hundreds of millions in priorities of the reform agenda, such as charter schools and new teacher evaluation systems. In Chicago the district has turned over a dozen low-performing schools to nonprofit turnaround specialist AUSL, or Academy for Urban School Leadership. Before making such a handoff, the district spends up to $500,000 renovating the school with fresh paint, new athletic fields, and science and computer labs to send students and parents a signal that they're making a fresh start, district officials said. The district also funds an extra assistant principal position for a year, at cost of $140,000. And it pays AUSL an annual management fee of $420 to $500 per student. Officials say targeted spending like this, meant to raise achievement in a specific school, is more feasible than a diffuse commitment to help kids everywhere overcome the challenges of poverty -- especially in a struggling district like Chicago, which faces a $3 billion deficit over three years. As proof that poverty is not insurmountable, reformers point to the stellar test scores posted by hundreds of "no excuses" charter schools nationwide. Charter networks like KIPP, Achievement First, Yes Prep and Noble hold their students, mostly poor and minority, to exacting standards: They have heavy homework loads, extended school days, and rigorous behavior codes that may lead to disciplinary action for infractions such as failing to sit up straight. From the first day, teachers -- who tend to be non-union -- emphasize that they expect students to excel and go to college. A great many do. Union leaders point out that many charters don't achieve that level of success -- and in fact post worse scores than neighborhood schools -- and note that only highly motivated kids can stick with such a strenuous program. Teachers fear the emergence of a two-tier system in which the best students go to charters while traditional public schools are stuck with the rest. Yet fans of charters say the fact that not every student can handle a rigorous school is no reason to deny the option to those who can. "For certain poor kids, this is a great solution -- and there aren't a lot of other solutions out there," said Paul Tough, who has written extensively about education, including the just-released book "How Children Succeed." Chicago school officials agree; their 2013 budget ramps up spending on charters by $76 million. OPTING FOR BEST OF BOTH The debate over how to boost achievement for poor kids is emotional and often nasty; it rages on Twitter and in blog posts and in rival reports that seek to build up or tear down the near-mythical status of top "no excuses" charter schools. Behind the sharp rhetoric, however, the two sides may not be as far apart as they seem. Consider Spark Academy, an elementary school in Newark, New Jersey, affiliated with the KIPP network of charter schools. Teacher expectations are set so high, kids learn to identify themselves by what year they'll be graduating from college. But it's not all "no excuses." The school, with just over 400 students, employs two full-time social workers and a dean whose sole job is to get students the help they need so they can focus on academics, whether it's grief counseling, medical treatment or a safe place to sleep, said Ryan Hill, executive director of KIPP's New Jersey network. "The camp that says none of this stuff matters," Hill said, "is as wrong as those who say we can't make a difference with these kids."