Category Archives: Education / Youth

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.

 

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.