Category Archives: Education / Youth

Ballots and Bullshit

Aside from all the (quite appropriate) angst over our Presidential choices and control of the U.S. Senate, voters in my state of Indiana will be faced with important local decisions. On my  ballot (I voted early) there were three important measures, only one of which was (in my opinion) a “slam-dunk.” That was the referendum for a very minor tax increase to support a very major improvement to our city’s terrible mass-transit, and as I have written previously, it deserves our support.

The other two issues require some background, and the ability to cut through spin and propaganda. (Okay, bullshit.)

The first is a state constitutional amendment supported primarily by the NRA, that would make hunting and fishing a constitutional right.

The Journal-Gazette said it best:

First, it’s completely unnecessary. Like the U.S. Constitution, the Indiana Constitution guarantees the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That covers hunting, fishing and a myriad other activities, as long as those pursuits don’t infringe upon other rights.

Not only does placing hunting and fishing rights alongside such core protections as freedom of speech and religion trivialize the Constitution, it threatens to undermine legitimate laws and regulations. If the right to hunt and fish is needlessly elevated above other kinds of concerns, who knows what kind of bizarre legal challenges to environmental, safety or endangered-species regulations could clog the state’s courts? Judges need to balance freedoms and responsibilities in a broad array of situations – one reason constitutional rights have traditionally been expressed in broad principles rather than narrow specifics.

Finally, there is this not inconsiderable point: No sentient human being can believe that the state of Indiana would actually ban hunting and fishing. From the beginning, this proposal has been a colossal waste of time and energy whose passage could work costly mischief with courts and regulators and trivialize a magnificent document.

Environmental groups opposing the measure also point out that it would make hunting and fishing the “preferred method of wildlife management” in Indiana, placing hunting legally ahead of non-lethal forms of wildlife management (relocation, fencing, contraception, etc.) and threatening to interfere with future efforts to find new ways to manage our wildlife.

And of course, the amendment would be one more nail in the coffin of local control; it would limit the ability of local municipalities to pass their own laws to protect wildlife in their jurisdictions as they see fit.

The second are school board elections. In my district, that has gotten very ugly.

As Abdul recently noted in the Indianapolis Star,

With respect to IPS, the district has come a long way since the dark days of Emperor Eugene White. Long gone are the days of the district spiraling into a fiscal abyss, and a board whose majorities of members were more concerned about employing adults and placating unions than educating children. And if there wasn’t a headline about the state getting ready to take over another failing school, we would have thought we were reading the wrong newspaper.

Looking objectively as to where the district is as opposed to where it was a few years ago, you can only see that progress is being made and things are going in the right direction.

He followed that introduction with objective data confirming the “right direction” assertion. I encourage readers to click through and review that data.

Now, people can differ about change, and everyone who disagrees about particular reforms isn’t a conspiracy theorist. But some are. (This is apparently the season for conspiracy theories.)The incumbents running for re-election–the people who are finally steering the ship in the right direction–are stridently opposed by a couple of “groups.” (The quotation marks are because at least one of these groups appeared pretty much out of nowhere, and has been anything but transparent, so for all we know, it’s three parents pissed off about something.)

Now, I am hardly a dispassionate observer; my stepdaughter serves on the Board, and although she is not one of those running for re-election this year, she has regularly shared Board policies and debates; furthermore, I personally know all the members who are on this year’s ballot. Agree or not with their actions or priorities, but they are good people, earnestly trying to do what is best for IPS children–and they don’t deserve to be called “child molesters” and “pawns of the plutocracy.” They don’t deserve to have their motives questioned and their honesty impugned.

Evidently, 2016 is the year for unhinged conspiracy theories, outright lies, demeaning insults and vulgar language. In my view, people who engage in these sorts of behaviors–from Trump to “Our IPS”–are for that reason alone unfit to serve.


If We Just Kill Off My Age Cohort, Things Will Improve….

For the past several weeks, this blog has mostly been sharing depressing observations. Since it’s Sunday (a day for uplift, or at the very least some time off), I thought I’d post a more hopeful story before returning to what threatens to become the “regular programming”at least until November 8th.

In a post memorably titled “Our Lady of Perpetual Misogyny,” Juanita Jean related a story of fundamentalist sexism and its unexpectedly heartwarming conclusion.

Two girls at Foothills Academy, a high school in Scottsdale, Arizona, made the boys’ soccer team. When the school was scheduled to play Our Lady of Sorrows (how appropriate!), a Phoenix parochial school, they were informed that Our Lady’s all-boy soccer team would not even come on the field if the girls were to play. They would rather forfeit. (God says girls have cooties…)

Presumably, they’d get those cooties–or be barred from heaven–if they so much as kicked a soccer ball in a game where females participated. The Foothills coach left it up to the team to decide whether to play without the girls, or to forfeit.

Each player on his team voted. Every player voted to accept the forfeit. Especially noted are the players who are being looked at for college soccer scholarships and whose stats will be affected by each game not played. “I don’t give a damn about my stats, the girls are my team mates.”

The league will be updating their rosters with schools willing to play girls.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: once my age cohort is gone, things will improve. As stories like this confirm, the younger generation gives reason for optimism.

The undergraduate and graduate students I teach are by orders of magnitude more inclusive, less bigoted and more focused upon building community than the cranky old men and women of my generation.

If we can manage not to destroy the world–or elect Donald Trump (pretty much the same thing)– before we hand it over to them, things will definitely improve.

Market Economy versus Market Society

A recent opinion column from the Lafayette Journal-Gazette caught my eye. Written by Ed Eiler, a former school superintendent, it began

Three recent newsworthy items deserve our attention. The first is a study in the American Educational Research Journal, which concluded rising income inequality in the U.S. is a primary cause of the growing economic segregation of schools. As the gap grows, affluent families are more likely to segregate themselves into enclaves where there are few poor children in the public schools.

The second is a report issued by the Indiana Department of Education that calculated the net increased cost for the state’s education voucher program to be $53.2 million. Some 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

The final report is one completed by the National Conference of State Legislatures addressing educational reform. The report acknowledges there are no silver bullets and the present efforts at reform have failed. The report recognizes the importance of having all stakeholders be a part of the process of improving our schools.

Why does any of this matter? All of these reports can be tied to the effort to privatize education.

Eiler then references a book by Michael Sandel, who makes an important distinction between markets that deal with material goods, which he finds “valuable and productive” and markets operating  in areas where they do not belong, in our civic lives.

Should educational opportunities be made available based upon the ability to pay? Should we pay children to read books or get good grades? Should people receive health care on the basis of their ability to pay? Should access to politicians and the political system be governed by those who have more money? Should legal representation be affected by one’s financial circumstances? Should you be able to pay someone else to take your place in serving your country? Should citizenship be for sale?

Sandel asserts markets may in fact undermine or crowd out non-market attitudes and values worth caring about and change the character of some goods and social practices. He writes that the most corrosive effect of markets is the loss of our commonality – “we’re all in it together.”

This argument underscores what I have sometimes called a “category mistake.” I’ve previously written that our misguided and unsuccessful drug war is a consequence of placing drug abuse in the category of criminal justice rather than public health. Similarly, too many school reform efforts categorize education as another consumer good, rather than a public necessity.

Of course we all want our children to receive educations that will enable them to compete for jobs and status, just as we all want university graduates to find gainful employment. But the purpose of education goes far beyond those “consumer” goals. Genuine education is not job training; it both enriches the lives of recipients (a market good) and creates good citizens (a social good). As political scientist Benjamin Barber has written, public education is constitutive of a public.

So long as we think of education as a consumer good, a “product” we purchase for our children, we will continue to have affluent families segregate themselves from poorer communities, and we will continue to exacerbate inequality.

Public education is–and must be categorized as–a public good. And an exceptionally important one. Properly understood, it is not something that private markets can provide.

What To Do, What To Do…

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating.

I teach my law and public policy classes through a constitutional “lens,” because I am convinced that students must understand America’s fundamental legal framework and philosophy if they are to approach policy proposals with the necessary analytic tools.

I often introduce the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment with a purposely silly question: “What did James Madison think about porn on the Internet?” Usually, the student I’ve asked will laugh and respond that Madison never encountered the Internet; that then allows us to discuss the expressive values Madison and other Founders were trying to protect, and the ways in which modern courts attempt to protect those values in a world that the Founders could never have envisioned.

But several years ago, when I asked a student that question, she looked at me blankly and said “Who’s James Madison?”

That experience–unfortunately, not an outlier–led to the establishment of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, (CCL) and research to determine how much Americans really know–or don’t– about the country’s history, economy and legal system, and the political and social consequences of low levels of civic knowledge.

If anyone doubts the corrosive effect of civic ignorance, I suggest watching this year’s political campaigns.

There is clearly little we can do that would immediately improve the abysmal state of public discourse as it is practiced today, but in addition to research into the causes and consequences of civic ignorance, CCL has been working with the League of Women Voters and the Indiana Bar Foundation, among others, to produce materials that we hope will help address the issue going forward.

The Center and the Bar Foundation have published a book called “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance.” The book points to the pervasive social and cultural supports that reward knowledge of sporting events and trivia, and makes the argument that we need to institute similar mechanisms that would reward and increase civic knowledge.

Young Americans who can tell you who threw out the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series are capable of answering equally obscure questions about the Articles of Confederation, but American culture privileges sports knowledge over civic literacy. The book suggests a number of mechanisms for bringing civics “into the sunlight”–from relatively “do-able” measures like increasing participation in the excellent “We the People” curriculum and competition, to “wouldn’t it be wonderful” suggestions for a new GI Bill that would reduce student debt while increasing civic information and engagement.

Information about the book’s availability will be posted to the Center’s website shortly.

Another publication–originally an ebook, but just this month available in paperback--is a mere 36 pages of essential civic information. Titled Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before Opening Your Mouth, it includes “What everyone should know about the Constitution and American legal system,” “What everyone should know about the American economic system,” “What everyone should know about science,” and “What everyone should know about politics.”

Obviously, all of those subjects cannot be comprehensively covered in 36 pages, but the book provides basic facts and settled definitions that can allow people to argue for their policy preferences more productively and convincingly.

I encourage readers of this blog to examine these two products, and if you find them useful–and I think you will–disseminate them broadly. Discuss the recommendations in “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance”with school curriculum officials. Read Talking Politics in your book club. Whatever.

I think thoughtful Americans of every party and political philosophy will agree that–whatever else America’s current election campaign may signify–the nomination of Donald Trump by a major party could only occur in a country where significant numbers of citizens have no understanding of the way their nation’s government works, or the rules that constrain elected officials.

That nomination should be a wake-up call.


When “Private” Really Isn’t

Remember when Ross Perot built his third-party campaign on his image as a hard-headed private-sector businessman? And it turned out that his company did most of its “private-sector” business with government?

The revelations about Trump University are highlighting a similar reality: most supposedly “private sector” universities are financed with tax dollars.

Investigations by government officials and reporters over the past few years have uncovered numerous abuses by these schools, which recruit heavily among populations unprepared for higher education, encourage students to take on government-insured loans, and fail to provide them with the education and skills they need to succeed in the job market. According to the U.S. Department of Education, for-profit schools are responsible for 44% of all student loan defaults.

Like Trump “University,” most of these institutions aren’t universities–they’re scams. And  Trump isn’t the only public office-seeker with ties to these lucrative enterprises.

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, in a tight race for re-election, is being criticized for his ties to Yorktown University:

The Pennsylvania Senator is expected to get the Trump U treatment over his dealings with Yorktown University, a for-profit college that has been criticized for its lack of accreditation, questionable academic offerings and marketing to veterans who can receive government tuition aid. Toomey is an investor in the online program, served on its boards and agreed to appear in its marketing materials.


Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio was hit in the Republican primary for his support of the now-closed Corinthian Colleges; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took some heat for his support of Victory University, a for-profit based in Memphis, before its untimely demise; and former President Bill Clinton has faced censure for his lucrative work with for-profit colleges, even as his wife has criticized them.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has consistently attacked schools trading false hopes for the tuition dollars being provided courtesy of taxpayers. The Education Department’s long-debated “gainful employment” rule, which requires colleges to track their graduates’ performance in the workforce and eventually will cut off funding for career training programs that fall short, was recently upheld by the courts. The Justice Department recently announced that Education Affiliates would pay $13 million to settle allegations it had falsified federal financial aid claims and issued fake diplomas, the latest in a string of similar actions.

It is past time to shut down these phony “schools” that exist only to prey on the vulnerable while defrauding taxpayers.

Why do I think that wouldn’t happen in a Trump-Pence Administration?