Thursday, February 24, 2011

Required Reading

DeWayne Wickham shows that it's not paranoia if they're really out to get you. What happens when you restrict the political clout of unions, college students, and Hispanics, all at once? Hint: It doesn't hurt the chances of the GOP.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Domino Theory and Public Employee Unions

The Domino Theory didn't hold up for communism; it's better suited to what's happening in North Africa right now. It also may apply to the situation in Wisconsin. Even our non-Tea-Party State is teetering.

I've written before about hated unfunded mandates; the Taylor Law always makes the list. This law arose in the mid-60s in response to a walkout of city transit workers. Essentially, in exchange for giving up the right to strike, public workers gained permanent rights to bargain collectively.

The parts of the Taylor Law that school boards and municipalities tend to dislike include the Triborough Amendment of 1982, which states that the steps written into a contract must continue even if the contract is under negotiation or if negotiations have stalled. (This does NOT mean that raises continue, as has often been misstated.) Districts and municipalities think that this is a disincentive to negotiate in good faith. In fact, it was instituted partly as a means of fair play: If unions can't strike to protest the stalling of negotiations, employees likewise can't change the conditions of employment. It was also instituted because, despite the Taylor Law, unions continued to strike. The amendment reduced that dramatically.

Considering how many times districts in this area have reached impasse, and how many times they might have gone on strike were it not for Triborough, we may have got off easy. Nevertheless, the perceived cost of this amendment is one of the primary reasons the governor and legislature in our Blue State are looking hard at our own public employees' rights to bargain collectively. Be careful what you wish for....

Sunday, February 20, 2011

On, Wisconsin!

I am not a fan of teachers' unions, which I think have spent the last 30 years infantilizing a once-honored profession and turning its members into self-created wage-slaves instead of white-collar specialists. What other "profession" demands extra pay for everything from proctoring an exam to attending a workshop to mentoring a club to arranging an art show? I don't blame the teachers; I blame the superintendents and school boards who negotiated these contracts, failing to notice, for example, that in the 1980s, corporate America got out of the business of pensions, recognizing it as unsustainable (although they probably used a different word for it in the 1980s).

Paul and I, looking at the governor's budget in NYS, have glumly speculated about his constitutional ability to declare a state of emergency and void all state contracts. Would he do it? What then?

In Wisconsin, the newly elected governor went farther, tying loss of collective bargaining rights to his budget, despite the fact that WI is in far better financial shape than NY. We see the results in Madison and elsewhere, as the public sector comes out in droves to protest and the Democratic minority hides out in some no-tell motel across the border.

Rachel Maddow has the best information I've seen on what my cronies suspect is a GOP-supported test case that will lead to similar contractual crackdowns in OH, NJ, and elsewhere. In a nutshell, she answers the question "Why Wisconsin"? (Because of its union history--unemployment insurance and workers comp happened there first, and AFSCME was founded there. Over a century ago, Polish workers were gunned down with the blessing of the governor as they demonstrated for a shorter work-week.) More important, she points out the political ramifications: Get rid of the public-sector unions, and you get rid of the ONLY significant competition the GOP has for campaign dollars.

It's simple. If you want a nation run by the Tea Party, support the governor of Wisconsin. If you value the only remaining progressive organizations with any political clout whatsoever, you must support the unions, even the ones you consider a major pain in the ass.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Guv's Budget V

No comment.

Turning the Titanic

The answers to "Why Change?" are pretty clear. U.S. college graduation rates declined from second to fifteenth in the developed world between 1995 and 2006. Close to 25 percent of all students in NYS two- and four-year colleges require remedial coursework, which in turn lowers their likelihood of graduating by a significant amount. Seven out of ten of the fastest-growing occupations require a post-secondary degree.

So our Regent, the Deputy Commissioner, and several top State Ed folks came to Ithaca to brainstorm reactions to some policies and strategies they have developed for our high schools. On the table are ways to increase graduation requirements with increased flexibility about how to get there.

State Ed is looking at requiring four years of science and math. NYS is one of the few states left that does not do this. They're interested in enabling some career- and-college-ready credits to be in CTE (career and technical ed) courses, but they're also very interested in allowing college courses, AP courses, and IB (International Baccalaureate) courses. They're talking about increasing passing scores on English and math to a level that has been proven to promote success in college (75 ELA, 80 math), and they want to extend the school day and year.

To get here, they hope to allow flexibility in middle school coursework, some of which is truly stupid and time-wasting, and they want to allow students to earn additional credits through a demonstration of competency rather than seat time (testing out, for example, or independent study).

The general response to all of this was: Great, but show me the money. Extending the school day/year was roundly applauded, but there's no money to do so. Our table thought that increasing passing scores made no sense when state ed's in the middle of changing tests to correlate to national standards. Most people in the room agreed that there needed to be alternative paths to graduation, with flexibility via distance learning, collaboration with community colleges, etc. Some people worried that increasing requirements meant more trouble for teachers who are now going to be evaluated based on their students' scores. And although it was touched on only briefly, the elephant in the room was teacher training--how to bring teaching colleges up to speed so that they're producing teachers who are actually able to teach science and math at a college-readiness level. We also talked about writing and world languages as critical skills for 21st century college and careers.

To learn more, and to complete a survey (must be taken by midnight tonight) about your response to State Ed's ideas, go to the State Ed college and career readiness site.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Few Words About NIMBY

Paul attended the town board discussion of the new broadband towers, as did several of our neighbors. Mostly they were concerned that (1) they might see the tower (they won't) and (2) the tower might require a blinking light (it won't), but there was some mention of destruction of habitat (not in those words, but I believe that was the message) and the fact that us poor folks in the country don't need no Internet. Since we were also referred to as "those rich creeps on the hill," I guess the message was somewhat mixed. One man, known by us only as "the guy who built the plywood shack development," brought with him a picture showing his view, which he claimed would be marred by the tower. His view included a huge telephone pole and a plethora of wires.

At the same meeting, an impassioned woman declaimed on fracking's potential destruction of our way of life.

There is something in us Americans that makes us prefer not to know the derivation of the stuff we use. We don't want to consider that our meat was once an animal or imagine the process that brought it to our table. We think that our water comes through pipes and don't think about its source. We heat our house by turning up the thermostat. We are so divorced from the origins of our household goods and services that it's second nature for us to cry havoc when one of those sources appears close to home.

Unless we're willing to give up using all this stuff, our complaints are specious. I firmly believe that we should obtain power locally, if only to limit the cost (financial and environmental) of transporting it. I am delighted that a local company has stepped up to offer decent broadband service when other, larger companies turned their backs on our community. Anyone who's visited us knows how much we care about the look and feel of this place, but we're willing to sacrifice a small patch of woods in our own BY, ultimately, I think, for the common good.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Blog Goes Statewide

Statewide picked up the Guv's Budget IV story.... Since I used a lot of their data, it's only fair.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Rural Internet, One Tower at a Time

We have suffered at give-or-take 70 percent of capacity on Frontier's DSL line for a while now, so when Chuck Bartosch of Clarity Connect started looking into a grant for new broadband access in Dryden, we were all ears.

Tomorrow night is the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing for the new tower that is supposed to go in on our property--back toward Yellow Barn, off our logging road, where we can't see it from the house, and we believe no one else can see it from either road, either. Broadband towers aren't as tall as cell towers. Paul chose a dull gray for the color--there were choices, but green seemed too visible, especially at this time of year!

For our pains, we'll get free service--no rent or other perks other than the right to mount a windmill on the tower if we so desire--and Dryden, once all seven or so towers are connected, will presumably get faster, cheaper Internet connectivity. Nevertheless, we expect to see some concerned neighbors at the ZBA hearing.

It seems a bit strange, after we worked so hard and paid so much to bury all electric and phone lines for the new house, but until they figure out how to do everything wirelessly from satellites, we're stuck with towers. At least we can do a reasonable job of hiding this one.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Follow-Up on Guv's Budget IV

Now you can follow the responses to my op-ed in the Ithaca Journal, the Elmira Star Gazette, and the Binghamton Press. I couldn't resist responding back at times.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Guv's Budget IV

As promised, here's the Op-Ed I submitted:

A Tale of Two Districts

Angie attends ninth grade in District A. Ben attends ninth grade in District B. Both districts educate 1,800 students in New York State.

Last year, Angie’s district had a budget of $49 million. About 4 percent of that came from state aid. Ben’s district had a budget of $33 million, 50 percent from state aid.

Angie has taken Spanish since elementary school. In sixth grade, she added French. This year, she might take Latin, or American Sign Language, or start preparing for AP courses in Spanish and French. Ben started taking Spanish in sixth grade. This year, he will take… Spanish. French was last offered in Ben’s district over a decade ago.

Angie loves science, so she’s pleased that her school has AP courses in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Environmental Science, as well as electives in Forensic Science and Marine Biology plus a rigorous student research program. Ben loves science, too, but the AP biology course at his school will only be offered contingent on funding, and there are no other AP science courses.

Because Angie’s school depends less on state aid, cuts in the governor’s 2011–12 budget affect her far less than they do Ben, even though the percent cut to her district is greater. Angie’s district will lose 10.89 percent of its aid, for a total of $205,940. Ben’s district will lose 6.59 percent of its aid—for a total of $1,113,612.

The governor’s proposed tax cap will affect the two teens differently, as well. Ben’s district may only raise its levy by $292,184 before hitting the cap. That equates to a maximum spending increase of about $162 per student. Angie’s district may raise its levy by $495,363, for a maximum spending increase of around $274 per student (more than enough to make up the difference in lost state aid).

When Angie and Ben were in elementary school, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity won a lawsuit that promised fairness in school funding. Then came the recession, and foundation aid was frozen. Since that time, the gap between Angie’s and Ben’s educational opportunities has continued to grow.

In 1778, Thomas Jefferson imagined a public education “without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance”—a student body “educated at the common expense of all.” Although he wasn’t imaginative enough to extend this opportunity to women or people of color, his vision of a justly educated citizenry is at the core of America’s educational philosophy.

That’s philosophy, not reality. Ben’s “accidental condition” is that he lives in upstate New York. Under present circumstances, that hogties his ability to compete with Angie for a place in higher education and the global economy.

New York State cannot afford to fund its schools. Ben’s community cannot afford to make up the difference—even if there were no tax cap, and they were allowed to do so. In these worst of times, don’t be fooled into believing that the budget cuts are “across the board.” Under the current proposal, the rich stay rich, and upstate kids lose again.

The author is the parent of a ninth grader in District B.
Some data were obtained from the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Guv's Budget III

It's rare that I attend a budget discussion and leave with a tear in my eye, but such was the case after Rick Timbs's presentation Saturday. Tompkins County stands to lose $1,382 per pupil--not as high as Cayuga's $1,843, but significantly more than Westchester's $722. Even with the guv's sliding scale cuts, the inequities exist--a high wealth district with a budget of $20 million might lose 13% of its aid, or around $260,200, for a required local tax increase of 1.4%, but although a high needs district with the same size budget will lose only 4% of its aid, that translates to a whopping $600,000, for a local tax increase of 12%. Since it seems likely that we will be capped at 2% for the aforementioned tax increase, the effect on high needs schools is dramatic.

I will be working on an Op Ed on these inequities in the coming weeks.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Guv's Budget II

It seems as though every day I feel the effects of the guv's budget, if only in numbers of meetings I have to attend. Wednesday was BOCES; Thursday was the Dem Committee, at which representatives from federal, state, county, city, and town governments decried the cuts and prophesied glumly about the effects on us all.

Thursday also, O attended a hastily-called protest meeting at Dryden High at which students railed against the plan to cut block scheduling (the 80-minute every-other-day plan that took years to pass and implement over a decade ago). The superintendent told them it was a done deal--done to save money by cutting teachers. She also informed them that most extracurricular activities would be gone next year.

Today I heard from TCAction, which wants a powwow next week on how to face down the 50 percent cut to the block grants that fund many of their critical programs. And Saturday is the annual legislative breakfast, where most superintendents will set fire to their heads while our assemblywoman and two state senators hold them back with chairs and whips.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Guv's Budget I

BOCES is freaking out over this paragraph in the governor's budget:
Rationalize BOCES Aid. Boards of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) provide
both instructional and non-instructional services to school districts. However, current aid
formulas often discourage school districts from seeking the unsubsidized best price on
certain non-instructional services. Beginning with aid payable in 2012-13, the Executive
Budget would distribute BOCES Aid based on the same State aid ratio as Foundation Aid.
In addition, to encourage system-wide cost effectiveness, beginning with costs
reimbursed in 2012-13, certain non-instructional services provided by BOCES would no
longer be reimbursed. (2011-12 School Year Value: $0; 2012-13 School Year Value: $135
million; 2011-12 State Fiscal Year Value: $0; 2012-13 State Fiscal Year Value: $34
This may or may not mean that certain collaborations--the central business office, energy management program, print shop, etc.--will no longer be aidable. Since the guv is into collaboration and consolidation, this doesn't make a lot of sense--it's often this sort of non-instructional service that is easiest to consolidate. Since the specific non-instructional services on the block aren't spelled out in the budget, I guess we'll just have to see what the results are. BOCES is running numbers to see which services would still be a bargain if aid were withdrawn.