Florida Legislature Opens Door to Corrupt Charters, Endless Content Challenges, Lawsuits in Public Schools

July 15, 2017 Leave a comment

The Tampa Bay Times editors’ assessment of two bills passed by the Florida legislature has it right: the governance of public education is in peril. The fiscal conservatives in the state undercut the school districts’ ability to serve children over the past several years by passing stingy budgets. This year the legislature passed HB 7069, which diverts more funds from public schools and makes it easier for parents to opt into private charter schools– many of them private for-profit entities and religiously affiliated, and far too many of those privatized for-profit entities have turned out to be corrupt. Moving children out of schools governed by elected boards into schools governed by shareholders or religious leaders is anti-democratic and will continue to open the door for mismanagement and corruption.

The editors had already bemoaned this development, and in yesterday’s editorial they flagged two other bills that religious conservatives enacted this session, laws that are likely to result in a spate of needless lawsuits and public appeals that will likely fill Board agendas for years to come.

SB 438, a “a religious liberties bill”, provides superfluous “rights” to students and opens the door to promoting religion in classrooms. Here’s the analysis of the bill in the editorial:

The bill reaffirms that students and teachers are allowed to pray privately during non-curriculum moments at school, but that was a right that already existed under the First Amendment. It then goes a step further with language that would allow teachers or students to openly express religious beliefs in class or at other public school functions, which is seemingly in conflict with previous Supreme Court decisions. The potential of proselytizing along with the ostracizing of students are just two possible pitfalls among the many unintended consequences this ill-considered law could wrought.

The fact that this bill is “seemingly in conflict with previous Supreme Court decisions” means that one or more school boards will be faced with litigation from one or more parents and/or libertarian groups who do not want their children exposed to proselytization or ostracized from classes. It also means that principals and teachers will likely have to deal with religious zealots who want to ensure that the law is being followed in each and every school.

The worst bill, though, is HB 989, a law that “…gives almost anyone — from parents to strangers off the street — the ability to challenge the appropriateness of a classroom lesson. Supporters say it empowers parents, but it more accurately promotes censorship.”  The editors assessment is rightfully scathing:

Think of the mayhem this could create. Don’t believe in evolution? Challenge the science teacher. Don’t believe high schoolers should learn about sex education? Challenge the health teacher. Don’t believe the Holocaust actually happened? Challenge the history teacher. Don’t like the language in The Catcher in the Rye? Challenge the American lit teacher.

Legislators used straw man arguments to insist this bill was necessary, citing unnamed instances of parents who were unhappy with the age-appropriateness of books on reading lists. To be blunt, this sounds like bunk. Schools routinely have alternative selections available if a parent feels a particular book contains objectionable material. To waste precious time and resources on reviews of mainstream books and lessons is foolishness. Even more absurd is the possibility of denying a particular lesson to a large majority of students because one parent, or any other resident of the school district, disagrees with it.

This law will open the door to crackpots of all varieties to appeal curriculum decisions made by individual teachers as well as school districts. Having dealt with appeals dealing with controversial books, I know that it also has the potential to eat into the time of school districts who may ultimately have to hear every appeal brought by every member of the public who believes that the content in history, science, and literature lessons is “inappropriate”. In the meantime, the privately governed schools can offer the curriculum of their choice and tell their constituents to go elsewhere if they don’t like what is being taught.

The editorial concludes with this paragraph:

The common thread in all of these bills, from HB 7069 on down, is state legislators usurping control of local school boards and school districts. These same lawmakers who shout and stomp their feet at any sign of interference from the federal government are interfering even more in local schools. (See: House Speaker Richard Corcoran.) It is hypocrisy. It is bad governance. Sadly, it is business as usual in Florida.

With Betsy DeVos at the helm in Washington and ESSA giving states more leeway, expect to see copycat laws introduced into legislatures across the country in the years ahead.

David Brooks’ Assessment of Donald Trump Jr and the Trump Family’s History Unwittingly Undercuts the Notion of Running Schools Like a Business

July 14, 2017 Leave a comment

David Brooks, a GOP loyalist, has long supported his party’s notion (and that of neo-liberals) that public services should run like a business and, whenever possible, outsourced to private enterprise. I find it difficult to believe that he, his GOP colleagues, and neo-liberals in the Democratic party can hold that view after they read and digest the column Mr. Brooks wrote in today’s NYTimes. Titled “Moral Vacuum in the House of Trump”, 3/4 of the column recounts a history of the Trump family beginning with Donald Trump’s grandfather who made a small fortune operating hotels in the Pacific Northwest and ending with Donald Trump’s son who obliviously scheduled a meeting with a Russian attorney who offered to give him some compromising information about Hillary Clinton.

After recounting the questionable “offerings” available in Grandfather Trump’s hotels, the questionable financial practices that enabled Father Trump to earn a huge fortune building and selling modestly priced homes in New York, Mr. Brooks concludes that from the Trump family’s perspective, ethics are immaterial. The Trump family has “…no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code. There is just naked capitalism.” 

After reading the column, two quotes jumped out at me:

One from Donald Trump, Jr. that read: ““That’s what we do in business. If there’s information out there, you want it.”

And, one from David Brooks that read: “Successful business people, like successful politicians, are very ambitious, but they generally have some complementary moral code that checks their greed and channels their drive.”

As I noted in a comment I submitted, I find it hard to believe that David Brooks (and his GOP and neoliberal compatriots) can continue to advocate that public services like infrastructure, schools, and health care be outsourced to businesses believing— against all evidence— that successful business people “…have some complementary moral code that checks their greed and channels their drive.” When public enterprises are “run like a business” corruption will follow… and if public enterprises are outsourced to businesses shareholders will win and the public will lose. Publicly operations overseen by democratically elected officials may not result in profit for the top .01%, but it will result in higher levels of trust among members of the public and better services for all.

Do Poor and Minority Parents Want Socio-Economic and Racial Diversity or Equal Opportunity?

July 14, 2017 Leave a comment

The question posed in the title of this posed emerged after reading two thought provoking articles this morning, both of which offered NYC’s tepid efforts at integration as exemplary.

Americans Oppose School Segregation in Theory- But Not in Practice” Perpetual Baffour’s post in The Nation, describes the two year battle to integrate a public school on the Upper West Side, a contentious effort profiled in earlier posts on this blog. Ms. Baffour’s post includes some heartbreaking quotes from affluent parents who philosophically support integration but don’t want to see it happen in their back yard because they fear for their child’s safety… and a decline in their property values:

 ….affluent parents… may feel territorial over the high-flying success of their school. And property values, neighborhood identity, and a sense of safety feel as though they are at stake.

“A school belongs to the neighborhood where it resides,” said one parent at PS 199.

“It’s not that I don’t want my children to go to school in a mixed school,” said another. “But at the same time we want the best for our children. We want the best for our property value.”

But, as Ms. Baffour notes, it is not only the affluent who have misgivings. In focus groups she conducted in Baltimore and Washington she found that parents of economically disadvantaged white children did not seek to enroll their children in more affluent schools:

For instance, low-income white parents spoke of being looked down upon by the “rich kids.” As one parent put it: “They don’t want us there, so why should we go there?” They pictured affluent families throwing lavish birthday parties, showering the higher-income kids with fancy cars and expensive gifts, making their own children feel insecure.

Having recently read several articles from progressive New York City pundits chastising Mayor De Blasio’s lukewarm effort to integrate schools, it was somewhat surprising to see a progressive national publication posting an article that concluded with paragraphs singling out his efforts as praiseworthy:

The New York City Department of Education recently unveiled its citywide plan for integration, pledging to increase diversity across their entire public-school system.

These changes are promising. Despite rapidly changing demographics in this country, school diversity has barely kept pace, and research shows that all students perform better academically and socially when they learn in diverse classrooms.

Many Americans do believe the time is ripe for change, but it remains to be seen whether all Americans will embrace this change when it arrives in their own communities.

Our Schools Are Becoming More Segregated. Do Parents Care?“, Maureen Downey’s recent op ed article for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, tills the same ground as Ms. Baffour and comes to the same ambiguous conclusion. Her opening paragraphs set the stage:

The resegregation of public schools in the South troubles academics, civil rights activists and researchers. It’s been on the agenda of every major education conference or seminar I’ve attended in the last three years.

However, it doesn’t seem to be on the minds of parents.

Parents worry about whether class sizes are too large, whether math and science courses are advanced enough and whether their kids are competitive for Georgia Tech or the University of Georgia. They don’t seem to fret about whether their child sits next to a child of a different race or ethnicity — and fewer students do, a byproduct of growing residential segregation and school choice programs.

Yes, parents endorse diversity in principle, but not enough to pester the school board or push for rezoning to achieve racial balance.

Her piece is not an apologia for those who want to see schools segregated. Rather, like Ms. Baffour, she describes the conundrum that results when parents’ actions do not match their intentions. She draws extensively from a Penn State University study by researcher Erica Frankenberg, an Alabama native who studies segregation.

In a recent study, Pennsylvania State University looked at the decisions of public school students transferring to charter schools when given the option of schools with different racial compositions. The finding: Black and Latino students tended to choose charters more racially isolated than the public schools they left….

Among the report’s conclusions and warnings:

•From 1954 to 1988 there was an increase in the interracial contact between whites and black students in the South as a result of court-ordered integration. However, resegregation began to re-emerge in 1990.

•The South has a small but rapidly growing share of charter schools, which in the region—as in the country—are even more segregated for black students than the traditional public schools.

Private schools represent about 7 percent of the region’s enrollment and are disproportionately white. In some states, including Georgia, legislatures have provide subsidies to private schools through the tax system. (Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship allows taxpayers to donate money to a private school for student scholarships in exchange for a state income tax credit. The program diverts $58 million a year in income tax from state coffers to private school scholarships.)

The days of court-ordered mandatory reassignment are over; today’s integration efforts almost always involve carefully designed school choice

Ms. Frankenberg does not believe that diversity and quality need to be trade-offs, but she also flags an important underlying factor:

Parents may not place a premium on classroom diversity because most accountability measures don’t. “We’ve narrowed this understanding of what a good school is to something measured only by test scores.” said Frankenberg.

And Ms. Frankenberg, like Ms. Baffour, sees NYC’s efforts as heartening:

Frankenberg sees some communities resisting segregation, citing the new diversity efforts n New York City where white students represent only 15 percent of the public school enrollment, yet a third attend majority white schools. Those diversity policies have been enabled in part by increased flexibility granted from the federal government.

In the end, though, Ms. Frankenberg, and presumably the op ed writer Maureen Downey, draws the same conclusion as Perpetual Baffour:

While New York and Massachusetts are using this new flexibility to further diversity, the easing of federal oversight could go the other way in some states. “Flexibility might be good for those states,” said Frankenberg, “but is it good for states where diversity is not necessarily on the table?”

Editorialists away from NYC see De Blasio’s incremental approach as the way forward. But if research shows that integration benefits both races and everyone on the socio-economic spectrum and the majority of voters view resegregation unfavorably, bemoan the economic divide, and find the current divisiveness in our politics distasteful, it seems that our nation would benefit from schools that are socio-economically and racially diverse. The question is, can anyone develop a plan to make that happen?

‘Slap In the Face’: DeVos Under Fire for Including Fringe Men’s Rights Group in Sexual Assault Talks

July 14, 2017 Leave a comment

The conduct of these groups should exclude them from any serious consideration when it comes to deliberations on Title IX…. But given our President’s conduct toward women this is unsurprising.

Source: ‘Slap In the Face’: DeVos Under Fire for Including Fringe Men’s Rights Group in Sexual Assault Talks

Categories: Uncategorized

D.A.R.E. is NOT the Solution to Drug Abuse… Interagency Cooperation IS!

July 13, 2017 Leave a comment

I just finished reading two articles in succession that illustrate the right way and wrong way to prevent and treat the use of drugs. Matt Ferner’s Huffington Post article, “Jeff Sessions Wants to Bring Back D.A.R.E”, describes the Attorney General’s throwback solution to dealing with drug abuse, resurrecting D.A.R.E., an idea developed in the 1980s and promoted by Nancy Reagan and many Chambers of Commerce and local police forces. The idea behind D.A.R.E. was appealing: have local police officers come into schools and teach children about the evils of drug use, the kinds of drugs that are available, and how to Just Say No to drugs when someone is trying to encourage you to use them. Here’s Mr. Ferner’s description of the program:

D.A.R.E., originally created in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department, placed uniformed police officers into classrooms around the nation to speak to children about the dangers of drug use and to tout the benefits of a drug-free life.

It was immensely popular and remained so for years, eventually reaching 75 percent of U.S. school districts and 52 countries around the world, according to the program’s website. Black T-shirts and bumper stickers with D.A.R.E. splashed across them in bright red lettering became iconic symbols of the 1980s and Nancy Reagan’s broader “Just Say No” to drugs campaign.

But D.A.R.E. had one big problem: it didn’t work. As Mr. Ferner summarized later in his article:

But despite Sessions’ advocacy, research over several decades has found that the program didn’t actually make much of a difference in preventing drug use by youth.

“D.A.R.E. does not work to reduce substance use,” a 1998 National Institute of Justicereport to Congress reads. “The programs’s content, teaching methods, and use of uniformed police officers rather than teachers might each explain its weak evaluations.”

A 2003 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which analyzed six long-term evaluations of D.A.R.E.’s elementary school curriculum at the time, found “no significant differences in illicit drug use” between students in the fifth or sixth grade who received the program and students who did not. GAO also reported that five of six evaluations reviewed found “no significant differences” between the students’ attitudes toward “illicit drug use and resistance to peer pressure.”

While two of the evaluations did find D.A.R.E. students showed “stronger negative attitudes about illicit drug use and improved social skills about illicit drug use” about a year after receiving the program, those effects diminished over time.

In an administration that cares little for evidence based decision making and a lot about optics, the return of D.A.R.E. with police cast as “good guys with guns” makes good political sense. But if we had government leaders who cared about results, they might take a look at what has happened over the past few years in Laconia NH and try to replicate what has transpired there. As reported by Benjamin Rachlin in the NYTimes, the police department in that small city has assigned one individual, Eric Adams, to be “Prevention, enforcement and treatment coordinator” for the community, a position they created and funded when they realized that drug addiction was a disease and not a legal problem. The result?

In the nearly three years since, as overdose rates have climbed across New Hampshire, those in Laconia have fallen. In 2014, the year Adams began, the town had 10 opioid fatalities. In 2016, the number was five. Fifty-­one of its residents volunteered for treatment last year, up from 46 a year before and 14 a year before that. The county as a whole, Belknap, had fewer opioid-­related emergency-­room visits than any other New Hampshire county but one. Of the 204 addicts Adams has crossed paths with, 123 of them, or 60 percent, have agreed to keep in touch with him. Adams calls them at least weekly. Ninety-­two have entered clinical treatment. Eighty-­four, or just over 40 percent of all those he has met, are in recovery, having kept sober for two months or longer. Zero have died.

How did this happen? Inter-agency collaboration and coordination. The article doesn’t state it this succinctly, but here’s a description of Mr. Adams’ first days on the job:

As soon as he began the job, Adams researched what social-­service organizations the region had to offer and drove to their offices to introduce himself. A few employees at places like these knew one another from previous referrals, but many didn’t, so Adams went about acquainting them. At health conferences, he arrived to the quizzical frowns of social workers and realized that, of some 200 attendees, he was the only police officer. A network gradually sprouted around him. 

I have long advocated the need for greater interagency cooperation, particularly between law enforcement, social workers, and public schools (see this, for example). In my experience, it is rare for formal communication channels to be established among these agencies and as a result the services and support provided to children in need are disconnected and uncoordinated.

My advice to Mr. Sessions: Instead of spending time and money resurrecting a program with a proven record of insignificance, find ways to replicate the Laconia Police Department’s efforts to coordinate efforts among those local agencies trying to address addiction.

Campus “Rape Culture” Questioned by New DeVos Civil Rights Appointee Who Appears Intent on Reversing Obama’s Standards

July 13, 2017 Leave a comment

The United States Department of Education’s (USDOE) responsibilities include the oversight of civil rights in all education institutions, including colleges. While the Obama administration’s USDOE track record on K-12 education was horrible, it’s civil rights division did solid work on Title IX, especially when it came to addressing what some call a “rape culture” that permeates several campuses in the country. An article in today’s NYTimes by reporters Erica Green and Sheryl Gay Stolberg indicates that the Obama administration’s civil rights advances related to campus safety for women are about to be undone by the Acting Head of the Civil Rights division, Candace Jackson.

Some background: In 2011, the head of the Civil Rights division issued a “Dear Colleague” memo to colleges that included a mandate that campuses use a higher standard when they review allegations of rape on campus. As Mss. Green and Stolberg report:

The most controversial part of the 2011 guidance mandated that college officials use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which makes it easier to find students responsible than a “clear and convincing” evidence standard that some schools had been using. Advocates for the accused are pushing for Ms. Jackson to revoke the guidance and adopt the “clear and convincing” standard.

Why? Because in the judgement of those currently leading the civil rights division those accused of rape have paid too high a price!

Investigative processes have not been “fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student,” Ms. Jackson argued, and students have been branded rapists “when the facts just don’t back that up.” In most investigations, she said, there’s “not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman.”

Rather, the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,’” Ms. Jackson said.

Among Ms. Jackson’s assertions is that in response to the 2011 memo, college administrators handling rape allegations were “specifically told to keep looking until you find the violation”. It is unclear what evidence Ms. Jackson used to draw this conclusion or the conclusion that “90% (of accusations) fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk'”, but it IS clear to the authors of this memo who later enforced it that this was not the case:

Catherine E. Lhamon, who led the Education Department’s civil rights office from August 2013 through December 2016, called Ms. Jackson’s claims that investigators were told to fish for violations “patently, demonstrably untrue.” For the department to distinguish between violent and nonviolent assaults in investigations, she added, “portrays a profound misunderstanding of Title IX.”

Ms. Lhamon said investigations under her tenure turned up “jaw-dropping degrees of noncompliance” with sexual assault law.

While the legal interpretation of the 2011 memo by campuses may be unclear, but the political context of this conclusion IS clear. As Mss. Green and Stolberg note:

Appointed by Ms. DeVos in April, Ms. Jackson represented sexual assault victims as a private lawyer before joining the Education Department. She is best known for her involvement in attacks against Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, when she elevated women who had accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault or harassment, while denouncing women who accused Mr. Trump of such behavior.

Much has been written about how evangelical Christians, like Betsy DeVos, found a way to overlook President Trump’s misogyny and misconduct and support his candidacy. But it may be that the part of the evangelical culture includes the notion that a husband has dominion over his wife translates to a legal standard where the woman needs to present a preponderance of evidence that she was coerced or even forced to have sex in order to bring a rape charge. The concluding paragraph of Mss. Green and Stolberg’s article suggests that Ms. Jackson thinks the scales of justice have tipped to far in the direction of the women on campus:

“We have a justice system where nobody demands that the system itself be weighted in favor of a plaintiff,” she said. “In principle, there is no reason to depart from setting up a Title IX discipline process on campus that is anything other than fairly balanced and doesn’t prejudge and weight the system in favor of a finding. We don’t do that in our court system, our criminal justice system, and I see no reason why we would want to do it in a campus system either.”

I’m certain that Mr. Obama’s Civil Right’s attorneys have a different take on this… as do the thousands of women who attend college.

Jeffrey Sachs Names the Problem– “the Reagan Lie”– and Sees a Hopeful Solution– Grassroots Activists

July 12, 2017 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Boston Globe op ed column by economist Jeffrey Sachs concisely describes the underlying ethos of our country and appropriately titles it “Ending the Ronald Reagan Lie”. The “Ronald Reagan Lie” is familiar to readers of this blog, because, like Sachs, I see it as the root of all of the wrongheadedness in our collective thinking. Here’s Sachs’ description:

Our current political travails can be traced to Reagan. In his jovial way, Reagan would quip, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” With his sneering disrespect for government, Reagan ushered in nearly four decades of tax cuts, deregulation, and rising inequality that now threaten to devour our future. Trump, Ryan, and McConnell are the scheming and vacuous politicians at the end of a long process of decline.

Now we are faced with a loathing of government at all levels and contempt for anyone who seeks to raise taxes to improve the situation, especially if those taxes are going to be “redistributed” from those who work hard to those lazy and shiftless and welfare recipients. Of course many of those who devise schemes to ensure that redistribution is impossible— like the Koch brothers whose role is underscored in Sachs’ article— inherited their wealth and many of those “lazy and shiftless” welfare recipients work multiple part-time jobs with no benefits for businesses like Walmart in order to make ends meet. And who are the beneficiaries of this system? The very ones who designed it! And how did such a system get put into place?

…the marriage of anti-civil rights politics in the South, West, rural America, and the suburbs, with big money in politics. Presidential aspirants had always had their financial backers. But with the advent of expensive television ads, mass mailings, and big data, campaigns became expensive. Big campaign money flooded in and federal politics became the playground of billionaires.

And nobody played it better than David and Charles Koch. They played the long game. With their lavish funding of libertarian think tanks, advocacy groups, university departments, and political action committees, the Koch Brothers and their brethren (including Robert Mercer, Sheldon Adelson, and the late John Olin) bought the Republican Party and turned it into a radical antigovernment force. It’s be all and end all became tax cuts and deregulation.

The deregulation had one more crucial effect. It enabled the rise of “too big to fail” businesses, and their lobbies in four key sectors: Big Oil, Wall Street, Big Health, and Big Armaments. Antitrust became a dead letter. The billionaires successfully championed tax cuts, deregulation, and deregulated companies that became more influential than government itself, and that when necessary could call on the federal government to do their bidding.

But Sachs believes that the public is beginning to see that what is good for billionaires is not good for the rest of the country… and beginning to realize that their taxes pay for things that benefit them as well as their neighbors and “other people”…. and maybe the end is in sight:

…A small group of wealthy interests has hijacked the federal government, driving policies that are strongly against public opinion and the public good. Legislation is drafted in secret, pushed without deliberation, and if possible, adopted without regard for the voters. This is obviously the case with the Obamacare repeal, but it’s also true regarding climate change, environmental protection, tax cuts for the rich, antitrust enforcement, and foreign policy.

Obamacare repeal and the Trump agenda have exposed the big lie. Yes, the Koch Brothers have bought the Republican majority, but the policies they espouse, such as slashing health care coverage, are not the policies desired by the American people. We are therefore at a reckoning.

My own belief? We will soon swing back to an era of grass-roots democracy, led especially by young people, in which public activism will trump big money in politics. Stay tuned.

I hope that young people’s voices will be heard… but fear that too many young people of means are now invested in the big lie and believe it to be true and that too many young people who do NOT believe in the big lie have taken to the sidelines in despair. Someone needs to provide young people with hope for change the way Barack Obama did in 2008… someone who, unlike the former President, is not beholden to the donors who will water down the “change” agenda.  I am staying tuned and hoping a message and messenger emerge soon.