Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Great Equalizer

Once upon a time, there lived a self-educated fellow named Horace Mann. He worked his way through Brown University and later served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and then the Senate. He then gave up his legislative career to become the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education.

Before departing to dedicate his life to abolitionism, Mann spent his 11 years on the board formulating a philosophy of public education that became the foundation for American education from 1838 on. He declared that American public education should be universal, provided to students of all religions, classes, and ethnicities. He determined that such education should eschew specific religious influence while still being based on moral principles. He decided that education should be paid for by the public and delivered by professionally-trained teachers.

What’s remarkable about Mann is his eternal optimism—his lovely belief that education could make someone virtuous, appreciative of God and nature, a pillar of democracy, and the equal of every other educated person. He successfully overcame the derision of religious and governmental leaders who disliked this usurpation of their power, and he essentially created the system we have today.

I have to think that poor Horace is spinning in his grave as he contemplates the dissolution of public education as envisioned by certain U.S. governors, including our own. The public school system a “monopoly”? Competition via privatization?

Even Mann never envisioned a land in which we promised to educate ALL children. Prior to 1975, we really didn’t do that—states could opt out of educating students with certain disabilities, whether emotional or cognitive. Then came the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, followed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and today U.S. schools must educate ANY student with special needs. Although this has become a worldwide human rights issue, we remain one of the very few nations, developed or not, that offers inclusive education. Even in Europe, most students with special needs are educated in a segregated setting.

In contrast to public schools' education for all, private schools can pick and choose their students. Indeed, a student who enrolls in a private school and can’t handle the work may be “counseled out.” As for charter schools, if they are publicly funded, they are required to take children with special needs, but odds are that unless the charter is specially designed to provide services for those children, fewer children with special needs will enroll in charters than enroll in “regular” schools. Of course, if you are a rabid supporter of charter schools, you can come up with a different reason: because “some students avoid the disability label because they perform well academically [in the charter] and thus are never designated as disabled.” It’s worth considering studies that compare charters to public schools academically and find them wanting despite their lower percentages of students with special needs.

When our governor refers to public education as “one of the only remaining public monopolies,” I guess maybe he’s referring to prisons, which are increasingly privatized (and how’s that working out for us?) and perhaps hospitals or the post office. But we’ve had private schools forever; if you want to avoid Mann’s secular, inclusive model, you can do so, even in a county as small as ours. We even subsidize those private schools with public funds; we pay for their transportation, textbooks, computers, health services, and library materials. So I’m not entirely sure what the governor’s talking about. He claims to be motivated by public school teachers’ unwillingness to be evaluated, yet he supports charters that allow up to 30 percent of teachers to teach without certification.

You want to bust a public monopoly? I can think of a few public utilities and telecommunication companies that really ought to have some competition. How about our ridiculous public authorities? Let’s break up some of those, or at least make them accountable to the people of New York. But keep your hands off Horace Mann’s invention: the free, public education that “is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

Monday, October 27, 2014

Calling a Spade a Trowel

Here's how the ACLU defines "The War on Women":
The "War on Women" describes the legislative and rhetorical attacks on women and women’s rights taking place across the nation. It includes a wide-range of policy efforts designed to place restrictions on women's health care and erode protections for women and their families. Examples at the state and federal level have included restricting contraception; cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood; state-mandated, medically unnecessary ultrasounds; abortion taxes; abortion waiting periods; forcing women to tell their employers why they want birth control, and prohibiting insurance companies from including abortion coverage in their policies.
I guess I would include voting against equal pay somewhere in there. If it's only about reproductive rights, let's not pussyfoot around; let's call it "The War on Reproductive Rights."

At last week's debate, our Congressional candidate made the national conservative press by getting laughed at for accusing Tom Reed of being part of the War on Women. Tom did not vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and he voted against the use of federal funds for Planned Parenthood. He may pal around with his sister in his television ads, but he is not a friend to women when it comes to laws that protect specific rights.

CNN suggests that the War on Women sobriquet isn't working anymore because unlike in 2012, "this time around, there aren't any candidates talking about 'legitimate rape' or 'binders full of women.'" That would be acceptable if we'd actually made any improvement in women's status other than in pushing the really stupid candidates back into their holes. Politicus is keeping score, although their list is outdated. It's pretty obvious that rights are being chipped away at the state level.

But we can't call it the War on Women anymore, because the Wall Street Journal calls that "gender-pandering" and because candidates for Senate tell us that they are women who've been to war and therefore they know there's no War on Women.

So nothing has changed, but we can't use the name we've been using. Heck, it was at best a euphemism, anyway, like calling a spade a trowel. It doesn't roll as trippingly off the tongue, but how about "The Republican Attempt to Keep Government Out of Wage Decisions but Inside My Uterus"? Or maybe "The GOP 'Control Your Damn Libido and Dress Appropriately' Initiative"?

Maybe War on Women is now as defunct as Silent Majority, but we need a new name for the fact that reproductive rights are under attack and income parity does not exist. I'm open to suggestions.

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.