Eduardo Porter Calls Out Our Unwillingness to Invest in the Future

November 18, 2017 Leave a comment

In “Considering the Cost of Lower Taxes”, a NYTimes article published earlier this week, columnist Eduardo Porter effectively calls out our nation and voters for their unwillingness to raise taxes to ensure that future generations will have the same level of well being as my generation– the baby-boomers– experienced. Here’s the scene Mr. Porter sets in his opening paragraphs:

In 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and federal, state and local governments in the United States raised about the same in taxes, as a share of the economy, as the government of the average industrialized country: 26.6 percent of gross domestic product, against 27 percent among the nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Nearly 50 years later, the tax picture has changed little in the United States. By 2015, the last year for which the O.E.C.D. has comparable data, the figure was 26.4 percent of G.D.P. But across the market democracies of the O.E.C.D., the share had climbed by an average of more than seven percentage points.

Mr. Porter notes that these other developed countries’ spending was to be expected given Wagner’s Law, which posits that “…government spending as a share of the economy will increase as nations get richer and their citizens demand more and better public services.” In countries that increased their government spending, their citizens are getting “…more and better public services”. In our country, we are not ony getting what we pay for– which is poor health care, an infrastructure that is in disrepair, and widening disparities between the rich and poor— but we are leaving our children and grandchildren with debts that could require them to pay even higher taxes than other developed nations in the future.

Mr. Porter devotes much of his column offering evidence that the US Government’s efforts to change the tax code mirror what is happening in other nations… but he notes that the reforms enacted in other nations are designed to narrow the gap between the plutocrats and the middle class and lower class citizens. This leads him to these conclusions:

I have written about this country’s uniquely stingy tax policy before. Small government, I believe, has proved to be no match for its social ills, too puny to offer much resistance to rampant inequality, stubborn infant mortality or off-the-charts opioid addiction. American voters’ uniquely intense hostility toward trade can, in the same way, be traced back to the government’s ineffectiveness in mitigating trade’s disruptions.

Republicans seem to believe that the best prescription to address the nation’s ills is to slash some $50,000 from the taxes of people earning a million or more. As Isabel V. Sawhill and Eleanor Krause of the Brookings Institution note, the estate tax could generate $1 trillion over a decade just by raising the rate and cutting the exemptions to where they were in the 1970s. Raising the exemption on the estate tax to $11 million, as Republicans propose, will help only a narrow sliver of ultrarich Americans.

It is hard to conclude that the Republican proposal is about anything but that narrow sliver. If it succeeds, it will transform the United States from a low-tax country to a lower-tax one. And the mystery will persist: In cutting taxes as babies die and adults waste away in addiction, what do Americans mean by nation?

Mr. Porter’s closing question is one we must ponder as we review the GOP’s tax bills coming out of Washington. We now know what the GOP vision for the future is… what will the Democratic Party offer as an alternative? 

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Jeff Bryant’s Analysis of the GOP Tax Bill… as it is NOW

November 18, 2017 Leave a comment

While I try to avoid reading and blogging about bills that will not pass as they are currently written because I view it as “gossip”, I’m making an exception this morning because I believe the so-called “tax reform” legislation reveals the unvarnished priorities of the GOP. As anyone who follows politics at the national level realizes, the GOP is hell bent on passing major legislation that reflects their ideals and, to accomplish this, they have written and edited legislation behind closed doors with no input from the Democrats, no public hearings, and no analysis by independent boards. As a result, voters are getting a true picture of where the GOP wants to head, and, based on Jeff Bryant’s blog aptly titled blog post indicates, the GOP has declared a War on Learning. As Mr. Bryant writes:

What the Republicans propose in their tax plans is not just a raid on education-related budget items for the sake of fiscal efficiency; their plans are part of a strategic offensive against the very idea that all children and youth have a right to a free and high-quality education.

Mr. Bryant offers several points outside of education per se to support his metaphor that the GOP is declaring war on public schools. He notes that “…the plan in the House rolls back some “existing child care benefits in the tax code” and fails to expand a child care tax credit“, which will have the effect of increasing the tax burden on many middle class families. This, in turn will result in parents having less money “…to provide their children with academic and physical education opportunities outside school, including music lessons, sports, and summer camp.”

But the impact on families who rely on the government’s existing safety net are even worse!

As economists at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explain, these schemes are part of a “two-step fiscal agenda” to cut taxes for the rich to drive up the deficit and then justify deeper funding cuts to programs in the future.

Among the “eventual victims” CBPP predicts are programs for health, tuition, and education, particularly the Head Start program providing learning opportunities for low-income four- and five-year olds. Funding already passed by Republicans provides “little or no increase” for Head Start, so as expenses increase, the lack of new tax revenues available to Head Start will necessitate further cuts and fewer children served.

Mr. Bryant’s analysis of the impact of cuts on K-12 education is even more chilling. First and foremost, both  the House and Senate bills repeal the so-called state and local tax (SALT) deductions:

Ending the SALT deduction would immediately close a spigot of federal dollars to local coffers that pay for schools, I report. But an even worse, repealing the deduction will eventually increase voter pushback against any new local tax increases for schools and put pressure on local governments to cut taxes that are vital to children’s education.

Analysts at the National Education Association calculate that repealing the SALT deduction may “put nearly 250,000 education jobs at risk.” Job cuts of this magnitude will result in fewer services for special needs kids and those who don’t speak English well, larger class sizes with less individual attention to students, and shuttered libraries, athletic programs, and courses in arts and world languages.

Mr. Bryant notes the the bills also indicate a likelihood that the bills will eliminate the $250 deduction teachers can take for buying classroom supplies. He also flags elements of the bill that offer “…new initiatives to redirect public tax dollars to privately operated education providers.” Those initiatives include allowing parents to extend the tax advantages they get from 529 college-savings plans to use up to $10,000 annually for tuition in private K-12 schools, and two proposals that would allow for deductions made to education savings accounts that provide “scholarships” to students who are educated in religiously affiliated schools and other non-public charters. Unsurprisingly, this development pleases voucher fans like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The tax hit on those enrolled in higher education is more direct and worse. Here is Mr. Bryant’s synopsis:

As Krugman explains in his Times op-ed, if the Republicans have their way, students taking out loans to help pay college tuition would no longer be able to deduct the interest payments on those loans. Student who get help from an employer to pay for tuition or other expenses, would have the contribution considered taxable income in the House bill. Students who get free or reduced tuition because their parents are university employees will also have to report that break as taxable income. And graduate students who have tuition waived as part of their degree programs would have to report that as taxable income.

The tax increase for graduate students is a full body blow to those who we are expecting to be the nation’s future leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, and artists. If this measure passes,according to a report from NPR, the 145,000 grad students who received a tuition reduction in the most recent year available are looking at tax increases of as much as 300 to 400 percent.

The House tax plan will make these students’ education unaffordable.

It does not require much cynicism to see that this anti-intellectual tilt to the tax code is a way for the GOP to show the Trump supporters that they are listening to them. Mr. Bryant concludes his post with this:

Opposing the specific measures in these tax plans is important, but it’s essential to call out the intentions behind them…

Based on how the Republicans treat education in their tax plans, the transformation they want would make the nation collectively dumber and much more dependent on profit-making businesses for scarcer services with far fewer opportunities for citizens to better themselves through education.

We must reject that future.

Based on recent reports in conservative media like the Wall Street Journal, the business community the GOP is presumably representing is not pleased with this bill… and neither are conservative commentators like George Will who sees the “reforms” as making the tax code even more opaque. MAYBE this won’t pass as written and MAYBE it won’t pass at all. But one thing IS clear: these bills show the true spending priorities of the GOP, and they do not include support for children, assistance for parents, public education, or higher education.

 

 

 

Timothy Egan Unfairly Castigates Public Schools for Public Stupidity

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment

In his op ed piece today titled “We’re With Stupid“, NYTimes columnist Timothy Egan unfairly blames public schools for the stupidity we are witnessing among voters, stupidity that is causing our democrcy to go off the rails. Here’s his analysis of our status as a nation:

As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency on Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.

We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing. 

Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government. When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.

Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.

But Trump is a symptom; the breakdown in this democracy goes beyond the liar in chief. For that you have to blame all of us: we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship.

As I commented on his article, the “educational system” is not to blame on this. For at least the past decade our country has been engaged in a debate about what is important to teach in schools. This debate was manifested most recently in the Common Core, a set of objectives for reading and mathematics that it seemed impossible to get a consensus on. As for science, we have several state boards who are rejecting any discussion of climate change and some states where the teaching of evolution is still disputed. How on earth can we hope to get a consensus on what elements of civics are important in this atmosphere?

Timothy Egan does offer a solution:

There’s hope — and there are many ways — to shed light on the cave of American democracy. More than a dozen states now require high school students to pass the immigrant citizenship test. We should also teach kids how to tell fake news from real, as some schools in Europe are doing.

The idea of requiring that high school students pass the citizenship test as a basis for earning a diploma should be a quick and easy fix… but teaching kids how to tell fake news from real will run into the same buzz saw as math, reading and science. And if we can’t adopt the citizenship test as a graduation standard, please don’t blame public education for the demise of democracy.

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The Mass Firing of Teachers After Hurricane Katrina Demonstrates TFA’s Achilles Heel… But a Recent USDOE Grant Demonstrates Their Connections

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2004, President Bush and the GOP leadership in Louisiana seized a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-make the public education system in one urban area. As Mercedes Schneider describes in her blog post from earlier this week, following the hurricane the political leaders at the local level fired all the teachers in the city, allowed the collective bargaining agreement for the teachers to expire, and as a consequence, their public schools today have a:

  • Decrease in NOLA teachers with local roots;
  • Increase in teachers with 5 or fewer years of teaching experience;
  • Decrease in teachers with 20 or more years of teaching experience, and
  • Annual rate of teachers exiting Louisiana’s public school classrooms doubling in the decade post-Katrina, with teachers from alternative teacher prep programs and less experience demonstrating higher turnover rates.

And why does NOLA have so many inexperienced teachers? Teach For America (TFA)! As Ms. Schneider explains in her post, after the politicians fired the NOLA teachers, TFA filled their vacancies with their signature short-term staff, and that model increases turnover by design:

TFA promotes teacher attrition.

It asks its recruits to remain in the classroom for two years.

TFA sells its alumni as *educators,* but it does not dare call them “career teachers.” TFA plays a shell game with the American public by making it seem that those who receive temporary training and agree to temporary classroom service are actually benefiting students and their communities. But all that TFA does is guarantee that teacher churn becomes a never-ending reality for the districts that utilize TFA year after year.

So when the USDOE acknowledged there was a problem in NOLA, they decided to offer the school district a $13.1 million dollar grant to solve it. And who received a large chunk of the grant funds? A nola.com article about the $13 million USDOE grant has the answer:

Approximately $3 million of the grant will be used by Teach For America to bring “300 teachers or more” to the city over three years. Teach For America members are required to teach for two years, but (TFA’s interim regional executive director Joy) Okoro said they will “hopefully commit to a lifetime of educational advocacy” in the region.

An organization that requires a two year commitment from teachers and can offer ONLY hope for a commitment to a career in teaching does not seem like a good choice to address turnover, to address the lack of teachers with local roots, or to address the lack of qualified African American teachers. But TFA does assure that the new hires will be unlikely to unionize, will be more likely to follow whatever teach-to-the-test curriculum TFA provides, and will be far less costly in the long run because— well, they’ll leave before they gain seniority or require legacy costs like retirement and health costs.

While TFA is getting $3 million, Relay Graduate School of Education– an TFA spin-off organization designed to provide alternative certification for inexperienced teachers– is getting another $2 million of the grant. As Ms. Schneider explains in her post, Relay barely qualifies as a bona fide graduate program and has a reputation for turning out high-turnover “graduates”. The result of this USDOE decision to give $5 million to TFA and Relay is summarized in Ms. Schneider’s closing paragraphs:

So, one might think of TFA getting a $3 million USDOE teacher-training grant and TFA cousin, Relay, garnering another $2 million.

According to the New Orleans Advocate, “Relay Graduate School will use $2 million of the grant to recruit and develop novice teachers through a teaching residency. Residents serve as apprentice teachers in the first year and transition into lead teachers in the second.”

ERA notes that higher teacher attrition in New Orleans is associated with alt-cert training and less teaching experience. And here we have a teacher temp agency pretending to address teacher retention and a related graduate school that is not a graduate school offering alt-cert.

Add to that the fact that neither TFA nor Relay originate with New Orleans. Both are ed reform transplants that must work to make themselves appear local.

It’s just too good, like paying Chinet to replace heirloom china.

And many of the heirloom teachers with deep roots in NOLA remain out of work…

Don’t Like the Term “Voucher”? How About if It’s Called “Student Centered Funding”? Would THAT Change Your Mind?

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment

In a world where “branding” is crucial, if your organization’s name is tainted because it is associated with a failed Presidential candidate you can change it and no one will notice and, more importantly, you can change the name of the product it is selling to make it more acceptable. A link in yesterday’s Politico offers an illustration where both of these things happened. The link leads to ExcelinEd’s recently released report on something called “student-centered state funding“. The new name of the organization and the newly coined term “student-centered” idea didn’t fool this blogger. And I doubt that it will fool many progressive educators, but it might fool some legislators or give them some cover when they try to use Jeb Bush’s ideas from Florida to introduce vouchers into their state.

ExcelinEd is the new brand for the “…education reform group Foundation for Excellence in Education“, which was founded by former Florida Governor and failed Presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who ruined Florida’s once decent school systems by introducing deregulated for profit charter schools that he and the GOP in that state claimed would dramatically improve schools. Unsurprisingly, deregulated for profit charter schools did not boost test scores… but they DID introduce lots of profiteering and corporate corruption.

The mechanism for deregulated for profit charter schools in Florida also paved the way for vouchers… but since the term “vouchers” seems to have some baggage, ExcelinEd has come up with a new phrase to promote vouchers: “student centered state funding”.

There are two big ideas behind “student centered state funding”. The first is to abandon the antiquated and cumbersome term “adequacy” and replace it with “efficacy”. As the ExcelinEd report indicates:

Too often, debates about state education funding focus solely on how much money should be provided to school districts—or what is termed adequate funding. Far too little attention is paid to an equally or more important question: How can states maximize the impact of existing funding? While state policymakers often know how much in total is spent on education, they rarely know how much of the intended funding is actually being spent on individual students, many of whom have specific needs and challenges…

Addressing this issue means reframing the debate about state education funding, moving from questions about adequacy to addressing the efficacy of state funding models. A powerful means for ensuring the efficacy of state education dollars is student-centered funding.

A close reading of the rationale for this shift is that by changing the debate from the amount of money available to schools to “spend on individual students” they can presumably sidestep pesky provisions in their state constitutions that require an adequate level of funding without precisely defining what that term means. And that phrase about “money being spent on individual students” is not accidental. According to some tight-fisted ideologues, money spent to improve teachers wages and working conditions is NOT “money being spent on individual students”…it is money going to the adults in the school whose task is to teach students.

The second big idea behind “student centered state funding” is that parents can use the funds earmarked for their child to enroll them in whatever school they choose. Here are the “key advantages” of student centered funding as described in the ExcelinEd report:

There are several key advantages to student-centered funding. ➜ First, it is more transparent. It is clear and easy to understand how much funding each district gets and why. ➜ Second, it empowers districts. District leaders have flexibility to use funds to meet the unique needs of their students. ➜ Third, it empowers parents. Parents can choose the district that is best for their children, with the money fully following their students.➜ Finally, it is fairer. All students in your state get the same base resources, with additional funding for students with special needs or disadvantages.

Calling this de facto voucher system “student centered state funding” is disingenuous at best. And the five step process for introducing this system makes no mention of how to handle cases where parents might chose a religiously affiliated schools, how this would work in New England States where towns are separated by geographical features that preclude “choice” and towns— not states— are the primary source of funding and towns want to maintain a public school in their communities even if it requires them to pay a premium per pupil rate.

“Student centered state funding” works on a spread sheet in a state like Florida… but in virtually every other state it would be impossible for parents to exercise “choice” unless they enrolled in religiously affiliated schools, virtual academies (assuming broadband was available), or charter chain schools. But those caveats may be a feature…

 

The Economist Discovers that Dark Money Funds School Board Elections… But Misses What is at Stake

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Earlier this month the Economist featured an article on the massive sums of dark money being funneled into school board races across the country. The article offered some examples of the sums spent on local board races:

Chalkbeat, an education news organisation, reported that political committees on both sides of the dispute channelled at least $1.65m into the school-board races that took place on November 7th in Denver, nearby Aurora and Douglas County. Other areas have seen even more expensive contests. In Los Angeles, where three board seats came up for election earlier this year, outside groups poured nearly $15m into canvassing and advertisements on behalf of the candidates. Much of the money came from California Charter Schools Association, which supports charter schools and received nearly $7m from Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix, in the run-up to the election, and United Teachers Los Angeles, a union which opposes charters. According to Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy organisation, outside money has also fuelled school-board fights in Louisiana, Minneapolis, and Perth Amboy, a town of just 52,500 in New Jersey.

The Economist’s reporting, though, makes one invalid point and misses a huge point.

The invalid point is that these board contest pit “reformers” who “…champion increasing access to charter schools and expanding educational options in general” against “unions” who “…oppose such an agenda on the grounds that it could attract students away from districts that bargain with teachers collectively” the Economist makes it sound as if the greedy teachers are trying to protect their wages at the expense of a group of concerned citizens who seek “…expanded educational opportunities in general“. This is completely invalid.

Indeed, the huge point the Economist missed is this: the “reformers” are the greedy party. They want to siphon the funds taxpayers provide to public schools and direct them to private schools who take the best students from public schools and are staffed by teachers who are more inexperienced and willing to work for substantially lower wages than those currently working in public education. If the motives of the “reformers” like Mr. Hastings was to “…expand educational options in general” the $7 million he spent to elect board members who favored privatization could have been used to provide more educational options for students like before and after school care that supplemented their educational programs… or memberships to local museums… or summer programs that effectively extended the school year. By casting the dark money contributors as “reformers” who “champion” the expansion of educational options the Economist casts them as high-minded philanthropists. They are not. If they DID champion public education they would not be seeking tax breaks at all levels of the government, they would be making donations to local programs that support children, and they would be working collaboratively with public schools to help make the kinds of changes they  are seeking. But those investing Dark Money in board elections are doing so for one purpose: They are doing so to elect board members who champion privatization in the hopes of earning back their donations many times over by cashing in on the money now being spent on public education.

 

Another School Shooting in California, Another Predictable Reaction, Another Reason to Control Weapons Sales

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I read several reports on the most recent case of a gunman opening fire on innocent children who were attending school, including this one in USA Today describing the heroism of the head custodian at the school under fire and the prompt action taken by teachers to shelter their students and this NYTimes article detailing the man who did the shooting. Here’s a description of how the shooting at the school happened:

Just before 8 a.m., the gunman, who was armed with at least a semiautomatic rifle and two handguns, first shot a woman near his home with whom he had a continuing dispute. But the remaining victims were shot at random, the authorities said, as he fired at people walking on the streets, driving in their cars and sitting in their homes.

This individual shooter was bent on engaging and killing people at random,” Mr. Johnston said.

Coy Ferreira said he was one of a group of terrified people who took shelter inside Rancho Tehama School, the elementary school, where bullets crashed through the window of the classroom he was in, wounding a boy. “There was gunshots going for a good 25 minutes,” he told KRCR, a television station.

This shooting incident has changed my thinking on school safety to a degree. It has convinced me that every school in the nation should be required to develop plans for sheltering students in the case of an active shooter and to have at least annual drills on the implementation of those plans. Rancho Tehama, where this shooting took place, is a rural and geographically isolated small town in California. It is the kind of place where a school shooting seems like a remote possibility. The kind of community where training small children children to learn how to react to a school shooting seems like an over-reaction. But every report on the Rancho Tehama shooting made the same point: if not for the prompt and effective response of the teachers and school staff many more lives would have been lost. And while the articles did not say so explicitly, I know from my experience as a school administrator that the staff’s response was the result of training on emergency protocols developed by the staff with assistance from local law enforcement officials and emergency responders and the State Department of Education.

Developing protocols to deal with emergencies is a time consuming process and implementing them requires teamwork within the school and between the school and local law enforcement and emergency responders. The financial cost of developing these protocols is minimal. In our region the individuals responsible for their development and implementation often write the plans and review them during their work time. School districts can use frameworks developed at their respective State Departments and draw on the expertise of consultants who can offer workshops for administrators and teachers. In many communities in our region the police and fire departments will convene weekend sessions involving school administrators to conduct exercises on how they might respond to emergencies like train or truck accidents that involve chemical spills, dire weather emergencies, and, nowadays, school shootings.

While the financial cost for developing these protocols is relatively minimal, the emotional costs are high. When school children and teachers conduct drills that require them to lock down a school because a shooter is potentially lurking outside, it makes children fearful. Indeed, inculcating a fear of random shooters is an implicit part of these sheltering drills in the same way that inculcating a fear of fire is an implicit part of fire drills.

The Rancho Tehama shootings make it clear to me that we need to accept the trade off that this incident teaches: as long as we are unwilling to restrict the access to weapons in this country we need to inculcate a fear of gunmen in our children and temper that fear by assuring them that we have a means of keeping them safe should a shooter select their school as a target.

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