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We Should Heed Jeff Bryant’s Call to Arms

December 30, 2016 Leave a comment

Progressive education blogger Jeff Bryant wrote a Common Dreams blog post that could well save as a  call to arms for progressive pro-public education advocates across the country. In his essay Mr. Bryant delineates the flaws in the “free market” direction Mr. Trump intends to take public education and the weak-kneed responses thus far on the part of Democrats. This section of his post is particularly damning of “the opposition”:

A burning question is, “Where are the Democrats?”

As for the outgoing US Secretary John King, according to Education Week, he’d like all “supporters of public education” to “set aside the policy differences that we have let divide us and move forward together courageously to defend and extend this fundamental American institution.”

While we should appreciate the Secretary’s respect for decorum, what needs to be made clear is who are the real “supporters of education” and what “differences” are appropriate for setting aside and which are worth fighting for.

Education marketers have rebranded “public schools” to mean any institution that gets tax dollars. And the phrase “doing what’s best for kids” has been turned into an empty PR slogan.

Mr. Bryant then chastises the narrow gauge of the five “progressive” senators’ opposition to DeVos on the basis of an unpaid fine before using a Think Progress article to drive home the point that Democrats will have a problem opposing charters given their recent track record:

As Casey Quinlan observes for Think Progress, Democratic advocates for charter schools, like King, are “stuck” in a difficult space between those who are increasingly alarmed with school choice run amok across the nation and “a new administration that’s hostile to public education.”

Exhibit A in Quinlan’s argument is US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who “has been a staunch advocate for the expansion of charter schools and of school choice,” but has now felt pressured to publicly declare he has “healthy skepticism” and “serious early concerns” about DeVos.

Quinlan points to national teachers’ unions as the force driving Democrats into these difficult spaces, but the opposition to the oncoming Trump education doctrinaire goes well beyond the national unions.

Bryant concludes his post with a heartening summary of State charter expansion initiatives that were defeated at the polls by grassroots efforts… efforts that prevailed in the face of prodigious spending by the pro-charter lobby. He concludes his article with these paragraphs:

“What our children don’t need is the federal government trying to divert any amount of that funding to private and religious schools,” writes David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center. His recommendations include “start[ing] state-level conversations about rejecting offers of federal funding that come at the price of defunding public education and causing even more inequity and disparity of opportunity for students” and “legislative campaigns for charter school reform.”

The Nation’s Dana Goldstein has good advice too. “If progressive education … is to be effective over the next several years, it will have to focus strategically on statehouses, school boards, city councils, and mayoral races.”

We know what’s at stake. Let’s get to it!

I’m ready to keep an eye on New Hampshire’s education bills… I’m going to go to it in 2017!

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Medicaid Block Grants = De Facto Cuts to Voiceless Children Board in Poverty

December 29, 2016 Leave a comment

For the past several years, austerity minded Republicans have championed the need to cut back on entitlements in order to achieve a balanced budget. The notion of balancing the federal budget seems commonsensical: a household cannot spend moe than it takes in and a government shouldn’t do so either. But of course a responsible household almost always spends more than it takes in so that it can afford a house and, in many cases, an automobile, furniture, and other large acquisitions that it acquires on credit…. including the payment for health insurance to pay for unforeseen medical expenses. Analogously, the federal government sets aside funds to pay for medical insurance to cover expenses incurred by the elderly (Medicare) and the financially strapped (Medicaid). These funds are characterized by those seeking to balance the budget as “entitlements”, a convenient misnomer that reinforces the notion that they are provided to undeserving recipients.

In “The Quiet War on Medicaid“, an op ed piece in this past Monday’s NYTimes, Gene Sperling, who served as director of the National Economic Council from 1996 to 2001 and from 2011 until 2014, warns progressives to keep an eye on Medicaid when the debate on cuts to medical “entitlements” ensues in the coming year because he foresees a shell game about to play out. Here’s the way it will work. Paul Ryan and his fellow austerity-minded colleagues will propose cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. The seniors, who vote in large numbers, will lead a charge to push back against Medicare cuts and as a result they will be taken off the table. In the meantime progressives will argue that cuts to Medicaid will hurt those with the greatest needs. To show their magnanimity, the Republican leadership will offer block grants to states that marginally increase the budget and argue that by giving the money to the states with “greater flexibility” and “less bureaucracy” that there will be no harm done to the neediest. The reduction in the increase will result in an overall cut to the budget, but will do far more harm than the austerity minded congressmen will lead the public to believe. But Mr. Sperling describes how this gambit will play out:

Sweeping cuts to Medicaid would hurt tens of millions of low-income and middle-income families who had a family member with a disability or were in need of nursing home care. About 60 percent of the costs of traditional Medicaid come from providing nursing home care and other types of care for the elderly and those with disabilities.

While Republicans resist characterizations of their block grant or cap proposals as tearing away health benefits from children, older people in nursing homes or middle-class families heroically coping with children with serious disabilities, the tyranny of the math does not allow for any other conclusion. If one tried to cut off all 30 million poor kids now enrolled in Medicaid, it would save 19 percent of the program’s spending. Among the Medicaid programs at greatest risk would be those optional state programs that seek to help middle-income families who become “medically needy” because of the costs of having a child with a serious disability like autism or Down syndrome.

In the concluding paragraph to his op ed piece, Sperling notes that this gambit effectively shifts the costs for Medicaid to the states– the majority of whom are led by Republican governors– and ultimately to the local hospitals who will not turn away a patient for lack of funds. Sterling concludes that ultimately

…these anodyne-sounding proposals would lead to an assault on health care for those in nursing homes and for working families straining to deal with a serious disability, as well as for the poorest Americans.  

And assuming the worst, that these cuts DO find their way through the budget process, you can bet that the ultimate victims will not be the “…working families straining to deal with a serious disability” for they have a voice in the State houses. It will be the poorest Americans… the children who are being raised in poverty.

Bruce Baker’s Thorough Analysis Overlooks One Major Issue: Public Schools Interface with Public Agencies

December 28, 2016 Leave a comment

Economic Policy Institute writer Bruce Baker recently issued a lengthy white paper on the consequences of charter school expansion in the United States that offered dozens of charts and graphs supporting his overarching assertion that school choice in and of itself will not lead to the outcome of “great schools” for all children. In order for schools to achieve both equity and excellence, Mr. Baker suggests centralization and regulation are required as outlined in the concluding section of the report’s Executive Summary:

If the broad, long-term policy objective is to move toward the provision of a “system of great schools” in each of America’s communities, then those systems must be responsibly, centrally managed to achieve an equitable distribution of excellent (or at the very least adequate) educational opportunities for all children, while protecting the interests and legal rights of children, parents, taxpayers, and employees. Achieving this lofty goal requires determining which functions of the system must be centrally and publicly regulated and governed. Systemwide public responsibilities include but are not limited to:

  • The equitable management of enrollments and schooling access
  • The equitable distribution of financial and other resources across the system, including allocation of resources to centralized functions that serve all schools
  • The centralized management and equitable use/allocation, maintenance, and operations of the public’s capital stock of schools and related land and facilities
  • The centralized management of systemwide debt obligations and long-term liabilities including employee retirement and health benefits

Numerous analyses have found chartering to lead to an imbalanced distribution of students by race, income, language proficiency, and disability status. So too does magnet schooling, or concentration of any specialized services across buildings within districts. The point is not that all such variations must necessarily be erased, or even could be, but that these variations must be acknowledged, and managed for the good of the system as a whole. To the extent that student needs continue to vary across school settings, resources must be targeted to accommodate those needs. This is a central function, and includes budget allocations, space allocations, and personnel allocations that draw on a substantial body of research on costs associated with providing equal educational opportunities (Duncombe and Yinger 2008).

Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests). Increasingly, districts such as those discussed herein, have sold land and buildings to charter operators and related business entities, and now lack sufficient space to serve all children should the charter sector, or any significant portion of it, fail. Districts and state policymakers should not put themselves in a position where the costs of repurchasing land and buildings to serve all eligible children far exceed fiscal capacity and debt limits.

Finally, pension and health care costs are systemwide concerns that cannot be ignored by shifting students, and thus teachers and public dollars, across sectors.

Mr. Baker’s list of systemwide public responsibilities overlooks one important element: the need for public schools to interface seamlessly with other public agencies that support the well being of children, especially those children who are raised in poverty. Over 15 years ago I wrote an op ed article that was published in Education Week titled “A Homeland Security Bill for Public Education” that suggested that social agencies be able to communicate seamlessly in order to provide wraparound services to children struggling in schools. The article cited specific cases I encountered as a county Superintendent in Maryland where the lack of these formal interfaces resulted in uncoordinated efforts in dealing with children, a lack of coordination that arguably put schools at risk, had agencies working against each other in the case management of children, and clearly resulted in duplicative ends. As I read Bruce Baker’s analysis of the flaws of private charters, one issue he overlooked was whether a private charter would be obligated to report suspected child abuse; or whether a social worker or parole and probation officer would be allowed to discuss a child’s performance with them; or whether a privately funded health provider would be required to report cases of infectious disease to the public health department. These issues don’t cross the mind of for profit charter operators because their interest in earning money  means that their first and only obligation is to their shareholders— not to the public at large and certainly not to the school district.

So my suggestion is that advocates for equity keep in mind that publicly funded wraparound services might not be available for privately operated charter schools— a factor that will contribute to more inequity and a greater disparity in opportunity.

In the Time of Trump, All We Have Is Each Other: Chris Hedges

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Read the section about Lewis Powell… Progressives need a Lewis Powell! Donald Trump’s presidency—the outgrowth of the corporations’ 40-year-long war against democracy—we will have to battle a form of state repression far more sophisticated than McCarthyism. Our weapon: rebuilding alternative structures through small, local political actions. – 2016/12/25

Source: In the Time of Trump, All We Have Is Each Other: Chris Hedges

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David Leonardt Get’s One Distinction… but Misses Another

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

David Leonardt is a one of the many NYTimes columnists who believe in the magic of “choice and charters”, but in a column last week he went out of his way to describe to a questioning reader why he supports charters but opposes vouchers. In the column he did a good job of making the distinction between the two, drawing on the expertise of two professors:

“People often confuse charters and vouchers, but they are very different,” wrote Parag Pathak of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology… Vouchers are essentially coupons that allow parents to spend their tax money at private schools, while charters are public schools that operate outside of the normal bureaucracy. Voucher-financed schools often have little oversight or accountability, while many charters must demonstrate that their students are learning.

“The larger theme,” notes Douglas Harris, a Tulane professor who co-wrote the New Orleans paper, “is that not all school reform is created equal. The charter system here has significant accountability: Low-performing schools are closed. Students are assigned by lottery, and system leaders limit mid year transfers and discipline policies to prevent schools from cherry-picking students.”

He concludes his column with these paragraphs:

The best charters combine flexibility and accountability — and have thrived. The record of vouchers is less impressive.

Unfortunately, DeVos has shown little appreciation for the difference and pushed for education reform regardless of results. It’s the mirror image of school boards and teachers’ unions that have cast all education reform as evil, regardless of results. Both stances end up hurting our schools.

What Mr. Leonardt and the pro-reform cheerleaders have failed to do is make a far more important distinction: between de-regulated for-profit charter schools and public schools. Something is amiss when de-regulated schools can deny entry to some students, expel students for nit-picking offenses that public school teachers routinely deal with, and fail to disclose their financial statements to the public while taking funds raised by taxpayers. And when these same schools pay less for teachers, do not employ qualified teachers, get space and utilities paid for by tax dollars, and make huge profits for their shareholders something is absolutely wrong. Public school Regulations are as important as environmental regulations. Moreover, the regulations placed on any business that takes public funds should apply to the for-profit K-12 schools and proprietary post secondary schools.

In a future column, I hope that Mr. Leonardt will recognize that distinction and support the need for more transparency, more regulations, and more equity in charters.

KC Teacher Reminds Us: Education is “Moral Pillar” of Democracy

December 26, 2016 Leave a comment

Mark Bannen, a Kansas City school teacher, wrote a Christmas Day op ed piece for the Kansas City Star that reminds us of the crucial importance of public education in a democracy. After observing with a hint of dismay that the current trend is to view education as a means to achieve economic gain, he writes:

Public education in a democracy is much more than just an instrumental means to an economic end. It is also a moral pillar upon which the entire structure of democracy rests. It’s true American education has not always lived up to its ideals, but it remains an enduring institution capable of great good.

Those aiming to reform the system, be they businessmen or educators, must recognize that the American public school is an experiment tied to democracy itself, and that the imperatives of business are not the same as those of education…

Let us hope that the Trump administration recognizes this dual purpose. Let us hope it believes that democratic public education can and does teach us to live together cooperatively, to value human dignity, to cherish the free and open practice of inquiry, and to provide a means for social and economic advancement.

Let us also hope that the Trump administration sees it as “…a means for social and economic advancement” of students and not as “…a means for social and economic advancement” of entrepreneurs

Private-Public Partnerships, Based on User Fee Paradigm, Seen as Solution to Deferred Spending

December 25, 2016 Leave a comment

The NYTimes today has a lengthy article in its Business section describing how many cash-strapped town and city governments are using Private-Public-Partnerships (PPP) to address deferred maintenance issues like decayed water systems, deteriorating roads, and other big-ticket items that face themas a result of failing to raise taxes in a timely fashion.

Here’s how a PPP works. The city contracts with a private equity firm who then arranges for the vast sums of money to be spent fixing the failed system. To regain their money and earn a profit, the equity firm turns over the operation of the “fixed” system to a private company who, in turn, collects money from the end users of the system. The problem is that in the end, the fees charged by the private company are often much higher than the baseline costs because profits need to be made on two levels: the equity firm and the private firm. In explaining how the system works, the Times used Bayonne NJ’s water system, where K.K.R. was the private equity company, Suez was the private water contractor, and end users had rate increases of roughly 28%. But the good news?

In a statement, a K.K.R. spokeswoman said, “Our partnership has provided Bayonne residents with better service, modernized technology to detect leaks and conserve water, improved infrastructure and safer conditions for workers — all without a tax increase or public expenditure.” 

Needless to say, this is a conservative politician’s dream solution to the infrastructure problem: avoid increasing broad-based progressive taxes while passing the costs along to end users and simultaneously rewarding the billionaire investors who contribute to their campaigns. Furthermore, the notion of using private funds appeals to those who believe “government is the problem”:

Proponents of the public-private partnerships, citing recent studies in Canada and Europe, argue that private businesses operate more efficiently than governments do and that this translates into cost savings for citizens. And private equity firms, lacking technical expertise in how to manage infrastructure, often team up with private water companies.

Private businesses may, indeed, operate more efficiently than governments, but governments don’t need to please shareholders by making a late profit nor do they necessarily need to seek “technical expertise” from another for-profit enterprise— they can hire staff members with expertise to oversee the water system instead of hiring staff members with expertise to regulate the for-profit enterprise who  just might cut some corners in order to make a profit.

Government can and should oversee and operate functions that serve the general public and they can and should pay for those functions through progressive income taxes instead of regressive property taxes and/or user fees. The consequences of shifting the entire burden of water costs to end users illustrates why this is the case:

In 2012, the year Bayonne struck its deal, water bill delinquencies led to 200 government liens against local properties, tax records show. That figure more than tripled the next year, the first full year under K.K.R.’s team. In 2015, the most recent year with data available, the number remained elevated, at 465.

And here was another feature of the bargain Bayonne struck: it guaranteed K.K.R. a fixed revenue stream no matter how much water was used by it’s residents. As a result, when residents limited their use of water to save money the rates went up to ensure that K.K.R. received the money it needed.

The net effect of all of this is to exacerbate the economic divide: the middle-class home owners in Bayonne are forced to pay ever-increasing fees to a private equity firm and a private water company whose shareholders are residing in affluence and, in all probability, drinking water from a well on their property. PPPs are the answer if an only if middle class families and end users of highways, airports, water, sewer, and— yes– public schools are willing to pay a user fee that lines the pockets of shareholders instead of a tax, which draws from everyone according to their means.