A post earlier this week by Common Dreams blogger Richard Eskow described the impact billionaires are having on public policy in general and how the media, exemplified by 60 minutes in the post, are championing this trend. Using Paul Tudor Jones, a billionaire whose “Robin Hood Foundation” was profiled on the show, as an example, Eskow explains how our current system of low tax rates and tax loopholes works to the advantage of philanthropists:
…What if there had been no hedge fund loophole for people like Paul Tudor Jones and he had paid Obama’s top tax rate of 39.5 percent? Our hypothetical Jones would have paid an additional $1 billion in taxes. That’s nearly as much as all the donors to the “Robin Hood Foundation,” including Jones, have given in its entire history.
If the top rate were raised to 70 percent, as it was when Ronald Reagan took over, our presumptive Jones would have paid roughly $2.3 billion in additional taxes, nearly doubling the “Robin Hood” figure.
And if it were raised to the 92 percent level, as it was under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, our Mr. Jones would have paid an additional $3.2 billion in taxes.
So, this philanthropist avoided paying $1,000,000,000 due to one tax loophole. But wait, there’s yet another loophole:
If the “Robin Hood Foundation” has collected $1.2 billion in tax-deductible contributions, that means the U.S. government has given up nearly $200 million in tax income (perhaps much more) as a result. The rest of us are picking up the slack – either with our taxes, or in the loss of needed services. We’re subsidizing the generosity of billionaires.
But the big advantage of pouring money into a foundation instead of “giving it” to the government is that the philanthropist gets to decide how the funds are spent. As Eskow cynically writes:
It’s much more gratifying to give whatever you feel like giving, whenever you feel like it. And it must be way more fun to dictate terms to women running soup kitchens (as portrayed in “60 Minutes”), give pseudo-evangelical speeches to adoring crowds, and be lionized on television under the adoring gaze of Scott Pelley.
Diane Ravitch has written several blog posts on the impact of the billionaire boys club on school policy. Several like minded philanthropists have created an interlocking directorate of foundations and think tanks who co-opted the term “school reform”, provided the ideas that evolved into the NCLB legislation that defined the majority of schools as “failing”, influenced the Obama administration’s competitive RTTT grants, and are now leading the charge to privatize public education. As noted in previous posts, it is hard to gauge the intentions of these funders. Are they well-intentioned idealists who, after taking full advantage of the tax breaks in place, want to direct their money toward education projects that reflect their beliefs? Or, as many bloggers believe, are they greedy profiteers trying to foist privatization on disadvantaged communities as a way to further increase their wealth?
If the billionaires are trying to impose new ideas on public education, they are falling short of the mark. To date, the foundations and think tanks receiving most of their funding from the billionaires have advocated “solutions” to schooling that engineer the existing factory model instead of re-forming the enterprise altogether.
If the billionaires goal is to privatize the public schools, they are making progress. They have convinced the public that public schools are “failing”, that teachers are overpaid and underworked, and that school districts have bloated bureaucracies that stifle creativity. More importantly, they have defined the agenda for public education at the federal level which, through RTTT, has changed the agenda at the state level.
Public education is one of the last public enterprises to be privatized… and it may also be the most difficult to privatize because it is deeply rooted in local democracy. Like the Post Office, the local school is an institution that defines a community and, as Congress has learned, closing post offices for even a day in even the smallest community is a political challenge. When small communities realize that the end game of the billionaires is privatization, the push back will be daunting. The number of elected school board members in most states exceeds the number of elected legislators and when local control is challenged there will be pushback, as evidenced by the recent resistance to the Common Core State Standards. Because public education is grassroots democracy at its best (and sometimes worst), it could be the ultimate factor in undercutting the messaging of the billionaires. As an advocate for democracy and public education, I hope so.
Today’s NYTimes had an article decrying the sad state of teacher evaluation in its Texas Tribune feature, which outlined the 15 year history of an improved teacher evaluation system mandated by the Texas legislature. The new system, which required an annual 45 minute observation followed with a written evaluation, yielded unsurprising results:
Less than 3 percent of educators receive scores below the “proficient” level, and the variation in scores from year to year has been so small that state officials stopped collecting the data from school districts after the 2010-11 academic year.
Critics say the reviews, based on single 45-minute observations by district administrators, make it difficult to provide effective feedback, a point that education officials do not refute. A growing chorus of advocates for an education overhaul wants to tie teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests. But with the current debate in the Legislature about reducing such testing, lawmakers have not agreed on how evaluations should be conducted.
For reasons described in detail in an earlier post, I am at all not surprised at the “failure” rate of teachers: teachers who struggle early in their career leave of their volition or are non-renewed leaving only satisfactory or better-than-satisfactory teachers in the classroom. There is no bell curve in teaching performance any more than there is a bell curve in any profession: we don’t try to eliminate the jobs of the lowest percentage of lawyers and doctors but legislators, business-minded reformers, and some school board members believe that eliminating the lowest percentage of teachers is possible. Teacher evaluation legislation is based on this assumption… and it is a flawed premise.
As one who is aware of evaluation practices in other sectors of the economy, it is astonishing to me that the public believes it is possible for a building level administrator to manage many more people than any other organization would find acceptable. The Principal and Dean of Students at the high school in the last district I led had 50+ teachers, nearly as many education assistants, office staff, and ancillary employees, and 6 hours per day for 180 days per year to observe instruction. And that doesn’t account for the coaches, activities advisors, and 750 students. I defy anyone to find any business anywhere that operates on as lean an administrative staff as a public school… and I defy anyone to find any legislature that wants to solve the “teacher evaluation problem” by adding more administrative staff.
So… instead of doing evaluation in the most effective way possible, we get legislation that sets embarrassingly low expectations (one 45 minute observation!) and dreams up ways to short circuit the process entirely (using standardized tests). When it comes to evaluation, cheap and easy is best…
This TomDispatch post is a couple of months old… but as our legislators debate budget cuts it is timely. The post incorporates an article written by Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman that includes these paragraphs:
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which celebrates its 10th birthday this March, has grown into a miniature Pentagon. It’s supposed to be the actual “defense” department — since the Pentagon is essentially a Department of Offense — and it’s rife with all the same issues and defects that critics of the military-industrial complex have decried for decades. In other words, “homeland security” has become another obese boondoggle.
But here’s the strange thing: unlike the Pentagon, this monstrosity draws no attention whatsoever — even though, by our calculations, this country has spent a jaw-dropping $791 billion on “homeland security” since 9/11. To give you a sense of just how big that is, Washington spent an inflation-adjusted $500 billion on the entire New Deal.
Despite sucking up a sum of money that could have rebuilt crumbling infrastructure from coast to coast, this new agency and the very concept of “homeland security” have largely flown beneath the media radar — with disastrous results.
The article documents the history of the the Department of Homeland Security, noting that it was initially recommended in a white paper expressing concerns about American security written before 9/11. At the very end of the article Kramer and Heller write:
Meanwhile, the same report that warned in early 2001 of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil also recommended redoubling funding for education in science and technology.
In the current budget-cutting fever, the urge to protect boundless funding for national security programs by dismantling investment essential to this country’s greatness — including world-class education and infrastructure systems — is bound to be powerful. So whenever you hear the phrase “homeland security,” watch out: your long-term safety may be at risk.
Do we have more funding for education? NO… the percentage of our GDP for education has declined since 9/11. Do we have broadband in every household and universal cell phone coverage? NO… you can get more reliable internet and cell phone coverage almost anywhere in the world.
We do have body scanners at airports and hordes of people inspecting our backpacks, suitcases, gel products, and shoes…. and we have cameras all over the place… and we have chips in our cell phones that track our locations (except in the places where cell coverage is checkered)… and we have Big Data warehouses in DC that monitor our internet posts— probably including this one… I wish the trillions spent on these “safety” initiatives made us feel safer… but based on what I read in the media, it’s a scary world out there!