01/02/2013 03:38 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Five Issues for 2013

During the holidays, I invariably wind up feeling far behind on every to-do list.  It's all I can do to take in everybody else's end of the year sum-ups and lists. So, I wait until the day I'm back at my desk to add my two cents. Here goes, five things you should care about in 2013 (but you probably do already).

1. I was pleased to hear the news this morning that the death penalty is losing favor, even in states we think of as being devoted to capital punishment. This development seems sensible to me, but it's only recently become common sense to many. That's because states are beginning to recognize how expensive it is and what a poor deterrent it is, and that's just when the state isn't involved in executing innocent people. Despite what advocates of an eye for an eye approach argue, few people can justify the costs in government dollars and innocent lives lost. Perhaps as a nation of sensible citizens, we can all begin to look at gun violence in the same way--that our strict adherence to a specific interpretation of the second amendment isn't worth the cost. When cars were unsafe, we passed laws to protect drivers and passengers from their dangers. Now, fewer people die in car accidents. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic took hold, we rallied as a nation to find treatments and extend people's lives. If people were dying at this rate from anything we typically think of as a health issue, we'd fund research to treat it and cure it. It's not just the tragedy of Newtown. People are dying every day since from guns and people who use them. This is the moment for the right and left to rethink entrenched positions on guns and think about the safety of our children and our communities. And while you're at it, if you're on twitter, follow @gundeaths

2. Last year at this time, I mentioned redistricting reform, and it hasn't ceased being important. On election night, I remember being really surprised when CNN made a big deal in announcing that the US House of Representatives would remain in GOP control. You're kidding. You didn't have to be Nate Silver to predict that: a year earlier, every state was busily gerrymandering safety for partisan incumbents and creating stiff competition for the opposing caucus. Of 435 races in the House, barely 25 were actually competitive. In Ohio, redistricting left a state that voted in favor of President Obama with a congressional caucus 75 percent Republican. On top of that voters rejected a redistricting reform proposal mostly, I believe, because it was poorly understood and even more poorly explained by advocates. There's still hope, however. GOP leaders, likely all too aware of how a pendulum operates, have promised to make redistricting reform part of the agenda for the obscure Constitutional Modernization Commission. A prediction: What Ohioans get out of that will be in direct proportion to the amount of attention the populace pays to it.  

3. If you haven't yet read David Denby's profile of Diane Ravitch from November, it's worth your time, if only to remind you how long we've been talking about fixing public education. Over some four decades, Ravitch has been on just about every side of efforts to reform and improve public education. It struck me that while we are always trying to improve these systems in every city and hamlet throughout the nation, we're at a real inflection point right now, one that could contain the seeds of either a great rebirth of the American Public Education system or its ultimate demise in favor of private alternatives. I'm hopeful for the former, but in order for that to happen, everybody will have to get involved and move out of entrenched positions (is that my new theme here?). What happened in Chicago in 2012 was largely a failure of imagination. When administrators and teachers argue over the length of the contract day, they're not talking about the best ways to help students learn. I'm looking forward to a moment when contract negotiations are about innovation and research-based pedagogies and not about whether the school day should end at 3 or 3:15. In Cleveland, local leaders, convinced of the importance of this moment, told the new CEO he would either be the district's best leader or its last. The point is that we're all paying attention and deeply engaged. All of that attention shouldn't be squandered. 

4. And speaking of engagement, our public officials are starting to get it, but I continue to wish more of them would realize how easy it has become to engage with constituents through social media. Right now, congress seems to have a pretty good track record in terms of at least establishing twitter accounts, but it all comes down to how well you use the tool. Most of those accounts, I fear, are little more than campaign tools. What we should all be demanding is that our local government entities and reps develop new habits of connecting with constituents and stakeholders about decisions of consequence. The blue ribbon panel isn't dead, and neither is the public meeting. But Facebook is already an adolescent and new tech like The Civic Commons and MindMixer are available, sometimes for free. These social technologies have the power to strengthen democracy and bring us all closer to those who represent us. It's high time we ask our governments to embrace them.

5. Finally, for almost two years, we've been watching a transformation in Arab nations in the Middle East that is by turns astonishing, disappointing, and confusing. We musn't stop paying attention. Syria"s path is as unclear today as it was a year ago, but it's doubtful the current state cannot continue for much longer. Meanwhile, Egypt under Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood hasn't turned out to be what democracy looks like. As Rami Khouri of the Daily Star reminds us in a recent column, as similar as the grievances of Arab people may be from nation to nation, the Arab world is neither monoloithic nor cohesive. These new forms of citizen activism are just that--new--and contributing to inchoate democracies. We should watch, ready to help when asked. 

And because you read to the end, here's a bonus.

+1. The changes, innovation and growing pains in the news industry continue to remake the media landscape. The local daily I subscribe to--The Plain Dealer--isn't expected to be a daily paper by the end of 2013. That means the biggest newspaper in Ohio will stop being the biggest newspaper in Ohio. There's a major opportunity for someone.