Category Archives: Education / Youth

Joe Biden And Childhood Poverty

Joe Biden has been President for barely a month, and he has already proved me wrong.

Don’t misunderstand–I have always really liked Biden. I have read enough stories and heard about enough incidents from people who know him personally to recognize that he is a genuinely decent, caring human being. A mensch. I was in agreement with his platform, and I was happy to vote for him. But his long history of bipartisanship in the Senate–not to mention the Obama Administration’s (constantly rebuffed) efforts to reach across the aisle–led me to expect more of the same.

Instead, Biden hasn’t just “hit the ground running.” He has been aggressive and arguably transformative. He has acted decisively to rid the federal government of the sleeper agents (my terminology, but I’d argue it’s accurate) inserted in various agencies; he’s appointed highly competent, experienced people to replace the corrupt lobbyists and know-nothings intent upon crippling those agencies, and I have applauded his clear commitment to the environment, to ending the pandemic and getting the economy back on track, among numerous other things.

While Biden has been civil and welcoming to Republicans who have made noises about compromise–Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post dubbed Biden’s recent meeting with ten GOP Senators an “exercise in performative bipartisanship”– he’s also made it very clear that he intends to fulfill his campaign promises with or without them. No more falling for what has aptly been called the GOP’s “Lucy and the football” ploys.

In other words, the good news has just kept coming!

And here’s more: I only recently became aware of an incredibly important element of Biden’s pandemic stimulus–a measure that experts say could reduce childhood poverty by fifty percent.

As Nicholas Kristof explained in his column in the New York Times, 

President Biden included a proposal in his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that one study says would cut child poverty by half. We in the news media have focused on direct payments to individuals, but the historic element of Biden’s plan is its effort to slash child poverty.

“The American Rescue Plan is the most ambitious proposal to reduce child poverty ever proposed by an American president,” Jason Furman, a Harvard economist, told me.

It will not surprise anyone to know that this provision was entirely absent from the Republican “compromise” proposal. (The party of “religion and Jesus and children,” as Representative Rosa DeLauro sarcastically put it…Or as Kristof writes, “Jesus says (19:14) suffer the little children to approach him; he absolutely does not recommend that the little children shall suffer.”)

Biden’s plan to address child poverty would expand the existing child tax credit, up to $3,600 a year for young children. There is an existing child tax credit, but the way it currently works, the families that are most in need of it earn too little to take advantage of it. They earn too little to pay taxes, and the credit is taken against taxes owed. So it looks progressive–even magnanimous– but in practice, it isn’t.  

Biden’s plan would change the credit into a monthly stipend–and as Kristof notes, even a sum as modest as $3,600 would be utterly transformative for many low-income families.

One reason to think that this would be so successful is that many other countries have used similar strategies to cut child poverty by large margins. Canada’s parallel approach cut child poverty by 20 to 30 percent, depending on who’s counting, and Britain under Tony Blair cut child poverty in half.

Now that Democrats are in power, Republicans can be expected to protest that the country can’t afford Biden’s plan. (That protest conveniently overlooks the $2.3 trillion dollar cost of their massive tax cut, which primarily enriched the already affluent.) A cost-benefit analysis says we certainly can afford it, because it will ultimately save money– current estimates put the costs of child poverty to the United States at about $1 trillion annually, a sum that reflects reduced adult productivity, increased crime and higher health care costs. 

During the primaries, I worried that both Biden and Bernie were too old. I was wrong. It may be that Biden expects to be a one-term president–a realization that frees him from second-term electoral calculations, and reminds him that he has a limited time to turn the country around. 

Whatever the reason, I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. Biden is on his way to being a truly transformative president.

 

Vouchers And Christian Nationalism

When historians look back at this time–at Trumpism, the insurrection at the Capitol, America’s extreme polarization, and campaigns of continuing disinformation–they will undoubtedly identify a number of contributors to our civic unrest. (I want to point out here that I am being optimistic–I am assuming humanity survives and produces historians…)

One of those contributors will be the state-level voucher programs sending dollars that should support public education to private, overwhelmingly religious schools. As an article in Huffpost reported,

Christian textbooks used in thousands of schools around the country teach that President Barack Obama helped spur destructive Black Lives Matter protests, that the Democrats’ choice of 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton reflected their focus on identity politics, and that President Donald Trump is the “fighter” Republicans want, a HuffPost analysis has found.

The analysis focused on three textbooks from two major publishers of Christian educational materials ― Abeka and BJU Press–used in a majority of Christian schools, and examined  their coverage of American history and politics. All three delivered what you might call a “curated”(i.e. skewed) history, and taught that contemporary America is experiencing “an urgent moral decline that can only be fixed by conservative Christian policies.”

Even more troubling, the analysis found that language used in the books “overlaps with the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.” One scholar was quoted as saying that, as voucher programs have moved more children into these schools, Christian Nationalism has become more mainstream.

Scholars say textbooks like these, with their alternate versions of history and emphasis on Christian national identity, represent one small part of the conditions that lead to events like last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol, an episode that was permeated with the symbols of Christian nationalism. Before storming the Capitol, some groups prayed in the name of Jesus and asked for divine protection. They flew Christian and “Jesus 2020” flags and pointed to Trump’s presidency as the will of God. The linkage between Christian beliefs and the violent attack on Congress has since pushed evangelical leaders to confront their own relationship with Trump and their support for the rioters.

Salon published an interview with one of the researchers who conducted the analysis. She found that over 7,000 schools around the country currently participate in a voucher or a tax credit program, and that three quarters of the participating schools were religious. (In Indiana, some 95% of voucher recipients attend a religious school.) At least 30 percent of those schools were using a curriculum provided by Abeka, Accelerated Christian Education, or Bob Jones.

Her description of the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum was hair-raising. You really need to click through and read it. 

She also referenced Indiana, which–as we Hoosiers know– has one of the “more comprehensive voucher programs,” and the millions of taxpayer dollars going to schools that use one of these curricula. She also noted that, In the vast majority of states that have voucher programs, “there is zero oversight over what schools and voucher and tax credit programs are teaching. Quite literally zero.”

These findings are entirely consistent with my own research. When a colleague and I looked to see whether voucher schools are under any state-imposed obligations to teach civics, we found a total lack of any such requirements–and virtually no oversight at all. (A study of religious voucher schools in Louisiana found science classes teaching creationism, along with health and safety violations.)

It’s bad enough that too many legislators–and parents–consider education to be just another consumer good–giving children skills they will need to participate in the marketplace. But even if that were the case, study after study has shown that these programs have failed to improve academic performance.

Private schools, including private religious schools, have a First Amendment right to teach whatever they want–when they are being funded with private dollars. When they are being supported with public dollars taken from public schools, however, as they are in states with voucher programs, the calculus should be different. This is especially the case because public education is also supposed to be a mechanism for instilling Constitutional and democratic values–public schools, as Benjamin Barber memorably wrote, are “constitutive of a public.”

There are fewer and fewer “street corners” in today’s fragmented world, fewer places where people from different cultures, races, religions and perspectives come together in any meaningful way. Economically-separated residential patterns make that ideal hard enough to achieve through public schools–but using tax dollars to create another set of “bubbles” through which rightwing extremists can deny science and transmit a Christian Nationalist worldview is both a betrayal of our public obligations and yet another reason for America’s declining civic cohesion.

Constitutional Rights At The Schoolhouse Door

As regular readers of this blog and my former students know, I  approach my course on “Law and Public Affairs” through a constitutional lens. There are some obvious reasons for that focus: many of my students will work for government agencies, and will be  legally obliged to adhere to what I have sometimes called “the Constitutional Ethic.” Due to the apparent lack of civic education in the nation’s high schools, a troubling number of  graduate students come to class with very hazy understandings of the country’s legal foundations.

Freedom of speech seems particularly susceptible to misunderstanding.

The first problem is that a significant number of Americans don’t “get” that  the Bill of Rights only restrains government. Walmart or the Arts and Entertainment Channel or (as one angry caller insisted when I was at the ACLU) White Castle cannot be sued for denying you your First Amendment Right to express yourself.

The most difficult concept for my students, however, has been the principle of content neutrality. Government can–within reasonable limits– regulate the time, place and manner of citizens’ communication, but it cannot favor some messages over others. (I used to illustrate that rule by explaining that city ordinances could prohibit sound trucks from operating in residential neighborhoods between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am, but could not allow trucks advocating for candidate Smith while banning those for candidate Jones. I had to discontinue that example when I realized that none of today’s students had the slightest idea what a sound truck was…)

One example I did continue to use was public school efforts to control T-shirts with messages on them. Private schools can do what they wish–they aren’t government–but public schools cannot constitutionally favor some messages over others. This is evidently a lesson that many Indiana schools have yet to learn. A brief article from the Indianapolis Star reports that the ACLU is suing a school in Manchester, Indiana, after a student was forced by administrators to go home for wearing a T-shirt with the text “I hope I don’t get killed for being Black today.”

According to the Complaint, students at the school are allowed to wear T-shirts with Confederate flags and “Blue Lives Matter” slogans. It describes the plaintiff, who is identified only by his initials, as one of the few Black students at the school.

“Schools cannot selectively choose which social issues students can support through messages on their clothing,” Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana’s legal director, said in a prepared statement on Monday. “Students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors. The refusal of the school to allow D.E. to wear his t-shirt is a violation of his right to free speech.”

The school would be within its rights to ban all “message” T-shirts (although I can hear the grumbling now). Favoring certain messages over others, however, is a violation of the principle of content-neutrality –a core precept of the Free Speech Clause that prohibits government from favoring some messages over others.

The courts give school administrators a good deal more leeway than other government actors, on the theory that providing an educational environment requires a larger measure of control than would be appropriate for adults. But there are limits; as Ken Falk noted, and the Supreme Court affirmed in Tinker v. DeMoinesstudents do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.

Far too many school administrators are more focused on exerting control than on modeling or transmitting basic constitutional values. Too many public schools are operated as totalitarian regimes–environments that stress compliance and group-think, rather than teaching critical thinking, acquainting young people with the values of a democratic society, and encouraging civic debate and engagement.

When school officials themselves routinely break the rules, is it any wonder so many young people graduate still unaware of them?

 

Libraries

On yet another pandemic Sunday, I want to talk about anything but Trump and the transition. So…

At some point in history class, most of us learned about the fire that destroyed the library in Alexandria–a structure supposedly filled with all of the knowledge that humans had acquired by that point.

A few days ago, I came across an intriguing article about that story. Evidently, the great fire was mostly a legend–but the events that did lead to that monumental loss should stand as an even more significant warning about the dangers of anti-intellectualism.

The article began by quoting from Carl Sagan’s retelling of the conflagration that (legend tells us) destroyed the knowledge that had been acquired in the ancient world, all of which was thought to be within the library’s marble walls. Sagan warned that destruction of the library should be seen as a caution to those of us who are living some 1,600 years later.

Sagan stood in a line of writers who, for the last two or three hundred years, have made the word Alexandria conjure up not a place—a city in Egypt—but an image of a burning library. The term Alexandria has become shorthand for the triumph of ignorance over the very essence of civilization.

The article set out what historians do and don’t know about the actual library and its destruction. Although there are competing theories, it is most likely that the library met its end gradually–not in one big blaze, but over years and decades of neglect and growing ignorance. Although it is probable that there were fires during those years, accounting for the loss of many books, the “institution of the library” was destroyed more gradually– through organizational neglect and the growing obsolescence of the papyrus scrolls themselves.

And therein lies the real moral of the story.

Alexandria is, in that telling, a cautionary tale of the danger of creeping decline, through the underfunding, low prioritization and general disregard for the institutions that preserve and share knowledge: libraries and archives. Today, we must remember that war is not the only way an Alexandria can be destroyed.

The long history of attacks on knowledge includes not just deliberate violence—during the Holocaust or China’s Cultural Revolution, for example—but also the wilful deprioritization of support for these institutions, which we are witnessing in Western societies today. The impact that these various acts of destruction of libraries and archives has had on communities and on society as a whole is profound. Communities in places like Iraq and Mali have seen Islamic extremists target libraries for attack, and in the U.K. over the past decade, more than 800 public libraries have closed through lack of support from local Government.

The movement of human archives to internet servers (or the Web or the Cloud or other digital storage venues) has been just one of the numerous dislocations we humans are experiencing in our bumpy transition to a digital age. As various legislative bodies wrestle with the issues presented by that transition and by the emergence and dominance of huge digital enterprises, the protection of knowledge–and the ability to distinguish knowledge from disinformation, fantasy and conspiracy theory–has to be a primary goal.

Libraries and librarians are immensely more important guardians of that goal than Google.

Neglect of libraries is part and parcel what Isaac Asimov called the “cult of ignorance,” a phenomenon that we see in contemporary dismissals of expertise as “elitism”and the cyclical eruptions of anti-intellectualism in the United States. Asimov’s famous quote probably says it best:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

If the story of Alexandria stands for anything, it’s the importance of libraries–national and local. Those libraries are our gatekeepers, safeguarding our ability to access practical information as well as hard-won wisdom that has been built up over centuries. If we fail to adequately fund, maintain and protect them, we will suffer a setback not unlike the years following the legendary loss of the Library at Alexandria.

 

 

Middle Schoolers Solve Gerrymandering!

One of the many structural problems that prevents America from experiencing genuine democratic accountability is gerrymandering. Those of you who have been reading this blog for more than a few months will have encountered my frequent posts describing the multitude of ways that partisan redistricting–aka gerrymandering–distorts election results and operates to suppress citizen participation.

Over the years, the Supreme Court’s majority has declined to find partisan redistricting unconstitutional or even justiciable–piously labeling it a “political question.” One of the Court’s excuses was the unavailability of reliable tests to determine whether a vote margin was the result of a gerrymander or simply a reflection of majority sentiment. Even after tests were developed that proved their accuracy to the satisfaction of lower courts,  the Supreme Court declined to rule against the practice, reinforcing the widespread conclusion that the Justices’ decisions were impelled more by ideology than an inability to determine whether gerrymandering had occurred.

Now, according to a fascinating article from Forbes,  a group of middle-school children has demonstrated the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff–or in this case, the gerrymander from political enthusiasm.

The article began by noting that the practice of gerrymandering is used to “dilute the voting power of certain constituents, minorities, and other groups.” (In the felicitous phrase coined by Common Cause, gerrymandering is the process that allows legislators to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.)

As the subject of their science research project, three middle school students from Niskayuna, New York, decided to take on this serious issue. In their work, Kai Vernooy, James Lian, and Arin Khare devised a way to measure the amount of gerrymandering in each state and created a mathematical algorithm that could draw fair and balanced district boundaries. The results of the project were submitted to Broadcom MASTERS, the nation’s leading middle school STEM competition run by the Society for Science & the Public, where Vernooy, 14, won the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation and a $10,000 prize.

These middle schoolers, who are too young to vote, decided to use scientific research to solve the problem of identifying when a redistricting map was the product of a gerrymander. They came up with a method of identifying political communities and regions of like-minded voters, then grouped those communities together to form precincts.

Each precinct was adjusted to include a compact or circle-like shape, a similar population size and a similar partisanship ratio. The result was a simple representation of where groups of like-minded voters live in each state.

These precincts were then compared to actual voting districts within the state. The comparison shows the percentage of people that are in the precinct but not the district, therefore illuminating the number of people that the district fails to represent. Using this method, they were able to give each state a gerrymandering score.

The article included color-coded maps illustrating the process the middle-schoolers devised. It ended with the pious hope that “the right people” would take note.

The article should serve to remind us that there are solutions even to seemingly intractable structural problems. The disinclination of the Court and Congress to actually implement those solutions is a different kind of reminder.

That disinclination reminds us that the people who benefit from cheating are unlikely to be interested in stopping the practice.