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NYTimes College Rankings Measure What’s Important: Opportunities for Upward Mobility

May 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Hats off to NYTimes columnist David Leonardt for his effort to devise an publicize the College Access Index, a college ranking metric released in yesterdays’ Times article titled “The Assault on Colleges— and the American Dream”. Unlike the USNews and World Report‘s index, which relies heavily on test scores and endowments, the College Access Index measures each colleges commitment to economic diversity. It bases this commitment on a metric that factors in the percentage of graduates who received Pell Grants, which are issued to students who can least afford college, and the colleges’ net price. As the title of Leonardt’s article intimates, our country appears to be headed in the wrong direction when it comes to providing opportunities for advancement. He opens his article with these chilling paragraphs:

The country’s most powerful engine of upward mobility is under assault.

Public colleges have an unmatched record of lofting their students into the middle class and beyond. For decades, they have enrolled teenagers and adults from modest backgrounds, people who are often the first member of their family to attend college, and changed their trajectories.

Over the last several years, however, most states have cut their spending on higher education, some drastically. Many public universities have responded by enrolling fewer poor and middle-class students — and replacing them with affluent students who can afford the tuition.

The situation is particularly demoralizing because it’s happening even as politicians from both parties spend more time trumpeting their supposedly deep concern for the American dream. Yet government policy is hurting, not fostering, many people’s chance to earn the most reliable ticket to a good job and a better life.

Leonardt doesn’t say so explicitly, but it is evident that the “government policy” he refers to is the extreme aversion either political party has to raising taxes. Some politicians will disingenuously claim that if they raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans those individuals will lower their donations to post-secondary institutions and that will have a deleterious effect on the endowments of colleges. But as Mr. Leonardt’s accompanying heart illustrates, the endowments to public colleges and universities, the post secondary schools whose presumed commitment is to lifting students out of poverty, are substantially lower than those of private colleges and universities. Moreover, affluent donors tend to come from and donate to their alma maters, which more often than not are already well endowed. Finally, those donations are often earmarked for a particular facility or college that the donor identifies… and it could just as easily be new tennis courts, a new student union building, or a spiffy new football stadium that hosts a half-dozen games a year.

And here the “stunning” consequence of not raising taxes to fund state colleges as described in Mr. Leonardt’s column? “It’s as if our society were deliberately trying to restrict opportunities and worsen income inequality.” He offers a series of charts to show the state-by-state cuts to colleges and universities and then offers these insights:

Since 2008, states’ per-student spending on higher education has fallen 18 percent nationwide, according to inflation-adjusted numbers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The cuts have occurred in both blue and red states, with somewhat larger ones in Republican-run states. States made deep cuts after the financial crisis and have since failed to restore funding, choosing instead to cut taxes or spend money on health care, prisons or other areas.

“States are making it much more difficult for their residents to get high-quality higher education,” Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute said. “They are causing their institutions to charge more, to take more out of state students, to cut quality. It’s very shortsighted.” That’s exactly the right word, because spending on education often more than pays for itself in the long run.

The budget cuts affect every realm of higher education, with some of the biggest damage happening at community colleges and less selective four-year institutions. These campuses enroll the great majority of lower-income college students. Yet flagship public campuses — like those in Ann Arbor, Mich., Boulder, Colo., and Gainesville, Fla. — are important to upward mobility too, given the success of their graduates.

In the last few years, many flagships have begun to recruit more upper-income students from outside their state, including from overseas. Those students don’t qualify for in-state tuition or for much financial aid — and thus help bolster the colleges’ budgets.

Mr. Leonardt notes that college administrators do not describe their motives as being driven by budgets, though. Instead they talk about the need for more geographic diversity or, as he intimates, the need to “game” their standings in the US News and World Report rankings by going after students with the highest test scores possible.

At the very end of his column Mr. Leonardt suggests that the only ultimate fix is to spend more on public colleges, which, of course, requires more taxes… and it is easier to point the finger at “waste, fraud, and abuse”. He concludes with these paragraphs:

This country should also be investing more of its resources in education.

A century ago, it did precisely that, making high school universal and making possible the so-called American century. Today’s economy demands many more college graduates than the country currently has. Producing them won’t be free. But it will be worth it.

The alternative — which is the path we’re now on — is just about the worst economic-development strategy imaginable.

Are Racism and Economics the Cause of White Flight… or is it Greed and Politics

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

This weekend the NYTimes published an op ed article by Leah Bouston, a professor of economics at Princeton, titled “The Culprits Behind White Flight”.  In the article Ms. Boustan posed this question: “Did whites leave cities for racial reasons or for economic ones?” Her unsatisfying answer, which she elaborates in detail, is that both played a role…. and while her answer is somewhat glib given the space provided in an op ed article, it is, alas, accurate.

The article might be seen by some as being too dismissive of racism. Those who leave the city because “those poor people” moved in could just as easily be leaving because “those BLACK people” or “those HISPANIC people” moved in… It is difficult to disentangle the economic issues from the race issues but it is clear that when businesses abandoned cities and towns their tax base erodes… the erosion that takes place when neighborhoods flip is more subtle but equally consequential.

In my lifetime I watched entire neighborhoods in Philadelphia “flip” from white ethnic enclaves to black and/or Hispanic neighborhoods as a result of “good ideas” like urban redevelopment, interstate highways, and “public goods” like new stadiums for professional sports teams. In some cases politicians, banks, and real estate agents and magnates worked collaboratively or in a mutually beneficial fashion to determine which neighborhoods would benefit from government and private investments and which neighborhoods would, consequently, be marginalized. In all cases of this “redevelopment”, those with money benefitted in the end. Gentrification is the latest anodyne term for this practice of “transforming” the city to make it “more livable” and, thus, more attractive to the middle class be they black or white. But gentrification has arguably contributed to the economic and racial stratification of neighborhoods within cities, creating racial and economic enclaves that isolate poor and racial minorities in the same way that city boundaries did in the middle and end of the 1900s.

Sadly, I think that our country has a notorious history for failing to accept or assimilate immigrants no matter their race or religion. It took the Irish several generations to be accepted as equal even though their skin color was the same as those who identified themselves as “American”… and the self-evident difference between blacks and whites compounds the problem of assimilation. And hate groups, like the Klan, opposed Catholics as well as Jews and blacks and Mormons… Despite these organizations inspired by hate and the racism that seemed impermeable, our country banded together in the early 1960s to enact legislation to remedy racial and economic inequality and groups seeking racial and economic justice brought cases to court that overturned laws and previous cases that were based on racial prejudice. Those legislators and jurists changed the laws… but the hearts of some have not been transformed as yet and we are now at a point where our darkest instincts are being reinforced.

So what is the answer? I think that idealistic urban dwellers MIGHT be able to facilitate integration by advocating higher taxes that would be directed strengthening neighborhood K-12 schools. If every neighborhood that was gentrified had strong neighborhood schools the whole choice apparatus would be unnecessary and the whole arcane application process that goes along with it would be unnecessary. For example, gentrification in Brooklyn has added appreciably to that borough’s tax base making it possible to provide the services needed to support the transformation of neighborhoods, setting up a virtuous circle for those who can now afford to live in the better neighborhoods. But does the borough or city do enough to help those who have been forced to reside in marginal neighborhoods or less affluent boroughs because of their race or lack of economic wherewithal? Has the borough or city thought of the upgrade of public education in the same way they’ve thought of the upgrade of public spaces and/or public transportation? Would borough or city residents be willing to pay a surtax to help upgrade neighborhood schools?

I know this: businesses and/or commuters from the suburbs who benefit from the businesses located in urban centers are VERY reluctant to pay surtaxes despite a strong moral argument that can be raised to do so. Moreover, it’s likely that requiring businesses located in an urban center to pay a surtax would result in those businesses leaving the city altogether. This has happened to many small cities up and down the east coast as businesses fled the Northeast for regions that offered tax incentives and workforces willing to accept lower wages…. before fleeing the country altogether. 

Last but not least, politicians hove failed to advocate for more government spending. I contend that their unwillingness to make a case to raise taxes to provide assistance to those who need it most contributes to the dis-integration of our public schools and the consequent disintegration of the unity that we presumably value as a country. It fuels our basest instinct— selfishness– and undercuts the moral imperative to help those who cannot help themselves. Consequently, we’ve created a system that perpetuates racial and economic segregation. 

This is not an optimistic outlook given where we are now— especially given the news of President Trump’s budget that promises to shred an already tenuous safety net.  But I remain optimistic because most of the people I know want to see a change in direction and are working locally to make change happen. A small band of Sierra Club members got our town to vote to become free of fossil fuels by 2050 and a small band of people stand on the corner of the town common on many evenings waving signs that read “Black Lives Matter”. They might be voices in the wilderness but I see them as harbingers of what will come next. 

Educational Choice vs. School Choice vs. the Implicit Mission of Public Schools

May 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Christensen Institute’s article on last week’s blog by Michael Horn made a distinction between educational choice and school choice, noting that while school choice is getting a lot of publicity (and notoriety), the real change in the format of public education might be emerging in educational choice. And what is educational choice? It is a method parents can use to access some aspects of schooling in traditional public schools while accessing other aspects on line or in other venues. Here’s Michael Horn’s description:

…rather than have the school control the educational experiences, as occurs in course access, a subset of parents, particularly at the elementary school level—both public and home-school—are opting to manage their children’s education and customize a mix of public brick-and-mortar school, online school, home school, and even some private school (such as private music lessons) experiences. In other words, a student might take her core academics online at home, come in to the local elementary school for arts and physical education, and then enroll in a music academy for private piano lessons. Or the core classes could be at the public school and extracurricular activities could be delivered online. All of this is possible in Florida because of FLVS’s Flex program, which allows students to attend part-time.

After describing the technological change process in detail, Mr. Horn posits that what is happening in Florida with an increasing number of parents opting for this “customized mix” of educational models is also emerging as a trend nationwide:

Outside of Florida, the emergence of a wide variety of micro-schools points to a similar phenomenon. The families who send their children to micro-schools often want an option other than home schooling that will personalize learning for their child’s needs. And they are often thrilled if it’s a stripped-down, small school that students attend a couple days a week where they can customize their children’s experience around the edges, in areas like music, science, engineering, sports, and so forth. In other words, it’s perfectly fine that the school itself offers something limited in an area because the parents will find another way to provide students with that experience. This is actually something parents of home-schooled children have done for years, but increasingly some seem to be saying that they would like some of the benefits of the local public school, for which they are paying with their tax dollars, as they do so.

Having just spent the week-end at an Air BnB site that is located in the home of two individuals who operate a small private school that fits the description of the micro-school described above, I can see one problem with this trend. If parents are allowed to access public funds to attend a school that effectively reinforces the values of the parents, it could lead to a further Balkanization of our country. The school in question reinforces that value I would like to see in all public schools. It espouses harmony with the environment; collaboration, and cooperation among students; independent thinking and learning by individual students; and and ethic of multiculturalism. But around the corner from this school, it is conceivable that another school with a militaristic, survivalist curriculum could be created. In effect you would be fragmenting the population into micro-value systems where one school would be wearing tie-dyes and another wearing camouflage and neither group would be exposed to the other. One of the implicit purposes of public education is to reinforce the notion that our country is a melting pot. That is, we are united as a nation despite our differences of religious and secular beliefs and that unity is an overarching value we share. While the housing patterns and district borders might work against this notion and might even lead cynics to declare that unity is a myth as opposed to an aspiration, I fear that encouraging the dissolution of public schools through this kind of educational choice will lead to even more Balkanization than we already have in place.

In the end, I find that Mr. Horn’s justification for moving in this direction is even more disturbing: it could save taxpayers money!

The net impact on public financing… was actually positive to the tune of roughly $400 to $500 saving per student, not insignificant in a state where total per pupil funding hovers around $8,500 in any given year.

In his closing paragraph Mr. Horn DOES acknowledge that the ultimate consequences of implementing widespread educational choice are indeterminate:

If programs like this expanded, could those savings be redirected to students most in need? And how do the students of families who avail themselves of this choice do academically, socially and from an extracurricular perspective? Many questions to be asked and answered, but this development is an intriguing wrinkle that takes us well beyond the national theme of school choice.

I like the idea of micro-schools, but only if there is some assurance that they do not isolate children from others who hold different values and beliefs. We need to maintain (or perhaps restore or even impose) economic, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity in public schools if we hope to change the national trend of corrosive divisiveness. If we hope to make that change in the future, we need to make it happen in public schools today.

Roseburg Oregon a Case Study on What Taxes Pay For

May 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Last Saturday’s NYTimes article by Kirk Johnson described the travails of Roseburg, Oregon, a small town in SW Oregon that has suffered a loss of tax revenues as a result of the outsourcing of lumber, a loss that make Roseburg a case study that illustrates what our taxes pay for. In the article Mr. Johnson describes how successive votes to keep its library open failed, along with votes to pay for 24/7 police services, the ability to incarcerate criminals, and the assessor’s required to collect taxes.

Some background on how Roseburg Oregon found itself in this predicament:

…for many years, timber-harvesting operations on public lands here paid the bills, and people got used to it. A law passed by Congress in the 1930s specified that a vast swath of forest lands that had passed into corporate hands and back into federal control would be managed for county benefit. But then logging declined, starting in the 1980s and 1990s, as it did across many other parts of the West, and the flood of timber money slowed to a trickle, with only a stunted tax base to pick up the difference. The property tax rate in Curry County is less than a quarter of the statewide average. Douglas County (where Roseburg is located) residents pay about 60 percent less than most state residents.

So even though the taxes are relatively low in Douglas County, voters see them as skyrocketing because of a decline in logging, which was the “cash cow” for the government in years past. And, as several interviews in Mr. Johnson’s article indicate, there is a deep and abiding distrust in the government at all levels that manifests itself in negative votes for any government spending at any level. And here’s the result:

So what does life in government retreat look like?

It looks like the house on Hubbard Creek Road in Curry County, where owners went for more than 10 years without paying any property taxes at all because the county assessor’s office couldn’t field enough workers to go out and inspect. The house, nestled in the woods with a tidy blue roof and skylights, dodged more than $8,500 in property taxes that would have gone to support the schools, fire district and sheriff, because government had gotten too small to even ask. So things fall even further, with cuts to agencies that actually bring in revenue prompting further cuts down the line.

Those who distrust government and starve it of funding set a death spiral in motion, a death spiral that eliminates the opportunity for children in their community to get a good education, that eliminates community-funded fire and police protection, and eliminates all kinds of government funded “frills” like public libraries. And in its place, those who favor small government can hire private tutors and/or send their children to private schools with public subsidies in the form of vouchers, can band together with neighbors to secure private police and fire protection, and use the fast lane of their internet to secure whatever reading materials they desire. The poor neighbors or those who are thrown into poverty because they can’t pay their medical bills or whose homes burn down because they can’t afford to pitch in for the fire can fend for themselves. Welcome to a world with low taxes and limited service… the world it appears some people in SW Oregon want to live in.

Who Benefits from Political Polarization? The Donors to the Campaigns of Extremists

May 18, 2017 Leave a comment

“Why Republicans are Always Looking Over Their Shoulders”, Thomas Edsall’s column in today’s NYTimes, describes the bind that GOP house members and Senator find themselves in because the demographics in their party require them to tilt to the right in order to survive challenges from the extreme right in the primary campaigns.

A few years ago I heard Laurence Lessig, who is working to repeal Citizens United, speak. He made the point that dark money can have a particularly powerful and pernicious impact on primary elections, particularly on those elections that can exacerbate the polarization in our country.

This leads to this question: Who benefits when polarization occurs? Those who want to cripple the government, those who want fewer regulations, those who want to suppress the wages of workers and/or compromise their working conditions. and those who are happy to see a government that is divided and dysfunctional. The anti-government profiteers are happy to support candidates who focus on transgender bathrooms instead of focussing on issues of real import. Maybe a future column can look at who is funding these right-wing primary candidates and why.

By compelling GOP party members to skew rightward, those elected by the GOP are endorsing concepts like school vouchers and the complete and total elimination of any benefits that might help those who are disadvantaged in any way. The Democratic party, in response to this tilt, is fearful of skewing leftward for fear that they might lose moderate voters and so they have increasingly endorsed “centrist” neoliberal policies that favor “market driven” solutions to social problems. This leads them to support “school choice” in the form of for-profit charters… for profit charters that are underwritten by their political donors.

Here’s the bottom line from my perspective: when profiteers drive elections the rank and file voters have no choice. Neither party today espouses government solutions to social problems and both parties are beholden to profiteer donors. If our nation hopes to engage voters in the future, we need a REAL choice about the direction of our economy and a REAL debate about the role of government.

 

Billionaires Lower Their Taxes Through Donations to Foundations that Underwrite Charters, Private Schools

May 17, 2017 Leave a comment

In several previous posts I’ve made reference to the mechanism that enables billionaires to lower their tax payments by making donations to “Scholarship Foundations” that are created by legislators to purportedly provide children raised in poverty with an opportunity to attend a private or charter school instead of the “failing public school” where they reside. Erica Green’s article in today’s NYTimes provides a detailed description of how some states have passed legislation that makes it possible for donors to some private schools to actually make a profit thought their “generosity”. As Ms. Green reports:

AASA and the liberal-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy examined programs in 17 states that send more than $1 billion a year to private schools via tuition tax credits, and concluded that private schools were benefiting from a “federally sanctioned voucher tax shelter” for wealthy taxpayers.

The study called it a “get-rich scheme for shrewd taxpayers.

The report focuses on tuition tax credit programs used by some states to help low-income students afford private schools. In these states, individuals and corporations donate to nonprofit “scholarship-granting organizations,” which then distribute the funds to parents. The amount of the contribution can be subtracted dollar-for-dollar from the donor’s state tax bill….

Donors in some states, such as Georgia, Arizona and Florida, have recouped their entire donation in tax cuts, meaning taxpayers can make a contribution to private schools at no cost.

Nine states that allow both a federal tax deduction and a state dollar-for-dollar credit are Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia, the report said. In these states, the report found, donors can even make a profit.

In South Carolina, if taxpayers make a $20,000 donation to a scholarship organization, they not only get a $20,000 state tax credit, but a federal tax deduction valued up to $7,000. The donor could pay $27,000 less in taxes based on a $20,000 donation.

The Times article didn’t drill down into all the varied flaws in the state laws under consideration, nor did it note the fact that some large donors to these “scholarship” funds might also be financially rewarded because they are shareholders in the for profit charter schools that ultimately benefits from the “donations”. The AASA is right to push back against these “…get-rich schemes for shrewd taxpayers” and to call them what they are. Here’s hoping that more taxpayers will see through these ruses.

 

Science and Regulations Matter… as Lead, Chlorofluorocarbons, and Chlorpyrifos Illustrates

May 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Decades ago, scientists determined that lead in the atmosphere and in the paints used in houses caused brain damage. Government officials listened to the scientists and, over the objections of corporations, developed and enforced regulations on the use of lead. The well-being of several generations improved as a result.

In the 1980s, scientists determined that chlorofluorocarbons were causing the depletion of the ozone layer around the earth and thereby contributing to climate change and skin cancer. Government officials listened to the scientists and, over the objections of corporations, developed and enforced regulations on the use of chlorofluorocarbons. The hole in the atmosphere stopped growing and is now on the way to closing entirely  as a result….  and the well-being of several generations improved as a result.

As reported in an article by Roni Caryn Rabin in Monday’s NYTimes, a recent study by Columbia University researchers determined that chlorpyrifos, a chemical used to control bugs in homes and fields for decades, caused brain damage in baby rats. Two years into the researchers’ study,  the pesticide was removed from store shelves and banned from home use. Why?

Scientists soon discovered that those with comparatively higher levels (of chlorpyrifos) weighed less at birth and at ages 2 and 3, and were more likely to experience persistent developmental delays, including hyperactivity and cognitive, motor and attention problems. By age 7, they had lower IQ scores.

The Columbia study did not prove definitively that the pesticide had caused the children’s developmental problems, but it did find a dose-response effect: The higher a child’s exposure to the chemical, the stronger the negative effects. 

That study was one of many. Decades of research into the effects of chlorpyrifos strongly suggests that exposure at even low levels may threaten children. A few years ago, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that it should be banned altogether.

So once again we have a situation where a scientific finding informed a government agency who took relatively swift action to address a problem affecting the well-being of citizens. But now a new President, who sees regulations as an impediment to profits, appoints an agency head who intends to do everything possible to roll back those pesky regulations. As Ms. Rabin reports:

In March, the new chief of the E.P.A., Scott Pruitt, denied a 10-year-old petition brought by environmental groups seeking a complete ban on chlorpyrifos. In a statement accompanying his decision, Mr. Pruitt said there “continue to be considerable areas of uncertainty” about the neurodevelopmental effects of early life exposure to the pesticide.

Even though a court last year denied the agency’s request for more time to review the scientific evidence, Mr. Pruitt said the agency would postpone a final determination on the pesticide until 2022. The agency was “returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results,” he added.

Agency officials have declined repeated requests for information detailing the scientific rationale for Mr. Pruitt’s decision.

So after a study by reputable researchers concluded that exposure to chlorpyrifos resulted in “persistent developmental delays, including hyperactivity and cognitive, motor and attention problems” and was linked to lower IQ scores by the time those children were 7 years old, because of “considerable uncertainty about the neurodevelopment effects” of this pesticide, the ban on it will be lifted.

Ms. Rabin provides a comprehensive overview of the research that caused the EPA to reach its conclusion to ban the pesticide, noting that while research on animals exposed to chlorpyrifos is unequivocal and wholly negative:

Scientists have been studying the impact of chlorpyrifos on brain development in young rats under controlled laboratory conditions for decades. These studies have shown that the chemical has devastating effects on the brain.

“Even at exquisitely low doses, this compound would stop cells from dividing and push them instead into programmed cell death,” said Theodore Slotkin, a scientist at Duke University Medical Center, who has published dozens of studies on rats exposed to chlorpyrifos shortly after birth.

In the animal studies, Dr. Slotkin was able to demonstrate a clear cause-and effect relationship. It didn’t matter when the young rats were exposed; their developing brains were vulnerable to its effects throughout gestation and early childhood, and exposure led to structural abnormalities, behavioral problems, impaired cognitive performance and depressive-like symptoms.

But the research on human subjects is less unequivocal, and the manufacturers of chlorpyrifos have seized on that ambiguity…. and in President Trump’s EPA, it appears that corporate interests will outweigh the well-being of those exposed to chlorpyrifos:

Manufacturers say there is no proof low-level exposures to chlorpyrifos causes similar effects in humans. Carol Burns, a consultant to Dow Chemical, said the Columbia study pointed to an association between exposure just before birth and poor outcomes, but did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship…

Dr. Burns argues that other factors may be responsible for cognitive impairment, and that it is impossible to control for the myriad factors in children’s lives that affect health outcomes. “It’s not a criticism of a study — that’s the reality of observational studies in human beings,” she said. “Poverty, inadequate housing, poor social support, maternal depression, not reading to your children — all these kinds of things also ultimately impact the development of the child, and are interrelated.”

Brenda Eskenazi, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, Berkeley, believes the marketplace will sort this all out… but not in a way that can assure the well-being of citizens who are, in effect, serving as lab rats:

In California, the nation’s breadbasket, use of chlorpyrifos has been declining, Dr. Eskenazi said. Farmers have responded to rising demand for organic produce and to concerns about organophosphate pesticides.

She is already concerned about what chemicals will replace it. While organophosphates and chlorpyrifos in particular have been scrutinized, newer pesticides have not been studied so closely, she said.

“We know more about chlorpyrifos than any other organophosphate; that doesn’t mean it’s the most toxic;” she said, adding, “There may be others that are worse offenders.”

The demand for organic produce is undoubtedly coming from well-heeled and well educated consumers. The consumers who cannot afford the organic produce will be the ones subjected to chlorpyrifos and the newer pesticides. In the meantime, Dow chemical shareholders will be pleased.