Thursday, December 18, 2014


We'd already been shocked by Obama's opening of Cuban relations and Sony's closing of The Interview, and while I knew the health report on fracking was due out yesterday, I never imagined it wouldn't be followed by dithering, with the best possible outcome being a split decision: You guys who like fracking can frack; you other guys can sit around and watch. Well, I was wrong. Phillip Anderson of The Albany Project has the best synopsis of how local grassroots action led to a statewide ban. The IJ today points out Dryden's role in the decision.

To call the decision not to frack gamechanging is to minimize it. Not only does it set a precedent for other states on the fence (Maryland, Michigan, etc.), but it also pulls the rug out from under a lot of NYS politicians for whom this issue, pro or con, has been the bellwether. Here's hoping that a lot of that grassroots energy that underwrote the ban can be turned gently toward related issues of climate change and green technologies. Meanwhile, those of us who have built up calluses of cynicism are starting to crack and soften with this vindication of the more sanguine activists who led the way.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Michigan Turns Red

As the rest of the country rails over police excesses or UVA frat rape, Michigan has stealthily been passing some legislation that would be remarkable even in some red states. I wrote about the denial of funding to public schools. Now their House has passed a religious freedom measure that ties up loose ends in the Hobby Lobby decision, while blocking the addition of "sexual orientation" to the list of categories protected under their anti-discrimination law.

Now, Michigan under Gov. Snyder is not the Michigan we may remember. Sure, it went for Obama in 2012, but that same year, Snyder made the state built on unions into a right-to-work state. In that same session, he signed into law anti-abortion and pro-gun legislation.

So when is a blue state not a blue state? Ask Wisconsin. And now, it seems, ask Michigan, too.

Plus C'est La Meme Chose

Chokehold, 1977. UVA frat rape, 1984.
Senate flips from Democratic to Republican: 1861, 1881, 1895, 1919, 1953, 1981, 1995, 2001, 2002, 2015.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

If You See Something, Say Something

Too many people are busily attributing bad behavior on the part of the police to "a few bad apples." But you know that if you have one rotten apple in a barrel of apples, eventually ethylene gas from the rotter will ruin all the perfectly fine apples in the barrel. It's time to snip the thin blue line and get decent cops to rat out lousy ones, in much the way that fraternities and members of the armed forces are now being asked to stop sexual assault via bystander intervention.

I get that it's a tough sell. The bro mentality is strong and resolute from childhood. It's reinforced on sports teams and in scouting programs. But it sucks, and eventually it will destroy the very institutions the bros are trying to protect. The danger may be greater from within than from the unknown terror outside.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Running Low on Funds? Remake Yourself as a Charter

Tuxedo, NY, is a cute little town I must have driven through a thousand times on my way to NYC via Route 17. It is also a town with a school district that's in dire need of cash. It's a tiny district with one K-8 building and one 9-12 building. The high school has 375 students in all, and most of those come from a next-door district, Greenwood Lake, which is too small and poor to have its own high school. Greenwood Lake pays Tuxedo $12,240 for each of those high school students. The system has worked for years, but now, as with most semi-rural NYS schools, Tuxedo can barely afford to keep its doors open.

So the board and administration came up with a Good Idea: Tuxedo would remake itself as a charter school, specializing in STEM. That way, they could charge Greenwood the going charter rate for students, which in Greewood Lake's case would come to $18,311 per kid. They could hope to draw students from homeschool situations and from other surrounding districts as well if they billed themselves as a STEM school. And at the same time, they could follow charter rules and perhaps spend less on teachers, because as a charter, they could hire some that lacked certification.

It would be a totally cynical plan if it weren't so necessary and so clever. Needless to say, Greenwood Lake is not pleased. And educational leaders around the state are sitting up and taking notice, because if this works for Tuxedo, why couldn't they be next?

The Greenwood Lake superintendent's remarks are worth contemplating:

"I don't know that this is what the intent of charter schools was. My impression was that it was a way to help get students out of schools that weren't academically successful, not a way to seek out financial stability and deal with enrollment problems."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fighting Uphill to Reach Adequacy

Thanks to Simon for posting a recent article on the case in Michigan that found that the state has no legal obligation to provide a quality public education to students in Highland Park, a town with 20 percent unemployment that is facing bankruptcy and whose schools were given over by the state to a low-performing, for-profit charter school company. It reminded me that NYS is not alone in battles between the people and the state over equitable or even adequate funding for public schools.

At a recent event about school funding, someone came up to me and suggested that we should not talk about education as a “right” when we force kids to go. I was sorry not to continue the conversation, because in the United States, like it or not, education is NOT a right. That was determined in the case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez back in 1972. Mexican-American parents brought a class action suit against the state for financing schools in a way that violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by failing to distribute funding equally among districts. The Supreme Court decided that it would not examine the system with strict scrutiny because there was no fundamental right to education in the Constitution. Justice Powell, writing for the 5-4 majority, also found that the Equal Protection Clause really didn’t mean “absolute equality.”

So since that time, any such case has been stuck at the state level, because every state constitution has a clause somewhere that guarantees students an education. In NYS, we talk about a “sound basic education.” Other states refer to a “thorough and efficient system of common schools.” Incorporating this right into state constitutions was mandated by the federal government as territories applied for statehood.

Today, not only is litigation about school funding pending in most of the states in the Union, but also certain states (OH, KS) are seeking to remove the right to education entirely from their constitutions.

One of the best resources on current and past litigation is out of Teachers College at Columbia University, where Michael Rebell currently resides. Rebell is the lead attorney in the battle of students v. NYS for adequate funding. This site’s map and some of its material need updating, but it’s a great place to start if you want to see how states are systematically fighting their own people over public education.

Sometimes the people win: Washington courts found the state legislature in contempt for not providing adequate funding for public education. Sometimes they lose, as in the Michigan case. The Teachers College site clarifies the shift between cases that asked for equity and those that request adequacy. Equity cases, brought mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, routinely failed. In adequacy cases, starting in 1989, the plaintiff prevails two-thirds of the time.

This begs the question: Why do the people have to fight so hard to retain a guaranteed right? Anyone viewing this from the vantage point of another country would have to conclude that the United States as a whole values education very little.

“Adequate” is a term Paul likes to use when a waiter asks how a so-so diner meal tastes. It’s not a word I would willingly choose to describe a school system. Yet “adequate” is apparently the best we can do, and many states, including ours, are not even there yet.

States to watch over the coming months: Mississippi, Pennsylvania. And NYS, of course.