Wednesday, May 18, 2016

John King Doubles Down

Suppose you had the highest education job in the nation for another seven months max. What would you do with that time?

If you were U.S. Secretary of Education John King, you would go out with a bang, not a whimper. King took advantage of the 62nd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to declare,

We have failed to close opportunity and achievement gaps for our African-American and Latino students at every level of education. And in far too many schools, we continue to offer them less—less access to the best teachers and the most challenging courses; less access to the services and supports that affluent students often take for granted, and less access to what it takes to succeed academically.

In case people thought he was blowing smoke, the feds came out and found Cleveland, MS, in violation of the constitution after a 50-year court battle. The resegregation of American schools has been a slow-moving but inexorable process since the 1960s. Google "resegregation" to find dozens of intelligent articles about the concept.

King has decided that his best weapon in the battle to equalize resources is the money he controls under Title I. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, currently entitled "Every Student Succeeds Act," or ESSA, proclaims that for schools that serve low-income students to to get Title I money from the feds, they must prove that they are using their other monies—local and state—to serve kids equally. It's about civil rights, which is the unspoken bailiwick of the Department of Education and really, the only reason to have a federal department at all. All those Trumpeters and others who want to get rid of the feds' role in education ought to have their children sent to the wrong side of the tracks in Cleveland, MS.

But of course people are squawking, because no one ever wants to give up what they have to give have-nots what they need. Lamar Alexander and Randi Weingarten are on the same side of the squawk battle, which probably doesn't happen very often.

Arne Duncan, the secretary who preceded King, tried to leverage Title I monies to drive reform. It didn't work. King's focus on specific inequities is more within the latitude of the department, but he's still under fire.

Here's what I think: If School A in Cleveland, MS, doesn't have a lot of low income students, and School B does, so that School A gets almost no Title I money, and School B gets plenty, Schools A and B should get equal monies from local and state taxes. It's the law: Title I is meant to supplement, not supplant local and state dollars. If the district uses Title I money to buy Reading 180 in School B and state money to buy a different reading program in School A, even if everything else is equal, that implies a use of Title I money that is supplanting state money.

It's not an easy fix. Salaries differ between School A (where teachers stay for their whole careers, because it's an easy gig) and School B (where new teachers are dumped and paid less because everyone knows it's a stepping-stone school).

John King doesn't want his legacy to be "that NY Commissioner who messed up on student privacy and Common Core." He wants to be known for something big, something important. This may be it. But it needs to land in the courts between now and December, and I hope that it does.

Nobody wants to give up what they have. But unless the pot is unlimited, what choice is there? What moral choice, I mean.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Anti-PC and What It Hath Wrought

Everyone has a point at which political correctness crosses the line and becomes more irritating than enlightened. For Bill Maher, it was Halloween costumes. For me, it's being expected to know which pronoun to use when discussing someone who has not made public the pronoun it/they prefer. For Donald Trump, it's everything.

"PC" is a term usually used disparagingly or ironically, but it refers to something real: an attempt to avoid hurting others. It emerged most likely from the Maoist concept of "firm and correct political orientation" and was adopted by the New Left, sometimes ironically, sometimes seriously—Toni Cade Bambara wrote in 1970 that "a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too," calling out leftist men for their treading a party line that kept women trailing behind.

Political correctness led to multiculturalism. In my world, the world of children's textbooks, we found ourselves replacing Dick and Jane and Sally with Miguel and Shonda and Lian. Dad was no longer the only one who went to work, and Mom wasn't the only one who cooked. But guess what? Those edits reflected changes in the world; they did not create the changes.

The backlash, when it came, was furious. Allan Bloom started it with The Closing of the American Mind, which could have been a little-read grumpy philosophical tome but instead hit a nerve and became, as Camille Paglia later said, "the first shot in the culture wars." The 1990s were filled with anti-PC backlash, as exemplified by this article from the Times and the conference it describes.

"It's a manifestation of what some are calling liberal fascism," said Roger Kimball, the author of "Tenured Radicals," a critique of what he calls the politicization of the humanities. "Under the name of pluralism and freedom of speech, it is an attempt to enforce a narrow and ideologically motivated view of both the curriculum and what it means to be an educated person, a responsible citizen."

Rapidly the Right (Bloom, Kimball, D'Souza, Paglia, and others) redefined political correctness; and any positive implications PC might have had regarding inclusion, diversity, feminism, critical analysis, and tolerance were buried under the labels of dogmatism, favoritism (as in affirmative action policies), and, yes, a new intolerance. For a through-the-rabbit-hole view of this thought in action, see Chapter 4: "Freire and Political Correctness" in Peter Roberts's book on Paulo Freire.

Fast forward 20-plus years, and you have the GOP presidential candidate saying, "I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I've been challenged by so many people, and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either." And when you interview his followers and ask them what they like about him, 9 out of 10 mention that he says what's on his mind and isn't PC. By which they mean that he doesn't care if his words hurt others, if he's sexist or racist, or if he appears to be ignorant about the world. They like that about him because it's how they want to be. And they somehow believe that by pushing back on political correctness, they can correct the movement of the country toward a diversity they would rather ignore.

I recently called out a woman I know on FB who said of Hillary Clinton, "When it comes to schmoozing for campaign money, she ought to have a mattress strapped to her back with the meter running." I accused her of self-hating anti-feminism and said that I was a Bernie supporter, but people like her made me question my sanity. Whereupon she replied that she, too, was a feminist, but "To go easy on Hillary because of her gender would be sexist." And that is what anti-PC hath wrought: The inability to see how certain language applied to one gender/race/ethnicity/sexual orientation can be hurtful. Men would never be accused of "having a mattress strapped to their backs," not even in an anti-PC world. PC may be rigid and foolish and often hypocritical, but anti-PC returns us to the 1950s, a Stone Age world of Dick and Jane. That just isn't the world in which we live, no matter how much Trumpeters wish it were so.

Friday, May 6, 2016


I started this blog with him in mind, and he was my most faithful reader. He would have laughed at the fact that I had to argue with the Ithaca Journal over paragraphing in his obituary.
Zahler, Stanley

Stanley Zahler, age 89, of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, and formerly of Ithaca, died April 26, 2016, of complications following a fall. Born May 28, 1926, in New York City, to Clara and Irving Zahler, Stan attended Townsend-Harris High School and started college at CCNY at the age of 15. He enlisted in the Navy air force just before his 18th birthday and was commissioned as an ensign at age 19, immediately after VJ Day.

Following his discharge, Stan attended NYU, expecting to become a doctor. Two years later, he changed his mind thanks to a great professor who described the wonders of scientific investigation, and instead enrolled in graduate school at University of Chicago. He worked in the lab of James Moulder and spent hours each day reading science in a booth at Reader's Drugstore. One day he met a young woman named Joy, who returned to her dorm that night to tell her roommate, 18-year-old Jan Haugness, that she had just met the man Jan was going to marry. Jan scoffed but finally allowed Joy to drag her to Reader's, where she asked Stan about a topic she expected to be tested on in her freshman biology class. Stan explained, Jan got an A on the test, and after she showed up in Stan's lab to thank him, they saw each other daily and were inseparable for the next 65 years.

In 1952, Stan moved to Urbana, Illinois, to work as a post-doc with Salvatore Luria. Jan went overseas with her brother and was in a serious motorcycle accident that left doctors sure that she would never walk again. Stan decided they should be married right away and that she would indeed walk again. They were married in November; six months later, she walked. From then on, they could be seen anywhere they lived, walking hand in hand every evening.

During their honeymoon, Stan and Jan attended the symposium at Cold Spring Harbor where James Watson presented the double-helix model of DNA. Fifty years later, Stan still considered it the most exciting scientific talk he'd ever heard.

Stan next spent five years in Seattle, teaching microbiology at the University of Washington. His two daughters were born there. The family moved briefly to Morgantown, West Virginia, before settling in Ithaca, where Stan would teach and do research on B. subtilis at Cornell University. He began work in the Department of Dairy Industry, teaching microbial genetics, a new course. His son was born that year, and the family moved from one side of the lake to the other, rarely staying in one house for more than a couple of years. A sabbatical in 1966-67 brought the family to southern California, an area Stan and Jan loved and to which they would eventually retire.

In his 35 years at Cornell, Stan was a co-founder of the Biology & Society program, Associate Director of the Division of Biological Sciences, and Chair of the Genetics & Development Section. He wrote dozens of peer-reviewed papers as well as chapters in books and textbooks on virology, bacteriology, genetics, and molecular biology. He mentored graduate students from his first (Ph.D. 1967) to his last (Ph.D. 1992). And he taught microbiology to some 2,000 students. In 2008, one of his former undergraduate students, who had taken his introductory course 40 years earlier, endowed a display case in Stan's honor in Mann Library.

Stan retired in 1994, and in 1999, he and Jan moved to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, for winters only at first, but later permanently. For many years they traveled between California and New York by car, exploring every corner of the country as they went.

Stan leaves behind his wife of 63 years, Jan; daughters Kathy (Paul Lutwak) of Freeville, NY, and Diane (Philip Sicker) of Wassaic, NY; son Peter (Lisa Herb) of East Chatham, NY; his brother Burt (Sachiko) of St. Johnsbury, VT; grandchildren Ben Sicker, Olivia Lutwak, and Gabe Zahler; and several beloved nephews and nieces. At Stan's request, there will be no service, but in his memory you are invited to flip over a rock, identify a bird, argue a fine point, pick up a snake, read a good book, take a walk in the woods, and otherwise express your joy at being a fascinated human being on a fascinating planet.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Per-Pupil Spending Nationwide

NPR and Ed Week put together this awesome map that you can get lost in. I wish I could embed it, but they don't make it easy. But check it out anyway!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Stop the Presses, NY Politics Stinks!

Here's what happens when NYS finally, after 40 years, has a presidential primary that matters:

1. There's panic in the streets as people suddenly notice that our primaries are closed.

2. The same people and others figure out all of a sudden that the delegate selection process makes little sense.

3. Everybody freaks out about the existence of superdelegates.

4. I get endless petitions calling for the registration dates to change.

5. People realize, apparently for the first time, that we can't vote online or by mail.

Here's what I'd like to happen post-November in NY: People continue fighting for open primaries, day-of or week-of registration, early voting, and the demise of the superdelegate system.

Here's what I expect to happen post-November in NY: People go back to sleep for 40 more years.

Monday, April 11, 2016

A Primary Primer for April 19

Having a daughter who gets to vote in her first presidential election this year makes crystal clear to me all that I don’t know about primaries, despite having voted in them for decades. I’ll leave aside her most difficult, insoluble questions: Why do Democrats have superdelegates? Why does each state do things differently? But with the help of the Board of Elections, the League of Women Voters, and other smart people, I’ll try to answer the most common questions you may have about the presidential primary ballots you will see on Tuesday, April 19.


New York’s is a completely closed primary. Only registered Democrats may vote in the Democratic primary. Only registered Republicans may vote in the Republican primary. If you are a new voter who enrolled in one of those parties by March 25, you may vote. If you changed your registration to one of those parties prior to last October 9, 2015, you may vote. If you are not listed on the voter rolls but believe that this is an error, you have the right to request an affidavit ballot. Your registration will be double-checked after you complete that ballot.


New York has the potential for three separate primaries in 2016: Tuesday’s presidential primary, a federal primary (Congressional) in some areas on June 28, and a state and local primary on September 13. We like to keep our election inspectors fully employed, it seems.


Polls will be open in Tompkins County from noon until 9 on Tuesday, April 19. Unlike in some other states, in New York, Republicans and Democrats vote on the same day and at the same polling places. To find your polling site (and check to make sure that you are registered), use this handy search site: Voter Lookup.


In Tompkins County, some polling places will have two lines, one for Democrats and one for Republicans. Others may have a mixed line, especially if registration is skewed very Republican or very Democratic in that election district. When you sign in, you will receive the ballot that matches your party registration. Take the ballot to the voting booth, fill it in, and feed it into the voting machine. Election inspectors will help you if you have questions about the process.


The ballots for Democrats and Republicans are quite different from one another. Here’s what you will see.


Here’s a sample of the Democratic ballot.

On the Democratic ballot, the candidates for president appear in column 1, followed by the people who are their local delegates.


Each Congressional District sends a set number of pledged delegates to the convention in Philadelphia. Here in the 23rd District, we get five Democratic delegates in all. Larger districts get as many as seven.

Each delegate applied to one of the two campaigns and was selected to serve at the convention. The delegates are committed to vote for their designated candidate on the first ballot at the convention. Should there be additional ballots, they may or may not change their votes.


Gender matters in the delegate choices. Delegates are chosen by gender from the highest vote getters. According to party rules, three out of five of our Congressional District’s delegates must be female.


Yes. You may choose any five delegates on the ballot. Most people will probably choose the horizontal row of delegates that matches their candidate, but some may know one or two of the other delegates and respect them enough to think that they will do the right thing at the convention on the second or third ballot. Be careful, though. If you choose more than five delegates, you will invalidate your ballot. (If you realize that you have made a mistake, though, you may trade in your ballot for a fresh one and start over.)


Yes. Your ballot still counts if you vote only for a presidential candidate.


No. New York Democratic primary results are proportional. If one candidate gets 40 percent of the vote, that candidate gets two (2/5, or 40%) delegates from the 23rd District. One will be the highest-vote-getting female delegate for that candidate, and the other will be the highest-vote-getting male.


Sort of. Some of the party leaders and elected officials are officially unpledged, and those (e.g., the governor, our senators, Bill Clinton [do we really think he’s “unpledged”?]) are already chosen. But the pledged party leaders and elected officials are chosen based on the primary results.


The Republican ballot is much simpler.


The Republican Committee will choose Republican delegates for the Cleveland convention in Congressional District meetings soon after the primary election. They will give delegate positions to the “party faithful,” a new rule for 2016. In the 23rd Congressional District, as in all other CDs in New York State, we are allowed three Republican delegates.

Like the Democratic delegates, Republican delegates will be bound, or pledged, to a particular candidate for the first convention ballot only. Unlike the Democratic delegates, the Republican delegates are “winner takes most” rather than proportional. That means that if one candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, that candidate gets all three delegates. If one candidate gets 45 percent and another gets 37 percent and a third gets 18 percent, the first gets two delegates, the second gets one, and the third gets none at all.


According to the Board of Elections, he never filed the necessary paperwork to have his name removed.


No. Only the Democrats have superdelegates. At-large delegates will be chosen at the Republican State Committee meeting in May and bound to candidates based on the primary results.

It is very rare for New York’s late primary to matter at all in the scheme of things. Someone told me that it hasn’t been meaningful in 40 years. But it’s certainly significant this year; New York could make a real difference. Let’s get that turnout up. Don’t forget to vote.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Constitutional Convention Pros and Cons

I've written about my vague desire for a NYS Constitutional Convention, and I appreciated the opportunity to hear the pros and cons from expert Hank Dullea and our assemblywoman, Barbara Lifton, at last night's TC Dems Issues Committee Forum. It wasn't really a debate so much as a presentation of opinions, followed by questions from the audience. And it left me no less eager to move forward with a convention. My general impression, which I shared with the group, was that the Pro side showed pessimism about the legislature mixed with optimism about the People, whereas the Con side showed the opposite.

Lifton presented what she billed as the "progressive" concerns about a convention, which boil down to 1) we don't know who will control the convention, 2) a lot of good things could be changed or destroyed, from labor rights to aid to the needy to the Forever Wild designation to state pensions, and 3) corporate interests could take over (see point 1). She used the constitution's promise of a "sound basic education" as an example of what might be damaged, saying that the CFE court decision that pledged adequate funding could be made null and void with a removal of that clause.

Leaving aside the dreadful history of the CFE decision, which umpteen years later is crawling toward a level of adequacy, I find it hard to imagine that NYS would get rid of publicly funded schooling through a constitutional change. That would make us the only state to do so. What I would like to see is a better definition of sound and basic, plus clauses that expand adequacy to include sustainability, equity, and predictability. Why couldn't we do something like that?

Dullea pointed out that a constitutional convention has never led to the wholesale reversals of laws. Most conventions have taken a few big-ticket issues and woven them into the constitution. Problems that he considers worth solving via a convention include Pay to Play lobbying, the role of incumbency (including, perhaps, term limits), full time v. part time legislation, campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, and whether we need a bicameral legislature in the first place.

Of course, Lifton is right to suggest that it really matters who the delegates are. If they are all assemblypeople and senators, they certainly will have no will to tackle most of the problems above. Why would they?

The confidence of the voters in NYS government is eighth from the bottom of all 50 states. A good 53 percent of citizens think that corruption is very serious. Lifton believes that the legislature is addressing this. Dullea does not.

Lifton pointed to low voter turnout as being a red flag in terms of getting ordinary people to run as delegates to a convention. I think low voter turnout is a red flag about the voters' confidence in their votes' meaning, something we might address through meaningful reform. She also pointed out how very difficult it will be to educate voters about what they vote on as it comes out of the convention, and there I agree with her. It will be hard, and it should be part of the delegates' job to educate their public, because we cannot count on the media to help. Social media makes this possible, and there should be other methods to use as well. Right now, most people bypass resolutions to amend the constitution when they appear on the ballot, because nobody has a clue what they are or what they might mean. That's a problem for which I blame everyone from the legislature to the media to the good government groups that should be doing a better job of explaining things to the voters.

I guess what it comes down to for me is this: NYS government is widely reviled. Nobody outside NYS government trusts NYS government to clean up its act. Occasional amendments are not going to do the trick. It has been 50+ years since the last convention (which failed). What's the worst that could happen? If we are progressive, we welcome reform. That's kind of the point. And the way we reform NYS government, since 1777, is through the process of a constitutional convention.

Want to learn more about the pro side of the issue, complete with a reform agenda? Visit the Rockefeller Institute webpage. We have about 18 months to figure out how we will vote.