Posts Tagged ‘Economic Issues’

The Foundation Conundrum: Do We Accept Donations That Help Public Schools or Not?

September 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Earlier this week I wrote a post in response to an article written by Lisa Haver in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The post discussed the possibility that some donations from some billionaires might be worthy of consideration despite the fact that they were offered by “unqualified” individuals. The following is a comment I left on Diane Ravitch’s blog in response to her reaction to the same article:

Until we get a change in thinking in our country about the role of government, we are going to be stuck with plutocrats determining where investments should be made in the public good. As this Slate article from 2006 notes (see link below), we’ve been through this before at the turn of the 20th Century… and the result was the construction of libraries in many small towns across America, the donation of lands for several national parks, and the creation of foundations whose funding sources were the result of exploitative practices by plutocrats who short-changed their employees and the government because they believed they had a clearer understanding of the needs of the country. 

I am no fan of the plutocrats… but I am open to the idea that in some cases their intentions are pure (i.e. see the billions Mr. Gates spent to eliminate polio) and am open to the notion that some of their ideas might have merit (i.e. advances in technology, algorithms and brain science that are being exploited by market researchers could be applied to education).

Here’s a conundrum: If billionaires like Ms. Chan and Ms. Jobs are offering additional resources to public education should we reject the money under all circumstances? I don’t have a clear answer… yet… but I do appreciate the libraries Mr. Carnegie provided and the National Parks the Rockefellers gave to our country.

A footnote: to the best of my knowledge no one in the international medical community complained that Bill Gates had no training in medicine and therefore had no business tackling polio… And while it might be possible that his investment portfolio included some stocks in medicine that enriched him, I don’t believe he was driven by the profit motive.


Politico Report Finds that Metrics Matter… and US News and World Report’s Metrics for Colleges Are Increasing Inequality

September 12, 2017 Leave a comment

We are approaching the time when US News and World Report issues its annual analysis of colleges, a report that was launched in 1983 and became, in the magazine’s own words from a 2008 article , “the 800-pound gorilla” of higher education. Politico writer Benjamin Wermund concurs with that assessment, and in his story issued on Sunday asserts that the 800 pound gorilla has undercut social mobility in our country and offers evidence from a new “report card” to support his contention. He opens his essay with this:

America’s universities are getting two report cards this year. The first, from the Equality of Opportunity Project, brought the shocking revelation that many top universities, including Princeton and Yale, admit more students from the top 1 percent of earners than the bottom 60 percent combined. The second, from U.S. News and World Report, is due on Tuesday — with Princeton and Yale among the contenders for the top spot in the annual rankings.

The two are related: A POLITICO review shows that the criteria used in the U.S. News rankings — a measure so closely followed in the academic world that some colleges have built them into strategic plans — create incentives for schools to favor wealthier students over less wealthy applicants.

As I’ve written on several occasions (see here, here, and here for examples), the US News and World Report’s annual report card is too reliant on test data, has contributed to a horse race mentality among colleges, contributed to the extreme competition that infects affluent high schools, and, most insidiously, reinforces the notion that microscopic differences in algorithmic “scores” reflect qualitative differences in schools.

Mr. Wermund uses hard data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, to demonstrate that the US News and World Report does something even worse: it closes doors of opportunity to individuals in families with low incomes. Mr. Wermund notes that the US News and World Report’s metrics include several components that favor students from affluent schools:

  • student performance (i.e.evidence that their acceptance pool has “the best and brightest” as measured by standardized tests and GPAs)
  • lower acceptance rates (i.e evidence of their “competitiveness”)
  • performing well on surveys completed by guidance counselors (which favors affluent high schools with robust college counseling staff), and
  • alumni giving (which compels colleges to draw from affluent applicants)

At the same time, the US News and World Report ignores economic diversity, a measure that would encourage schools to accept more children from less affluent households. And Mr. Wermund digs deeper into the impact of the US News and World Report’s annual report card by interviewing several past and present college presidents. Their reactions were astonishing, with one, Brit Kiran of the University of Maryland, offering a particularly scathing indictment:

Kirwan cast the problem in simpler terms, saying that U.S. News creates the false impression that schools with the wealthiest students are, based on their criteria, the best.

“If some foreign power wanted to diminish higher education in America, they would have created the U.S. News and World Report rankings,” he said. “You need both more college graduates in the economy and you need many more low-income students getting the benefit of higher education — and U.S. News and World Report has metrics that work directly in opposition to accomplishing those two things that our nation so badly needs.”

Mr. Wermund suggests that this emphasis has had a major impact on politics as well:

“Elite colleges are part of the apparatus that produces Trumpism and produces working class, white resentment,” said Walter Benn Michaels, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It fits perfectly into Trump’s narrative … Basically, if you’re a low-income or working-class white student who works hard and you find out that what matters in admissions is who your daddy is, or what your race is, you’re completely left out,” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “When a politician like Donald Trump comes along and says the system is rigged, you’re very likely to believe that. In this case, it is rigged — against those students.”

So… what is to be done? The disheartening news is: “Not much”. Donald Trump and the most conservative members of the Senate want to compel colleges to spend more of their endowments or possibly lose their non-profit status, which might compel them to use their endowments to underwrite scholarships for more children raised in poverty. President Obama suggested developing a Federal metric for colleges that would report on the incomes earned by graduates, an idea that would effectively reward colleges offering degrees in science and technology while penalizing colleges that offer degrees in teaching and social work. But one thing is clear, and Mr. Wermund notes at the end of his article: US News and World Report won’t be making changes any time soon:

Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, said he met with U.S. News officials and raised concerns that the rankings incentivize schools to spend more money when the cost of college is already skyrocketing.

“The question I asked was, ‘Doesn’t this seem to run counter to what’s really in the public’s interest?’” he recalled.

“The answer was, ‘Yes, we know it — but we don’t care.’”

Morse, of U.S. News, denied that, saying, “We do meet regularly with college presidents and admissions deans and we’re definitely aware of what’s written about U.S. News.”

To many presidents, though, prodding U.S. News to change feels like a lost cause.

Said Rosenberg, “It feels a little bit like shaking your fist at the gods — there’s nothing I can do about it.”

This Just In: Statistics Support Segregation, Inequality In Public Schools

September 10, 2017 Leave a comment

I often write about the trends toward resegregation and inequality, so often I sometimes think that I might be overstating the case for each. But today’s NYTimes article Education by the Numbers by Alice Yin offers hard evidence that, if anything, I might be understating what is transpiring in our public schools. The article features charts showing that students of color are filling our schools more rapidly, that they are attending schools that are increasingly segregated by race, and the schools students of color attend get fewer resources. Unsurprisingly, those schools do worse on achievement tests. In an effort to find something positive to report, Ms. Yin offers this silver lining: “…attendance at specialized high schools in New York almost always leads to on-time graduation, and pre-kindergarten programs have proven to be remarkably beneficial for black children.”

Ms. Yin’s “good news” does nothing to offset the otherwise disheartening findings. Only a small percentage of students of color are accepted into “specialized high schools” and with funding for public schools on the decline one can only wonder how long before recently introduced pre-kindergarten programs fall by the wayside. If evidence mattered, schools serving children of color would be integrated to a greater degree, would receive comparable resources to schools serving white children, and “specialized high schools” would open their doors to more of them. Instead, since some children of color do get into these “elite” schools it is viewed as evidence that any child of color could get in if only they applied themselves and showed sufficient grit. And so the vicious cycle of poverty continues.

The Shareholder’s Credo: “Focus on Core Competence and Outsource the Rest”

September 9, 2017 Leave a comment

A New York Times article by Neil Irwin on changes in the employment of janitors by two different technology companies over the past three decades illustrates why our current corporate practices are contributing to the widening divide in earnings and opportunities. To illustrate the change in the nature of these substantive changes, Mr. Irwin profiles two janitors: Gail Evans and Marta Ramos who had one thing in common: “They have each cleaned offices for one of the most innovative, profitable and all-around successful companies in the United States.”

Ms. Evans worked at Eastman Kodak in Rochester NY in the late 1980s. Ms. Ramos is currently working for Apple in Cupertino, CA. Ms. Ramos earns the same amount per hour in inflation adducted wages… but while the wages are identical, the working conditions vary tremendously:

Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages. Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Less than a decade later, Evans was chief technology officer of the whole company, and she has had a long career since as a senior executive at other top companies. Ramos sees the only advancement possibility as becoming a team leader keeping tabs on a few other janitors, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour.

They both spent a lot of time cleaning floors. The difference is, for Ramos, that work is also a ceiling.

Ms. Ramos’ experience is typical of today’s workforce because, as corporations, small businesses, and— yes— school districts employ more and more contracted employees. Why? The headline of this post is taken from this paragraph that sums up the trend:

In the 35 years between their jobs as janitors, corporations across America have flocked to a new management theory: Focus on core competence and outsource the rest. The approach has made companies more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders. It has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.

Outsourcing transportation has a long history in public education. But as a result of following the credo to “focus on core competence and outsource the rest” public schools have outsourced things like payroll, custodial services, food services, hall monitors, and substitute teachers. Some “reform” advocates have even outsourced the core competence of teaching, hiring green Teach For America candidates instead of offering career track opportunities.

In the short run, this practice will pay dividends to shareholders as the ancillary costs like paid sick leave, paid vacation, paid benefits, tuition reimbursement, and pensions. But in the long run, this hiring of contractors instead of long term employees will corrode the economic system. In a world where every job is contracted out there will be fewer and fewer stories like that of Gail Evans, an under-educated but highly motivated blue collar worker who was able to advance up the corporate ladder through the largesse of her employer. When “working hard and playing by the rules” has no long term pay-off is it any wonder that fewer and fewer employees are committed to either hard work or adherence to a code of conduct that enables them to stay in one job?

North Carolina Legislators Haven’t Looked at the Evidence About For-Profit Schools… And Public Schools are Short-Changed as a Result

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment

An op ed article in today’s Charlotte News-Observer by Keith Posten, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on public education in NC, describes how the North Carolina Legislature’s decision to expand funding for for-profit charter schools has diminished the opportunities for public education students across the state. His article highlights four broad initiatives that effectively re-directed education funding away from public education: private school vouchers and Education Savings Accounts; for-profit charter school management; so-called “innovative school districts; and on-line virtual schools. Here’s a synopsis from his article:

Private school vouchers. Lawmakers continue pushing the state’s private school voucher program… spending nearly one billion taxpayer dollars (since 2006). They’re doing this despite the fact that these funds go to private schools that aren’t required to tell the public whether they are doing a good job of educating students and to what degree they profit off of the taxpayer at the expense of providing high-quality educational experiences. And coming right behind vouchers are new Education Savings Accounts, similarly unaccountable and likely to drain public coffers at an even faster rate.

For-profit charter school management. Since the General Assembly lifted the charter school cap in 2011, the number of charters has nearly doubled. When charter schools are managed by private, for-profit corporations, taxpayer funds intended for instruction are used to pay hefty management fees that can be as much as 10 percent of the state dollars allocated for the school. Plus there are lucrative facility leasing arrangements, often with landlords intertwined with charter operators. (NOTE: The NYTimes article in my previous post about Michigan schools offers some stunning examples of how these leases benefit the profiteers at the expense of taxpayers) 

NC Innovative School Districts. This concept, where charter operators take over local schools, has largely been a total failure in neighboring Tennessee. Lawmakers say it will go differently here in North Carolina, where low-performing schools will, in theory, be catapulted toward high performance by a charter school operator, likely one that operates for profit. (NOTE: MANY posts describe the failure of charter operators taking over public schools in NJ, PA, OH, MI, etc… )

Online virtual charter schools. We’re in the middle of a four-year pilot program through which we’ve diverted nearly $35 million in taxpayer dollars to two for-profit companies that delivered classes online. Over that time these schools have seen staggering student withdrawal rates as high as 31 percent – only to have the legislature tweak the law to allow them to hide those numbers – and their students’ academic gains have been poor, with each school failing to meet growth and earning overall “D” school performance grades.

These decisions were all made in the face of contradictory evidence. Evidence, though, is immaterial when voters want to find an easy, fast, and inexpensive solution to a complex, longstanding, and costly problem. Mr. Posten, though, sees no end to the NC legislature adopting these ideas. He concludes his op ed piece with this:

Looking to the years ahead, even more public dollars stand to be diverted to private, unaccountable, for-profit education. It’s clear we are turning away from our state’s mission – and constitutional obligation – of providing high quality public schools accessible to all. Without a course correction, our children – and our state’s economy – will suffer.

Like many of us who want to see public education restored to its rightful place as a force for democracy and equity, Mr. Posten offers an economic argument as well as a moral one. The more I examine the issues of racial and economic justice, the more I believe we should lean on the moral argument for equitable funding and equitable housing. Martin Luther King Jr ultimately appealed to the higher angels in a majority of voters who, in turn, supported the civil rights bills and various safety net funding that accompanied the War on Poverty in the 1960s. When we argue for equity in the name of strengthening our economy, we are appealing to the baser instincts in voters which, in turn, make it easier to sell ideas like exposing public goods to the free market. I am convinced that a majority of voters in this country want to see their neighbors succeed, no matter what their neighbors skin color, nationality, or economic background. I hope that more people will speak to that element of our humanity.


Make School Lunch Great Again? By What Measure? By Whose Standards?

September 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Those who value public education have so many fronts to push back against might overlook one area where push back is crucial: the school lunch programs. And, Kim Severenson’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes indicates, school lunch is as divisive an issue as vouchers! Why? Because one of President Obama’s admirable efforts was an insistence that school lunches offer healthy and nutritious meals for children even if that meant introducing them to fruits and vegetables instead of french fries and pizza. Here’s an excerpt from the article on a speech Secretary of Education Sonny Perdue gave to the annual conference of the School Nutrition Association:

After reminiscing about the cinnamon rolls baked by the lunchroom ladies of his youth, he delivered a rousing defense of school food-service workers who were unhappy with some of the sweeping changes made by the Obama administration. The amounts of fat, sugar and salt were drastically reduced. Portion sizes shrank. Lunch trays had to hold more fruits and vegetables. Snacks and food sold for fund-raising had to be healthier.

“Your dedication and creativity was being stifled,” Mr. Perdue said. “You were forced to focus your attention on strict, inflexible rules handed down from Washington. Even worse, you experienced firsthand that the rules were failing.”

Mr. Perdue then outlined how his department was loosening some of those rules. He finished with a folksy story about a child who asked whether Mr. Perdue could make school lunches great again.

Some in the audience cheered. Some walked out. School food was not going to escape the sharp political divisions that began to simmer in the Obama years and have been laid bare by the election of President Trump.

The debate on food in schools may ultimately be a local one, but the regulations governing the content of free and reduced lunches will dictate the parameters of the debate in a majority of districts across the country, even those where a relatively small percentage of students qualify for free and reduced meals. Having led five different school districts in four different states, I have witnessed several debates at the district and school level. The board deliberations are over three broad issues:

  • Budgets: School boards tend to agree on one issue: as much as possible school lunch programs should be self sufficient. Invariably, self sufficiency is elusive for two reasons: the government subsidies do not cover the costs of the meals and some parents fail to pay for either reduced price or full price meals their children receive. School boards are then forced to debate policies on how to collect these funds, how much they are willing to divert from the operating budget to cover cost overruns, which leads to the second and third areas of debate.
  • A la carte menus: Boards can increase their revenues by offering an array of unhealthy a la carte items, like the “cinnamon rolls baked by the lunchroom ladies“, cookies, fat-laden menu items like french fries and cheeseburgers, and snack foods. These items can be sold at a price that yields a “profit” that can offset the deficits that result from limited government funding and shortfalls due to parents failing to pay their share. This frames the third debate issue.
  • Out-sourcing: There are many private for-profit firms that can operate a school lunch program at a limited or no-cost basis to school district. These firms often do so by supplanting union employees with lower wage workers and buying government approved foodstuffs through large conglomerates at a deeply discounted price. While such operations are more impersonal and offer meals that are arguably less tasty, they do meet the government meal standards and do guarantee a fixed cost or savings to the local school district.

Over the past several years school boards have also become arbiters of issues like whether schools can serve cupcakes for a child’s birthday, whether vending machines offering snacks and sugar-laden soft drinks can be placed in schools, and what kinds of foods and beverages booster clubs and PTAs can sell before, during, and after school hours. Some boards take a complete laissez-faire attitude while others develop detailed policies on the issue.

Ms. Severnson’s article underscores the reality that even though the federal government sets guidelines for meals, what children eat each day is ultimately a local school board’s call… and districts across the nation realize that the meals they provide need to be as nutritious as possible. She writes:

So far, one thing is clear: School-food leaders on both sides of the political spectrum — most of whom are trying to avoid politics altogether — say the Trump administration’s efforts are unlikely to affect what they agree is a powerful and well-established movement to improve school lunches. Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect in 2010, most of the key players have bought in: food producers, schools and even the children.

That’s why, in part, Mr. Perdue’s comments about local control resonated the loudest: Many districts are already improving school meals without federal intervention.

“All the conversations about school meals have been unnecessarily polarized,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, an advocacy organization that represents 57,000 school-food professionals and counts many of the country’s largest food companies among its supporters. “People in every district are really dedicated to making sure kids are getting the healthiest food possible.”

The NYTimes article offers some detailed insights into the lunch program, and concludes with this paragraph:

The Trump administration has also called for a 21 percent cut to the Department of Agriculture budget, which could severely curtail school food funding and individual programs that pay for new kitchen equipment and fresh, local fruit and vegetables.

Those who support Mr. Trump will undoubtedly be happy that he is offering fewer regulations and more local control. Will their local school boards be happy to absorb a 21% increase in lunch costs? Will they pass the costs along to children by increasing the costs for lunches by asked to pay 21%? Or will they offset the higher costs by offering more “tasty” a la carte meals and snacks or by outsourcing? The downshifting of funding will lead to a downshifting in decision making and, ultimately, a greater disparity in the meals provided for children. That is the fruit of deregulation.

An Examination of Jobs of the Future Shows Little Need for Massive Numbers of College Graduates

September 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s Labor Day blog post featured a link to a recent Bureau of Labor spreadsheet that displayed “Occupations with the Most Growth” forecasted between now and 2024, and it doesn’t provide any evidence that the workforce will be requiring more college degreed workers and offers little evidence that the STEM programs are needed to prepare workers of the future.

2014 National Employment Matrix title and code Employment Change, 2014-24 Median annual wage, 2016(1) Percent of
2014 2024 Number Percent Growth
Total, all occupations 150,539.9 160,328.8 9,788.9 6.5 $37,040
Personal care aides 1,768.4 2,226.5 458.1 25.9 $21,920 4.68%
Registered nurses 2,751.0 3,190.3 439.3 16.0 $68,450 4.49%
Home health aides 913.5 1,261.9 348.4 38.1 $22,600 3.56%
Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food 3,159.7 3,503.2 343.5 10.9 $19,440
Retail salespersons 4,624.9 4,939.1 314.2 6.8 $22,680  
Nursing assistants 1,492.1 1,754.1 262.0 17.6 $26,590 2.68%
Customer service representatives 2,581.8 2,834.8 252.9 9.8 $32,300
Cooks, restaurant 1,109.7 1,268.7 158.9 14.3 $24,140
General and operations managers 2,124.1 2,275.2 151.1 7.1 $99,310 1.54%
Construction laborers 1,159.1 1,306.5 147.4 12.7 $33,430
Accountants and auditors 1,332.7 1,475.1 142.4 10.7 $68,150
Medical assistants 591.3 730.2 138.9 23.5 $31,540 1.42%
Janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners 2,360.6 2,496.9 136.3 5.8 $24,190
Software developers, applications 718.4 853.7 135.3 18.8 $100,080 1.38%
Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 2,441.3 2,566.4 125.1 5.1 $25,980
First-line supervisors of office and administrative support workers 1,466.1 1,587.3 121.2 8.3 $54,340
Computer systems analysts 567.8 686.3 118.6 20.9 $87,220 1.21%
Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses 719.9 837.2 117.3 16.3 $44,090 1.20%
Maids and housekeeping cleaners 1,457.7 1,569.4 111.7 7.7 $21,820
Medical secretaries 527.6 635.8 108.2 20.5 $33,730 1.11%
Management analysts 758.0 861.4 103.4 13.6 $81,330 1.06%
Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers 1,797.7 1,896.4 98.8 5.5 $41,340
Receptionists and information clerks 1,028.6 1,126.3 97.8 9.5 $27,920
Office clerks, general 3,062.5 3,158.2 95.8 3.1 $30,580
Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, except technical and scientific products 1,453.1 1,546.5 93.4 6.4 $57,140
Stock clerks and order fillers 1,878.1 1,971.1 92.9 4.9 $23,840
Market research analysts and marketing specialists 495.5 587.8 92.3 18.6 $62,560 0.94%
First-line supervisors of food preparation and serving workers 890.1 978.6 88.5 9.9 $31,480
Electricians 628.8 714.7 85.9 13.7 $52,720
Maintenance and repair workers, general 1,374.7 1,458.1 83.5 6.1 $36,940

As the chart above indicates, there are only four of the fast growing jobs that clearly require a college degree: registered nurses; software developers, applications; computer systems analysts; and market research analysts and marketing specialists. Combined, these jobs consist of 9.08% of the growth, with more than half of the number of new jobs resulting from the demand for more registered nurses.

And the most distressing news is that the lion’s share of the new jobs are low wage jobs: only four of the high growth jobs have salaries above $80,000 (see bold red rows) and only three others have salaries above $60,000 (see bold green rows). Given the number of jobs that require no college degree, this ending is unsurprising.

What does this mean for public education? It strikes me that instead of focussing on preparing all children for college we should be focussing on preparing more children for the workplace they will be entering by providing them opportunities to enter the workforce earlier if they so desire and we should be focussing more on the medical professions and careers than careers in technology. 20% of the growth in new jobs is in the medical field while only 2.6% is in computer related fields.

In the broader picture, though, it is clear that if we ever hope to restore middle class jobs we need to increase the minimum wage. If the minimum wage for a 40 hour per week job was increased to $15 per hour the average annual wage would be $31,200…. and 11 of the jobs on this list, those in bold, are forecast to earn less than that figure in 2024. How will we ever reduce poverty unless we pay more for the “jobs of the future” that will be needed no matter how much STEM education we provide in schools?