Tag Archives: Doug Masson

Vouchers, Discrimination And Corruption

Indiana has the largest, most costly school voucher program in the country.

How wasteful/counterproductive is our state’s largesse to private (mostly religious) schools? Let me count the ways: the promised improvement in student achievement did not materialize; badly-needed funds have been diverted from the public schools that most Hoosier children still attend; taxpayers are subsidizing discrimination (schools getting millions of dollars are discharging teachers and counselors for the “sin” of being in same-sex marriages); and there are no requirements that recipients of vouchers teach civics.

Now we also find that the lack of oversight has facilitated a massive rip off of Hoosier taxpayers. Doug Masson has written the best summary of that problem.

The joke is that dead people vote in Chicago. Apparently they go to school in Indiana. Stephanie Wang, reporting for Chalkbeat Indiana, has an article about the Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathway Academy which, among a number of other abuses, kept a dead kid on their claims for state money for two years after he died.

Five years after two students moved to Florida, they reappeared on enrollment records for Indiana Virtual School and its sister school.

And nearly every one of the more than 900 students kicked out of Indiana Virtual School and its sister school in the 2017-18 school year for being inactive were re-enrolled the next school year, included in per-pupil funding calculations that netted the two online schools more than $34 million in public dollars last year.

These were among the ways that Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy allegedly inflated their enrollment to at least twice its actual size, according to the findings of a state examiner’s investigation released Monday.

As Doug points out, heads would roll if it was discovered that a public school was manipulating its Average Daily Membership (ADM).

The virtual school superintendent responded by reminding everyone that these weren’t great students and also freedom.

In a written response to the state education board, Clark did not address the enrollment discrepancies but defended the online schools for serving “last-chance students” who have dropped out of or been expelled from traditional public schools — even if they weren’t active.

He accused state education officials of trying “to remove educational choice and force students to remain in school environments in which success has evaded them and where hope has abandoned them.”

“The beacon of hope has just been doused,” Clark concluded.

Doug’s response to this asinine defense was a perfect bit of snark: “Also, I’d add that if you make public money for voucher schools contingent on providing actual services to actual students, then the terrorists win. Obviously.”

Initially, many people who favored vouchers truly believed that such programs would “rescue” poor children trapped in failing schools. (In true American style, it didn’t occur to most of them to advocate fixing those schools.) They pointed to better outcomes in private schools, conveniently overlooking sociological differences between families sending children to private schools and others. (Studies controlling for those differences found no statistically significant differences.)

However well-meaning those initial supporters were, the evidence is in: in addition to the consequences enumerated above, vouchers are yet another wedge between America’s tribes, separating children of different religions (and in many places, races, as their use increasingly re-segregates school populations) from each other.

In addition to providing academic instruction, public schools serve as a “street corner” for children from different backgrounds. Given residential segregation based on income, that street corner is admittedly imperfect, but it nevertheless fosters more civic integration than the religious institutions that separate the theologically acceptable from the “others.”

Let’s face the facts: vouchers were a (very clever) “work around” allowing tax dollars to flow to religious schools despite the Establishment Clause–part of the continuing fundamentalist assault on separation of church and state.

And they haven’t even improved children’s education.

 

 

“Ethical Objections” And Women’s Rights

As I have previously noted, Doug Masson is one of Indiana’s most thoughtful and knowledgable bloggers; his essays are particularly helpful when the legislature is in session, because in addition to being a lawyer, he was once on the staff of Legislative Services, the agency charged with drafting bills that will actually do what lawmakers want to accomplish (assuming, of course, that those measures are passed).

Doug recently looked at one of the anti-choice measures that are repeatedly and inevitably introduced in Indiana.

S.B. 201 provides that pharmacists and nurses can’t be required to administer or dispense an “abortion inducing drug” if they claim to have an ethical objection. (Evidently, according to Doug, the statutory definition of an “abortion inducing drug” excludes Plan B, for whatever comfort that might provide.) But analyzing which medications would fall under the bill’s parameters and which ones wouldn’t is really beside the point.

As Doug puts it:

Beyond that, of course, there is the impact on women who want control over their own bodies. And there’s the question of why abortion should be entitled to special pleading when it comes to employee’s ethical concerns over their employer’s operations. What if a health care provider finds drug use immoral and objects to treating addicts? What if a gun store employee objects to selling firearms to guys who abuse their wives? What if a bank employee objects to their employer’s lending practices? Usually we tell employees to go work somewhere else, but this legislation seeks to carve out a special exception for a medical service that, for the time being anyway, remains a Constitutional right.

That is, of course, the crux of the matter. The male legislators who simply cannot abide the notion that a woman should control her own reproduction evidently assume that ethical principles are limited to situations that offend their personal religious beliefs (or threaten patriarchal dominance.)

The Bill of Rights limits the decisions that government can properly make. The issue isn’t abortion. The issue is who has the right to make that decision. In our system, the government doesn’t get to decide what prayer you say, or if you pray at all; it doesn’t get to decide what book you read or what political positions you endorse. Government doesn’t get to decide who you can love, whether you can use contraception, or whether a woman will carry a pregnancy to term.

The real issue is power.

A government that can tell women they can’t abort has the power to tell women they must abort. (See: China) Our system doesn’t give government the authority to make those decisions for individual citizens.

Government also doesn’t get to decide whose “ethical objections” deserve to be honored and whose can be ignored.

If a pharmacist’s religious beliefs interfere with his ability to dispense medications, he needs to find another profession. And if a lawmaker’s religious commitments outweigh his fidelity to the U.S. Constitution (despite the oath he takes when he assumes his position) he shouldn’t be in the legislature.

Word Choices Can Feed Bias

A recent headline in the Indianapolis Star read: “McCormick Calls for LBGTQ Strings on Private School Voucher Money.”  (Jennifer McCormick is Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.)

Strings? Or standards?

The statement by McCormick–with which I entirely agree–was prompted by a local controversy over actions taken by Roncalli High School. Roncalli is an Indianapolis Catholic High School that placed one of its guidance counselors on administrative leave after discovering that she was in a same-sex marriage. The school has evidently threatened to terminate her unless she dissolves her marriage.

Roncalli has received more than $6.5 million in public money over the past five years through Indiana’s most-expansive-in-the-nation school voucher program.

The issue is simple: should public dollars–which come from all Hoosiers, including gay and lesbian taxpayers–support schools that discriminate against some of those Hoosiers?

I would argue that taxpayer dollars ought not support private–and especially religious– schools at all, but that is an argument for another day. In any event, I found the Star’s headline offensive. By characterizing McCormick’s proposed standards for receipt of public dollars as “strings,” it strongly suggested that an unnecessarily picky bureaucracy was trying to make it difficult for religious schools to participate in Indiana’s voucher program. It utterly trivialized a very important issue, which is the use of public money to subsidize discrimination.

As usual, Doug Masson has a more temperate–and eloquent– response to the story, and to the issue.

The issue of inclusiveness appears to be a reference to Roncalli’s decision to terminate a long-time, well-regarded guidance counselor when the school was made aware (or forced to acknowledge) that the counselor had a spouse of the same sex. Roncalli is a private school but it’s funded — in part — with public money. The question becomes whether public money should come with conditions and, if so, what conditions should be attached. Obviously, it should and does come with conditions. Voucher money can’t just go anywhere. The voucher school has to look and act more or less like a school. If it was, for example, a tavern that labeled itself a “school,” then Rep. Behning would likely change his position. He says:

If parents have a problem with the school’s practices, employment or otherwise, Behning said they can send their child elsewhere. In that case their tuition will follow, whether it’s paid by the parent or by the state. “Parents are the ones that should be making those decisions,” he said, “rather than the government.”

Rep. Behning is obviously being a little disingenuous here. The government simply wouldn’t let parents make the tavern decision. So, as the joke goes, we’re just haggling over the price. Is discrimination on that basis against an otherwise well-qualified employee because she has a same-sex spouse something we’re willing to fund or not? I obviously fall on the “not” side of that question, and it sounds like Dr. McCormick does as well. My guess is that the General Assembly will be perfectly willing to continue subsidizing Roncalli, notwithstanding its employment practices. (Because, remember, my view of the three goals of the General Assembly when it comes to school vouchers: 1) Hurt the teacher’s unions; 2) direct education money to friends & well-wishers; and 3) subsidize religious education.)

Before education reformers write me to protest that we need “alternatives” and “choice” and “innovations,” let me suggest that they research the difference between Charter schools, which are public and subject to the Constitution, and schools receiving vouchers, which are private and aren’t.

As usual, I agree completely with Doug’s analysis. (I do think he’s too kind to Rep. Behning…”disingenuous” isn’t the word I’d have chosen.)

Another word I wouldn’t have chosen is “strings.” As the saying goes, one person’s “red tape” is the next person’s accountability.

Get The Lead Out

Doug Masson recently shared a news article and a righteous rant.

The shared article was a report on lead contamination in northwest Indiana. It seems we Hoosiers have the nation’s largest source of such contamination–not a distinction to celebrate.

The nation’s largest source of industrial lead pollution is 20 miles down the Lake Michigan shore from Chicago in Indiana, churning more than twice as much of the brain-damaging metal into the air each year as all other factories in the region combined.

The company responsible is ArcerlorMittal (a company I’d never heard of); its Burns Harbor plant is the (ir)responsible emitter. According to the report, the plant has topped the list since 2013.

The continuing coverage of Flint, Michigan’s unsafe water generally includes a recitation of the effects of lead poisoning, and they aren’t pretty. They also aren’t reversible; if a child ingests lead through the water, as in Flint, or from flaking of old paint in run-down houses, or from areas of contaminated ground (we have a number in Indianapolis’ poorer precincts), the damage to that child’s intellectual functioning is life-long.

The referenced “rant” is how Masson describes his frustration–which I share–with conservatives’ constant attack on regulation. Pollution is the poster child for why regulatory activity is an essential function of government. As Doug points out, absent regulation, it will always be cheaper to pollute the air that others breathe or the water that others drink than to dispose of the waste from your manufacturing process in a manner that doesn’t harm others.

Meanwhile, pollution means that the market is getting incomplete information about the cost of (in this case) the steel being produced. They offload some of the costs of their production onto the people suffering brain damage from the lead pollution. Those people are, in effect, subsidizing the cost of production. Because the cost of the pollution is not reflected in the price of the steel, the market gets the signal that this form of production is more efficient than it really is. Polluters are rewarded and, consequently, environmentally sound production processes are put at a competitive disadvantage because they don’t force nearby residents to subsidize the process by breathing in the tainted air.

Economists call pollutants generated by manufacturing “externalities,” and note that failing to account for them in the cost of goods being produced distorts the market and–as Doug notes–puts manufacturers who are properly disposing of their pollutants at a pricing disadvantage.

Are some regulations onerous and unnecessarily broad? Sure. Are others inadequate? Absolutely. Regulatory activity by its very nature must be calibrated–ideally, rules governing commercial enterprises should be only as restrictive as necessary to the achievement of the desired result.

When we discuss government regulatory activity in my classes, I always emphasize the inadequacy of the usual political and ideological “either/or” formulations–as I tell my students, the need for and adequacy of any particular regulation will always be what lawyers like to call “fact-sensitive.” Issuing a wholesale assault on “regulation” writ large makes no more sense than advocating the elimination of “laws” because some laws are over-broad or unnecessary.

One of the most frustrating elements of our current impoverished and dishonest political discourse is the over-simplification of issues that are complex and/or nuanced. Too much of our public debate is conducted via bumper-sticker slogans and easy, inaccurate generalizations. When it comes to protecting the environment, those formulations are not only inaccurate, they are dangerously misleading.

Most Americans want the air they breathe to be clean, the water they drink to be safe, the playground soil to be free of harmful contaminants. It would be wonderful if we could rely upon the ethics of manufacturers to ensure the safety of our environment, but we can’t. We have no choice but to rely upon the government to promulgate and enforce rules against despoiling our air and water.

Of all the many obscenities being perpetrated by the Trump administration, watching the EPA play “footsie” with favored corporate polluters while refusing to discharge its most basic responsibility–to safeguard the environment– may be the worst.

 

 

Rawls And Masson Are Right

Doug Masson can always be counted upon for thoughtful observations about policy proposals, whether those are at the state or federal level. In a recent post,  he took a look at the GOP’s tax bill, and made a point that is often missed–or misunderstood.

After criticizing Orrin Hatch’s nonsensical justification for a provision that would widen the gap between the rich and poor, Masson writes

I always get grief from my conservative friends when I say stuff like this, but reducing wealth disparities in the country isn’t just a matter of bleeding-heart, feel-good liberal mumbo jumbo like fairness and equality. Concentration of large amounts of wealth in a few hands distorts markets and democratic processes. The system can tolerate — even thrives under — certain amounts of inequality. It creates incentives that fuel the economy. But, beyond a certain point, things start to break down.

The most common defense of Masson’s position–a defense that is entirely accurate, albeit incomplete–is historical. Most countries that have experienced persistent large-scale inequalities have eventually been destabilized by revolt or revolution. This country is already seeing signs of citizen unrest; continued Congressional theft from the poor in order to bestow even more goodies on the rich will be met with anger and resistance, and it won’t be pretty.

Economists also support Masson’s thesis. They point out (as I’ve done several times on this site) that 70% of American economic activity is dependent upon consumption, and when large numbers of Americans have little or no disposable income with which to consume–when they are barely able to afford necessities–the economy can’t grow. When demand is weak, employers don’t increase production–which means they don’t create new jobs.

Those practical arguments are persuasive, but we shouldn’t ignore the fairness argument, because it goes to the heart of what makes a just society.

John Rawls was the pre-eminent political philosopher of the 20th Century, and his book Justice as Fairness established a framework within which political philosophers still argue. Rawls believed that all social primary goods–by which he meant liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and what he termed “the bases of self-respect”–should be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these is to the advantage of the least favored. 

Inequality, in other words, can be justified, but only if that inequality is necessary to the improvement of the lives of the least fortunate.

When Masson writes “The system can tolerate — even thrives under — certain amounts of inequality. It creates incentives that fuel the economy. But, beyond a certain point, things start to break down,” I read that as another way of making Rawls’ point.

When markets work–when we have genuine capitalism, not the corporatism that characterizes the United States today–they usually meet Rawls’ criteria. Invent that better mousetrap, and everyone’s mouse-catching is improved. The money earned by the inventor provides an incentive to other ambitious folks, prompting them to invent something else that will improve life for many people, including  poor people. A rising tide really does lift all the boats–we just have to be careful to define what constitutes a “rising tide.”

The fact that our mousetrap inventor has more money than someone else is thus a permissible inequality, because he has earned it in a way that improves–in some way, to some extent– the lives of the less fortunate.

This definition of justifiable inequality doesn’t reflect the inequities in today’s America. As Masson points out, money acquired isn’t necessarily the same thing as money earned; there’s a difference between that inventor/entrepreneur and those whose wealth was inherited or acquired as a reward for  “gaming the system” or helping others to do so. Bigly.

Our gilded age inequality fails all three tests: history, economics and fairness.

We need to fix it.