Gun Control and School Discipline

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment

My daughter posted Maria Konnikova’s New Yorker article on gun violence research on Facebook with this synopsis:

This article is worth a read. It provides strong scientific evidence that really debunks the prevailing theory that mental illness is the main cause of gun violence. In actuality, it’s a much more complex mix of factors.

The article IS worth a read and provides an overview of research done by Jeffrey Swanson, a medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University on gun violence incidents over the past several decades. His research demonstrates that there is not a causal link between mental health and gun violence. One of the telling sections of the article was this:

(Swanson) found that the occurrence of violence was more closely associated with whether someone was male, poor, and abusing either alcohol or drugs—and that those three factors alone could predict violent behavior with or without any sign of mental illness. If someone fit all three of those categories, the likelihood of them committing a violent act was high, even if they weren’t also mentally ill. If someone fit none, then mental illness was highly unlikely to be predictive of violence. “That study debunked two myths,” Swanson said. “One: people with mental illness are all dangerous. Well, the vast majority are not. And the other myth: that there’s no connection at all. There is one. It’s quite small, but it’s not completely nonexistent.”

Swanson concludes that laws linking mental illness with gun purchases are unsupportable if the purpose is to commit violent acts like school shootings, though his research did show that preventing mentally ill people from acquiring guns might have an impact on suicides. Near the end of the article Swanson did offer his thoughts on gun control and mental health:

If Swanson had his way, gun prohibitions wouldn’t be based on mental health, but on records of violent behavior—not just felonies, but also including minor disputes. “There are lots of people out there carrying guns around who have high levels of trait anger—the type who smash and break things,” he said. “I believe they shouldn’t have guns. That’s what’s behind the idea of restricting firearms with people with misdemeanor violent-crime convictions or temporary domestic-violence restraining orders, or even multiple D.U.I.s.”

So how would Swanson’s ideas prevent school shootings? One possible means might be to restrict the availability of firearms to students who engage in violent behavior in school or who have a history of drug and alcohol use. Such preventative measures would require school disciplinary records to be shared  with whoever is charged with enforcing gun restrictions… a concept that has obvious privacy issues… This poses some thorny questions. Why are we reluctant to identify students who are arguably at risk to commit violent crimes using firearms while at the same time being willing to install surveillance cameras that arguably impinge on every student’s privacy? Why are we reluctant to restrict access to weapons and at the same time impinge on the public access to schools by having armed guards and/or security locks at the entry way? And lastly…. why are we concerned about the liberty of gun owners but not concerned about the liberty of school children?


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Fear of Prekindergarten

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Nick Kristoff’s column in today’s NYTimes poses this question: “Do Politicians Love Kids?“. My answer is: “Yes…. but… they love shareholders more!”

Kristoff’s column focuses on the need for universal prekindergarten, an issue he believes both parties can support. The column offers James Heckman’s research as evidence along with lots of statistics comparing our nation’s preschool programming with our “competitors”.

But, as noted in earlier posts on this issue, I believe Republicans and “school reform” advocates will use the expansion of prekindergarten as an opportunity to expand “choice” and expand the privatization movement that has burgeoned under NCLB, RTTT, and in urban districts under the control of business minded neo-liberal and/or conservative mayors. This led me to leave the following comment:

Given the Republican majority in the House and Senate and a handful of sympathetic neo-liberal Democrats here’s the likely pre-kindergarten scenario: vouchers. Instead of putting prekindergarten programs under the aegis of public school systems Republicans and “school reform” Democrats will advocate for “parental choice” and use the funds to open privatized programs instead of expanding the mission of “failed government schools”… and the shareholders of these programs will benefit while urban neighborhood schools and small rural schools wither.

Politicians love kids… but they love shareholders even more… because kids can’t vote or make campaign contributions but shareholders can.

Unions’ Self-Inflicted Wounds

November 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Thomas Edsall’s column today, “Republicans Sure Love to Hate Unions”, describes the systematic efforts of the Republican party to reduce the power of labor unions and, in so doing, diminish the power of the Democrats who benefit from the support of unions. But based on the content of his column, it could just have easily been titled “Neither Party Loves Unions” since he provides lots of evidence that the Democrats are ignoring union issues or— even worse, taking union support for granted— or worse yet, buying into an anti-union stance themselves. The article provided evidence of all three possibilities, noting that the Obamacare penalty for “Cadillac” health care provisions will hurt union members more than anyone else.

As I read this, though, I couldn’t help but notice that in some cases the unions are wounding themselves. In public schools, unions have adopted some of the concepts of their brethren in the auto industry (and, to be fair, Boards have adopted the same concepts in framing their bargaining positions). One particularly short-sighted approach to achieving settlements that enable management to reduce costs while simultaneously enabling veteran union members to get wage increases and retain benefits is to offer lower pay scales and fewer benefits to those to be hired in the future. As these bi-furcated agreements phase in, the newer employees have no reason to support the union and they often harbor resentments against their seasoned partners, resentments that manifest themselves in either NOT supporting the Democratic candidates chosen by the union or by staying home. This lack of enthusiasm for the union is, I believe, an underlying factor in the diminishing number of union members, especially as laws are passed that do not require everyone to pay union dues.

These bifurcated agreements also drive down wages and benefits, and those lower wages and benefits are a drag on the economy.  By agreeing to contracts that undercut wages of new hires the unions, then, are helping the pro-business candidates get elected… thereby closing a vicious cycle.


Newark Exemplifies “Business Minded” Operation

November 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Frank Bruni’s column in today’s NYTimes celebrates an emerging trend of the election of Governors who have a background in the private sector,  a trend that I see as ominous for the traditionally operated public school system. Titled “From Profits to Politics”, the column profiles several recently elected governors whose business acumen presumably swayed voters… and includes this hypothesis:

… in a country convinced that government is broken and its servants hopeless, perhaps plutocrats are cuddlier than bureaucrats.

No one ever accused Michael Bloomberg of being “cuddlier” than any of his opponent, but his can do methods worked effectively as mayor in many of the business-like functions associated with the city. But some aspects of public service, notably those involved with human beings, do not lend themselves to “business solutions”… with public education being one such service. In response to the column I left the following comment:

If we run the public sector “like a business” expect more outsourcing, more privatization, and less democracy. Look across the river to Newark public schools to see what “running schools like a business” looks like. The local board has no control, the CEO/Superintendent has unquestioned authority in oversight of the schools but complete obeisance to the Governor who appointed her, and the “customers” (in the parlance of school reformers) have no say over where their children attend school. So taxpayers have forfeited their democratic oversight of education and their neighborhood schools while privatized schools generate profits, some of which they use to “invest” in the election of businessmen who will help them earn even more.

As noted in my post earlier today, the State takeovers and privatization movement do not eliminate the endemic problem of patronage in public education. Instead the patronage increases the wealth of the 1% while diminishing good jobs for the 99%….

State Takeovers Don’t Work

November 19, 2014 Leave a comment

This Public School $hakedown blog post by Jan Ressenger describes the American Enterprise Institute’s unwillingness to hear bad news about the impact of the two-decade-long takeover of Newark NJ public schools on the parents and students who reside in that city. The mismanagement of urban schools several decades ago combined with (or perhaps cause by) patronage by mayors and school board members made State takeovers a popular solution twenty years ago. The reasoning in the 1980s was that State Departments of Education had the expertise to operate underperforming school districts effectively and under their apolitical oversight the district’s would shed the patronage assignments and be organized more efficiently. Once the state intervened, so the thinking went, the State’s expertise would increase test scores and their administrative skill would reduce operational costs.  Twenty years later, as this post indicates, Newark still flounders academically and the patronage associated with locally elected officials has been replaced with state-level patronage (aka privatization). In the meantime, in the past thirty years the expertise of State Departments has diminished due to deep budget cuts making the whole notion of State control preposterous. And now instead of Newark being able to determine it’s own destiny with locally elected officials it is being privatized clumsily and dictatorially by the State appointed Superintendent who answers only to the Governor.

It would be good to see State legislatures who have “state takeovers” as a solution to underperforming schools either repeal those laws or provide the State with funds to oversee the schools they are mandated to operate. Instead, I expect the majority of states to move in the direction of “market based” solutions whereby an administrator is given the authority to oversee the dismantling of the public schools and their replacement with for-profit charters…. because we ALL know that making money is the primary reason people go into the field of education.

Chair of NY Regents Threatens to Close Schools that DeBlasio Wants to Help

November 17, 2014 Leave a comment


You can see from this blog post what DeBlasio and Farina are up against… and the mainstream media in NYS are lined up in support of the close’m down mentality as well. A spring showdown looks to be in the works…

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

Recently Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Chancellor Carmen Farina announced a plan to help struggling schools by providing extra tutoring, after-school programs, and other needed resources. They made clear that they wanted to support schools with low test scores instead of closing them. The mayor said he would invest $150 million in extra resources to the lowest performing schools.

However, Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the state Board of Regents, said on a radio show that if the schools didn’t show progress by this coming spring,  she would move to close them and replace them with charter schools. The Tisch family, in addition to being generous philanthropists, are big supporters of charter schools.

Giving the DeBlasio plan only a few months to prove its success seems awfully unfair. Schools don’t get “turned around” in a few months. Surely Tisch knows that.

She said:

The main issue, according to Tisch, is that…

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Funding Public Community Colleges

November 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Friday’s NYTimes featured a lengthy article by Gina Bellafonte titled “How Can Community Colleges Get a Piece of the Billions that Donors Give to Higher Education?”. The article described the plight of LaGuardia Community College using its experiences to described the typically underfunded community college. It offered heartwarming stories of successful graduates who went on to earn college degrees against great odds, contrasted the fund raising apparatus at LaGuardia (a staff of four) with that of Williams College (a staff of 50), and offered several ideas of ways community colleges might “…get a piece” of the billions donors offer to elite colleges. But the primary answer to the question about where money is being donated was embedded in this sentence:

In 2012, more than twice as much money — $297 million — was awarded to charter schools from the country’s largest foundations as was given to community colleges, even though two-year colleges educate nearly four times as many students.

Those charter school donors are often characterized as wanting to help “reform” public education, to provide students raised in poverty with a means of getting a better education so they can get a better life. But there is much evidence that their real intention is to privatize the operation of a public enterprise that is viewed as a potential cash cow— a sector ripe for profiteering.

There was a time, not so long ago, that students who could not afford to go away to college could enroll in a nearby community college and work part time to earn enough money to complete four years of college with no debt. There was a time, not so long ago, when public schools were viewed as essential linchpins of the urban neighborhoods and small towns across the country. There was a time, not so long ago, when public schools held occasional bake sales to raise money to give teachers extra supplies instead of perpetually raising money to fund additional staff members. That time still exists in many school districts across this country: the ones that serve affluent communities. Elite public schools in elite communities have a tax base that perpetuates their standing. Their high school graduates seldom attend community colleges because their high school has provided them with a robust course of studies, with ample academic support if they struggle in school, and guidance services to help them find a school that matches their skill sets. And most importantly, the graduates of elite high schools have the financial wherewithal to go directly to college. Until those in elite communities are willing to pay higher taxes so that children raised in poverty have the same opportunities we will continue to have the economic divide in place today… and donating to for-profit charter schools is no substitute for supporting the broad-based funding of public education.