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This Just In: NJ Sees the Light! Restores Local Control in Newark. I Await Reformers’ Rebuke

September 14, 2017 Leave a comment

The headline for David Chen’s Tuesday’s NYTimes article on September 12 doesn’t acknowledge defeat for reformers, but it DOES mean a victory for democracy:

After More Than 20 Years, Newark to Regain Control of Its Schools

While the headline doesn’t acknowledge a defeat for “reformers, this part of Mr. Chen’s does:

…the decision to give authority back to the city is in many ways a recognition that state control is an idea whose time has passed. Around the country, 28 other states enacted similar policies, fueled by a desire to hold districts more accountable.

In handing the control back to the city, the State declared victory by citing the fact that the takeover ended what a judge 20 years ago identified as a situation where”... “nepotism, cronyism and the like” had precipitated “abysmal” student performances and “failure on a very large scale.”

The State ended the “…nepotism, cronyism and the like” but in doing so lined the pockets of many for profit enterprises, experienced horrific deficits, and many unsuccessful attempts to make substantial improvements to performance as measured by test scores, graduation rates, and attendance data. It wasn’t until Ras Baraka took over as mayor three years ago and forged a solid working relationship with the state appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf, that things started to get better. Mr. Baraka used $10,000,000 of the $100,000,000 donated by Mark Zuckerberg to “finance a network of “community schools,”…to provide health care and social services beyond classroom hours”, an action that increases community engagement and ultimately made the transition away from State control possible.

As Mr. Chen noted in his article, Newark was the second city to get a release from State control. Jersey City preceded them… and their mayor had nothing good to say about the impact of the State:

But (Jersey City mayor) Mr. Fulop gives little credit to the state. “Those things converging have helped the school system gradually get better; it has nothing to do with the State of New Jersey’s policies,” Mr. Fulop said. “You wouldn’t find anybody who points to state control and says, thankfully the state was here.  

Mr. Baraka, among others, is hopeful that when the transition is complete, the city will have learned its lesson.

“Local control means that you’re in charge now — you can’t cuss out people now unless you’re cussing yourself out,” he said. “Stop thinking about us versus them, because us is the them.”

Democracy prevails over corporatism. Here’s hoping the voters in Newark make certain they elect responsive and responsible board members. If they do, they will continue to thrive.

 

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The Latest (and Completely Unrealistic) Silver Bullet for High Schools: Starting Later

September 13, 2017 Leave a comment

The NYTimes “Upshot” writer Aaron E. Carroll breathlessly reports on the recent Rand study that claims that starting high school later would result in greater student achievement and, consequently, any additional costs incurred by starting school early would be offset. As a retired Superintendent who worked in five different school districts in four different states over a 29 year time span I can assure readers that anyone who thinks this idea will come to fruition is completely untethered from reality. Here are four reasons:

  1. Extraordinary front-end costs: Both the Rand Corporation and writers who cover this issue acknowledge that the up front costs are daunting. But neither the Rand Corporation nor the education reporters offer any rational explanation on where the funds to acquire new buses will come from. The states? Not with 35 statehouses under GOP control. Local budgets? Not with school spending at a lower level than a decade ago.
  2. Politically untenable implementation impacts of cost avoidance strategies: Assuming a windfall of state or local funds is impossible, there are two ways front-end costs could be diminished: by flipping bus routes, having elementary students start early and high schools start late; or, by combining bus routes so that K-12 children all ride the same bus. Speaking from experience, both of these ideas will result in push-back. When I was superintendent in rural Western ME we DID get K-12 routes put in place, but did so to save money and fuel. We moved the start times to a time somewhere between the high school and elementary school start time. Why? Because we didn’t want to move the end of the high school day too far back because of high school athletic practices… and we didn’t want to move elementary start times too far back because working parents could not find child care coverage.
  3. Unwillingness of politicians and voters to act on “empirical evidence”: The notion that politicians would take action based on “empirical data” is zero given the political response to the clear and unequivocal empirical data on climate change. Moreover, there is no “empirical evidence” that politicians and voters are willing to spend money now to achieve future gains.
  4. Unwillingness to invest in the future: If we wanted to invest in the future we wouldn’t be spending less now on K-12 education than we were spending in 2008-09… and we wouldn’t be spending more three times more on prisons than we are spending on schools.

I wish that we lived in a world where empirical data mattered… but we don’t. We live in a world where we are seeking fast, cheap and easy solutions. Moving school start times is none of the above in the start run and only theoretically beneficial in the long run. Rand Corporation’s spreadsheet mentality, like that of “reformers” who see test scores as a fast, cheap and easy means of “measuring” school performance.

 

The End of DACA Is the End of Dreams for 800,000… and Schools Across America Feel the Ripple

September 7, 2017 Leave a comment

In one of the most horrific decisions made by President Trump, 800,000 technically “illegal immigrants” are scheduled to be deported because their parents brought them to our country as economic or political refugees. In and article in today’s NYTimes, writer Liz Robbins describes the impact that decision will have on roughly 30,000 New York City residents, some of whom are gainfully employed classroom teachers in the city. Her opening paragraphs frame the issue effectively:

Jaime Ballesteros tried to contain his tears on Tuesday while teaching Brooklyn sixth graders about liquids, gases and solids. In between science classes at a charter school in East New York, he broke down at his desk.

The government had just canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which had granted temporary protection from deportation to immigrants brought to the country at a young age. Under DACA, as the program is known, they attended college and obtained work permits, and many went back into the profession that inspired them in the first place.

President Obama waited patiently for Congress to enact legislation that would provide permanent protection for immigrants brought to the country by their parents to no avail. When Congress failed act, he issued an executive order granting them immunity from deportation, an act that xenophobic voters viewed as undercutting their economic opportunities and an action that candidate Donald Trump promised to overturn. During the Presidential campaign, DACA was one of many clear differences between the two candidates… but it is a difference that might NOT exist between the two political parties. While none of the GOP presidential candidates supported President Obama’s Executive order creating the DACA program, and the GOP platform opposed it, 76% of Americans (and more importantly 69% of GOP voters) support the principles behind DACA. Even more importantly from a political standpoint, the US Chamber of Commerce and many CEOs are opposed to President Trump’s action.

These two paragraphs explain why that is the case from the standpoint of public schools in NYC:

In explaining the administration’s cancellation of DACA, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that recipients were taking jobs from American-born candidates. But Betty A. Rosa, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, said in an interview that DACA teachers were not only qualified, but necessary to fill a statewide shortage of teachers for English language learners, special education, math and science.

“There’s a need, obviously, to have a high-quality teacher in front of them,” she said, but she added that teachers with DACA provided diversity that could help other marginalized students feel welcome. “It’s a way to expand the conversations we’ve been having about the idea of integration and equity and having representation.”

As an unabashed liberal who supports the welcoming and inclusive message on the Statue of Liberty, I sincerely hope that Mr. Trump has overplayed his hand and, in so doing, might tap into the reservoir of altruism that still exists in the hearts of the majority of Americans. I will be saddened if our country decides to expel 800,000 law abiding young immigrants who aspire to citizenship in our country. Their parents came here seeking economic opportunity or political asylum. How can we turn them away now that they are willing and able to help our country move forward? Shame on us if we do.

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.

This Just In: Corporate Tax Cuts Do NOTHING for the Economy

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

On Thursday, Donald Trump announced his intention to change the tax code by cutting corporate taxes and the taxes required of the wealthiest Americans on the pretext that such cuts would stimulate economic growth. Unfortunately, as two articles that appeared last week indicate, this is not true.

As Sarah Anderson wrote in a NYTimes op ed article, “It’s a Myth That Corporate Tax Cuts Mean More Jobs“, all of the evidence gathered on corporate tax cuts indicates that the laser focus on shareholders means that tax cuts translate to higher profits first, and more jobs and higher wages last. Using the claims of AT&T CEO Randall Stevenson as a case study, Ms. Anderson contrasts his firm’s actions with his verbiage:

According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, AT&T enjoyed an effective tax rate of just 8 percent between 2008 and 2015, despite recording a profit in the United States each year, by exploiting tax breaks and loopholes. (The company argues that it pays significant taxes, at a rate close to 34 percent in recent years, but that includes deferred taxes and state and local levies.)

Despite the enormous savings AT&T has realized, the company has been downsizing. Although it hires thousands of people a year, the company, by our analysis at the Institute for Policy Studies, reduced its total work force by nearly 80,000 jobs between 2008 and 2016, accounting for acquisitions and spinoffs each involving more than 2,000 workers.

The company has also spent $34 billion repurchasing its own stock since 2008, according to our institute report, a maneuver that artificially inflates the value of a company’s shares. This is money that could have gone toward research and development or hiring.

And AT&T is not an outlier. Ms. Anderson analyzed “92 publicly held American corporations that reported a profit in the United States every year from 2008 through 2015 and paid less than 20 percent of their earnings in federal income tax” and determined that they “…had a median job-growth rate over the past nine years of nearly negative 1 percent, compared with 6 percent for the private sector as a whole. Of those 92 companies, 48 got rid of a combined total of 483,000 jobs.”

Ms. Anderson concludes that there is no evidence that tax cuts do anything but increase the profit margins of corporations which, in turn, increases the compensation of the CEOs whose performance is measured by profits. Instead she suggests that taxes increase for corporations who stash money overseas and, especially, for Wall Street speculators whose profits do nothing to improve the well being of our country. She writes:

Most of us already pay a sales tax on gasoline, clothes and other basics. Why should hedge fund investors and other Wall Street traders pay no tax at all when they engage in short-term buying and selling of millions of dollars’ worth of stocks and derivatives? A fee of just a small fraction of 1 percent on each Wall Street trade would encourage longer-term investment while generating huge revenue for real job creation.

David Dayen picks up this theme in his article that appeared in Nation. Bluntly titled “Corporate Tax Cuts Don’t Create jobs, They Enrich CEOs”, Mr. Dayen draws on information from the same report to underscore the point that the GOP’s claim that tax cuts will result in “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” is completely bogus. So, too, is the notion that US corporations are over-taxed. He writes:

Before breaking down the report, it’s important to recognize that the 35 percent US corporate tax rate doesn’t reflect what corporations actually pay. The average effective corporate tax rate in the United States, once deductions are factored in, is around 27 percent, putting it below the global average. If you limit the review to profitable corporations, the number drops to 19.4 percent. Corporate taxes as a share of GDP have fallen threefold since 1952, from 6 percent to 2 percent. Far from being overtaxed, corporations have carried an increasingly lighter burden.

Mr. Dayen focuses on GE as an exemplar of corporate welfare:

General Electric represents perhaps the most devastating example in the study. Its corporate tax rate over the sample was -3.4 percent—thanks to multiple deductions, the government was paying GE money to exist—but it still cut 14,700 jobs.

And, as Mr. Dayen notes, the US already has experience with cutting taxes and repatriation… and it failed to provide new jobs. Instead, it lined the pockets of the wealthiest in our country to the detriment of everyone else:

IPS’ findings are consistent with academic research on corporate taxes and jobs. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors saw “little evidence that corporate tax cuts boost economic activity, unless implemented during recessions.” The Economic Policy Institutecould summon no data showing corporate tax cuts moving the needle; instead, they said, it would “primarily benefit a small number of high-income capital owners.”

The one time in recent history that we gave corporations a big tax cut, the results were disastrous. In 2004, George W. Bush allowed companies with stashed offshore profits to “repatriate” them at 5.75 percent—nearly 1/6th of the normal tax rate—with the belief that the companies would subsequently use the money on business investment. In reality, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that “a $1 increase in repatriations was associated with an increase of almost $1 in payouts to shareholders.” Other independent analyses showed the same thing. Bush reportedly felt betrayed by corporate executives, who promised him they would create jobs with the cash.

One would hope that the former President’s betrayal would result in him speaking out against a repeat performance by his party… but it is unlikely. As Mr. Dayen writes in his concluding paragraph, the GOP and CEOs are counting on Americans falling for the same line again:

When Paul Ryan visited Boeing and again insisted that lowering corporate taxes would bring more jobs and better wages to America, (Boeing CEO) Muilenberg backed him up, saying, “You got it!” Republicans and their corporate friends are simply trying to play the country for suckers again, when the facts are clear.

Here’s hoping we are becoming awakened to the clear facts….

Instead of Subsidizing Mega-Corporations with Incentives Like WI, Why Not Subsidize Small Businesses Like Richmond, VA?

September 2, 2017 Leave a comment

In his recent Common Dreams post describing the deplorable incentives offered by Wisconsin to Foxconn, Sam Pizzigati describes a promising alternative approach to economic development offered by the City of Richmond Virginia:

The city of Richmond in Virginia is moving in one hopeful direction. Richmond has begun an Office of Community Wealth Building that aims to enrich local residents instead of billionaire CEOs. The city is focusing on everything from improving regional transportation systems to fostering locally based social enterprises. The Democracy Collaborative, a national organization, has fashioned a network of localities involved in similar “community wealth building” all across the United States.

As one who served as an ex-officio member on a County Economic Development Committee, I recall many debates about decisions to use scarce economic development dollars to subsidize a new business while providing no support whatsoever to existing businesses that employed a comparable number of wage earners. But I cannot recall any discussions about subsidizing small businesses that, in aggregate, might imply even more wage earners than a spiffy new facility. Economic Development was all about new employers… and if the new employer was a famous “name brand” it was even better! This kind of thinking led to the county supporting the construction of a new Walmart while simultaneously offering workshops to smaller businesses on how they could compete with Walmart. This kind of decision making by local governments across the country led to low-wage jobs, vacant store fronts, but lower taxes and cheaper food and merchandise. But as we move forward, more and more people are beginning to question the wisdom of this approach. Unfortunately, though, changes in the thinking will not happen quickly. As Mr. Pizzigati reports, while operations like the Democracy Collaborative could “…use some encouragement from the federal level”, it won’t be coming any time soon:

President Trump has proposed a budget, notes Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, that eliminates “successful federal programs that benefit small- and medium-sized manufacturers.” The contradictions between Trump’s budget cuts for these programs and his White House cheerleading for the enormous Foxconn subsidy deal, adds LeRoy, “boggle the mind.”

They only boggle the mind if one believes that political donations don’t matter… and if one wants to continue the belief that free speech should be based on the amount of money one can contribute to a campaign.

Sensitizing and Sanitizing Algorithms Essential for Defending Their Broader Use in Schools

August 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Cathy O’Neill, who blogs as Mathbabe and is a regular contributor to Bloomberg, wrote a post yesterday on the pushback “algorithmic overlords” are beginning to receive from researchers and politicians. Ms. O’Neill, who has written extensively about the bias of algorithms, offers some examples in her post:

Objective as they may seem, artificial intelligence and big-data algorithms can be as biased as any human. Examples pop up all the time. A Google AI designed to police online comments rated “I am a gay black woman” 87 percent toxic but “I am a man” only 20 percent. A machine-learning algorithm developed by Microsoft came to perceive people in kitchens as women. Left unchecked, the list will only grow.

This kind of inherent bias can be problematic for those of us who see promise in the use of algorithms in personalized learning. For example, if algorithms direct users to ever narrower learning opportunities that are determined based on inherent biases, young women might be directed away from mathematics and science content and toward content in “kitchen-related” fields while long men would be directed in the opposite way…. and as long as these kinds of algorithmic biases exist it will be impossible to overcome resistance to data-driven personalization.

Ms. O’Neill is no Luddite. She sees promise in the use of technology to enhance education. But she is not enthusiastic about the “algorithmic overlords” tendency to keep their methods secret in the name of proprietary information:

Many researchers and practitioners are working on how to assess algorithms and how to define fairness. This is great, but it inevitably runs into a bigger problem: secrecy. Algorithms are considered the legally protected “secret sauce” of the companies that build them, and hence largely immune to scrutiny. We almost never have sufficient information about them. How can we test them if we have no access in the first place?

Legislators need to intercede… and they are beginning to do so, albeit at a snail’s pace. Here’s hoping they succeed, for if they don’t, biases will persist.