Archive for November, 2014

Texas Textbooks and Taxes

November 30, 2014 Comments off

Texas has been in the news recently… and not in a good way from the perspective of public education advocates.

One of Diane Ravitch’s blog posts yesterday highlighted a recent curriculum adoption by the Texas that included the “fact” that Moses influenced the writers of the Constitution. My surmise is that the Board members would have preferred a curriculum that asserted JESUS influenced the writers, but settled for Moses because he was a less contentious figure… but the inclusion of Moses on the list at least underscores the prevalent belief among many conservatives that the US was founded as a “Christian nation”.

Texas’ textbooks were also in the news in the NYTimes, where an article by Morgan Smith described a battle over the Highland Park Superintendent’s decision to temporarily ban six textbooks followed by his subsequent decision to reinstate them after there was a hue and cry over the ban. The Art of Racing in the Rain was the book that was initially challenged, but one of the books on the list that caught my eyes was The Working Poor. At this writing, a committee of parents has reviewed the book and all but one of the parents found it acceptable. The lone parent who opposed the reinstatement of the book is not letting the issue die, and so it found its way to the NYTimes.

The whole thing brought to mind a book banning effort I dealt with in Wappingers Falls NY roughly 15 years ago. A parent who was upset with the fact that a HS teacher assigned Bless Me Ultima by Rudolpho Anaya approached a school board members on the eve of one of our meetings and read him a page that she found particularly reprehensible. The page was full of profanity and sexual innuendos which, when taken out of context, seemed needlessly vulgar. After she read the page at a school board meeting as part of the citizen’s comments, she demanded that the board immediately take this book off the reading list and out of the library. Fortunately, one of the longstanding board members knew there was a review policy in place, a policy that required the superintendent to be the final arbiter. Thus it came to pass that I read Bless Me Ultima and determined that in the entire context of the book, the “vulgar” pages in question were essential to the story and, on balance, not offensive given the characters’ reactions. Once one book was called to question, two others followed, one of which is the only Harry Potter book I’ve read (and no… Harry Potter is not satanic!).

The final Texas story is about taxes and how the total amount needed it determined in the state. The NYTimes/Texas Tribune story by Ross Ramsey suggests that Texas might low ball their revenues because of a pending lawsuit regarding the state’s insufficient funding in light of the ambitious standards they set for local schools. If the state prevails in court (they are evidently arguing they don’t need to fund their mandate), the taxpayers might get a tax break if the revenues are “higher than expected”… if they lose the court case, they can use the “windfall” to cover the funds in the short term and defer the ultimate decisions on how to cover their costs for another year or so.

So… TX believes Moses influenced the authors of the constitution, does not want to have children reading texts that question the disparity of wealth in our country,   and wants to do everything possible to avoid rectifying the disparity of wealth in their state. There are many things wrong with this picture!

The Voucher Death Spiral in WI

November 30, 2014 Comments off

An article in today’s Racine Journal Times describes the death spiral occurring in WI schools as a result of their “open enrollment” plan, which is a voucher plan wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of “parent choice”. The article sympathetically described the plight of “Hundreds Drive the Distance to Leave Local Public Schools”. Why are they leaving their nearby schools in Racine to attend another public school in a nearby suburb?

Those families choose to make the drive for a variety of reasons, among them: safety, a better education and a smaller community school.

And to help the reader understand what is meant by these terms, the article offers some quotes:

  • One parent “…heard from other family members about a lot of fights at Racine Unified schools and other situations involving “inner-city kids”
  • Another parent said, “I feel like out here parents raise their children the same way”
  • A third parent did some on-line research and “found western Racine County schools had better math and reading scores than Unified and… decided to open enroll her son out of (her nearby local school).

I read the quotes from the public schools receiving these out-of-district students and know that they are welcomed by the business office and local school board. The receiving districts can decide how may students they will accept at each grade level and they can make that determination annually. Thus, they can accept students without adding to their operating costs (the parents must provide their own transportation) and they will receive the additional state funds each student brings with them. But the voucher gravy train might not last for long! Why?

This year, after the recent expansion of vouchers which allows families to go to private schools with the help of state money, the (a desirable public high school) had fewer freshmen open enrollment applications and had spaces for all of those freshmen who applied, he said, although the district had to turn some sophomores away.

So here’s the death spiral that vouchers put in place:

  • All schools, public and private, open their doors to students who reside in any community
  • State revenues follow the child to the schools with better math and reading scores, expanding the revenue side of the budget for those districts. These “receiving” districts can then expand programs for children in the school without affecting local taxes, lower the local taxes, or do both.
  • State revenues leave the districts serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way”.  This diminishes the revenue side of the budget which means the districts must cut programs, increase local taxes, or both.
  • When the costs of public schools serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way” are too high the public schools are replaced by for-profit charters whose operating costs are lower and who can provide an equally sound education based on test scores.
  • As parents migrate out of public schools to attend religiously affiliated schools, private for-profit schools, non-public charter schools, or on-line schools, taxes flow away from the public school districts and all districts losing children to these “choices” face the same fate as the public schools serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way”
  • As more and more parents enroll their children in schools outside the district where they reside, fewer and fewer voters in the district have a stake in providing adequate funding levels for those schools.

Once this death spiral begins, it is a daunting political challenge to stop it. Why?

  • The voters in districts with better math and reading scores are experiencing either better programs or lower taxes. Why would they vote for a change? 
  • The voters whose children are leaving schools serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way” are satisfied with their child’s education even though they are required to provide transportation for them. Why would they vote for a change? 
  • Taxpayers who don’t have children in schools and reside districts with better math and reading scores are experiencing lower taxes and, in all likelihood, stable or increasing property values. Why would they vote for a change? 
  • When you add these voters together, they constitute a clear majority. So why would a politician advocate a change?

Who loses in this shift of resources? The schools serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way” and the teachers who work in those schools… and while those schools might constitute a majority of students in WI their parents do not constitute a majority of voters… and if the teachers serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way” protest, politicians like Scott Walker can cast them as “greedy union members” who are only looking out for themselves. 

But the real losers in this cannot cast votes: the REAL losers are the “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way”…. and the only way to end the voucher death spiral is to stop it before it goes viral


Genes and Pre-K: An Ethical Dilemma

November 29, 2014 Comments off

Tomorrow’s NYTimes features a thought provoking and fascinating article on recent findings that link genes to early intervention programs for troubled children. “The Downside of Resilience” by Jay Belsky describes international longitudinal research on the role genetics plays in determining whether a child is affected by developmental experiences. After examining the impact of early intervention programs on groups of children from an array of racial and ethnic backgrounds in studies that were conducted independently from each other, researchers have concluded that genetics DOES play a role in determining who will benefit most from intervention:

Every gene contains two so-called alleles — one from each parent. There is evidence that people who carry certain variations of these alleles have a greater chance of developing particular disorders. For instance, short alleles of the gene 5-HTTLPR, which transports serotonin, have been linked to depression, while long alleles of the dopamine-receptor gene DRD4 have been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Intriguingly, these “risk” genes also turn out to be associated with heightened sensitivity to environmental conditions. Children who carry either or both of them appear to be most adversely affected by negative experiences, and seem to benefit most from supportive ones. Children without them seem relatively immune to the effects of both supportive and unsupportive environments.

My mind immediately went to the thorny question Belsky posed near the end of the article after elaborating on the various studies:

This brings up a challenging ethical question: Should we seek to identify the most susceptible children and disproportionately target them when it comes to investing scarce intervention and service dollars?

Belsky answers in the affirmative, while suggesting more research be done simultaneously. He then elaborates on his reasoning:

Those who value equity over efficacy will object to the notion of treating children differently because of their genes. But if we get to the point where we can identify those more and less likely to benefit from a costly intervention with reasonable confidence, why shouldn’t we do this? What is ethical, after all, about providing services to individuals for whom we believe they will not prove effective, especially when spending taxpayers’ money?

I appreciate Belsky’s acknowledgement that the quandary we face is in part based on the reality that funds for intervention will be limited. Most arguments for equitable treatment— including many advanced in this blog— are based on the rosy assumption that because we have a moral imperative to provide equity we will raise whatever money is needed to ensure that we can achieve equity. And most who argue for early intervention— including me— base their advocacy on the assumption that the intervention plans would be customized based on the unique needs of each child. Finally, a case can be made that we are already on the path of providing medically-based programming for children: IEPs are based on the findings of a school psychologist and 504 plans are often framed based on the recommendations of physicians. On  coldly logical basis it seems to me that adding genetic counselors to the list of “intervention advisors” is not that much of a leap… and yet the notion that genetics might play a role in public policy DOES seem chilling… especially if we are unable to develop some means of intervening in cases where children are NOT affected by their developmental experiences.

Belsky concludes his essay with this paragraph that opens the doors to even more questions:

For now, after half a century of childhood interventions that have generated exaggerated claims of both efficacy and ineffectiveness, we need to acknowledge the reality that some children are more affected by their developmental experiences — from harsh punishment to high-quality day care — than others. This carries implications for scientists evaluating interventions, policy makers funding them and parents rearing children.

The last phrase is particularly problematic. IF we can determine a childs’s responsiveness to developmental experiences through a genetic test, are we ready to include such a test as part of the initial pediatric screening? I’ll leave you with that question to ponder….

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,