When Corporations Get Tax Breaks, Someone Has To Pay… and that Someone is the Homeowner

May 20, 2015 Leave a comment

Earlier posts on this website, like this one titled “Tax Racket“, have decried the practice of offering huge tax incentives to private corporations on the premise that they will either leave town and go somewhere else or the premise that they will reap huge benefits to the community.

That earlier essay was brought to mind when I read Deborah Scott’s post titled “Someone Has To Pay” in this past weekend’s Chattanoogan.com. Ms. Scott provides several specific examples of very generous tax breaks (or Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs)) that the counties in the Chattanooga area offered, including this blatantly irresponsible action:

In 2008, Volkswagen received incentives from local, state and federal sources equaling approximately $840 million. This figure included commitments from Chattanooga and Hamilton County for $245 million. [Additional incentives were granted to VW in 2014, but why talk about the additional millions. We have already been told those millions will come from the city and county’s reserve funds. Folks, that reserve is our rainy day fund.]

In the meantime, public services— like public schools— are scrambling for money because valuable commercial property is no longer bringing in the same revenues and the County Commissioners have pledged to keep homeowners’  taxes flat. This combination of corporate largesse and refusal to raise property taxes leads to a manufactured crisis… and at the conclusion of her post, Ms. Scott poses the right questions:

If the economy is significantly stimulated by the use of PILOTs, where is the positive  effect? If the local economy is humming from PILOT businesses, why aren’t other revenue streams growing and making up for lost property tax revenue and increased expenses? Are PILOTs the magic bullets for economic success?  If so, why do city and county property taxpayers feel they are under the gun? 

I cannot answer the questions about PILOTs in Chattanooga. I know that public schools are expected to account for every dollar they spend and as Superintendent in many districts I was asked to prove that forecasted savings actually materialized. Private corporations are seldom held to such a standard by locally elected officials or State and Federal governments. Consequently there is no means of determining whether PILOTs have a net positive effect on the tax base or add to the quality of life in the community. On the macro level it is clear what is going on: the major shareholders of corporations, the top .1%, are accumulating vast wealth while the bottom 95% have seen no substantial change in their earnings for decades. The revenue starved city, county, state and federal governments cannot turn to the 99% for resources because they have none and they are fearful of turning to the 1% who make decisions for major corporations for fear that they will abandon the community altogether. And that’s the answer to the final rhetorical question Ms. Scott poses.

Tale of Two Progressive NYC Mayors: Lindsay and deBlasio

May 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Years ago when I was in college one of my political heroes was NYC Mayor John Lindsay. A progressive liberal Republican (no… that’s NOT a misprint), Lindsay advocated racial justice in a city that still had de facto segregation and tried to implement grassroots governance into a highly centralized and bureaucratic city. I hadn’t drawn a parallel between Bill de Blasio’s challenges and Lindsay’s, but an article in today’s NYTimes does so. The format of the article is an interview between columnist John Guida and  Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College and the editor of “Summer in the City: John Lindsay, New York and the American Dream”. In the interview, Guida poses several questions that provide Viteritti with an opportunity to compare and contrast the times of Lindsay and de Blasio and they challenges they each faced in their first year. In the final question, Guida asks Viteritti what lessons de Blasio might learn from Lindsay, and Viteritti responds:

Beware of the school wars. Lindsay’s instinct to decentralize governance and give parents a voice made sense. When he set up three experimental districts in minority neighborhoods, he racialized an issue that could have had broad support. When he failed to act after the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board fired 18 Jewish teachers and administrators without cause, he left the city polarized and alienated many liberal supporters. Except for his pre-K proposal, de Blasio spent his first year carping at Bloomberg policies rather than articulating his own vision for education. In battling charter schools, he lost a chance to take ownership of a popular initiative that could enhance opportunity and advance his egalitarian goals.

Viteritti’s analysis of de Blasio’s education policy is erroneous on at least three counts.

First, Viteritti diminishes de Blasio’s earnest effort to get funding for universal pre-Kindergarten, which was a campaign promise he made.

Secondly, Viteritti’s characterization of de Blasio as devoting his time to “carping at Bloomberg’s policies” downplays his battles against Governor Cuomo to not only seek funding for pre-Kindergarten but to assert his authority to operate schools without interference from Albany. The major point of contention between Cuomo and de Blasio was over the continuation of Bloomberg’s ill advised local policy to provide free, taxpayer funded space to deregulated for-profit charter schools by displacing children from local neighborhoods to make room for children from other parts of the city. When Governor Cuomo sided with the charter profiteers de Blasio was forced to either spend political capital retaining his power over the operation of NYC schools or cede that authority to Albany.

 

Finally, and most importantly, I’m not at all certain that the “popular” deregulated for-profit charter schools advocated by Bloomberg and Cuomo “could enhance opportunity and advance (de Blasio’s) egalitarian goals”. The reasons deregulated for-profit charter schools are a “popular initiative” is that they receive substantial support from philanthropists thereby avoiding the need for additional funding, they do not require the redrawing of school attendance zones thereby avoiding the need to shift children from affluent schools into nearby schools serving children raised in poverty, and they limit enrollment to children of parents who are intensely interested in their children’s success in school thereby avoiding the challenge of working with disaffected and/or disengaged parents. When affluent and engaged parents can have their needs met without costing the taxpayers anything and without requiring changes to housing patterns it is no surprise that deregulated for profit charter schools are a “popular initiative”. Do they enhance opportunities for ALL children or meet de Blasio’s egalitarian goals? I think not.

I DO agree that de Blasio gets “little help from Washington”, in large measure because the Obama administration’s neo-liberal policies are in conflict with de Blasio’s progressivism. And I also feel that until recently de Blasio has not made his progressive stance explicit, and that has defined his initiatives as reactions against Bloomberg as opposed to being movement toward a clearly defined set of goals.

One parallel Viteritti failed to identify was that both men wanted to empower neighborhoods and disempower those who were previously in charge. In Lindsay’s case he was making an effort to disperse power to neighborhood boards to achieve racial equity. In de Blasio’s its to take power away from the plutocrats to help bring about economic equity. Lindsay did achieve some level of harmony in the city. Here’s hoping de Blasio’s economic equity goals achieve some modicum of success.

 

Expanded Vouchers in OH, WI Drain Public School Budgets, Add to Inequity… But Cuomo Wants Them for NYS!!!

May 18, 2015 Leave a comment

The Google Public School feed this past weekend had two articles on pending legislation in Wisconsin and Ohio to expand existing voucher programs that enable urban students to attend private suburban school. In both cases the beneficiaries would be parochial schools, who would receive roughly $7,000 per student in WI and $5,700 per student in OH, not enough to pay full tuition but clearly enough to help keep the private sectarian schools in the suburbs afloat. This legislation is terrible on several counts:

  • It requires parents to make up the difference between the tuition charge and the voucher, effectively eliminating the most poverty stricken families from the pool of those who could take advantage of the program.
  • It gives vouchers to parents who have already chosen to enroll their children in private schools! According to the State Department of Public Instruction, 86 percent of voucher applicants for next year don’t even go to public school now. In effect, instead of providing a means for students raised in poverty to attend better schools the vouchers provide a bonus of $5,700 to parents who can afford to send their child to parochial school and take away that sum from public schools who cannot achieve savings from having fewer students enrolled.
  • It directs public funds to specifically identified religiously affiliated schools. It is hard to believe that the legislators would provide vouchers to a school operated by a mosque or a Wiccan group, yet providing funds to Catholic schools is acceptable.
  • There is no evidence that providing vouchers to students in urban districts improves the opportunities for large groups of students or improves the urban schools. Indeed, Milwaukee has had vouchers in place for over 20 years and Cleveland has had vouchers for nearly 20 years and neither city’s schools have improved.

But despite this track record two midwestern states led by Republicans, NY’s Governor Cuomo is promoting a similar law in his state. So vouchers are the silver bullet for Republicans, neo-liberal Democrats, and “reformers” who view schooling as a commodity that customers can select the same way they buy a car. The flaw in this thinking is that “informed consumers” have equitable resources and deregulated schools offer sound programs. One look at the track record of deregulated for-profit charter schools and the vast inequities in wealth puncture these assumptions… but vampire ideas are hard to kill!

My Grandson’s Participation in a Gates Funded Initiative

May 18, 2015 Leave a comment

A couple of days ago I got a letter from my daughter whose son attends public school in Brooklyn. The email, titled “Should Have Done My Homework”, lamented the fact that she gave permission for my Grandson to participate in the “Tripod Project“, an effort funded by Bill Gates to develop student questionnaires that can be used to help evaluate the performance of teachers. I wrote her a lengthy response, which I’ve used as the basis for this post. As indicated in previous posts, I have mixed feelings about Bill Gates. But, for reasons outlined below, I have generally positive feelings about using student feedback to help improve school and teacher performance. The opting out question is easy if your child’s test results are not going to be used to assign him or her to a magnet school or used to determine a grade in a course: you do not go to school on that day. As noted in earlier posts, the circumstances in NYC are different, making opting out in any grade level before middle school arguably harmful to a child’s future.

First my thoughts on Bill Gates, who I believe has good intentions but lacks respect for and understanding of public education. Contrary to the belief of many who oppose “reform”, I am not entirely sure that Bill Gates wants to use his philanthropy to make even more money. I know, for example, he’s matched millions of dollars Rotary Clubs across the world have raised to help eliminate polio. To the best of my knowledge, Bill Gates has no investments in the corporations that provide the polio vaccine nor has he developed any software to sell to Rotary Clubs or health agencies to track polio. In seeking to eliminate polio he has, to the best of my knowledge, deferred to public health and medical experts and spent his money how and where they advise him to. Consequently, health and medical professionals have admiration and respect for his efforts. I believe the Gates Foundation has provided grants in other fields in the same fashion, drawing on the expertise of practitioners and researchers in the fields where he believes his donations can make a difference. My problem with Bill Gates is that he DOESN’T confer with or listen to education experts. If he did, he would find that schools like Hanover High School in the district where I last worked has been doing student surveys for decades and, over that time, has developed a system that is scalable IF the teachers in school are engaged in the process the way Hanover High teachers were in the mid-1980s. What’s maddening and sad is that HAD Bill Gates sought out districts who were already doing this and championed their efforts he could have had as great an impact in public education as he’s had in fighting polio– which is virtually eliminated…. and he might have the good will of teachers and administrators across the country.

My thoughts on the use of student and parent feedback to help assess school and teacher effectiveness are positive. In the New Hampshire/Vermont district I led for seven years, we instituted parent survey across the board… and it was PAINFULLY slow and time consuming but ultimately very helpful to the faculties and Boards when we set our annual goals. In order to develop a survey, we needed to get teachers and administrators to accept the notion that the results would be helpful and not punitive; we needed to get ALL parents to see the idea as being worthwhile (to avoid having only those with axes to grind responding to the survey); we had to figure out the logistics for collecting the data and keeping the open-ended responses confidential; and, we had to develop questions that would give us actionable feedback. It took two years to get the survey right and another two years to institutionalize it… but after all was said and done the surveys accomplished their stated goals: They DID provide us with information that both confirmed our beliefs about academic disciplines that were strong (or weak) in our schools and forced us to question some some mistaken beliefs we held in the same vein. The surveys, instituted in 2008, are still in use today. Here’s a link to page on the school district’s web site that has them:

http://sau70.hanovernorwichschools.org/system/app/pages/search?scope=search-site&q=survey

The HS student surveys are especially informative! At the end of each course (which could be a quarter, a semester, or a school year) the teachers have each student complete a survey that has a bank of generic questions and the chance for specific questions the teacher is seeking feedback on. The survey results are collated electronically and shared with the teacher in advance of the teacher’s end of the year conference with their department head. At that conference the department head asks the teacher for their reaction to the surveys and, in most cases, the teachers share the detailed results. But here’s a part of the Hanover High “survey culture” that was particularly unique: when the department head or principal came in to observe the teacher in the classroom, the department head would periodically ask the teacher to leave 5-10 minutes before the end of the period. The department head then engaged the class in a free-form dialogue with to get unstructured and unvarnished feedback on the teacher’s skills. This kind of 360 degree performance evaluation permeated the environment in the school and, perhaps surprisingly to some who are reading this, engendered trust and confidence throughout the organization.  

Given the opportunity to work in a high functioning district at the end of my career provided me with the opportunity to see how having the funds to hire the right kinds of teachers and the staff needed to conduct thorough and thoughtful evaluations made a HUGE difference in the culture and climate of the school…. And this experience makes me especially frustrated with the simplistic notion that standardized tests can be used as the sole basis for determining which teachers are “successful”…. and it makes me frustrated when Bill Gates doesn’t pick up the phone or Google “student surveys” to see how high functioning public high schools are doing this right… In the end, I think he’d determine that high performing schools have higher salaries across the board for teachers; have robust middle level managers who observe, support, and coach teachers; do not put much stock in standardized tests when it comes to evaluating teachers; and introduce change slowly, methodically, and democratically  

 

Now… as to the question of opting out on this particular initiative… I think this is a MUCH tougher call than opting out on the pilot Common Core tests. If teachers and parents want to see something other than standardized tests used to evaluate teachers, SOMEONE has to come up with the money to conduct the field tests of the alternative…. and it’s clear USDOE is NOT interested in anything BUT standardized tests and its also clear they don’t have any money for research. As noted above, it took us two years to develop a set of questions that provided us with helpful information, and we did it with the use of my time and the time of some technology support staff. Assuming Bill Gates it doing these pilot surveys as a means of finding something to supplement or supplant standardized testing then any child’s participation is worthwhile. I’d be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt… but, to paraphrase a former president, I think that trust needs to be verified. Based on every NYC parents well founded skepticism, I expect this and all future pilot efforts to be closely watched. I’ll be curious to see if Mr. Gates uses the data he gathers to conclude that information gathered on surveys is far more helpful than VAM. 

Preparation for Tests is the “Work” of Schools. Everything Else is “Play”

May 17, 2015 Leave a comment

The NYTimes op ed section today features an article by David Kohn titled “Let the Kinds Learn Through Play“. In the essay, Kohn describes the recent push to make pre-school and Kindergarten more “academic” in an effort to address the (sic) failing public schools as described in this paragraph:

By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries; at the same time, millions of American students, many of them poor and from minority backgrounds, remain far below national norms. Advocates say that starting formal education earlier will help close these dual gaps.

He then describes how this notion of “starting formal education earlier” has the opposite effect on students, citing one study that showed early academic gains are short lived and another that showed early childhood students who had “academically oriented” programs did worse than students who had “child initiated” learning experiences.

From my perspective the article’s main message was important and helpful to those of us who favor experiential student centered instruction over didactic teacher led approaches. But I felt the article had two overarching flaws: it reinforced the “failing public schools” meme (the above phrase “By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries” is a case in point); and it underemphasized the fact that “play” is neglected at ALL levels.

The emphasis on standardization and efficiency do not support “play” of ANY kind. The authors of the Common Core assume that teachers and schools are accountable only for the development of those skills that can be measured with standardized tests. The Common Core also clings to the 1920s paradigm that the most efficient way to educate children is to batch them by age cohorts and measure their progress using standardized tests that are administered annually. To make matters worse, NCLB and Race to the Top assume that the students’ group performance on these annual tests is a reliable, valid and efficient way to measure school performance and teacher performance, and that each student’s performance on these tests is a reliable, valid and efficient means of determining their ability to learn. Because these tests have such an impact on the ratings of the school, teacher, and student, preparing for them becomes the focal point of schooling and anything else is superfluous and inefficient. The “work” in school is test preparation. Everything else is “play”.

Consequently, PE, Music, Art, libraries, and recess are all bundled together as unworthy of attention in school and, therefore, unworthy of funding. They’re not in the Common Core, they don’t have a battery of standardized tests to measure performance, and they all look like “play”. Maddeningly, the teachers who provide instruction in these “non-academic” courses are evaluated based on the student performance on standardized tests. The result? PE, Music, Art, Libraries all inject “Common Core” activities into their curricula so that students can do well on the tests. There is nothing sadder than witnessing students completing bubble tests in an empty gym, an art room with paints and clay in the cabinets, a silent music room, and a library with books on the shelves. Nothing sadder except a playground that is empty throughout the school day because the children have “work” to do.

And here’s what is especially frustrating: the tests the children are “working” to do well on are NOT valid or reliable measures nor do they measure what is IMPORTANT to learn in school… yet their importance to the lives of students, teachers and parents cannot be understated.

Standardization, tests, and efficiency are the enemy of creativity and are undercutting the future of public education. Here’s hoping that eventually the public will see the need to change our emphasis in public schools and allow us to move in a new direction.

Cuomo Seeks Tax Cuts for Private Schools, Cuts Public School Budgets

May 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Andrew Cuomo’s war against public education continues… and voters across the country should take note! Why? Because Cuomo’s playbook is no different than that of the President’s and, in all probability, no different than that of Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democrat nominee for 2016.

An editorial in today’s Journal News calls out Cuomo and the NYS legislature for their latest idea on public school funding: $70 million in tax credits for parents paying private school tuitions and $50 million in tax credits to corporations or private donors to those same schools. Oh… and parochial schools are NOT exempt from this proposed giveaway. Public schools? They get cut. Yonkers, one of the school districts serving children raised in poverty, is a case in point:

The Yonkers schools have cut 535 staff members in the last eight years. The schools now offer one guidance counselor for every 827 students, one social worker for every 2,405 students and one library media specialist for every 3,307 students.

But that’s nothing. Yonkers is looking at a $26 million hole in its 2015-16 school budget. If the state doesn’t fill it, the public school system is prepared to make mind-blowing cuts: 20 out of 38 art teachers; 20 out of 33 music teachers; 10 of 37 physical education teachers; and 10 high school teachers.

Also on the firing line are all sports, extensive transportation, half the budget for supplies and materials and plenty more.

The editors acknowledge that the Yonkers school district has experienced some financial management challenges, but they rightfully note that the fiscal management has been in “disarray”:

It’s true that last year the state wrote Yonkers a one-shot $28 million check to cover part of an accounting mishap. A investigation by the city’s inspector general found that the school system’s undermanned and inexperienced finance department – the product of previous budget cuts – had left the schools’ finances in “complete disarray.”

I know from experience in NYS that the toughest jobs to find are those in finance… and the most crucial jobs in managing a large district (I was superintendent in one of the 10 largest districts) are in finance. When I was appointed Superintendent our record keeping was in “complete disarray” and it took us 18 months of hard work combined with a grant from the then State Senator, Steve Saland, to computerize out bookkeeping to get the house in order. But in the late 1990s the state government was working with public schools. Now, with the State legislature seemingly wants to let districts like Yonkers crash and burn and wants to do everything possible to enhance private education in the name of “school choice”. But here’s the sad reality: Mr. Cuomo’s desire to privatize schools aligns with the Federal Government’s agenda… and that of the Republican party. Unless struggling districts like Yonkers are given the time and financial resources to improve, their fiscal health will never be restored. And I would like to know what school district serving affluent children would allow their local schools to have staffing ratios of “one guidance counselor for every 827 students, one social worker for every 2,405 students and one library media specialist for every 3,307 students” or consider a budget that calls for cuts to 66% of its music staff and 30% of its PE staff. At least the teachers who lose their jobs in Yonkers won’t be unemployed for long: they will be able to find work in nearby private and parochial schools where children raised in poverty will be given the choice to attend. What’s that you say? The children in Yonkers won’t be able to attend the schools getting tax breaks because their enrollments are limited? Oh, never mind. Those kids in Yonkers don’t matter.

How Corporations Could Help Public Education… and the Economy!

May 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Financial Times writer John Kay’s article, “Good Corporations Should Drive the Economy“, offers a prescription for increasing social welfare: reframe the mission of corporations in America. Kay does not believe that corporations need to choose between doing good and earning a profit any more than schools have to choose between teaching facts and critical thinking or smartphones have to choose between portability and battery life. Kay recommends business focus on the following array of outcomes:

It pays workers a living wage; it does not engage in aggressive tax avoidance. It develops the skills and capabilities of its employees and does not bewilder customers with complex tariff structures. It earns profits, reinvests some and pays a dividend to shareholders. Its executives spend more time walking around offices and shop floors than sitting in the meeting rooms of investment banks. The good corporation contributes relevant expertise to the formation of policy but does not engage in lobbying on a scale that corrupts political decision-making.

Unlike the major shareholders of corporations— and the politicians they support— who assert that profit must predominate the corporation’s mission, Kay advocates an expansion of their mission to serve the public good. Here’s hoping this issue becomes a part of the debate for 2016 in the form of requiring corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, to provide their employees with a living wage, and to help develop the skills of the workforce.