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Education Tax Credits Save Taxpayers Money, Destroy Public Education

July 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Late last month a Progressive article by Dora Taylor outlined four things about education tax credits (aka Education Savings Accounts in NH) that Betsy DeVos and her allies at ALEC do not want the public to understand. Marketed as a means of providing low income students with “scholarships” that enable them to enroll in private schools, they actually divert state funds to middle class parents who are already enrolled in parochial schools. Ms. Taylor opens the article with a description of how these tax credits work:

Education tax credits are similar to school vouchers. A voucher is money paid by the state to cover private school tuition for a student. Voucher money comes straight out of public school funds.

Vouchers are unconstitutional in eighteen states and one of the reasons is that the money can go to a religious school, crossing the line between church and state.

In a “scholarship tax credit program,” the money bypasses the state and instead goes through a go-between, a “scholarship granting organization” to a private school to pay a student’s tuition in full or in part. Typically, these organizations keep 10 percent of the money as they pass through funds to private schools.

A scholarship granting organization distributes money to students, who are purportedly “low income”, to attend a private school the organization has selected to include in its portfolio. Granting organizations can select the schools they do business with, whether they are religious schools or schools that are unaccredited.

While these groups have set a standard for “low income” —a family of four with an income of $64,750 or less—family income is not a determining factor for many of the students who receive the scholarships.

This convoluted system effectively replaces locally elected school boards with a state appointed scholarship granting board that determines schools worthy of scholarships and the eligibility of students who can attend those schools…. but this aspect of the law creating “education scholarships” is not part of the marketing campaign…. and that is intentional. After providing an overview of the tax credits, Ms. Taylor identifies four elements of education tax credits that Betsy DeVos and ALEC do NOT want the public to realize:

  1. Education Tax Credits Deplete State Budgets: Instead of providing additional resources to enable “poor” students to choose private schools to attend, ALEC’s boilerplate legislation diverts current education funding to these scholarship funds…. and that’s on top of revenue they lose when billionaires make tax-deductible donations to these scholarship funds, some of which might go to for-profit charter schools the self-same billionaires invest in!
  2. Education Tax Credit Programs Benefit the Wealthy: ALEC’s boilerplate legislation calls for donors to scholarship funds to effectively receive a subsidy for making a contribution. As Ms. Taylor reports, donors receive “a dollar-per-dollar write off on Federal taxes and, in some states, it can be used as an additional write-off on state taxes. With a donation to a scholarship grant-making organization, a person, company or corporation can benefit financially, sometimes doubling the tax write-off.” So a billionaire can “donate” a large sum to a scholarship fund and receive both a federal and a state deduction that offsets the donation… and a corporation that likely gets some kind of local tax-credit to locate or remain in a state similarly receives a tax credit at the federal and state level! And in both cases, the donors can claim they are helping disadvantaged children expand their opportunities. Also, as noted above, states can set a “low income” standard that is relatively high and thus enable middle class parents who are currently sending their children to a private school to qualify for a scholarship… even if that school is a parochial school (see #4). 
  3. Education Tax Credit Programs Pose Significant Risks to Children: Since the schools receiving scholarships are overseen by a non-public entities, they are not subject to federal or state standards. Thus schools receiving scholarships can discriminate, barring special needs students and permitting religious instruction… which leads to the fourth factor.
  4. Education Tax Credit Programs Divert Public Money to Religious Indoctrination: While there is evidence that Betsy DeVos wants to use her position to allow public funds to flow to schools with religious affiliations, I do not believe ALEC’s shares that intent. However I do believe the billionaires who underwrite ALEC appreciate the political clout they can garner if they develop programs that appeal to the evangelical base of the GOP. Thus, an essential element of all legislation is to permit public funds to flow to all private schools, including those operated by churches, synagogues, and mosques.

The marketing of “Education Tax Credits” is artful. What voter wouldn’t want to have more tax credits available to them? What voter could oppose giving parents and children more choices in terms of schooling? What voter could oppose a law that will augment state funds with donations from generous billionaires enabling funding for schools to increase without imposing higher taxes? And what voter would be willing to pay higher taxes to help poor kids in another part of the state when those kids will be able to qualify for scholarships funded by someone else? Advocates of funding equity, of public education governed by locally elected school boards, and of opportunities for all children have a steep uphill fight in the years ahead.

 

 

In Betsy DeVos’ World Civil Rights Investigations are “Neutral”… In the Real World, OCR Needs to Champion Victims of Racism and Sexism

July 18, 2017 Leave a comment

A recent Politco post by Caitlin Emma detailed one of the most alarming developments in the United States Department of Education: the decision to diminish the so-called activist role of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that is part of their mission. As noted in previous posts, Acting OCR Head, Candice Jackson, who had limited experience in the field of civil rights, has led the department’s efforts to stop ongoing investigations, to limit new investigations, and to rescind many of the guidance documents drafted by her predecessors. In response to this new direction, Senator Patty Murray wrote a letter to Betsy DeVos seeking “a host of information by July 11, including a list of civil rights investigations that have been closed or dismissed since the Trump administration began.” 34 Democratic Senators co-signed the letter. Instead of responding to any of the specific requests, Ms. DeVos responded with a letter outlining the new direction USDOE would be taking under her leadership. As Ms. Emma reports:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she is “returning” the Office for Civil Rights “to its role as a neutral, impartial, investigative agency.”

…DeVos asserted that the department’s civil rights arm under the Obama administration “had descended into a pattern of overreaching, of setting out to punish and embarrass institutions rather than work with them to correct civil rights violations and of ignoring public input prior to issuing new rules.”

As part of the changes she is implementing, the civil rights office would no longer issue “new regulations via administrative fiat,” as the Obama administration did, she wrote.

When Ms. DeVos effectively ignored Senator Murray’s request, Ms. Murray wrote another letter asking for the information. In response she got yet another letter full of generalities about the USDOE’s unwavering commitment to student rights and the backlog of OCR cases that resulted from the Obama administration’s “overreach”. In her review of Ms. DeVos’ second letter, Ms. Emma wrote:

“The adage ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is fitting in this instance; too many students have been forced to wait months, and in some cases years, for adjudication of their complaints while OCR chose to collect years of data about an institution.”

DeVos suggested that some of the changes taking place at OCR come after discussions with “career staff … who had identified material problems impeding their ability to promptly seek justice.”

(The guidance letters issued by the Obama administration) may have been “politically expedient,” DeVos wrote, “but it deprived the public of meaningful opportunities to provide input. At my direction, the department will no longer mask new regulations as Dear Colleague letters and will issue new regulations only after appropriate notice and public comment.”

As is the case in most complicated issues, the GOP strategy seems to favor simplicity over complexity. The OCR’s efforts to clarify divisive hot-button issues like transgender bathrooms are generally welcomed  by schools, colleges, and universities who are seeking clarity on an emerging civil rights issue in order to avoid case-by-case decisions and endless lawsuits. Compelling transgender individuals use the bathroom based on the gender on their birth certificate is a perfect example of the GOP’s desire to make a complicated issue simple. By acknowledging and responding to the complexity, OCR has been accused of issuing “new regulations via administrative fiat”. It appears that instead of having a uniform response to the issue of transgender rights, OCR intends to let each state handle it and, in some cases, states may hand it off to individual school districts. This will result in a crazy-quilt of regulations that will ultimately make life unnecessarily complicated for individuals who are already dealing with a complex issue.

The OCR’s efforts to address institutional racism and sexism on campuses and in schools are inherently complicated. The accusations brought to OCR require institutions to gather data, require the department to analyze and investigate the data, and then issue findings. They necessarily place OCR in an adversarial role. The institutions invariably deny any violations of student’s civil rights, making it impossible for OCR to “...work with them to correct civil rights violations“. And because OCR wants to base their decisions on facts, the accused institution is often required to gather data that consumes time and, thus, “defers justice”. But here’s the conundrum: if the data is not gathered and assessed, OCR would be rightfully accused of drawing shoddy conclusions. So… rather than tackle complicated issues like institutional racism and sexism, the OCR under Ms. DeVos will effectively ignore any cases that are complicated. This will have the effect of allowing the existing practices on campuses to remain in place.

Those who lead colleges and universities and serve on their boards will welcome this change, as will States legislators who want to limit the rights of LBGT’s, minorities, and immigrants. Victims of sexual abuse, discrimination based on their gender identity and race, though, will find the coming years difficult. As the title of this post indicates: In Betsy DeVos’ World Civil Rights Investigations are “Neutral”… In the Real World, OCR Needs to Champion Victims of Racism and Sexism

Playing the Long Game in Public Education- Part One

July 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Over the past couple of days I had the opportunity to hear two great presentations: one by Ken Burns who showed a preview of his forthcoming series on Vietnam to a full house of 900+ at Dartmouth College and one by Shaun King, who gave a challenging and insightful lecture on racism to a group of roughly 100 people at Thetford Academy. Both presentations reinforced the idea that events we are witnessing in real time fit into a flow of events whose import is often overlooked when they are occurring. Burns’ presentation emphasized the policy failures that led to the calamitous decision to ramp up our troops in Vietnam and sustain them despite evidence the war was un-winnable. These failures were the result of our failure to understand the context of the conflict, which was far more complicated than “communism vs. democracy”. King’s presentation was rooted in the notion that while we are making technological progress over time, we are NOT making progress as a human race. In the scheme of history, there is not an upward trajectory: there are ebbs and flows in terms of the well being of humanity. He suggests that we are in a “dip” right now in terms of our treatment of each other, and getting out of this “dip” will require a united and sustained effort.

 

I came away from those presentations convinced that while we are distracted by the flow of relatively trivial news stories, we are overlooking important policy decisions being made by those who control our government, decisions that will impact the future of our country as surely as the decisions made that led to our engagement in Vietnam and decisions that will not help us get out of the “dip” that is causing us to be at each others’ throats.

I was also reminded that our current economic condition is not an accident. It is the consequence of the long game being played by the corporate interests in our country, a long game that resulted in our current notions about the role of government and the primacy of shareholders. As noted in earlier posts on the economy and politics, we are where we are today because of a conscious decision by the business leaders to undo the social framework put in place by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the Depression.

Reclaim Democracy, a non-profit organization founded in 2001, has a wealth of information on the intentionally invisible efforts by corporations to undercut the effective function of governments. Among the documents they have in their archive is the Powell Memo. Here’s Reclaim Democracy’s overview of this document:

In 1971, Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Powell Memo did not become available to the public until long after his confirmation to the Court. It was leaked to Jack Anderson, a liberal syndicated columnist, who stirred interest in the document when he cited it as reason to doubt Powell’s legal objectivity. Anderson cautioned that Powell “might use his position on the Supreme Court to put his ideas into practice…in behalf of business interests.”

Though Powell’s memo was not the sole influence, the Chamber and corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.

Ronald Reagan’s “hand’s off business” philosophy combined with his message that “government is the problem” has led us to the point where the public appears to be softening its stance on vouchers, an idea that was until recently considered extreme.

In future posts I will examine some excerpts from the Powell Memorandum to illustrate how they serve as the basis for the policies that are in place today.

One point that I want to emphasize at the outset: the creation of this “…powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades” occurred during a time when our country was distracted by a scandal that unseated a President whose philosophy matched that of the corporations. If progressives want to restore the safety net for those born into poverty, want to reduce the investments our nation is making to engage in questionable wars abroad, and want to protect the environment instead of protecting and promoting our lifestyle, we need to develop a long game. Making billions was a unifying force for Lewis Powell and his colleagues. Creating a world where billions of people can live in peace should be a unifying force for the 99.9% who are not the beneficiaries of ideology behind the Powell memo.

 

Florida Legislature Opens Door to Corrupt Charters, Endless Content Challenges, Lawsuits in Public Schools

July 15, 2017 Leave a comment

The Tampa Bay Times editors’ assessment of two bills passed by the Florida legislature has it right: the governance of public education is in peril. The fiscal conservatives in the state undercut the school districts’ ability to serve children over the past several years by passing stingy budgets. This year the legislature passed HB 7069, which diverts more funds from public schools and makes it easier for parents to opt into private charter schools– many of them private for-profit entities and religiously affiliated, and far too many of those privatized for-profit entities have turned out to be corrupt. Moving children out of schools governed by elected boards into schools governed by shareholders or religious leaders is anti-democratic and will continue to open the door for mismanagement and corruption.

The editors had already bemoaned this development, and in yesterday’s editorial they flagged two other bills that religious conservatives enacted this session, laws that are likely to result in a spate of needless lawsuits and public appeals that will likely fill Board agendas for years to come.

SB 438, a “a religious liberties bill”, provides superfluous “rights” to students and opens the door to promoting religion in classrooms. Here’s the analysis of the bill in the editorial:

The bill reaffirms that students and teachers are allowed to pray privately during non-curriculum moments at school, but that was a right that already existed under the First Amendment. It then goes a step further with language that would allow teachers or students to openly express religious beliefs in class or at other public school functions, which is seemingly in conflict with previous Supreme Court decisions. The potential of proselytizing along with the ostracizing of students are just two possible pitfalls among the many unintended consequences this ill-considered law could wrought.

The fact that this bill is “seemingly in conflict with previous Supreme Court decisions” means that one or more school boards will be faced with litigation from one or more parents and/or libertarian groups who do not want their children exposed to proselytization or ostracized from classes. It also means that principals and teachers will likely have to deal with religious zealots who want to ensure that the law is being followed in each and every school.

The worst bill, though, is HB 989, a law that “…gives almost anyone — from parents to strangers off the street — the ability to challenge the appropriateness of a classroom lesson. Supporters say it empowers parents, but it more accurately promotes censorship.”  The editors assessment is rightfully scathing:

Think of the mayhem this could create. Don’t believe in evolution? Challenge the science teacher. Don’t believe high schoolers should learn about sex education? Challenge the health teacher. Don’t believe the Holocaust actually happened? Challenge the history teacher. Don’t like the language in The Catcher in the Rye? Challenge the American lit teacher.

Legislators used straw man arguments to insist this bill was necessary, citing unnamed instances of parents who were unhappy with the age-appropriateness of books on reading lists. To be blunt, this sounds like bunk. Schools routinely have alternative selections available if a parent feels a particular book contains objectionable material. To waste precious time and resources on reviews of mainstream books and lessons is foolishness. Even more absurd is the possibility of denying a particular lesson to a large majority of students because one parent, or any other resident of the school district, disagrees with it.

This law will open the door to crackpots of all varieties to appeal curriculum decisions made by individual teachers as well as school districts. Having dealt with appeals dealing with controversial books, I know that it also has the potential to eat into the time of school districts who may ultimately have to hear every appeal brought by every member of the public who believes that the content in history, science, and literature lessons is “inappropriate”. In the meantime, the privately governed schools can offer the curriculum of their choice and tell their constituents to go elsewhere if they don’t like what is being taught.

The editorial concludes with this paragraph:

The common thread in all of these bills, from HB 7069 on down, is state legislators usurping control of local school boards and school districts. These same lawmakers who shout and stomp their feet at any sign of interference from the federal government are interfering even more in local schools. (See: House Speaker Richard Corcoran.) It is hypocrisy. It is bad governance. Sadly, it is business as usual in Florida.

With Betsy DeVos at the helm in Washington and ESSA giving states more leeway, expect to see copycat laws introduced into legislatures across the country in the years ahead.

David Brooks’ Assessment of Donald Trump Jr and the Trump Family’s History Unwittingly Undercuts the Notion of Running Schools Like a Business

July 14, 2017 Leave a comment

David Brooks, a GOP loyalist, has long supported his party’s notion (and that of neo-liberals) that public services should run like a business and, whenever possible, outsourced to private enterprise. I find it difficult to believe that he, his GOP colleagues, and neo-liberals in the Democratic party can hold that view after they read and digest the column Mr. Brooks wrote in today’s NYTimes. Titled “Moral Vacuum in the House of Trump”, 3/4 of the column recounts a history of the Trump family beginning with Donald Trump’s grandfather who made a small fortune operating hotels in the Pacific Northwest and ending with Donald Trump’s son who obliviously scheduled a meeting with a Russian attorney who offered to give him some compromising information about Hillary Clinton.

After recounting the questionable “offerings” available in Grandfather Trump’s hotels, the questionable financial practices that enabled Father Trump to earn a huge fortune building and selling modestly priced homes in New York, Mr. Brooks concludes that from the Trump family’s perspective, ethics are immaterial. The Trump family has “…no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code. There is just naked capitalism.” 

After reading the column, two quotes jumped out at me:

One from Donald Trump, Jr. that read: ““That’s what we do in business. If there’s information out there, you want it.”

And, one from David Brooks that read: “Successful business people, like successful politicians, are very ambitious, but they generally have some complementary moral code that checks their greed and channels their drive.”

As I noted in a comment I submitted, I find it hard to believe that David Brooks (and his GOP and neoliberal compatriots) can continue to advocate that public services like infrastructure, schools, and health care be outsourced to businesses believing— against all evidence— that successful business people “…have some complementary moral code that checks their greed and channels their drive.” When public enterprises are “run like a business” corruption will follow… and if public enterprises are outsourced to businesses shareholders will win and the public will lose. Publicly operations overseen by democratically elected officials may not result in profit for the top .01%, but it will result in higher levels of trust among members of the public and better services for all.

South Carolina “Corridor of Shame” Grad Gets Attention of Washington Post. Are SC Legislators Listening?

July 10, 2017 Leave a comment

A paper written by Duke rising sophomore, Ehime Ohue, for a “Introduction to Human Rights” class was published in the Washington Post. In the paper Ms. Ohue describes the impact of inequitable funding through the eyes of a recent graduate of an “elite” high school in South Carolina’s “corridor of shame”, described in her paper as “a string of rural school districts where students receive inferior educational opportunities.” That inferior education became evident to Ms. Ohue as soon as she set foot into classrooms at Duke when she learned of the opportunities her classmates had in high school compared to those she encountered. Her paper matter-of-factly describes the shortcomings of her high school:

We didn’t have enough math teachers and barely enough working calculators. When the school added the International Baccalaureate program, the first class of students completed the program, but none were awarded the diploma. I enrolled the second year the program was offered, and our math teacher was still undergoing training. When he announced he would not be returning, training had to start again for another teacher.

Two AP classes were announced my senior year, but were scheduled at the same time. We were considered a technology center, but our computers were always down. Many of my peers ended up dropping out or flunking out of college.

Ms. Ohue’s paper did offer a ray of hope, though. A lawsuit filed by districts in the “corridor of shame” ruled in the districts favor, which means relief should be forthcoming… but as Ms. Ohue seems to realize what should happen and what will happen are two different things. She offers two ideas for bringing about change:

Businesses also need to invest in schools, since these kids will be the future workers they need. Students who graduate also need support in college. In addition, South Carolina’s public universities should consider waiving tuition for students who succeed in graduating from these schools.

I admire Ms. Ohue’s naive optimism and while I hope it persists, I hope even more that it is rewarded. But in a state populated with businesses who chose their sites based on tax breaks and the availability of low wage non-union workers I doubt that voluntary investments in public schools will be forthcoming… and given the fiscal and philosophically conservative bent of the legislature in that state (and the experience of other states whose legislatures are under court mandated equalization) I doubt that either state funded colleges or underfunded schools will see any new money any time soon.

Welcome to the plutocracy, Ms. Ohue… but please keep fighting against it!

Conservative Conundrum: If Culture Causes Poverty, How Can LESS Government be the Solution?

July 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Conservative columnist George Will’s recent op ed essay, Sequence to Success, describes the findings of researchers in both conservative and liberal camps that conclude that economic success if more likely when parents are married before they have children. He summarizes this formula as follows:

First get at least a high school diploma, then get a job, then get married, and only then have children. Wang and Wilcox (of the conservative American Enterprise Institute), focusing on millennials ages 28 to 34, the oldest members of the nation’s largest generation, have found that only 3 percent who follow this sequence are poor.

Predictably, Mr. Will and the AEI researchers attribute this to a cultural decline which they link to “the “intelligensia” and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. How was this link established, you ask? Here’s why the “intelligensia” are responsible for this problem:

…the intelligentsia see the success sequence as middle-class norms to be disparaged for being middle-class norms. And as AEI social scientist Charles Murray says, too many of the successful classes, who followed the success sequence, do not preach what they practice, preferring “ecumenical niceness” to being judgmental.

And how, exactly, did LBJ’s Wr on Poverty contribute?

In healthy societies, basic values and social arrangements are not much thought about. They are “of course” matters expressing what sociologists call a society’s “world-taken-for-granted.” They have, however, changed since President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed “unconditional” war on poverty. This word suggested a fallacious assumption: Poverty persisted only because of hitherto weak government resolve regarding the essence of war — marshaling material resources.

So… what are the solutions Mr. Will’s friends at AEI offers

Wang and Wilcox recommend education focused on high-level occupational skills, subsidizing low-paying jobs, and “public and private social marketing campaigns,” from public schools to popular media, promoting marriage toward the end of the success sequence.

Which leads to several questions:

  • What, exactly are the “high level occupational skills” education should focus on? Won’t the government need to decide this?
  • If these “high level occupational skills” require post secondary education and, if so, how will those who are raised in poverty afford them? Won’t the government need to provide funds?
  • As for subsidizing low-paying jobs, won’t the government need to provide those funds? And where, I wonder, will those funds for the necessary subsidies come from? Higher taxes?
  • Who will develop and write the “public” social marketing campaigns? It would seem to be a role the government would play!
  • And how will the government handle the fact that not all married couples are heterosexual?

As a conservative, I cannot imagine Mr. Will would endorse having the government defining the “high level skills” education should focus on— that would be socialist! Nor can I imagine him endorsing the need for more government funds for scholarships for those children struggling in school… and I certainly couldn’t imagine him ever supporting a government program that would subsidize low paying jobs. As for the government launching social marketing campaigns that promote social values… unless they are rooted in the Bible I doubt that any GOP conservative would endorse them!

As a conservative, I imagine Mr. Will and his AEI think tank colleagues would advocate for some sort of market-based solution that involves cutting taxes on businesses by developing incentives for them to make contributions into scholarship funds or offering some kind of bonuses to low-wage employees. As for setting the norms on marriage, I cannot imagine ANY way ANY conservative would willingly cede this to government.  All of the questions above and the paragraphs that follow describe a conundrum conservatives face when they try to address the seemingly intractable problem of “the intergenerational transmission of poverty” WITHOUT the government.

As a progressive democratic socialist I have no qualms about the government assuming the roles outlined above so long as they are responsive to an informed electorate and not a group of plutocratic campaign donors. My only conundrum is how to inform the electorate that a problem exists and to activate them to see that the problem cannot be solved without help from the government.