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David Leonard is 100% Right about the Need for a Pro-Government Stance but 100% Wrong About Pre-K

January 18, 2020 Leave a comment

As is often the case when I read David Leonard, I find myself nodding in agreement with roughly 90% of what he writes and then scratching my head in bewilderment with one or two points. In that respect he is the neoliberal analog to David Brooks who often grounds his thinking in Eastern philosophy but somehow ends up with pro-Capitalist conclusions.

David Leonard’s most recent column, “F.D.R. Got it. Most Democrats Don’t” is a case in point. The column opens with a description of a map FDR distributed in 1936 showing where government spending resulted in tangible improvements to citizens in every corner of the country. He contrasted that kind of government policy and spending with what happened during the Obama and Clinton administrations…. and finds the neoliberal plans wanting.

In recent decades, Democrats have too often forgotten this lesson. They have created technocratically elegant policies that quietly improve people’s lives, like tax credits or insurance subsidies. The problem with this approach is that it does little to build popular support for government action.

Put it this way: How many projects can you name from Barack Obama’s stimulus program? Can you name any project or agency that Bill Clinton created?

The only “project” that I can name from the Obama stimulus program is the reprehensible Race to the Top program and Clinton’s signature legislation was to “End Welfare as we Know It”. Both neo-liberals passed legislation that was based on the Reagan premise that “Government is the Problem” and only the private sector can save the day.

Bottom line: David Leonard is 100% right in identifying the problem.

But Mr. Leonard then goes on to use Elizabeth Warren as the exemplar of advocating the kind of programs Democrats should embrace flagging her desire to create the office of Consumer Finance Protection Office during the Obama administration as a case in point. He then writes:

Warren’s presidential agenda has several other easily understandable ideas, like a $200-a-month increase in Social Security benefits, a price reduction for insulin and other popular drugs, the cancellation of up to $50,000 in student debt and a wealth tax. During a recent interview with her, I mentioned that she seemed to believe that bigger ideas were sometimes easier to accomplish than more modest ones. “I do,” she replied. Big ideas can inspire people; tax credits do not.

This left me with one question: did Mr. Leonard interview Bernie Sanders? If so, why didn’t he give a list of the “easily understandable ideas” Mr. Sanders is advocation? If not, maybe he should sit down with him and give him a chance to tick off the kind of spending he would advocate.

But this omission of Sanders’ ideas was not the real head scratcher. The highlighted section was:

The next Democratic president, whoever it is, shouldn’t repeat this mistake. In climate policy, this would mean putting more emphasis on a green-jobs program than on a hated carbon tax. In education, it could mean creating a “public option” for pre-K. In every area, it also means making sure that government functions well.

As I have written on several occasions in this blog, the worst thing that politicians could do is to create a model for pre-K that incorporates anything that resembles a voucher program. If pre-K is commodified in the name of “choice” and parents who want child care are offered a de facto voucher to pay for child care it will lead to an unravelling of the “government schools” that are charged with the mission of educating all children. In short, nothing could be more wrong-headed than the creation of a “public option” for pre-K. But Democrats have shown a proclivity for wrong-headedness when it comes to public education, sidestepping the need for more funds by doubling down on the reform movements notion that privatization is the way forward… and neoliberal cheerleaders like David Leonard are one of the reasons why this happens.

Diane Ravitch Savages “Reformers” and “Disruptors” in her New Book

January 18, 2020 Leave a comment

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Forbes writer and public education resistance fighter Peter Greene’s paean to Diane Ravitch provides a good overview of her clear-headed thinking and the muddled thinking of what she calls this disruption movement. And what is that movement?

The disruption movement has given us charter schools, high stakes testing, and the de-professionalization of teaching. It has used the real problems of inequity and underserved communities to justify false solutions.

In his review of her forthcoming book Mr. Greene contrasts the “reformers” embrace of Taylor’s standardization with Deming’s Total Quality Management and laments the victory of Taylor in this war of ideas. Like Diane Ravitch, Peter Greene seems to think the tide is turning. I hope they are right….

Alabama Legislature, State Department of Education Are Poster Children for Poorly Crafted and Executed Charter Laws

January 14, 2020 Leave a comment

I just finished reading guest columnist Larry Lee’s op ed in the Alabama Political Reporter and came away bewildered by what transpired in that state and even more confused about what was supposed to happen. Mr. Lee, a former local school board member, opens the article with this paragraph:

It is nigh impossible to figure out what is going on with charter schools in Montgomery.  Whether it is by design, deception or a bushel of inaptitude, the situation is clearly defying sections of the charter law and thumbs its nose at what is legal and what is not.

Mr. Lee appears to be a good writer, a clear thinker, and a board member committed to improving public education. But, despite his craftsmanship as a writer and cogency, it required two readings to figure out how Alabama’s charter law was supposed to work… but only one reading to see how easy it was to muddy things up given the convoluted governance model built into the legislation. To make a long story short, it seems that despite the teeth that appear to be in the law, if anyone wants to launch a charter school the door is wide open and the regulatory agencies are toothless…. and they are made worse by the reality that the law is poorly designed, intentionally opaque and confusing, and overseen by a State department that displays a bushel of ineptitude. The losers in all of this are the children whose district decided to get on the charter train, for they are likely being served by schools that are populated with unqualified teachers, avaricious administrators, and poorly written curricula. But the taxpayers are probably happen as are the lobbyists who undoubtedly helped the legislature write the bills that made this possible.

Puerto Rico’s Template for Regulating Athletics Makes Sense… Having Fun is Ultimate Goal

January 11, 2020 Leave a comment

This past weekend I attended a family gathering where I learned that one of my wife’s extremely talented great nephews had decided to quit soccer completely, turning his back on a sport he played since he was a young child. Why? His mom said he wasn’t experiencing any joy in playing.

Yesterday I read a story in the New York Times by Tom Farrey, a journalist, director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, and author of “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.” In the article he reported on how Puerto Rico is reining in youth sports… and how the parents are in despair. The reason for the government initiating a limit on participation in sports?

The catalyst was the death of Roberto Quiles Jr., 15, who collapsed during a five-day Junior Olympic basketball tournament sponsored by Jeep. His father, Roberto, said that the cause of the heart failure had not been determined, but that his son had been “exhausted” from year-round play and that medical attention was slow to arrive on site.His death elevated island-wide concerns about pressures placed on children and families by a youth sports system that had been transformed — industrialized — over the past decade or so.

As in the United States, the emphasis on travel teams had taken over. There were expensive basketball and volleyball tournaments at the Puerto Rico Convention Center for hundreds of teams from all over the island, at ever-earlier ages. Teenagers were playing eight games a week between their club and school teams. Children were kept at practice past 10 p.m. on school nights. Family dinners were sacrificed. There were overuse injuries and occasional fights in the stands. Abuse from parents was directed toward referees — or their own children.

In short, the joy of sport had been taken away from children and replaced by the grim fear of failure. Instead of encouraging their children to play among themselves in self-regulated games on playgrounds Puerto Rican parents were pushing their children to compete for slots on travel teams who played in stadiums full of angry adults screaming at referees and children whose every mistake was magnified.

So who would complain about restrictions limiting the number of games per week and the intrusion on family life?

Some private schools have objected. So has the Olympic committee, whose annual funding from the department has been slashed in recent years amid the island’s economic troubles and worries about its ability to train athletes who win medals. “Our federations have autonomy, and that’s not to be negotiated,” said Sara Rosario, the Olympic committee’s president. Basketball has also taken that position…

The argument in favor of sustaining these soul crushing athletic leagues is that some excellent athletes might not have a chance for the Olympics or athletic scholarships. But Mr. Farrey offers a different and healthier perspective:

But the most effective sports systems in the world don’t produce athletic talent as much as prevent it from being ruined before it ripens. It is less about spending money and more about spending time getting the youth model right, committing to build the base and being patient with children as they grow into their bodies and true interests. In Puerto Rico, it’s just government taking the lead and dragging the sports organizations along.

The phrase that jumped out at me in this paragraph was this:

…being patient with children as they grow into their bodies and true interests.

Patience with children is clearly NOT a virtue in our culture, and our lack of patience is reflected in the way we measure learning in children, the way we compel them to compete with each other at ever earlier ages, and the way we emphasize unyielding standards based on the assumption that all children mature at the same age. If we organized schools and structured learning based on the premise that we needed to be patient with children as they grow into their bodies and true interests we would not force them to compete with children in the same age cohort, expect them to learn at the same rate, or track them into courses and schools when they are long adolescents. In our country,  instead of being patient with children as they grow into their bodies and true interests we seem to be committed to sorting and selecting them based on standardized test scores at ever younger ages, rating the effectiveness of their schooling on their earnings as adults, and training them to accept their position in a “race to the top” based on how quickly they mature intellectually and score high on tests administered to the competition in their age cohort.

 

Boring But Important Article Describes Pension Conundrum That Can ONLY Be Fixed by Raising Taxes… OR Abandoning Shareholder Primacy

January 10, 2020 Leave a comment

A recent Forbes article by Elizabeth Bauer describes a conundrum faced by politicians in Illinois regarding underfunded pensions in that state… a conundrum that several states and our nation face… a conundrum that corporations faced decades ago… a conundrum that our nation faces… and a conundrum that virtually everyone in our country faces.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: in order to fund retirement it is necessary to set aside enough money each year to ensure that one can stop working and have sufficient cash flow to pay one’s bills.

Decades ago the government created social security to ensure that every individual would have enough funds set aside to avoid falling into poverty when they reached an age when it was impossible for them to continue working. The individual worker and his employer were expected to send the government sufficient funds on an annual basis to ensure sufficient funds would be available. In the 60s that amount was increased and reserved for medical costs.

While the amount set aside assured the avoidance of poverty, it did not assure the ability for individuals to continue paying their bills or affording the level of income they had when they worked. To supplement social security, employers n the private sector offered pensions and the government followed suit. In the private sector, employers facing union demands for higher wages and/or enhanced benefits that required immediate out-of-pocket costs often offered increased the promised pensions ensuring workers that their earnings upon retirement would match the earnings in their final years of work. This enabled the employers to avoid eating into their profits and keep the costs of their products low. Again, the public sector followed suit, enabling them to avoid increasing taxes and maintaining the same number of workers.

In theory, the both the private sector employers and public sector employers should have set aside money each year to ensure that once the employees retired there would be enough money to pay the pensions. In reality, neither the private sector employers OR the public sector employers did so and the “pension crisis” was born.

In the private sector, the “crisis” was addressed by outsourcing and off-shoring of jobs, “right-sizing” by selling off portions of the business, the introduction of technology, and— in the worst case— bankruptcies. In each of these cases, especially the latter, pensions were diminished or eliminated altogether. By diminishing or eliminating promised pensions the private sector was able to maintain its profit levels and/or keep its prices low. In short, the problem was solved by short-changing the employees, especially those who performed tasks that required the least amount of education, tasks that could be done more efficiently by robots or computers who didn’t need to take sick days or vacations.

In the public sector, the crisis is now coming to the forefront and, as Ms. Bauer’s analysis intimates, it cannot be solved using the same strategies employed by the private sector. The people who plow roads, teach children in school, provide public social and health services cannot be replaced by robots or computers. Facing the aging of this population, public employers have three choices: they can raise taxes to provide the promised pensions to their loyal employees and set aside the funds needed to sustain these pensions in the future; they can push the decision down to the lowest level possible; or they can privatize these services.

It is not difficult to see which of these decisions is easier to make if you are a politician at the State or federal level: you pass the costs down to local government. And at the local level, privatization looks VERY attractive, especially when voters who have had their jobs and pensions cut or eliminated are asked to dig into their pockets to “keep promises” to public employees who are still gainfully employed or retired with defined benefit pensions.

And we are now witnessing the ultimate results of the privatization movement in our supposedly “healthy economy” where 44% of our “employed” workers are in low quality jobs. Here’s a description of the kinds of jobs that too many workers find themselves in:

The low-quality jobs offer an average of 24.6 hours of work per week at $14.65 an hour, which is $360 per week. These roles are also the 13.5 million retail jobs offering 30.3 hours a week at $16.73 an hour, which is $506 in weekly pay. About 83% of all private sector jobs—105 million workers—are in nonsupervisory jobs. More than half of those positions—58 million—pay less than the average weekly U.S. wage of $793. A good deal of these jobs don’t afford proper  healthcare or benefits. Unfortunately, for many Americans, these are the best jobs they could get.

To help you avoid reaching for a calculator, $360 per week works out to $18,720 per year if you work every week; $506 in weekly pay is $26,312 per year; and a weekly wage of $793 works out to $41,236. And, since many of these jobs do not provide healthcare or benefits those costs come out of the pockets of the employees. But since the health of our economy is measured by the quantity jobs as opposed to the quality of jobs everyone believes things are fine. But the children living in these low income households and the schools serving those children know better. The numbers on the spreadsheets in Washington look robust; the dinner plates, apparel and housing not so much. And the so-called “pension crisis” is pushing more and more people into the at-will workforce that makes day-to-day life difficult.

 

 

Bernie Sanders’ Blunt and Accurate Assessment of Public Education Gets My Vote

January 8, 2020 Leave a comment

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This USA Today op ed article by Bernie Sanders nails the real problem with public schools and, in my opinion, separates him from others who are running for President.

Deseret News Examines Impact of Philanthropy on the Public Sector and Finds it Wanting

January 5, 2020 Leave a comment

Gillian Friedman of the Deseret News recently wrote and compelling article based on this question:

Is philanthropy a threat to democracy?

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “YES”… and while Ms. Friedman’s response is more equivocal, her overall response is the same as mine. Indeed, a couple of her quotes show that her concerns mirror mine in this regard:

….when billionaires step in to provide public services, it can also give them disproportionate influence over public policy and circumvent taxpayer input or oversight, argues Rob Reich, co-director of Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, in his book “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better.”

Big donor philanthropy … is an exercise of power — the attempt to direct private assets toward some public purpose,” wrote Reich. “It is a form of power that is unaccountable, low on transparency, donor directed, and by default perpetual. Big philanthropy is a plutocratic element in democratic society…”

Because charitable donations are tax-deductible, philanthropy can essentially keep money in the private realm that would have otherwise been managed by the government.

But for the government to spend tax money on a certain program or public service — schools, roads, health care — taxpayers must vote on the expenditure, or vote for the elected official making the decision on their behalf (who can then be voted out). For example, when the Democrats pushed through Obamacare, the blowback was so strong it catalyzed the rise of of the Tea Party Caucus and arguably led to the Democrats losing control of the House.

On the other hand, a philanthropist can choose to spend their money how they like, funding certain kinds of research, or education, based on their own worldview, political orientation, or religious beliefs, without complete transparency.

Ms. Friedman offers the counter-argument to this kind of dark power, but it is weak, especially when one looks at specific examples of philanthropy as it applies to public education:

Because philanthropies aren’t run by people worried about getting reelected or making a profit, they can stay focused on their values and make bolder decisions and riskier investments than politicians or business owners.

“It is precisely that freedom to go against the status quo and be a bit anti-democratic that has allowed philanthropy to move the needle on a lot of social issues because it’s able to go against the public opinion at the time and take on unpopular causes and drive social change,” said Davies.

After all, democracy isn’t a perfect system, said Davies. When the only way to express one’s opinion is by getting the most votes at the ballot box, it can create a “tyranny of the majority,” he said.

Philanthropic foundations can help make up for that by funding important causes that might get overlooked by the will of the majority— such as supporting minority religions, or animal rights, or pushing for innovations in fields such as disease prevention, climate change or cancer research.

Philanthropy has a really important role to play in making sure the minority’s views can be heard, and bringing some of those issues to mainstream political attention,” said Davies. “And that’s good for democracy.”

The most notably philanthropists in education have promoted for-profit charter schools and/or technology-based interaction in charter and public schools that are hardly an effort to make sure the minority’s views are heard… and the most crucial need of education, the abandonment of the long-standing grouping of students by age cohorts… remains unchanged by philanthropists, most of whom base their “innovative ideas” on the continuation of the traditional model for schools. As for its impact on democracy, there are few institutions in the US more democratic than the local school board… and I am not aware of any efforts by any philanthropists to use elected boards to drive change. Rather, virtually every public education innovation funded by philanthropy is managed by an un-elected board whose meetings do not need to conform to public law.

Is philanthropy a threat to democracy?

Absolutely… especially when billionaires starve districts from tax revenue and introduce “innovations” to solve the problems created by short-changing schools.