Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Irene's Out and School's In

School's in, and Irene's out! Most schools in Delaware started a day late as the maintenance crews in school districts made sure that water and debris were cleaned up before allowing the kids back.

Delaware acted responsibly in preparation for Irene and in response during and after Irene. That seems like a "no brainer", but it's not. Governors and media of the East Coast are actually receiving criticism from some pundits for being too cautious and "hyping Irene". This is absurd Monday Morning Quarterbacking, but it is out there in the public discourse now.

Delaware deaths due to Irene are now at two, and insurance claims at around $2 million. These are tragic but contained losses. Evacuations and a state of emergency declared by Governor Markell were a major factor in easing the impact of the hurricane. Additionally, public employees at every level of government really performed well.

Emergencies like Irene remind us of the importance of public infrastructure and public employees.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Odds and Ends

Labor Day is coming! DSEA members are encouraged to participate in the annual Labor Day parade in downtown Wilmington. Labor Day is in honor of American Labor and like all your other weekends would not exist without the Labor Movement. So, if you are a DSEA member please join us at 15th and King Street (this is our starting position in the parade line up) at 9:30 AM on Labor Day. This is a fun activity, bring your spouses and children to walk with us and hundreds of other Labor families from the area.
New Teacher Orientations have been taking place around the state. As teachers are welcomed into school districts to take on their new roles, they are also recruited by DSEA and welcomed into the union. The DSEA locals do a great job, often getting 100% of new hires signed into the union.
The teachers in Capital School District will come under Fair Share rules this year. That means that teachers who choose not to be members will pay a fee for the services they receive under the contract. In Locals without Fair Share, the loyal dues paying members pay to sustain the organization that negotiates contracts for compensation and working conditions enjoyed by all, including the non-members. That will no longer be the case in Capital, congratulations to that Local.
At the federal level the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is moving forward. US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, will announce a plan in September to allow flexibility around some of the NCLB requirements. However, this will be in exchange for undisclosed commitments to reform.
This action prompted National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel to comment:“What we need now is teacher-led and student-focused comprehensive reform instead of making states jump through more hoops. The Administration should be leading efforts that support all students and schools by providing real relief from parts of the law that everyone acknowledges simply don’t work.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

Charter School Law

Today, Governor Markell signed HB 205 into law. The bill increases the oversight and accountability of charter schools. This is the first change in Delaware charter school law in the 14 years since the schools were established in the state.

The Governor said, "Charter schools empower parents to choose the school that best fits their child's needs. But the promise of charter schools is not just added flexibility - it is added flexibility coupled with heightened accountability."

Perhaps another way of phrasing this is the old saw: To whom much is given, much is expected.

Certainly we have given charter schools a lot. They have the exclusivity of private schools, but with all the public funding (except capital construction)of your local community public school. Additionally, charters have been given unmitigated praise by education reformers across the country. The lavish praise has been reinforced by an unquestioning media.

Intentionally deaf ears and blind eyes ignore research showing that when comparable populations are examined, charter schools do no better and even worse in some endeavours than traditional public schools.

The new Delaware law will require charters to disclose finances, to come under the governance of a state Financial Recovery Team if they are in fiscal trouble, have criminal background checks for operators, and evaluate the impact on community public schools before expanding or replicating.

The Governor worked closely with DSEA, legislators, and charter schools to make this legislation happen. Congratulations to the Markell Administration for the courage to do it, and the smarts to do it right.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

NCSL Final Thoughts

Ok, this is the last blog post on my NCSL trip. I promise. This will be just a hodgepodge of thoughts about the trip.

First, the dire straights of a nation in economic peril made more perilous by bad government policy was evident in San Antonio. San Antonio is arguably the premier convention city for Texas, and landing NCSL was a premium opportunity. NCSL has state legislators, policy experts, lobbyists, corporate and union officials from all over the nation attend. Yet, even here where Texas and their presidential hopeful governor wanted to showcase the state, at the back of the convention center were three historic buildings (complete with brass plaques advertising their importance to Texas) boarded up. After all, in Rick Perry's world who needs history and culture unless it can pull its own weight with an admission fee?

Flying into and out of San Antonio I was shocked that the countryside looked more Las Cruces, New Mexico a desert city, than the lush river city I remembered from years ago. This is not just an anecdotal observation. All 254 counties of Texas have been declared drought disasters by the US Department of Agriculture; thus making them eligible for various types of federal relief. This topic was not mentioned when Rick Perry addressed the NCSL about government spending, entitlements, et al. Interesting to note that climate change did not come up either.

It was rather ironic that on the same day Rick Perry spoke to NCSL, the final space shuttle crew made an appearance and gave a presentation. For a decade US astronauts have been building and improving the space station. NASA will now no longer have a space station program with astronauts. However, privately funded missions are being developed for corporate interests who want to experiment in space. It took "big government" to develop a space program. Now, the private sector will profit from the foundation laid by the public sector and, yes, public employees.

Finally, what's with the Alamo? A favorite saying in Texas, to this day, is "Remember the Alamo!". Personally, I think they need closure and should move on. Forget the Alamo. By the way, if you want to see the captured flag of the Alamo, you will have to go to Mexico City for that is where it sits in a museum behind Chapultepec Park. The Mexicans have denied repeated requests from Texas for the flag. I can't blame them. After all we haven't given back Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Check into that little piece of history called the Mexican American War and take note the next time you hear folks from Texas or Arizona talking about Mexicans illegally crossing into "our country".

Please don't get the wrong idea. I was born in San Angelo, Texas. I still have family in Texas. I think Texans are naturally friendly, gregarious, and down to earth. I like Texans. I like them enough to believe they deserve a better government, and a more compassionate public policy that reflects their true nature.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Governor Rick Perry at NCSL

Rick Perry spoke to the National Council of State Legislatures this morning. His platform could be summarized as Bush Re-do: Cut taxes, cut social services spending, cut regulations on corporations. The nation wants to do this again, because it worked out so well the first time?

With the increase of Republican majorities in legislatures, including the influx of Tea Party Republicans, many of the presentations at NCSL have turned decidedly to the Right. For example, I attended a panel on health care this morning that was entirely about states opting out of the Affordable Care Act. There were ten panelists, and by my count only one was saying anything positive about ACA.

That's not to say that there are not problems with ACA. For example, the insurance industry made out like bandits and the pharmaceutical industry didn't go away paupers either. However, these folks were simply wanting to throw out ACA and return to "free market" health care. One panelist said, "People should have the freedom to buy health care with their own money". Yes, and the homeless should have the freedom to dine al fresco. Seriously, the free market has left about 50 million Americans without health care. If you work in one of the millions of low wage jobs that does not provide benefits, your freedom of choice amounts to food or health insurance.

This will be my last day reporting from the Lone Star State, it's back to the First State tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

NCSL Day 2

Among many interesting things at the National Council of State Legislatures is the Exhibit Hall. Exhibitors from AAA to the Youth Support Concussion Coalition fill the giant hall touting organizations, causes, and products to state legislators.

Some exhibits cause a smile such as American Association for Nude Recreation. Some exhibits cause a frown such as the John Birch Society. Some have clever giveaways such as the all too real looking plastic cockroaches by Terminix. Taser International Inc. was in the hall as well, only they were not giving out samples, and neither was the National Rifle Association.

There are wonderful research resources offered by a few exhibitors. For example, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis was showing off their website which offers factual information about the American economy. The Bureau has resisted the winds of ideology in Washington by being staffed by merit employees untouchable by vindictive politicians.

The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy was present with a truthful and mature approach to taxation. On the other hand, there were probably 7 or 8 groups present who had an assortment of snake oil approaches in lieu of taxation.

Thank heavens for the National Education Association and their great booth, staffed with professionals. Their advocacy found companionship with exhibitors such as Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Teachers, and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

Tomorrow, NCSL delegates will hear from Texas governor, and presidential hopeful, Rick Perry. A legislator from Waco, Texas complete with white cowboy hat and bollo tie told me how pleased I was going to be when I heard a "good Christian man" like Rick Perry. Oh, the temptation to go into an old SNL skit and say, "Rick Perry is not good, Christian, or a man: Discuss among yourselves".

Monday, August 8, 2011

NCSL in San Antonio

I am at the first day of the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) in San Antonio, Texas. It's over 100 degrees here and as tough as it is on the visitors, we should remember Texans are in their 39th day of tripple digits.

Regardless of heat, the National Education Association is at NCSL and doing their part to influence the public policy of states towards an education agenda that makes sense. Towards that end, the NEA sponsored a presentation by William Mathis of the National Education Policy Center. Mr Mathis and the NEPC spend a lot of time debunking the myths driving US education policy today. In this post I'll focus on just one part of his brilliant presentation, in which he identifies the "Market-Model Approach" under which we are living now, and answers with an alternative.
According to William Mathis the Market-Model Approach is as follows:

  • The purpose of education is high test scores for international economic competitiveness.

  • Properly run schools can overcome poverty and other disadvantages by dint of greater efficiency and effectiveness.

  • A free-market, privatized system will, through competition, achieve the desirable outcomes.

  • Advanced by wealthy patrons, business community, media and politicians based on research from vested interest think-tanks such as Heritage, Cato, Manhattan and Hoover.

Again, according to Mr. Mathis, the Anti-Market Model Narrative:

  • Education is, among other things, a process

  • of shaping the moral imagination, character, skills and intellect of our children,

  • of inviting them into the great conversation of our moral, cultural and intellectual life, and

  • of giving them the resources to prepare them to fully participate in the life of the nation and of the world.

The alternative provided by the National Education Policy Center sounds closer to the type of education that attracted most educators to the profession and it is certainly closer to mission of education when middle aged Americans were themselves students.

It occurs to me that the Market Model is based on two falsehoods:1. US corporations have outsourced millions of jobs because they cannot find enough "smart" Americans to take those jobs. 2. It is the job of the US education system to now make America economically competitive again.

In short order. US corporations did not outsource for smart labor. They outsourced for cheap labor, and for labor unimpeded by safety and environmental laws. 2. The job of education is about those immeasurable attributes listed by Mr. Mathis instill a love of learning that is applicable in the intellectual, moral, and cultural life of an individual.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Looking at Doom Dreaming of Paradise

Sometimes you don't want to be right. I've been a huge pessimist about the economy on this blog since it started. Moreover, regarding the recent budget deal I had to agree with Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver from Kansas City, Missouri who called it, "a sugar coated Satan sandwich".

Now we've got big problems. Standard and Poors just downgraded our credit rating last night. The budget deal contained no revenue increases and the GOP promised to not allow revenue increases in the future when the so called Super Committee revisits the budget. More importantly, there is now established a precedent to continue huge battles about the debt ceiling in the future. So, if a nation will not raise any money and will periodically threaten not to repay creditors, what kind of an investment risk does that make us? Are we sure that we even warrant the AA+?

There is a good fix for this, and there is the fix we will probably adopt. Let's start with the bad and expected fix.

There is a good chance that ideologues in this country will use the economic scary times to completely dismantle the already patchy social service net. Although S&P mentions failure to raise taxes more than failure to cut spending in their reasoning, there is an element that will concentrate on cuts. Not just any cuts, but cuts to Medicaid, Social Security, Student Aid, ESEA funding, and of course regulatory agencies such as the EPA. We could actually be looking at an America that resembled Hoover's America of our parents' or grandparents' day. This is a bad fix.

Further cutting of domestic spending in the current economy will deepen the recession. Estimates of job loss for the cuts currently on the table stand at around 1.8 million. The US will have trouble surviving that loss, let alone going back for more.

The good fix in my mind is as follows. First, the President should declare that there will be no more debt ceiling fights in the future, because he will simply invoke the 14 Amendment and raise the ceiling unilaterally. Second, we should go after revenue from the two sources that still have money, the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans and corporations who are sitting on more than $2Trillion and not hiring US workers. Third, we should cut corporate subsidies such as the outlandish practice of giving oil companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Fourth, we should impose a rapid trades tax on Wall Street. Current trading has nothing to do with investment and everything to do with speculation. Shares may be held for weeks, days, hours, or even minutes by speculators using computer trading. On shares held for so short a time which are obviously not investments, there should be an escalating tax. Fifth, we should complete the exit of troops from Iraq including the many private soldiers hired there, and leave Afghanistan, and when troops are safely home, make the Pentagon live within a reasonable budget for the first time in 70 years.

Finally, we should actually spend money. Our transportation system is a joke. We should join the rest of the world and have this country crisscrossed with commuter trains; from cross country bullet trains to in- town trolleys. Our infra-structure is crumbling. Ironically, a lot of it was built in the last Depression to create jobs under the Work Project of America. And we are still hiding our head in the sand about climate change and the resulting extreme weather. We should be moving to green energy and we should be honest and figure out if we will need to change agriculture growing locations and even if we will need to move people from some areas that will not be inhabitable either because of flooding or drought and temperature.

Underlying it all will be the need for a good public education system that includes tuition free college (once again something the rest of the developed world has had since WWII).

All of these things are of such enormity that only the federal government can take them on. However, all of these things create jobs and grow the economy. They are big, pie in the sky the ones that built this country to begin with.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

That's One Smart Actor

Today's post is largely someone else's words, but what words! This last weekend at a rally for education in Washington DC, the actor Matt Damon gave the following speech:

I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.
And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am ... can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that.

I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes.

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.
This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.

So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. ... Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Deal or No Deal

One way or another it looks like the debt ceiling/budget reduction drama is about to end. Like most large pieces of federal legislation, it will take a few days to sort out the details, and then analyze the impact. However, one thing remains true regardless of the fallout. This was a manufactured crisis to push an agenda, and it could not have come at a worse time for the country.

The debt ceiling of the US government has been raised hundreds of times by both parties. George Bush raised it 7 times and conservative icon Ronald Reagan raised it 18 times. Our debt sounds scary to Joe and Sally citizen when the talk of Trillions of dollars is in the air. However, a government budget does not function like a family budget. (Although even family budgets are scary when one considers long-term debt such as home and auto mortgages.)Governments are judged on their economic capacity and their ability to pay as they go. Our debt is approaching GDP (depending what calculation you want to use it ranges all the way from 59% of GDP to 96% of GDP), some reputable nations such as Japan have debt at twice that amount. No one doubts that the hard working and innovative Japanese are worth the investment and will continue to pay bonds. Can they say that about the US now thanks to this lunacy?

There is also a mythology about China buying the US debt and controlling us etc. While we should certainly be concerned about our trade deficit with China and the outsourcing of US jobs to China, the debt is of less concern. China owns about 7.5% of the debt. Japan is then next closest creditor nation holding 6.4% of US debt. United States individuals and institutions own 42.2% of the debt. It should also be noted that the US government owns some of their own debt: 17.9% Social Security Trust Fund and US Civil Service Retirement Fund 6% are examples of this.

As a nation we should control spending and eliminate a great deal of fraud from government contractors. We should realize that military adventurism is very expensive. We should realize that tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans do not "trickle down" and are extremely costly ($1 Trillion for the Bush tax cuts). Corporate welfare is costly. For example, why are oil companies receiving billions of dollars from taxpayers?

With all of the above acknowledged there was no crisis today that warranted the actions taken by Congress. The US economy is plugging along at a dismal pace (.4% first quarter and 1.3% second quarter). Unemployment is over 9%. Why is that relevant? Because slowing federal government spending is a sure way to cause more retraction and unemployment. The inexcusable thing is that economists know this, we have data on this, it's not just an ideological opinion.

If these cuts take effect in 2013, we will see another significant dip in the economy. Of particular concern is how much of this deal involves aid to states for such things as Medicaid and education? State budgets have not recovered from the original crash, and now they could take another hit. A part of our current slump comes from the fact that state and local governments shed another 250,000 jobs this year.

The recession is not due to government spending at either the federal or state level. The crash was caused by private sector greed and incompetence, compounded by historic levels of wealth disparity. The whole debt ceiling/budget reduction drama will not add a single job to the economy.