If Tax Bill Passes as Written Now, Poor Children Lose at the Expense of Billionaires

December 13, 2017 Leave a comment

I have avoided reading about the pending tax bill or writing about the articles I do read for two reasons. First, I have serious doubts that the bill will pass as written, and it is therefore premature to comment on each and every iteration. Secondly, I could devote every blog post to legislation that widens the divide between the top .1% and everyone else… and there is so much of it in the pipeline that this blog would be nothing but endless conjecture.

I am writing today about the framework of the GOP tax bill, which signals the intention of that political party to sacrifice the well-being of children raised in poverty in order to reward those who make the largest contributions to their political campaigns. Two NYTimes articles highlight elements of the framework that will add the economic divide in place.

Economist Nora Gordon describes how the significant cut to the deduction of state and local taxes will impact public education funding in her article titled “How the Tax Bill Hurts the Poorest Schools“. As Ms. Gordon explains, even with the “compromise” forged in recent reconciliation meetings, the loss of this deduction will adversely effect the poorest districts:

After a consideration of eliminating all state and local deductions, current proposals have been marketed as a political compromise: Both bills take away taxpayers’ ability to deduct income taxes but allow a property tax deduction of up to $10,000 per year. The problem is that states depend more heavily on income taxes, and local governments on property taxes, so the compromise favors raising funds at the local level. Structuring it this way will only add to inequality in the school system.

As an economist who has studied education funding and policy, to me the historical record is clear: State-level school spending is critical. Economic segregation across school districts means some areas need an infusion of resources to have a chance at serving their students well, and states are the primary source of that infusion. Research shows that when states send more resources to their neediest districts, achievement levels in those districts rise.

But states are already in a tough spot: The most recent data show they are still recovering from the recession, with over half of them spending less on K-12 now, in inflation-adjusted terms, than they did in 2008.

And Ms. Gordon goes on to note that when the GOP finds the deficit widening they are “forced” to make cuts, those cuts will likely come at the expense of the neediest in our country: children. Ms. Jones asserts that the GOP should reduce rather than eliminate the deductions for state and local property taxes on the basis that it would provide them with a straight-faced argument that they empowered states “to improve the lives of disadvantaged families and provide all children the opportunity to succeed” — a Republican Party goal listed in its “A Better Way” policy paper. I may be skeptical, but I doubt that Mr. Ryan or Mr. McConnell are paying attention to a GOP policy paper. Instead I think they are listening more to the donors who elected them and want a large deduction in the business tax even if it dis-empowers states and local governments.

Eduardo Porter also analyzes the impact of the current version of the GOP tax bill in his recent article titled “Tax Plan’s Biggest Cuts Could be in Living Standards“. In the article, Mr. Porter questions the fundamental basis for the tax cuts; namely that cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans and businesses will result in a better standard of living for all Americans. When he examined the analysis of the original tax proposal, Mr. Porter identified an ethical dilemma:

The Joint Committee’s analysis of an early version of the Senate Republican plan found that 10 years from now, millionaires would get a tax cut worth $8,500, on average. People earning $75,000 or less, by contrast, would experience a tax increase.

Adding in the cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, education and other programs that Republicans are planning to cull to pay for the tax reductions, the cost to poor and middle-income families would be even greater.

And this presents an immediate ethical problem. Students of the history of economic thought learn early on that taking money from the poor and the middle class to give to the rich tends to reduce overall welfare for the simple reason that an extra dollar provides much more to those who have few of them than to those already rolling in money. Most conventional proposals to increase general welfare support redistributing in the other direction.

Mr. Porter’s “ethical problem” is not shared by the GOP, who believe— despite all evidence to the contrary— that tax cuts for the wealthy will ultimately benefit those in the middle and lower classes. And this is not a new perspective for the GOP or our Congress, no matter which party is in control.

Of the world’s seven richest large economies, the United States and Britain have experienced the highest growth in income per person since the mid-1990s. But the United States ranks second from the bottom in the income gains of the poorest fifth of households over the period. And it also fares poorly when it comes to incomes in the middle of the distribution.

This lopsided distribution of riches imposes a question on Republicans perpetually pushing for tax cuts on corporations and high-income Americans: What understanding of national welfare justifies the upward redistribution they are proposing? Using growth as a justification seems like a ruse.

Given that the GOP was NOT in control of the White House for at least 12 of the 20 years since the “mid-1990s”, this voter wonders if the GOP “owns” this redistribution problem. The mainstream Democratic Party has not offered an alternative tax proposal to the one proposed by the GOP, though the Progressive Wing offers an alternative budget and tax package annually.  I may be skeptical, but I am guessing that the DNC is listening more to the donors who elected them and prefer to avoid suggesting any proposal that looks like it might redistribute funds from the .1% to the middle and lower classes.

Mr. Porter concludes his article with this parapgraph:

And yet reading about Republicans’ latest step in their long march to cut tax rates at the top of the distribution — redistributing income from the bottom to the top — I can only agree that that’s the world we live in.

I would amend his concluding paragraph to read as follows:

And yet reading about Republicans’ latest step in their long march to cut tax rates at the top of the distribution — redistributing income from the bottom to the top — and noting the silence of the Democrats on the need for an alternative redistribution— I can only agree that that’s the world we live in.

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Astrophysicist Gets It! Standardized Tests Are Driving Instruction… and Driving Creative Teachers Out

December 12, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s post yesterday linked to a Forbes article by astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel that bemoans the effect standardized tests are having on teaching. In the article he notes that since NCLB was passed in 2001, teachers in most districts across the country have been focussed on one goal and one goal only: get the test scores higher! As a result some districts have adopted programs that provide scripts for teachers to read to their classes in lieu of improvising based on the immediate feedback they receive from children based on their responses to what the teacher is presenting or the impact of their day-to-day experiences outside of school. The result? The best and brightest and most creative teachers are being driven out of the classroom. As Mr. Siegel writes at the conclusion of his article:

By taking away the freedom to innovate, we aren’t improving the outcomes of the worst teachers or even average teachers; we’re simply telling the good ones that their skills and talents aren’t needed here. By refusing to treat teachers like professionals — by failing to empower them to teach students in the best way that they see fit — we demonstrate the simple fact that we don’t trust them to do a good job, or even to understand what doing a good job looks like. Until we abandon the failed education model we’ve adopted since the start of the 21st century, public education will continue to be broken. As long as we insist on telling teachers what to teach and how to teach it, we’ll continue to fail our children.

Unfortunately, Mr. Siegel is a voice in the wilderness… for ESSA, like RTTT, picks up where NCLB left off. Instead of insisting that test-based metrics be abandoned it reinforces the need for standardized testing but delegates the content to be tested and the nature of the standardization to the states, none of whom are using their new found power to introduce anything new in the way of assessments according to a recent study reported on in Education Week. And so our failure persists….

Sandy Hook’s Fruits: More Good Guys With Guns… But Certified Good Guys With Guns

December 11, 2017 Leave a comment

AP reporter Michael Melia writes:

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting five years ago, districts have moved to bolster security, especially at elementary schools, which traditionally have not had police assigned to them like many high schools and middle schools. Many have hired retired officers, firefighters and other responsible adults — an approach that’s less expensive and potentially less intrusive than assigning sworn police, but one that also has raised questions about the consistency of training and standards.

It is sad but not surprising that the ultimate reaction to the shootings that took place five years ago at Sandy Hook is more security guards. And also sad BUT surprising that parents and community members are fearful that any hiring and privatization of these guard services needs to be tightly regulated. Surprising because those same groups are silent about the ongoing deregulation and privatization of every other individual hired by the schools. In the case of school districts, it seems that taxpayers will do anything they can to lower costs, especially if the unions push back against it. That effort has led to the widespread hiring of non-certified and inexperienced teachers (i.e. TFA “graduates”) and the use of computer technology to increase class size and thereby diminish the need for teachers. But when it comes to protecting children at the door of the schoolhouse, the lack of certification standards raises questions:

The rise in the number of districts turning to private security has led to calls elsewhere to impose standards for school guards, particularly in cases where school boards allow for them to be armed.

In New Jersey, a law passed last year establishes a special class of law enforcement officers providing school security. The measure was sought by the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police to encourage minimum training standards, according to the associat ion’s president, North Plainfield Police Chief William Parenti. Chiefs, he said, noticed fewer police officers were being assigned to schools because of budget cuts and districts were replacing them with private security, including armed guards.

In an ideal world, we would not dream of allowing armed guards is schools… and civic leaders like Chief Parenti would be as outspoken about the replacement of experienced, certified teachers with untrained recruits and robots. But such an ideal world would require an openness to higher taxes, to focussing on the care and nurturance of children instead of their safety, and value compassion as much as it values protection.

 

Powerful Video by Texas Superintendent Explains Why FUNDING Accountability is Needed, and USNews and World Report Explains Why it is Difficult to Accomplish

December 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s blog included a link to this two-minute video of Texas Superintendent John Kuhn explaining to an audience how funding inequity tilts the playing field in favor of affluent school districts. Unfortunatly the description Texas’ unfair funding formula plays out in at least 20 other states. As the US News and World Report noted in a recent article by Lauren Camera:

….21 states, up from 14 last year, use funding formulas that provide less funding to school districts with higher concentrations of low‐income students, according to recent research from policymakers at the Education Law Center and Rutgers University‘s Graduate School of Education.

As noted in many earlier posts on this blog, at least 35 states face lawsuits because they offer insufficient and/or inequitable funds for schools… and what is distressing to public school advocates like me is that this reality is repeatedly glossed over in favor of a narrative that assigns the responsibility for “failing schools” onto teachers.

But, as Ms. Camera reports in her article, changing funding formulas is impossible as long as the amount of funding remains constant. Why?

That’s because changing formulas means shifting how a single pot of money is distributed within a state, meaning some districts would receive more funding and others would receive less. Regardless of whether the change is seen as creating a fairer funding system, politicians have been hard-pressed to convince residents of would-be “losing” districts that it’s in their best interest to support a plan that directs less funding to their schools.

But what if the public understood the reality of school funding: most public schools are receiving less money today than they were receiving a decade ago before the financial meltdown. Ms. Camera acknowledges this in her article:

In 2015, the latest year for which comprehensive spending data are available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008, according to a recent report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. In 19 states, local government funding per student fell over the same period, adding to the damage from state funding cuts.

If the economy has recovered, now is the time to increase spending in education, especially in the seven states who are being sued for underfunding public schools. And when the pot of money earmarked for schools expands, that is the time to fix the funding formulas. But with 35 states under GOP control it is doubtful that any action will be taken to remedy this inequity. From their perspective, when times are good it is an opportunity to cut taxes for the wealthy and for businesses.

“Baby PISA” Standardized Tests Support Global Education Reform Movement, Reinforce Status Quo, End Childhood

December 10, 2017 Leave a comment

I read the last sentence of the first paragraph of Mercy College professor Helge Wasmuth’s recent essay on the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) latest brainchild— a standardized assessment for preschoolers— and felt cold shiver.

Have you heard of Baby PISA? If not, you are in good company, as little information has been shared with the global early childhood community about the latest venture of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Unfortunately, it is a fait accompli.

It is a fait accompli because it is now a part of OECD’s widely publicized test battery called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. For the past 15 years the PISA results have been used as part of the “reform” movements arsenal to “prove” the ineffectiveness of public education. What the PISA tests have really proven, though, is that demographics and ZIP codes matter, especially in our country where there is wide disparity in spending on schools and the demographics between districts. Typically administered in 5th, 8th, and 11th grades, OECD is now planning to expand PISA to preschoolers through the use of something called the “International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study.or IELS.They have encountered some pushback in their efforts, though. As Wasmuth reports, some countries have decided to withhold their support:

While the original plan called for participation by three to six countries in the northern and southern hemispheres, a number of early childhood communities have already successfully registered protest, urging their governments to abstain. (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark are among them.) The only outliers are England—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not taking part—and the United States.

And Wasmuth also notes that there is virtually no support among early childhood educators,who find the assessments intrusive on the instructional process, worthless in terms of informing instruction, and likely to result in the lockstep standardization that PISA values.

The impact on our field will be disastrous—maybe not immediately, but soon enough. OECD is a powerful and influential institution. Everyone should be clear about their goals of creating a common framework with benchmarks and assessing learning outcomes.  Early childhood education will be reduced to what can be measured: literacy and numeracy.

Ultimately, the field will fall even deeper into the clutches of GERM.  Many countries will feel compelled to do well on the IELS, and the easiest way to do that is to align the curricula to what is measured. Pedagogical compliance will follow, along with teaching to the test—especially in countries, such as the U.S., with many private providers of early education, who will use their outcomes to win new customers. As in the case of the Common Core, a new market will be created, “Aligned to IELS” the new trademark.

The quest for predictable outcomes leaves no place for the hallmarks of early childhood—for uncertainty, experimentation,  surprise, amazement, context, subjective experiences.  OECD values and measures what can be measured, but not necessarily what is important.

In short, the use of standardized assessments will reinforce the status quo in schooling by linking educational outcomes to age cohorts and using the bell curve created when normative assessments are designed to sort and select students at an early age. And the end result of this assessment will be a further diminishment of childhood.

All of the above is inevitable if we do not resist. We must widely discuss the IELS and critically follow its implementation. We must protect childhood’s unpredictable, unique, and wondrous nature—before it’s too late.

GOP’s Maddening Priorities: Take $$$ From Poverty Stricken Children and Give it to Heirs of Billionaire Donors

December 9, 2017 Leave a comment

NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman opened his op ed column yesterday with this question and response:

Let me ask you a question; take your time in answering it. Would you be willing to take health care away from a thousand children with the bad luck to have been born into low-income families so that you could give millions of extra dollars to just one wealthy heir?

You might think that this question is silly, hypothetical and has an obvious answer. But it’s not at all hypothetical, and the answer apparently isn’t obvious. For it’s a literal description of the choice Republicans in Congress seem to be making as you read this.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, is basically a piece of Medicaid targeted on young Americans. It was introduced in 1997, with bipartisan support. Last year it covered 8.9 million kids. But its funding expired more than two months ago. Republicans keep saying they’ll restore the money, but they keep finding reasons not to do it; state governments, which administer the program, will soon have to start cutting children off.

We have a major problem in this country, one that will be extraordinarily difficult to address. The problem is this: a majority of voters have unwittingly elected a political party into office— the GOP— that wants to eliminate the safety net programs government installed decades ago, safety net programs whose scope is largely unknown to them. Worse, the GOP has never made this goal explicit to the voters who support them…. but they DID make their endgame clear to the billionaire donors who put them into office.

Instead of telling voters what they told their donors—namely that they intended to pass legislation that would transfer billions of dollars spent on government programs into the bank vaults of an increasingly small group of plutocrats— the GOP promoted an appealing narrative to voters that their taxes were funding a bungling bureaucracy that created dependency, stifled economic growth by imposing unreasonable regulations on hard working businessmen. Worse, the government programs that help the unemployed and children born into poverty have created a large group of citizens who are dependent on the government for their undeserved well-being. Voters therefore believe heir tax dollars would be better spent if “the government” operated more efficiently by eliminating rampant waste, fraud and abuse.

This narrative was codified into one phrase: “government is the problem”. And it stands to reason that if the government is the problem, then taxes raised to fund the government take the voters’ hard earned dollars and give them to undeserving citizens on the dole or undeserving government workers who are receiving wages, benefits and working conditions that are far better than those paid in the private sector.

This narrative is appealing on several levels: it diverts attention away from the small group of individuals who benefit from changes in the tax code that reward the affluent and focusses it on a larger group who benefit from the generosity of the government. And because their are some inefficiencies in the operation of the government, some government workers who don’t work as hard as those in some private sector jobs, some welfare recipients who “game” the safety net system, and some regulations that are bewildering and counterproductive, it is easy to reinforce the notion that waste, fraud, and abuse are rampant. And the narrative conveniently overlooks the long term consequences of rending the safety net in favor of the short term consequences of providing hard-working taxpayers with a short term benefit.

But the narrative papers over the fact that virtually every American citizen at one point or the other is the beneficiary of a government program and if those programs were not in place our economy and our well being would be even worse.

And, as Mr. Krugman points out in his column, the GOP’s decision to provide $20,000,000,000 in tax relief to billionaire’s children while cutting $15,000,000,000 for the CHIP program is a perfect example of the GOP’s endgame. Here’s Mr. Krugman’s concluding paragraphs:

Children who get adequate care are more likely to be healthier and more productive when they become adults, which means that they’ll earn more and pay more in taxes. They’re also less likely to become disabled and need government support. One recent study estimated that the government in fact earns a return of between 2 and 7 percent on the money it spends insuring children.

By the way, broadly similar results have been found for the food stamp program: Ensuring adequate nutrition for the young means healthier, more productive adults, so that in the long run this aid costs taxpayers little or nothing.

But such results, while interesting and important, aren’t the main reason we should be providing children with health care and enough to eat. Simple decency should be reason enough. And despite everything we’ve seen in U.S. politics, it’s still hard to believe that a whole political party would balk at doing the decent thing for millions of kids while rushing to further enrich a few thousand wealthy heirs.

That is, however, exactly what’s happening.

As the underscored sentences above emphasize, the benefits of programs that help children raised in poverty are not realized immediately, they take nearly a generation to yield a “return on investment”. But the bold, red, underscored sentence indicates the real problem with our current political climate. It is predicated on selfishness and greed. It reflects and reinforces the motives of the GOP’s billionaire donors. And here’s another thing that’s happening: simple decency is not a part of either party’s platform at this time… nor is the need for more taxes to operate the government more efficiently. And until a narrative based on “simple decency” replaces the narrative that “government is the problem” we will continue to see an ever widening gap between the .1% and the rest of America and a widening gap between those who want to treat people humanely and those who want to retain as much as they can.

Utopia IS Nowhere to be Found: But Everyone who Works in Public Education is Doing the Best They Can to Create One in their School

December 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Teacher-blogger Steven Singer wrote a thought provoking post a few days ago on his website that is linked to Facebook and found himself in “Facebook Jail” because of it… presumably because their algorithm screened out his content as “Fake News”. In the post, Mr. Singer described an assignment he gave his 7th grade students where he asked them to describe their version of Utopia and offered an overview of their responses. He then reflected on how the assignment mirrored the thinking behind the charter school movement:

The economists, think tank partisans and lobbyists love to denigrate the public school system and pine for an alternative where corporate interests and business people make all the rules.

Sure they have literally billions of dollars behind them and a gallery of famous faces to give them legitimacy.

But they’re really just engaged in a more high stakes version of Moore’s novel or the assignment my kids did this week.

But Mr. Singer might not appreciate that the administrators who manage his school are also engaged in a version of Moore’s novel, albeit a version that has some constraints. 40 years ago I was appointed Principal at a rural HS where there was no student handbook, no faculty handbook, and no course of studies. Using handbooks from the school I worked in previously as a template and working with a small cadre of teachers in the HS I developed a set of handbooks that created a “Utopia”. Initially the staff members expressed universal appreciation for the handbook. But as time went on, I know that some “hard-line” faculty members wished the rules governing student behavior were as ironclad as the ones that charter school leaders like Eva Moskovitz imposes on students. Some “humanistic” faculty members, on the other hand, lamented the fact that some students chose to drop out of school because they did not want to follow rules like taking five classes, leaving their buck-knives at home, going to a study hall when they did not have class, or– worse of all– having a hall pass when they used the lavatory.

I tried hard to get the hard-line teachers to appreciate that public school administrators do not have the luxury of throwing children out of school the way that the nearby private school could. I also tried to get the humanistic teachers to appreciate that some semblance of order is needed to ensure the school operates effectively. And I tried to get everyone to understand that the rules could be changed in the same way their lesson plans, and Mr. Singer’s can be changed. And over the course of my three years as Principal the rules were changed based on input I received from a cadre of staff members the faculty elected: tightened in some areas and loosened in others.

Here’s the bottom line in public schools: everyone who works in public education is doing the best they can. Everyone who works in public education is trying to make life better for the children who attend their school. And everyone who works in public education is challenged by the finger-pointing of the “reformers” who want to impose ironclad rules on students… AND impose ironclad rules on everyone who works in public education.

P.S. In an effort to help Mr. Singer get out of Facebook Jail I posted his essay on my page.