Category Archives: Education / Youth

The Social Safety Net and the Ideologues

I know I tend to harp on the difference between thoughtful policymaking and ideology. Good policymaking depends significantly upon expertise and research, learning from experience (otherwise known as trial and error) and careful empirical observation; ideology dismisses poor results and unfortunate side-effects as irrelevancies or attributes them to insufficiently thorough implementation.

Congressional Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, and with the likely concurrence of the Senate GOP and Mitch McConnell, are determined to make drastic changes to American social policy. To the extent they are not prompted by corruption (that is, acting on behalf of and at the behest of their donor base), their desired changes to Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare are entirely ideological. They don’t want to improve these programs; they want to dismantle them.

It has long been an article of Rightwing faith that welfare programs—indeed, social insurance of any sort—creates unhealthy dependency. (Somehow, that belief does not extend to corporate welfare. But that is a post for another time.)

The evidence, not unsurprisingly, suggests otherwise.

There is substantial research suggesting that countries with more robust social safety networks experience fewer socially undesirable behaviors: less crime, less divorce, less child abuse…the list goes on. Rates of murder, robbery, burglary, rape, and other serious crimes are generally much higher in the U.S. than in industrialized nations offering universal health care and other social supports. Homicide rates in the U.S. have consistently ranged between three and twenty times those of other industrialized countries.

It is particularly notable that Canada’s murder rate is far below that of the U.S. (running around a fourth of our levels). For homicides committed by youth, the U.S. rate has been as much as ten times the Canadian levels. Yet Canadians watch American television, log onto American websites, read American publications, share our culture. There is also widespread gun ownership in Canada.

What most differentiates us is the fact that Canadians have guaranteed health care and less social insecurity.

The U.S. is more economically stratified than any other advanced country. Its levels of income inequality and relative poverty are triple those of other wealthy nations. Scholars tell us that developed countries having relatively low levels of income inequality have low crime rates; in countries where one segment of the population has great wealth while another segment is in extreme poverty, crime rates are high.

As a 2015 article in The Week noted, the differences in approach to social welfare are ideologically based.

Conservatives often want to tie safety net programs to having a job, so that people aren’t tempted by handouts to hold off working. There are work requirements for food stamps. More heavy requirements were added to traditional welfare in the late 1990s. And now Republicans are suggesting requirements for Medicaid as well. This makes little sense. The much more generous European systems have higher labor force participation, and the U.S. economy has done progressively worse over the last three decades at actually creating enough jobs for everyone to have.

Add it all up, and it’s not surprising that most other advanced Western countries have much lower poverty rates than America.

Recent research has tied declining rates of marriage to poverty, and has confirmed that “failing schools” are typically those trying to educate children from impoverished homes—that growing up in poverty creates identifiable physical and emotional impediments to learning.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that a strong social safety net reduces crime and other social dysfunctions that cost Americans significant tax dollars—and that the availability of such social supports does not discourage workforce participation.

Evidence, however, is no match for rigid ideology. Americans should expect a full-court effort to gut Social Security and Medicare by zealots impervious to evidence.

The Coming Assault on Education

I have noted previously that Trump’s choice for Education Secretary is Betsy DeVos, a dedicated proponent of school privatization. The depth of her commitment to vouchers is matched only by the shallowness of her educational experience and training (she’s never taught nor does she have a degree in education).

Politico looked into DeVos’ history and statements, and began a recent article as follows:

The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to “advance God’s Kingdom.”

Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.

In an audio recording obtained by POLITICO, DeVos and her husband (an Amway billionaire) explained that their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education. They believe that school choice leads to “greater Kingdom gain”  and that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities. They’re convinced that school choice can reverse that trend.

Hoosier readers who see the fundamentalist hand of Mike Pence in the choice of DeVos can find confirmation of those suspicions in a Mother Jones article about Pence’s voucher program.

Pence’s voucher program ballooned into a $135 million annual bonanza almost exclusively benefiting private religious schools—ranging from those teaching the Koran to Christian schools teaching creationism and the Bible as literal truth—at the expense of regular and usually better-performing public schools. Indeed, one of the schools was a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, briefly attended by a young man arrested this summer for trying to join ISIS—just the kind of place Trump’s coalition would find abhorrent.

In Indiana, Pence created one of the largest publicly funded voucher programs in the country. Initially launched in 2011 under Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, it was sold as a way to give poor, minority children trapped in bad public schools a way out.

Daniels program was relatively small, and focused on low-income families. Pence dramatically increased and redirected it.

By the 2015-16 school year, the number of students using state-funded vouchers had shot up to more than 32,000 in 316 private schools. But Pence’s school choice experiment demonstrates that vouchers can create a host of thorny political problems and potential church-and-state issues. Almost every single one of these voucher schools is religious. The state Department of Education can’t tell parents which or even whether any of the voucher schools are secular. (A state spokeswoman told me Indiana doesn’t collect data on the school’s religious affiliation.) Out of the list of more than 300 schools, I could find only four that weren’t overtly religious and, of those, one was solely for students with Asperger’s syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders, and the other is an alternative school for at-risk students….

Indiana’s choice law prohibits the state from regulating the curriculum of schools getting vouchers, so millions of dollars of the state education budget are subsidizing schools whose curricula teaches creationism and the stories and parables in the Bible as literal truth. Among the more popular textbooks are some from Bob Jones University that are known for teaching that humans and dinosaurs existed on the Earth at the same time and that dragons were real. BJU textbooks have also promoted a positive view of the KKK, writing in one book, “the Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross to target bootleggers, wife beaters and immoral movies.”

Not surprisingly, Indiana children in these voucher schools perform poorly on standardized tests.

The voucher schools can’t necessarily blame low test scores on poverty, either. According to data from the state, today more than 60 percent of the voucher students in Indiana are white, and more than half of them have never even attended any public school, much less a failing one. Some of the fastest growth in voucher use has occurred in some of the state’s most affluent suburbs. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank, recently concluded that because white children’s participation in the voucher program dwarfed the next largest racial group by 44 points, the vouchers were effectively helping to resegregate public schools.

So Indiana taxpayers are subsidizing religious indoctrination with monies that should be supporting the state’s under-resourced public schools. And that’s the model that Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos want to replicate nationwide.

Another Disastrous Appointment

If Americans agree about anything, it’s probably about the importance of education. Although there is substantial disagreement on what a “good” education looks like (guiding intellectual enlightenment ? teaching marketplace skills?), it is widely assumed that better education is an important part of any solution to our social ills, especially poverty.

There can be no equality of opportunity so long as disadvantaged children are trapped in substandard schools, especially under-resourced urban schools in majority-minority districts. Education reform efforts are recognition of that reality.

Despite the number of such reform efforts over the past several years, no one has yet developed a magic formula that consistently turns underperforming schools into academic success stories. We do, however, have a lot of experience with reform efforts that haven’t worked—several of which have made things worse.

Which brings me to President-elect Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary.

Douglas Harris, an economics professor at Tulane, has been a proponent of charter schools and a researcher of school reform. Friday, he published a scathing column in the New York Times, titled “Betsy DeVos and the Wrong Way to Fix Schools.”

The choice of Ms. DeVos might not seem surprising. Mr. Trump has, after all, proposed $20 billion to finance “school choice” initiatives and Ms. DeVos supports these ideas. Yet of all the candidates the transition team was apparently considering, Ms. DeVos has easily the worst record.

As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, she is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country….

Detroit is not only the lowest in this group of lowest-performing districts on the math and reading scores, it is the lowest by far…. The situation is so bad that national philanthropists interested in school reform refuse to work in Detroit….Michigan has the dubious distinction of being one of five states with declining reading scores.

In contrast, Harris points to New Orleans. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the city replaced most of its schools with charters; after a poor start, the state took over a third of them and revamped the system, increasing oversight and preventing cherry-picking of students.

After the reforms, the city’s standardized test scores have increased by eight to 15 percentile points and moved the district from the bottom to almost the state average on many measures. High school graduation and college entry rates also seem to have improved significantly, even while suspensions, expulsions and the rate of students switching schools have all dropped. Detroit and New Orleans represent radically different versions of school choice — and the one that seems to work is the one that uses the state oversight that Ms. DeVos opposes.

Harris notes that New Orleans is also important because it is the only city in the country in which charter school results can be compared to results for school vouchers, the approach Ms. DeVos prefers.

In a study my center released this year, researchers found that the statewide Louisiana voucher program had exactly the opposite result as the New Orleans charter reforms. Students who participated in the voucher program had declines in achievement tests scores of eight to 16 percentile points. Since many of these students received vouchers through a lottery, these results are especially telling.

Ms. DeVos is a long-time financial supporter of the extreme Right, believes schools should teach Creationism, and has been a generous donor to anti-LGBT groups. She is a rich ideologue who has been described as “an enemy of public education.”

Michigan blogger Ed Brayton, who has observed her at close range for several years, is blunt; “Putting her in charge of the Department of Education is like making Al Capone the chief of police.”

This choice is a disaster for schoolchildren—and especially for low-income children.

 

 

And the Hits Keep Coming….

Well, so far we’ve seen no sign of Donald Trump becoming more “Presidential.” In between his appointments of truly horrifying men to his cabinet, he continues to tweet petulant rejoinders to criticism and to whine about “unfair” media coverage;  those childish behaviors have distracted attention from his equally disastrous policy agenda.

To the (very limited) extent that Trump advanced policy proposals during the campaign, those proposals centered upon privatizing government functions. When you drill down on his promise to address America’s decaying infrastructure, for example, what you find is a scheme to give huge tax write-offs to private contractors, who would be expected to finance and repair our bridges, roads and sewers; essentially, his plan sells infrastructure to private interests.

As Josh Marshall writes at Talking Points Memo, 

There will be a mix of tax giveaways and and corporate welfare to incentivize private sector infrastructure spending. And there is good reason to think that most of those giveaways will simply be pocketed for spending that was already happening. In other words, big giveaways, more budget busting without even getting the benefit of new stuff or spurring demand.

As depressing as that particular “bait and switch” proposal is–after all, America desperately needs a massive infrastructure investment–it pales beside Trump’s promise to spend twenty billion dollars on a school choice initiative.

Twenty billion dollars is a lot of money. Although Trump hasn’t been specific about the source of those dollars (surprise!), it appears he intends to take it from the $15.5 billion currently going to Title I grants for districts and the $12 billion currently going to state grants for special education.

Raiding those two pots of money would be devastating to districts serving poor children and those with special needs, and there are significant practical, political and legal impediments to such a program. Even if those impediments could be overcome, however, a massive new effort to privatize–or more accurately, abandon– the nation’s public schools is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I know I sound like a broken record, but voucher proponents fail to understand both the mission and importance of public education. They see schools as “vendors” providing a consumer product called marketable skills– as places to train the nation’s workforce.

Providing students with marketable skills is important, but it isn’t education. And it most definitely is not preparation for life in a diverse democratic culture. Public schools have a civic mission; as Benjamin Barber once put it, they are constitutive of a public.

Abandoning our public schools and privatizing other essential government functions is tempting to lazy legislators and administrators alike, because it’s easy. It doesn’t require actually knowing enough about the function or mission involved to accurately analyze the problems, marshal the necessary resources, or do the hard work of fixing what’s wrong.

Unfortunately, easy answers are almost never the right answers. It turns out that when  public officials contract out government functions, they are still responsible for the results, and they typically lack the resources and expertise needed to properly monitor the contractor. The ensuing mistakes are costly, both politically and financially.

It also turns out that privatized schools and ill-conceived public-private partnerships have just as many problems and failures as public schools and projects, if not more–and they have the added negative effect of hollowing out government’s ability to function in important dimensions of our communal life.

Having raised children doesn’t equip me to offer child development services. Having run a business doesn’t equip someone to manage–or even understand– government. Trump is proving that point.

If I Had a Magic Wand….

Yesterday, I wrote that America’s governing systems no longer work properly. I believe the original, basic premises of our approach to self-government remain sound, but our “delivery systems,” the mechanics of representative democracy, have become corrupted.

With effort, those can be changed. One of the great benefits of America’s constitutional system is its flexibility. Despite persistent cries of alarm from so-called “textual originalists,” our legal system has continued to work because it has been remarkably adaptable to “new facts on the ground.”

It is undeniable, however, that our 200+ year old ship of state has taken on some barnacles.

Compromises intended to keep slave states happy (the Electoral College, for example) are poorly adapted to modern notions of democratic fairness; early allocations of  federalist jurisdiction are increasingly ill-suited to a mobile, connected population. Etc.

Assuming (as I do) that Trump’s election presages a period of turmoil and civic unrest during which many laws and institutions will be challenged and found to be unworkable, or understood to be hopelessly outmoded, what changes should we try to effect once the fever breaks?

Here are a few I think have merit:

We should establish a national, nonpartisan commission to administer elections under uniform standards. Many countries have such agencies. It would maintain voter rolls (we have no idea what turnout actually is, because there is a lag time during which states don’t know when a voter moves, or dies, and there are great disparities between states in record-keeping, purges, etc.), establish uniform times for polls to be open, prevent voter suppression efforts, and generally insure a fair and equal election process.

We should get rid of the Electoral College,  gerrymandering and Citizens United.

At the local level, we should sharply limit the positions that are elected. There is no reason to elect coroners, recorders, auditors, township trustees and the like. Some of these positions may no longer be needed; those that are should be appointed by Mayors or County executives. Similarly, Governors should appoint Attorneys General and Superintendents of Public Instruction. Making a chief executive responsible for these administrative positions would improve accountability and decrease political infighting.

There are a number of steps we might take to increase vote turnout and make election results more closely reflect the popular will. We can make election day a holiday, and/or vastly increase voting by mail.  (America is highly unlikely to make voting mandatory, as it is in Australia, but we might consider a “none of the above” option.)

In addition to such mechanical “fixes,” we need a population that is at least minimally civically-literate. The emphasis upon STEM education is all well and good, but it should not be allowed to crowd out the humanities and especially civics education. “We the People” or an equivalent high-quality civics curriculum should be required for high school graduation.

And I want to put in a plug for a “New GI Bill”: Upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one-year program of civic service and civic education. Upon satisfactory completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college or other post-secondary training. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

We have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.

When people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.

Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity for post-secondary education—and conditioning that opportunity on a year of civic learning and civic service—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.

Those are my beginning agenda items. I’m confident that there are numerous other ideas for reconstituting and revitalizing America’s politics and our commitment to the goal of e pluribus unum.

We’re in the middle of a very painful lesson in what isn’t working; let’s start considering what would.