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Hurricane Florence COULD Be a Teachable Moment for Those Wishing to Drown Government in a Bathtub

September 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a heartfelt post yesterday to friends in the Carolinas that appears below in its entirety:

Dear Friends,

We are watching the ordeal of your region with concern.

The whole nation is watching.

We send you warm wishes for your safety.

At a time like this, we are reminded about why people need to work together, help one another, and count on their neighbors and communities. In times of crisis, everyone stands together, without regard to race or religion or economic status. It should be like that without a crisis.

We look forward to the day when your beautiful part of the world is rebuilt, restored, and revived.

Meanwhile, stay safe.

One of the commenters noted that “…only 3% of the people in North Carolina carry flood insurance, and 8% in South Carolina. With climate change and crazy storms the new normal, homeowners should rethink the value of flood insurance for their properties. That $400 hundred dollars that you think is unnecessary could wind up costing you many thousands or even your home.”

As I noted in a comment I made on the post, WE are insuring them with our tax dollars… and that’s not a bad thing from my perspective. The Koch brothers and the GOP want us to forget that one of the reasons we pay taxes is to create a pool of funds that people can draw on when they find themselves temporarily in need of food, clothing, and shelter. By demonizing the so-called “takers” the anti-tax crowd has convinced the public that they will never need to avail themselves of the government services they are starving by avoiding taxes. MAYBE a silver lining from this will be a realization that government IS the solution to large and complicated problems like a hurricane that floods communities…. But, alas, it is also possible that the cuts to FEMA and the redirection of FEMA funds to ICE will result in long waits in line or unanswered phone calls or emails that will be blamed on “incompetence” when the real culprit is the GOP’s desire to drown government in a bathtub.

Perversely, it takes a disaster like Florence to drive home the point that government is NOT the problem and COULD be a solution IF it was funded adequately and rationally. Will that lesson be learned? If so, who will teach it?

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Will NASA Get Chico’s Bail Bonds to Support Them? Will Public Schools?

September 12, 2018 Leave a comment

One of my favorite movie scenes is from Bad News Bears when Walter Matthau’s beleaguered team of the same name takes the field with their sponsor’s name on the back of their jerseys. While other teams are sponsored by local grocers, hardware stores, and service clubs, the Bad News Bears are sponsored by “Chico’s Bail Bonds”. The unruly, unconventional, and anti-establishment Bears eventually turn into a winning team… but their sponsorship by a decidedly lowbrow business was just one of the subversive messages included in the movie which won a Writers Guild of America award for the best comedy screenwriting in 1976.

This scene was brought to mind when I read in a Washington Post article by Christian Davenport that NASA is considering the commercialization of it’s flights in an effort to raise revenue. Mr. Davenport opens his article with this:

The constant creep of corporate America into all aspects of everyday life — from the Allstate Sugar Bowl to Minute Maid Park — may soon conquer a new frontier.

The final frontier.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has directed the space agency to look at boosting its brand by selling naming rights to rockets and spacecraft and allowing its astronauts to appear in commercials and on cereal boxes, as if they were celebrity athletes.

Why is NASA considering this? For two reasons: they need the revenue and it HAS been done before in Russia!

Pizza Hut paid to paint its logo on a Russian rocket in 1999. In the mid-1990s, an Israeli milk company filmed a commercial on the space station Mir, and a pair of Russian cosmonauts even appeared on QVC to sell a pen able to write in a weightless environment.

“Is this a pen you would recommend to use in space?” the host asked.

“Yeah, they said they love this pen,” the translator said on the live broadcast…

When Mir de-orbited, Taco Bell put a huge floating tarp into the Pacific Ocean and claimed that if any piece of the space station hit it, the company would give everyone in the country a free taco.

There was a time not so long ago when we competed against Russia because it had a different economic model. Now we are competing against Russia because they have adopted our model and seem intent on using it to overtake us in the space race.

How does this relate to public education policy, you ask. As noted (and lamented) in previous posts, schools are already selling naming rights to stadia, already engaged in “public-private partnerships” to help underwrite construction projects, already using fee-for-service models to fund athletics, and already selling advertising on buses and rooftops to raise revenue.

But a former astronaut described the problem with these partnerships and the general commercialization and commodification of public enterprises:

Michael Lopez-Alegria, another former NASA astronaut, said that by endorsing products, NASA could end up competing against a growing commercial sector that is trying to open up space for the masses.

“It’s going to be really hard for NASA or any government agency to put itself in a position where it can become a de facto endorser of this product or that product,” he said. “To me, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. It’s just not right. ”

He said he was also concerned that if Congress sees NASA is getting funding from the private sector, it might say, “We’re not going to pay anymore. “

Hm-m-m-m…. sound familiar? If parents are willing to pay for athletics, why should taxpayers increase their funding for sports? If parents are willing to pay for buses why should taxpayers foot the bill? Where will it end?

Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, said that the government “should be focused entirely on what is most important for the public interest, not private gain. In fact, if a project is commercially viable, it shouldn’t have to depend on taxpayer funds or U.S. astronauts, who might be divided in their job responsibilities.”

If public schools ever become “commercially viable” maybe taxpayers won’t have to raise as much money… and school boards will become obsolete. Is THAT what we want? Is THAT where we are headed?

Waco TX Columnist Calls on Texas Board to Change It’s Revisionist Social Studies Curriculum… and Underscores ESSA’s Glaring Deficiencies

September 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Cary Clack’s op ed column in the Waco Tribune-Herald urges the Texas State Board of Education to use the review of it’s Social Studies curriculum to rectify the revisionist history embedded in the current standards. Mr. Clack explains why such a revision is needed, noting that the current standards were decried by stalwart conservative think tanks like the Fordham Foundation:

State Board of Education members lack the power to bend history to their will. But they can distort history to fit their political agenda, and it’s an ability exercised with alarming disregard to truth.

The SBOE adopted the current social-studies curriculum standards, known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), in 2010. It is such a masterpiece of misrepresentation and propaganda over actual history that it was singled out for criticism by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its 2011 report, “The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011.”

The report chastised the standards for using a thematic structure more often used by “the relativist and diversity-obsessed educational left.” It accused the SBOE’s conservative majority of openly seeking “to use the state curriculum to promote its political priorities, molding the telling of the past to justify its current views and aims. Indeed, the SBOE majority displayed overt hostility and contempt for historians and scholars, whom they derided as insidious activists for a liberal academic establishment.”

The Fordham Foundation’s critique notwithstanding, the 2010 Board adopted these standards. And they include some egregious misinterpretations, several of which Mr. Clack flags:

SBOE members in 2010 were especially shameless in perpetuating the lie that slavery was one of several causes for the Civil War when it was THE REASON. Lost Cause advocates always ignore the Lost Clauses in the Declarations of Secession of the Confederate states, including Texas, which explicitly cite slavery as their reason for seceding.

But this seems to have been an uncomfortable truth for some SBOE members in 2010, as was the more expansive and indispensable roles which Native Americans, Latinos and women played in our nation.

History is full of uncomfortable truths. Reality doesn’t have an ideological slant, and historical facts don’t always coincide with our politics. But they must be studied, taught and discussed. There’s something wrong when what children are taught depends on whether the State Board of Education has a Republican or Democratic majority, whether it has a greater representation of conservatives or liberals.

Mr. Clack urges the State Board to eliminate “…the distorted, politicized history the 2010 board wove into the current standards” this time around. And while Mr. Clack doesn’t say so, in the new era of ESSA the State Standards especially crucial since they will serve as the basis for measuring the effectiveness of schools going forward. And if Texas schoolchildren are taught that slavery was a secondary cause of the Civil War, that Native Americans, Latinos and women played an insignificant role in the history of our nation, and that our forefathers based the constitution on the teachings of Moses they will be learning a different history than that of the rest of the country.

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Thanks to ESSA, Billionaire Reformers are “Going Local”, Making State and School Board Elections Crucial

September 7, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday, one of Diane Ravitch’s posts used Andrea Gabor’s recent Bloomberg op ed as a springboard to alert her readers to the change in tactics by the billionaire “reformers”. Here are the opening paragraphs of Ms. Gabor’s Bloomberg essay:

For two decades, the prevailing wisdom among education philanthropists and policymakers has been that the U.S. school system needs the guiding hand of centralized standard-setting to discipline ineffective teachers and bureaucrats. Much of that direction was guided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent billions since 2000 to influence both schools and education policy.

But as schools open this year, top-down national initiatives based on standardized testing and curricular uniformity are in retreat.

And what will take the place of “the guiding hand of centralized standard-setting”?

In the coming years, its K-12 philanthropy will concentrate on supporting what it calls “locally driven solutions” that originate among networks of 20 to 40 schools, according to Allan Golston, who leads the foundation’s U.S. operations, because they have “the power to improve outcomes for black, Latino, and low-income students and drive social and economic mobility.”

The billionaire “reformers” did not become billionaires by accident. They are all strategic thinkers who look at national political trends and try to get in front of them in developing their profiteering instincts. Sometime in the 1980s it dawned on some of the market-driven vulture-capitalist-hedge-funders that there was a huge “market” to be accessed in the public sector. With a surplus of teachers, especially at the elementary level, it might be possible to operate private schools at a profit if the operators of those schools could receive the same amount of taxpayer-raised money as public schools. After all, public schools had legacy costs (i.e. retirees, bonds, highly compensated veteran staff members, negotiated agreements with benefits and guaranteed step increases) that were baked into the per pupil costs. If someone opened a brand new school they could operate it for far less money than a public school! When computer-aided instruction emerged as a viable (albeit ineffective) means of “educating” children, the potential profit margins got even larger. The problem was how to get the door opened.

The privatizers access to public schools became a real possibility with the passage of NCLB. That law mandated the takeover of “failing schools” by the states. But by 2001, most states had gutted their departments of education making a “State takeover” impossible. The solution? Privatization! And by the mid to late 2000s states had identified lots of failing schools, most of them serving low income students. This was an ideal outcome for the privatizers, for they could establish beachheads in each state without alienating the affluent suburban parents. By the time suburban schools started “failing” in some states the privatizers had their nose under the tent and were working to pass state legislation that would win over parents who opted out of public education without further alienating the parents in affluent suburbs and communities who were happily funding outstanding public schools.

But here’s an important note to anyone reading this: because the billionaire investors in privatized schools ARE going local it is important to make certain the state legislatures and governor’s mansions are flipped ASAP. The GOP now has 33 governors and the GOP controls 34 legislatures compared to a paltry 13 by the democrats. With ESSA, the states and local school board races are more important than ever. It is a daunting task to flip a state once a single party controls both the executive and legislative branches… but unless several states change course ESSA will have accomplished the goals of the privatizers and public education will be on the run.

New Yorker’s Sheelah Kolhatkar Profile of Doomsday Investor Explains “Reform” Mindset

September 6, 2018 Leave a comment

The August 27 edition of the New Yorker features a lengthy article by Sheelah Kolhatkar profiling Paul Singer, “…the founder of Elliott Management and one of the most powerful, and most unyielding, investors in the world.” Titled “The Doomsday Investor“, Ms. Kolhatkar uses a case study of Elliott Management’s take down of Athenahealth, a publicly owned company founded and led by Jonathan Bush, to describe how Mr. Singer operates. In reading the article I came to the conclusion that it is no surprise that the hedge funders are underwriting “school reform” and somewhat alarmed at the effectiveness of their approach to date.

Basically, a vulture capitalist firm like Elliott Management makes a relatively small but significant investment in a corporation they identify as “underperforming” and, in doing so, gain a platform to present their findings on the deficiencies of the organization to the board of directors. In the case study in the New Yorker, Elliott Management bought just 9.2% of the shares. Elliott then calls the CEO of the corporation they have targeted and offers to “work with them” to increase profits, which can be readily accomplished by slashing the workforce, selling off portions of the business that are siphoning funds from the bottom line, outsourcing relatively unprofitable functions in the organization, and/or reducing wages and benefits. Should the CEO be reluctant, as was the case with Jonathan Brush at Athenahealth, Elliott Management will do everything possible to undercut the leadership by either sharing examples of mismanagement with Board members or, as was the case at Athenahealth, undertaking ad hominem attacks on the CEO.

In the article, Ms. Kolhatkar notes that Mr. Singer not only invests in the private sector, he also invests in politics and making his voice heard in the public forum. The following is a synthesis of his efforts in these arenas:

Singer has been deploying his riches in Republican politics, where he is one of the G.O.P.’s top donors and a powerful influence on the Party and its President… Along with Charles and David Koch and Robert Mercer, Singer is one of the largest financial donors to Republican political causes. During the 2016 election cycle, he contributed twenty-four million dollars. He is described as a “donor activist,” a reference to his deep involvement with candidates and campaigns…

Like many financiers who have achieved his level of success, Singer sees himself as more than a skillful player in the markets; he conducts himself like a public intellectual whose ideas on policy—on everything from taxation to regulation, education, and foreign affairs—should be heeded by politicians and other decision-makers on both a national and a local level…

Singer supports numerous media outlets and research institutes that disseminate his ideas. He is the chairman of the think tank Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which encourages free-market policies as a means of addressing domestic-policy issues. It hosts dozens of fellows, who write op-eds, give speeches, and publish books. Singer sits on the board of the magazine Commentary and is also a major financial backer of the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online news publication edited by Matthew Continetti, the former opinion editor at The Weekly Standard.

Toward the conclusion of the article, Ms. Kolhatkar details Mr. Singer’s increasingly “sophisticated” investments in forming public policy since the two thousands, investing in GOP presidential and gubernatorial candidates and causes. She writes:

After President Obama was reëlected, Singer and like-minded donors from the financial industry, many of whom had poured millions into Romney’s losing campaign, pledged to be more strategic in the future. Singer formed a donor network, called the American Opportunity Alliance, which includes wealthy Wall Street executives and hedge-fund moguls who coördinate political spending. “I think it’s important for informed citizens to try to give assistance,” Singer said, in April, of his political involvement. “We have less parochial interests in the things we talk to policymakers about than most folks.”

This echoes Andrew Carnegie’s belief that “the ‘man of wealth’ should view himself as “the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer“, and also mirrors the notions of “reformers” who are convinced that they alone know how to oversee public schools. Indeed, the “reformers” underwritten by hedge funders like Paul Singer want to dissemble public schools in the same manner Elliott Management dissembles corporations, and they have used their political influence to enact legislation that helps  promote the privatization of public schools. NCLB, with its test-driven means of identifying “failing schools” that would be closed and re-opened under new leadership opened the door for privatization… and once that door was opened low-cost high-profit organizations ran in. And networks of conservative funders with high-minded names like the the “Manhattan Institute for Policy Research” or the “American Opportunity Alliance” helped promote the meme of “failing government schools” and the notion that “choice” was the best solution.

It is alarming to see how successful the “reformers” have been over the past several years, particularly in their effort to equate “quality” with “high test scores”. As noted in yesterday’s post, it is relatively easy to convince voters that “high test scores” are indicative of “success” because that is what students have been told for decades… and all of those former students who equate “high test scores” with “success” are now the voters who are being asked to underwrite FAILING schools with LOW test schools! The idea that norm-referenced standardized tests necessarily result in a bell curve where 50% of the schools will score below average is lost on the average voter who doesn’t realize that the tests teachers use to grade students are criterion referenced.  Statistical niceties like that are unimportant to those who want to make a profit at the taxpayers expense… and after reading The Doomsday Investor you will see that civility and niceties are unimportant to investors. The only important metric is profit.

A Local Footnote to the Way Philanthropists Undercut Public Services

September 3, 2018 Comments off

Hartford, Vermont, a community that is part of the Upper Connecticut River Valley where I reside, is experiencing the adverse effects of well intentioned philanthropy.

A local philanthropist who enjoys competitive swimming helped underwrite the costs for a multi-million dollar indoor recreation center that offers a wide range of aquatic experiences as well as a fitness center. The venue includes a splash park for young children, a water slide and “lazy river” for all ages, and an Olympic pool with bleachers for highly competitive swimmers and adult lap swimmers. The fitness center is outstanding, offering free weights and a host of aerobic machines. It also offers yoga classes, zumba and group aerobics, and personal training. All of these services, though, require membership, and that membership helps underwrite the operating costs of the venue and some of the costs associated with the original construction. Oh… and one other factor plays a role in reducing the operating costs: an annual tax abatement of $192,000. The selling point for the abatement is that the presence of this recreational facility draws people into the town, people who stay in motels and eat at restaurants during swim competitions and people who might purchase gasoline and snacks at nearby convenience stores. This influx of out-of-towners will help increase the local tax revenues and stimulate local business. The recreation facility also employs 100 full and part-time workers, which is also good for the local economy. Does all of this result in an offset of $192,000 per annum? No one is certain.

One thing is certain, however. The municipal swimming pool in Hartford needs to be replaced at a cost that exceeds $320,000 and could approach $1,000,000. Over 75% of the residents want to have a free swimming pool for residents, despite the fact that participation at the pool has declined since the new indoor aqua center was built…. and despite the fact that those who want a new pool might not be wiling to pay for a new one.

Would $192,000 in new revenue help underwrite the cost of a pool that EVERYONE could afford to swim in? Absolutely. Will that tax abatement be changed? Absolutely not. Has this donation by a local philanthropist helped or hurt the community? It clearly helped competitive and affluent swimmers… but it clearly hurt those who cannot afford the fees needed to pay for the premium experience the club offers. And this, on a small scale, is the philanthropy paradox.

Philanthropy is Undermining Public Education – Part Three: Local Education Foundations

September 3, 2018 Comments off

For the past three days I have been making the case that philanthropic giving is having an adverse impact on public education, a case drawn primarily from Gospels of Giving, a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert that, in turn, draws from several books that have recently been published describing how philanthropic giving is distorting the inequities that exist in our economy.

In today’s installment I look at how the creation of “local education foundations”, or lefs, comprised of small-bore philanthropists undercut the tax structure that could provide a means of equalizing education funding. In her article, Ms. Kolbert draws from the recent wok of Rob Reich, a political science professor from Stanford. She writes:

He begins his forthcoming book, “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better,” by noting that for every foundation that existed in 1930 there are now five hundred.The growth in foundation assets in that time has been even more staggering, from less than a billion dollars to more than eight hundred billion dollars.

Meanwhile, the losses to the U.S. Treasury keep mounting. In 2016, the tax deduction for charitable contributions cost the federal government at least fifty billion dollars. Is there any justification for this arrangement? Reich considers several possibilities. One is that the government, by encouraging giving to private philanthropies, is fostering participation in civic affairs. This rationale he discards, since, if anything, the correlation seems to be negative. “The rise of nonprofit organizations in the United States and the use of the charitable contributions deduction coincides with the decline of civic engagement and associational life,” he observes…

So who are the beneficiaries of these charities that siphon off tax dollars that could be used to provide more equity? It isn’t those in the greatest need:

A recent study suggests that, at most, a third of all tax-deductible giving goes toward aiding the poor. And the donors who are getting the biggest tax breaks are, it turns out, the least likely to be aiding the indigent: Reich cites research that suggests “the inclination to give to help meet basic needs declines as one rises up the income ladder.”

It seems that the group of current billionaires amassing huge sums of money are libertarians at heart. They appear to believe that sufficient opportunities exist for those on the low end of the wage scale to become billionaires themselves and that any money they spend will ultimately provide for the well-being of all.

In reading Ms. Kolbert’s article, the portion that deals most directly with public education is the one describing the rise in the number of less. Here is her description of this phenomenon:

Instead of promoting equality, Reich worries, tax subsidies for philanthropy may actually be doing the reverse. He cites, in particular, local-education foundations, or lefs. These are, essentially, souped-up PTAs, formed to supplement public-school budgets, and they’ve grown dramatically in recent years.Some lefs raise only enough money to buy paint sets or musical instruments, but some, in more affluent districts, raise thousands of dollars a pupil. In the town of Hillsborough, California, just north of Stanford, Reich reports, parents of public-school students get a letter at the start of the year asking for a contribution of twenty-three hundred dollars for each child enrolled. While the contributing parents can’t dictate exactly how the money will be spent, Reich writes, it’s easy to imagine groups of parents pressing the district to hire specialized teachers or to purchase sophisticated equipment that “can be targeted to benefit their own children.”This arrangement, in his view, exacerbates existing inequities in school funding, and, since contributions to lefs are tax deductible, rich districts are, in effect, receiving a subsidy from other taxpayers. 

This kind of nuanced transfer of money is not easily explained or understood to the average voter. But “giving things” to “undeserving poor people” IS readily understood, and, as noted in earlier posts, that kind of messaging is promoted by various 501(c)(3) groups that are also underwritten by subsidies from taxpayers. In effect, instead of creating a system where the need for greater equity is promoted and money flows from the most affluent to those in greatest need, we have created and reinforced a system where the wealthiest individuals have the greatest influence on the development and communication of messages and the greatest influence on the development and influence of policy.

Elizabeth Kolbert concludes her essay with this sobering analysis of where we are now and where we are headed:

In just the next twenty years, affluent baby boomers are expected to contribute almost seven trillion dollars to philanthropy. And, the more government spending gets squeezed, the more important nongovernmental spending will become.When congressional Republicans passed their so-called tax-reform bill, they preserved the deduction for charitable contributions even as they capped the deduction for state and local tax payments. Thus, a hundred-million-dollar gift to Harvard will still be fully deductible, while, in many parts of the country, the property taxes paid to support local public schools will not be. It is possible that in the not too distant future philanthropic giving will outstrip federal outlays on non-defense discretionary programs, like education and the arts… 

Is that the kind of future we want? As the latest round of critiques makes clear, we probably won’t have much of a say in the matter. The philanthropists will decide, and then it will be left to their foundations to fight it out.

This isn’t way things once were and from my perspective it is not the future I wish for my children and grandchildren. The only heartening news is that our country eventually emerged from the era of Robber Barons like Andrew Carnegie who increased their bottom line at the expense of working people. It happened once in this country nearly a century ago. It can happen again.