Friday, October 17, 2014

A Vision of Regional Education Circa 2020

I've been thinking about the proposed Regents' Pathways to Graduation combined with our local proposed school transportation hub, and it makes me envision something grand: A series of magnet schools throughout our region that any local high schooler may choose to attend. Maybe Ithaca High School and South Seneca, with their fabulous new auditorium complexes, house the Arts Pathway. Maybe Lansing and Groton house STEM. Maybe Trumansburg and Dryden house Humanities. Candor, with its great Cisco program, could be an alternative CTE site. There are multiple possibilities, and it's exciting to imagine.

Here's what stands in the way: The NYS legislature. Tradition. Parents who want their kids local. Football programs.

Here's what will probably happen: Our region will end up with one alternative: CTE. Districts won't be able to get their heads around creating a brand-new program; the region won't figure out how to move teachers around to make this work. Not to mention that the legislators will turn a big thumbs-down because they lack the imagination to see how any alternative could be any better than what we have now.

But it's a pretty vision: Kids in a school that is relevant to their passions, together with other students who share their interests. Who wouldn't want to see that happen?

Monday, October 13, 2014

School Board 101

Third in a series:

School board members learn early on how to spend one-time money; for example, that $150K in annual pork from your State Senator. Maybe you repair a roof. Maybe you buy something you would buy anyway that doesn't have maintenance costs—new auditorium seating, say, or replacement tables for the science lab. Here's what you don't do with found money: Hire personnel. Purchase anything with a maintenance contract or licensing fees. Start a new initiative. Build something new.

Now here comes NYS's Proposal 3, the sweetly nicknamed "Smart Schools Bond Act." It forks over $2B to

"purchase educational technology equipment and facilities, such as interactive whiteboards, computer servers, desktop and laptop computers, tablets and high-speed broadband or wireless internet; construct and modernize facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs and replacing classroom trailers with permanent instructional space; and install high-tech security features in school buildings."
It's a boatload of money. You can go online and find out how much your district might get. It's going to be hard for districts to resist. But maybe you see where I'm going with this. Proposal 3 violates every one-time-money rule. It is, as I like to say, the gift that keeps on taking.

People are complaining about Proposal 3 because they think bonding is too risky and expensive or because they feel it's a sly way to get districts ready for online testing. Nobody seems to be talking about how just-plain-stupid it is to buy a mess of technology with one-time money when that technology has a short shelf-life and its purchase price is merely the tip of the cost iceberg.

Go ahead, buy an interactive whiteboard. In fact, buy one for every classroom. Then figure in the retrofitting and additional hardware. Then train your teachers to use the whiteboard. Then buy the software and technical support. Then buy a tablet for every student. Then update your network to enable these materials to work. Buy switches. Buy lots of switches at $8-$10K apiece. Don't forget the annual maintenance costs for each switch. Don't forget the bulbs for your projectors and the yearly licensing fees for every bit of software. And more professional development—a lot. Maybe you need to buy 20 or 40% of a BOCES employee to show your teachers how to use technology for instruction, because who else is going to do it? But we're done giving you money. It's year one, you've had the spending approved, you've bought the actual stuff. Now you're on your own. And what will you do in 2019 when all that new stuff is old stuff? Do you imagine that we'll have another $2B bond to bail you out? Or will it all sit on a shelf somewhere gathering dust like your teaching machines and VCRs?

Paul likes to talk about the "carrying capacity" of a district, which he defines as the amount of stuff a district can support and replace in a given year. Ideally, districts are on a cycle, during which they budget to replace 1/5 (or any reasonable fraction) of their technology each year, thus ensuring a sustainable turnover. A windfall can crush a district, and the Proposal 3 windfall is big enough to kill.

It is also being sold right in the ballot text as something that will "equalize" opportunities in classrooms across the state, which is just silly. Prop 3 is based, as usual, on the same inequitable formula that underpins all other school funding. Rich districts get a lot of money. Poor districts get less money.

Now let's look at part 2: modernizing facilities to accommodate pre-K and replacing classroom trailers. Where, you might ask, are these classroom trailers? Well, they are in the urban districts overseen by Cathy Nolan and Francisco Moya, which is why those folks, among others, are eager to see this pass. Dryden has housed its primary kids at the big K-5 building in a modular hallway for 25 years or more. Not a trailer, exactly, but perhaps not an ideal instructional space. But the trailers are in NYC, as are the schools that need space for Pre-K. Upstate districts are losing population, and if they don't already have Pre-K, they're not about to invest in it just because they suddenly get money to build a classroom they don't need. So part 2 is really wholly downstate. I don't mind replacing some other district's trailers, but it would be a lot better for us upstate if this were done as another building project initiative, where any district could apply for any building project it needed and get a larger-than-usual percentage of that project paid for by the state.

As for "high-tech" security features, most districts around here have already put those in as part of a building project. Such features come with maintenance costs as well (and personnel, in some cases), so they are not appropriate purchases with one-time money.

If I had to guess, I'd expect this one to pass. It's money for schools! Who doesn't like that? A Google guy, Geoffrey Canada, and the Superintendent of Auburn served on the Commission, so it's obviously fair-and-balanced!

Well, it may be Smart Schools, but it's Stupid Finance. It violates School Board 101 rules and should be shot down. Vote no.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Amending the Constitution for the Umpteenth Time

This is the second in a series...

Second on the ballot November 4 is a proposal that would again amend the NYS Constitution. Essentially, the purpose is to allow electronic distribution of state legislative bills to satisfy the constitutional requirement that a bill be printed and on legislators' desks at least three days before a vote. Current provisions are only satisfied by the distribution of a hard copy of the bill.

This one is a "yes" as far as I am concerned, but it also serves to point out a big flaw in our constitution in general and NYS law in particular. The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times. NYS, meanwhile, has had five constitutions. We're currently using the 1938 one. We can amend it by holding a convention every 20 years or by passing an amendment twice in the legislature and then presenting it to the general population on the ballot. Usually, the general population ignores this entirely; "Politics on the Hudson" found that 54 percent of ballots don't log a vote for these amendments at all. But despite this oversight, the NYS Constitution has been amended many, many times.

So what? That makes it a living document. Well, yes, but it is also way too specific, as many NYS laws seem to be. Paul likes to complain about the law that forces every person working in a NYS Department of Social Services to have two separate computers, one for State business, and one for County business. This dates back to a time when you couldn't easily partition a hard drive to keep one set of files separate from another. Now the law just sits quietly on the books, racking up dollars for the counties as they continue to purchase and support twice the number of computers they need. That's a bad law.

A clever writer of laws tries to anticipate the future and to be as general as possible without being vague. Goodness knows some of us would like a little tweaking on "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," but for the most part, the U.S. Constitution walks the line of generalities without veering over into specifics that would need to be amended or vagueness that would need to be explained. It says, for example, "...the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." It doesn't say "petition the Senate" or "the right of male landowners." Perhaps the founders had good imaginations, or perhaps they were just smart. Whichever it was, the First Amendment still holds up pretty well after 227 years.

So vote yes on Proposal 2. For the 54 percent who don't usually vote on these, you will find it on the BACK OF YOUR BALLOT.

Coming soon: Proposal 3.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Our New President

As a land-grant college, Cornell was founded to be co-educational, a place "where any person can find instruction in any study." Despite this auspicious beginning, it is actually the sixth of the seven Ivy League universities to hire a woman to lead it. Harvard hired Drew Gilpin Faust in 2007. U Penn has had three women in a row: Claire Fagin (interim) from 1993-94, Judith Seitz Rodin from 1994-2004, and Amy Gutmann ever since. Ruth Simmons ruled Brown from 2001 to 2012. Shirley Tilghman ruled Princeton from 2001 to 2013. Hanna Holborn Gray was acting president at Yale for a year in 1977. Only Dartmouth is a holdout, and they at least broke the white male barrier when they hired Jim Young Kim in 2009.

So the hiring of Elizabeth Garrett is a big deal here. She has bounced around the country much as David Skorton did, although where he went from West to Midwest to East, she went from Oklahoma to UVA to UofC to USC and back east again. Her specialties include the federal budget process and direct democracy, which has made her the go-to gal for many political oversight committees and panels. In addition to her primary appointment in the law school and as provost at USC, she has secondary appointments in the business school and school of public policy as well as a "courtesy appointment" in the Annenberg School.

She is, in other words, hot stuff. She attended law school with a friend of Paul's, so we await the dish from that. Apparently she won't take over until July of 2015, because Skorton would like to preside over the sesquicentenniel. Then he leaves to make $795,000 at the Smithsonian.

O's questions were: "Will she lower tuition? Will she give me a job? How can I be president?" I said, "No, maybe, and check out her bio." Impressive.

Friday, September 26, 2014

When Is Reform Not Reform?

When it's self-serving, for one.

The history of redistricting in NYS goes back a hundred years and more and is rife with lawsuits. The rules are simple: Every ten years, the state may look at the census and revise its legislative districts based on population shifts. The reasons are simple: No one part of the state should have significant sway over any other parts of the state. If population is essentially similar from district to district, that should eliminate power plays. The reality, of course, is far from simple. This is New York!

Like most of the nation, New York has a bizarrely high return of incumbents to office, one that simple statistics would suggest is practically impossible. There are a handful of reasons for this, including name recognition and ability to raise funds, but certainly one reason is the drawing of district lines to favor certain parties. In a state with a clear upstate-downstate divide, that becomes a litigious issue when one party feels that the other is unfairly favored.

The state legislature has always had the power to establish districts. In the past, it has established an advisory commission but has retained the power to thumbs-up or thumbs-down any suggestions from that body. Former NYC Mayor Koch led the charge for independent redistricting via his NY UPrising group. He asked legislators to sign a pledge vowing that they would support such an initiative, and the results may be seen here. Being Ed Koch, he called the refuseniks "Enemies of Reform." It's an interesting list!

Fast forward to the current ballot proposal. It passed the Assembly and the Senate, and now it is in the hands of the voters, because such a change must be an amendment to the state constitution. It reads as follows (the word "independent" has been removed, as it clearly is not independent in any sense of that word). I did the boldfacing:

The proposed amendment to sections 4 and 5 and addition of new section 5-b to Article 3 of the State Constitution revises the redistricting procedure for state legislative and congressional districts. The proposed amendment establishes a redistricting commission every 10 years beginning in 2020, with two members appointed by each of the four legislative leaders and two members selected by the eight legislative appointees; prohibits legislators and other elected officials from serving as commissioners; establishes principles to be used in creating districts; requires the commission to hold public hearings on proposed redistricting plans; subjects the commission’s redistricting plan to legislative enactment; provides that the legislature may only amend the redistricting plan according to the established principles if the commission’s plan is rejected twice by the legislature; provides for expedited court review of a challenged redistricting plan; and provides for funding and bipartisan staff to work for the commission. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?

The folks who are urging us to vote "yes" include the League of Women Voters and Citizens Union. They've gotten rid of their original language that claimed the amendment was "not perfect" and are going whole-hog for redistricting.

But the plan clearly violates at least part of Common Cause's redistricting principles, the part about "disclosure of potential conflicts of interest," because if the committee is established by the legislative leaders and appointees, bias is already built in. Yes, we can no longer assign Nozzolio (R) and McEneny (D) to be part of the commission, but is that the reform that really matters? I would posit that the current plan again allows legislators to choose their voters, and that like so many good ideas in NYS, it has been edited and manipulated to maintain the status quo while looking all pretty and new.

For the best overall history of redistricting in NY, including an explanation of the role of prisons, see Ballotpedia.

People urging "yes" say that Proposition 1 is a step in the right direction. I think it is a step in the same direction. We still have time to do this right. Vote no.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

At Last, Someone Who Can Read

I wrote earlier about the idiocy of calling proposed redistricting "independent" when it was clearly manipulated by the powers that be. Now comes State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McGrath, who rules that
"the Commission cannot be described as 'independent' when eight out of ten members are the handpicked appointees of the legislative leaders, and the two additional members are essentially political appointees by proxy."
It's still on the ballot, but "independent" is out. Hallelujah!

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Cornell's sesquicentennial year, which was begun with a bang involving the red-and-white lighting up of the Empire State Building, has led me to ponder this uncomfortable truth: Olivia's class of '18 is as distant in time from my class of '76 as my class was from the class of 1934. Suck on that for a while.