Schools, schmools. Who needs ’em, anyway?

Jack and Jill went up the hill. Jack got robbed. Jill got jobbed.

Shortchanged J & J

It isn’t the classic nursery rhyme but it is what students may learn this year as school budgets across the country are gutted.

From Oshkosh, Wis. to Puyallup, Wash., schools will suffer the axe this year as districts and states continue to grapple with big budget holes due to the recession.

The Oshkosh School District, for example, is debating the closure of middle and elementary schools, larger classes and culling around 35 positions, according to WLUK-TV in Green Bay.

Oshkosh’s problems arose after Wisconsin ended the fiscal year with a $2.71 budget gap. Varying by state and district, schools are usually funded by a combination of local, state and federal money.

Thousands of miles away, the Puyallup School District faces a 21 percent budget cut that could result in layoffs, larger classes and a possible school closing, according The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.

When High-Speed Internet Isn't, Try a Carrier Pigeon

South Africa's largest Internet service provider has been one-upped by a carrier pigeon with a four gigabyte memory stick strapped to its leg. Winston, the bird in question, took off for a 60-mile trip at the same time that four gigabytes of data were transmitted to a computer at the destination. The plucky pigeon got there first, beating out Telkom's ADSL service by more than an hour, according to BBC and other sources. Wealthy nations, as well as the developing world, are often plagued by poor Internet connectivity -- and the slow speeds come at a cost. The U.S. Department of Agriculture noted in an August study that rural economic growth and broadband go hand in hand.

Prison Labor out of the Box, and in

Labor by prisoners is complicated enough -- but it doesn't get any easier once an offender's sentence is complete. In difficult economic times, it's that much harder for ex-prisoners who have to check off the "yes" box on job applications that ask, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" Nationwide, an array of reform organizations decry the question, which they say unfairly punishes former offenders who have already served their time. In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel reports that the American Civil Liberties Union wants to ban the felony question from state employment applications. "Once you check that box in this tight market, it's fatal," Orlando attorney Glenn R. Leong, told the newspaper.

Consumers Feel the Credit Card Slam

With new federal credit-card regulations on the horizon, banks and card providers are boosting interest rates, fees and minimum payments, according to news reports. Before the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act takes full effect in February 2010, credit-card issuers are "raising annual percentage rates, slashing credit limits and hiking minimum payments," writes Dallas Morning News columnist Pamela Yip. She also cites a loophole on a regulation set to kick in Aug. 20, requiring companies to issue a notice 45 days in advance of any rate increase. Yet the law only applies for cards with fixed rates; variable rate cards, which account for two-thirds of all cards issued, are excluded.

Cloudy Skies at the Microfinance Horizon?

Microfinance may be in for some rough times, as the impact of the global recession works its way down the economic food chain. In Africa, less money for microfinance projects is coming in from Europe and the United States, the Daily Nation of Kenya reports. Meanwhile, the demand for microfunds is up threefold, reports the Africa Microfinance Action Forum, as people lose their regular jobs and look to become entrepreneurs. The same scenario is playing out in Europe. Although a new European Union microfinance institution is being set up to provide small-business loans for the unemployed, New Europe reports that critics are already saying it offers too little.

Two Wheels to the World

Pedal power is getting new respect worldwide, as concerns about climate change and hard economic times make bicycling increasingly popular. In Paris, "bike sharing" gives riders access to thousands of two-wheelers around the city, a service that is also gaining momentum in Mexico, Brazil and Canada. The women's blog even calls bike sharing "the new public transportation." Bicycling is also getting a big push from Asian governments. South Korea's president wants to make his country "a bicycle heaven," The Korea Times reports, while Time Magazine chimes in with news that Taiwan's leader hopes to create "a cycling paradise" in his island nation.

Banks Take Aim at Student Loan Plan

Opposition is emerging to President Barack Obama's plan to take private banks out of the student loan business. Student indebtedness has grown to an average of nearly $23,000 per individual, and student loans remain a lucrative business for U.S. banks, earning $85 billion annually, according to news reports. The White House plan would cut out the middleman and let students borrow directly from the government, with the hope of making more money available for loans, while saving an estimated $94 billion over the next decade. Citigroup has already begun an e-mail campaign urging its borrowers to write Congress to oppose the plan, notes Talking Points Memo. And executives for Sallie Mae, the biggest provider of student loans, said if the plan is adopted as proposed, an undetermined number of banking jobs could be lost.

Brazilian Blacks Assume Majority, Not Equity

Brazil's African-descended citizens now stand at 49.6 percent of the population, edging out their European-descended brethren by .2 percent, but lacking proportional access to education and food. Twenty percent of Brazilian blacks are more likely to be illiterate, and have to work as much as 76 hours for their "basic food basket," compared to a 6 percent illiteracy rate and 54 hours of work for basic food needs for Caucasians, reports Merco Press. In 1888 Brazil became the last country in South America to abolish slavery. President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has proposed new quotas for blacks in universities, in an effort to drive social and economic integration. --Brittany Owens/
"Black population becomes the majority in Brazil"
MercoPress, April 25, 2009

China Comes Calling in Latin America

China's search for natural resources is taking it to Latin America, and bringing considerable economic clout at a time when U.S. trade with the region is steadily declining. In Peru, China has locked in control of copper production with its multibillion-dollar purchase of a mountain that holds most of Peru's copper reserves, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Venezuela, meanwhile, has sealed a new agreement that will increase crude oil exports to China to one million barrels daily by 2012, reports Other Chinese investments in Latin America include $1 billion for a hydroelectric plant in Ecuador and a $10 billion loan to Brazil's national oil company, The New York Times reports. China is now Latin America's second largest trading partner, with trade increasing by almost 40 percent in 2008, up to $140 billion, according to China Daily, while a Foreign Policy magazine essay states that China is signing currency swap agreements worth more than $100 billion.

'Blood Minerals' Taint Electronic Gadgets

A new report by a Washington-based advocacy group links sexual violence in Africa and electronics manufacturing. Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold are mined in illegal operations, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then sent abroad to be used in electronic gadgets such as iPods, cell phones and laptops. Local rebel factions in the DRC trade these "conflict minerals" for weapons, and routinely terrorize residents in contested regions, according to the Enough Project's findings. This includes looting, burning of property and ever-increasing sexual violence against women and girls. According to the study, more than 1,000 rapes are reported in the DRC monthly -- the highest rate in the world.