Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Teacher Evaluation Traveling Road Show Plays Trenton

Bright lights, big city, prime time. Yes, the Teacher Evaluation Traveling Road Show played Trenton on Tuesday, and the reviews are in. Here's mine.

Halfway through the meeting yesterday that Madison Superintendent Dr. Michael A. Rossi (and four of his Superintendent colleagues), Madison Board of Education President Lisa Ellis, and yours truly had with Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf and three of his Assistant Commissioners, we learned that the DOE "was taken aback" by Dr. Rossi's letter because, as the Commissioner said, "we really need to come from the same set of facts."

What became apparent was that the DOE officials believed that Dr. Rossi didn't have the facts and that, worse, those facts were available and that he must be, well, unfacty.

But then a most curious thing happened. We asked our questions again, and we got answers.  Answers that we hadn't really heard before. Answers that led to more questions. Answers that underlined the fact that the state hadn't given us all of the information they could have. Answers that would...wait for us implement an effective evaluation system in our schools.  Score.

For example:

We were concerned about issues surrounding students with IEPs who might need accommodations to successfully take the PARCC tests. The answer is that all 22 states that participate in PARCC will need to follow the same protocols. There will be no deviation by state or district. What's good for Kentucky is evidently also good for New Jersey. We raised the issue of what happens if the protocols don't accommodate a particular student's IEP. Sorry. One size fits all.

Students who have trouble keyboarding will have difficulty with the PARCC tests. According to the DOE, "we see implementation challengers." I'll say. There will be draft policies by spring that apply to visually impaired students who might have trouble taking a test on a computer, but that's all we have to look forward to for guidance in this area.

We also learned that once the PARCC tests are up and running in 2015, they will only be used to measure grades 4 through 8 in Language Arts and Mathematics. That's it. Therefore, only about 20% of New Jersey teachers will have the evaluation piece covered by PARCC tests. No high school subjects will be PARCC'ed for at least three years.

What does this mean for the rest of the teachers in the district whose evaluations will not be measured by a standardized test? Teachers and administrators are supposed to work together to determine an appropriate student growth measure for any given academic year. Art teachers, for example, can use a student's portfolio, history teachers can use a pre and post test or document analysis assignments, and mathematics teachers can use a project or series of quizzes as their evaluation piece. In short, any teacher can use any classroom measure to determine student growth. Further, these student growth measures do not have to apply to all of a teacher's students. A teacher can choose to use a specific cohort of students and measure their growth over a specified period of time, probably September to March so that the data is available for the summative evaluation in May. This is a key piece of a teacher's yearly evaluation, 50%, and should be designed very carefully.

Evaluating nurses, guidance counselors and other non-teaching employees is "emerging" at this point, which means that there's nothing formal from the state. Districts are again allowed to have administrators work with their staffs to determine an appropriate growth measure.

As for our technological concerns about PARCC (it doesn't work with Internet Explorer and Microsoft will stop supporting Windows XP), we were told that it's up to each district to purchase or transition to a platform that will support the test. The DOE did say that starting in February, PARCC will allow a district to input information about their system and PARCC will recommend what levels of technology they'll need and approximately how much it will cost to implement or upgrade.

Our request for more time to implement and teach the Common Core Standards was rebuffed out of hand because the timelines are a function of the legislation, and the legislature has no plans to alter it. The Common Core is here and we'd better get used to it. I put up a spirited defense and I think I got their attention by noting that testing data is always preferable to starting a live system cold, and that every district should have the opportunity to pilot their evaluation program to work out the problems. Dr. Rossi and I will speak further with one of the Assistant Commissioners about some timing flexibility and I will post updates as I get them.

But we also got some of the same vague answers that have plagued this rollout from the beginning. We were told that the state wouldn't have the regulations ready until March 6, and that we could use those regulations to finally implement our evaluation system. Unless those regulations change, of course, but Commissioner Cerf assured us that they wouldn't change all that much between then and September when the State Board of Education is set to adopt them. Unless, of course, they do change. In which case we'll need to, um, change our system. But otherwise, all systems are go.

The DOE was clearly upset and annoyed by Dr. Rossi's letter, in large part because they believe that they've given the districts enough information to adequately plan for the TEACHNJ law. More than once, one of the assistant commissioners and Cerf himself made the point that this was a 3 year process that began in 2010 and that districts should have started to plan for the changes. Assistant Commissioner Tracey Severns made an interesting, and telling, point when she opined that wealthy districts were the slowest to implement the changes because they didn't feel the urgency that "A or B" districts did. Wealthy districts were used to high achievement, she said, so they didn't see the need to rush to make changes. She prefaced her words by saying that she wasn't casting aspersions on those of us from wealthy districts, but we couldn't think of any other reason for her to say those things other than as a condescending comment on our tardiness. We did have a representative from a not-so-wealthy district who was also finding it very challenging to implement the law, but that contradiction to Severn's point didn't merit a mention.

Commissioner Cerf stuck to the broad outlines of why we needed an evaluation system "with teeth," and he noted that there were only a handful of tenure charge cases brought in the last ten years as evidence of why we needed a new system, clearly implying that there were far more ineffective teachers in our schools than there were cases. He also mentioned that bringing tenure charges under the old system was prohibitively expensive, but never put together the obvious conclusion: districts had ineffective teachers, but it wasn't the ineffectiveness that prohibited them from bringing charges, it was the money. Presumably the new, less expensive system will solve that and unfortunately enable districts to bring charges against others who are effective, but are also difficult employees.

These issues aside, we were impressed by the knowledge, commitment and energy the Assistant Commissioners, Bari Erlichson, Chief Performance Officer, and Peter Shulman, Chief Talent Officer, provided us. Erlichson certainly knows how to read and interpret data and Shulman understands the policy's implications. And he did make me feel better by saying at one point, "This is not about merit pay and firing teachers." They answered our questions as best they could and understood that we had concerns, even if they did say that we should have aired them two years ago.

So what's next? Administrators and teachers need to make sure they work together to create a viable evaluation system and make sure it's implemented in September. Contact the DOE with your district's concerns. Ask questions. Guess where necessary.  And for heaven's sakes, learn the facts. Until they change.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Liberal Ascendancy

Yes, I know, it's only been a week and already I'm full of prophecies and predictions about a liberal (say it with me: Lib-er-al) era that's just beginning. Others have argued with me that it's too soon or that the conservatives aren't going away or that I live in good old liberal (say it again: Lib-er-al. Doesn't it sound all smooth and creamy?) New Jersey and that I have no idea what's happening in redder areas of the country.

Possibly true, and you might not lose money betting against me, but not only do I believe it to be true, there is some solid evidence to back it up. The conservative era is coming to a close and the implosion of the right wing is decidedly under way. Don't get me wrong; the conservatives and the Republican Party can and will do a lot more damage to the country and to Barack Obama's second term (look what they've done to reproductive rights and collective bargaining), but their ability to set the agenda is pretty much over.


The GOP gave in on taxes in the fiscal cliff negotiations, and then they postponed the debt ceiling fight for three months under the utterly mistaken belief that they will have the upper hand when it comes to negotiations over the debt. I have news for them: they're going to lose again. The debt is actually slowing and the nation's fiscal trajectory is towards recovery, more employment, higher housing prices and improved tax collection. Add in the fact that most Americans do not support the massive cuts that the Republicans are proposing and you have the recipe for disaster for the right's agenda.

Opposition to all forms of gun control, an area where the GOP still has some strength, will take its toll on Republican popularity. I think we'll get a background checks bill and perhaps a limit on ammunition, but there probably won't be a national assault weapons ban. Still, the right is on the defensive about not wanting to do anything on guns, when it's likely that some Republicans will vote for some limits.

We will get an immigration bill this year and the GOP will have to come along or face increasing political marginality. Even so, the Republicans might not get any political advantage from a bill that allows more children of illegals to obtain citizenship. Why? because many Hispanics are already liberals (a third time: Lib-er-als) who are in favor of the government programs that serve the nation and their communities. On this, the right wing is correct: voting like Democrats will not help the GOP. It will only help the president and the left. But they really have little political choice.

Opposition to Chuck Hagel will not block his nomination, and no evidence of Israel-bashing will be found. True, many on the left are uneasy with his anti-gay comments, but he'll get enough votes to be confirmed.

Marriage equality will become legal in more states over the next few years, even if the Supreme Court rules against a national right, which I would say is a 50-50 proposition at this point. Remember that the Court will be ruling on economic and social rights, and not the moral correctness of whether all adults should be able to marry the person they love. The right wing is moving backwards on this issue. Even gay Republicans know that.

Storms have raised the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there's something to this climate change thing that conservatives have been denying for years. Oil will rule the day for a while, but more severe weather will finally unjam the logs and we can truly move towards energy independence based on fuels other than fossil.

There are many more issues, but I've made my point. The Democrats and President Obama have the wind of public opinion at their backs and as long as they both run a smart campaign to win support for specific legislation, we should see the first fruits of the liberal (in Texas, lib-ruhl) movement this year. We won't get everything we want, but more progress will come in later administrations and Congresses. One more presidential election win will also result in some conservative Supreme Court justices retiring, and all it will take is one switch to get a liberal (one more time for FDR: Lib-er-al) majority.

Can you dig that? I knew that you could.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Teacher Evaluation: Getting It Right Takes Time

The reaction to the Madison letter asking the state to slow down a bit with its new education initiatives has been overwhelming and positive. Clearly, there are many other school districts that believe, as we do, that in order to produce a transparent, valid, seamless evaluation system, we need a full school year to test and assess the program. That would give all districts the opportunity to accurately measure the data they've generated and work out the rather substantial obstacles that are both obvious and anticipated.

And since the State Board of Education won't consider the final version of new state regulations until September 4, 2013 and the  Office of Administrative Law won't put the final regulations into effect until October 7, 2013, we figure that we have a good case. Look at those dates again and consider; every school district in the state is supposed to have a fully functional evaluation system in place by September 1, but the final rules won't be approved until October.

Make sense? Read on.

Our other concern is the fact that the state is requiring all districts to implement the Common Core Curriculum Standards at the same time they need to create an evaluation system. The state's argument is that you need both because how else can you evaluate whether a teacher is teaching the Core Standards if you don't tie them to the evaluation? Our argument is that these are massive endeavors that need to be done one at a time in order for them to be done to our high standards.

First, implement the Common Core and write district curriculum documents that reflect them. Then train the teaching staff to write lesson plans in a format that uses those standards. Then write an evaluation system that measures how effectively the teacher implements the standards and the extent to which the students learn and make progress. The key is that teachers need to teach the curriculum before they can be evaluated on it. Further, if all school districts need to incorporate the standards now, we'd need two years to measure student growth. Otherwise, you're measuring two different systems (the current state standards and the new Common Core) and basing teacher's jobs on questionable data.

We also did a little digging due to our concern about the PARCC tests not being compatible with Windows XP, which about 99% of our district's computers run as their operating system. We did get some clarification: PARCC will run on XP, but Microsoft and other venders will not support the system if we have a problem. And we all know the chances of the tests running 100% smoothly during their implementation is close to zero.

But the PARCC train wreck goes deeper. Just as not all students are proficient with paper and pencil tests, many students will have trouble taking a high stakes test on a computer. There are issues of eye strain, seating comfort and screen resolution that can impact how well a student performs on the test. What about students with time accommodations on their IEPs? Do the PARCC tests come with timers? Will the system allow a student to take time-and-a-half, or more, on the test? What if a teacher needs to read every question and choice to the student?

Then there's the question of scheduling. PARCC tests are to be administered in two sets: March and May of each year. Advanced Placement exams are also scheduled for May. How is a district to choose? You can't give both at the same time, and having students take tests for three weeks straight would be counterproductive and a massive waste of time. Some districts are even considering cancelling their marking period electives so that students will have time to take the tests. How effective is that?

Further, the PARCC System needs to accommodate every student and be 100% accurate and dependable. Please tell me what area of education, or life, is 100% accurate and dependable? What happens if the system crashes before a student is finished with the test? What if the data gets wiped out? The present Department of Education guidelines says that PARCC will not be fully rolled out until the 2014-2015 school year. That gives us a built in timeline: Test it for a year, then gather data on how well it works. Remember the Algebra and Biology tests the state rolled out over the past few years? They tested the tests and gathered data. Now they're telling school districts that they can't do that with a system that will determine people's jobs.

There are so many variables at work here that I, for one, would feel much more comfortable and confident if I had a full school year to work with all of the systems and protocols. Districts that were part of the pilots have to feel better that they could work out the problems before they counted. Every district should have that luxury. This is the message that we will bring to Trenton. Dr. Rossi, Mrs. Ellis and I hope that the DOE and the Commissioner are in a receptive mood.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

The Second Term Begins

Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office for the fourth time today, and then let the country know what it voted for and what it could look forward to in a second Obama administration. The speech hit all the right notes. The implementation, though, will take longer that the four years Obama has to complete it.

His calls for marriage equality and for legislation on climate change, while preserving entitlements, is a clarion call for progressives and proof that the country has turned a corner and moved away from the stultifying conservatism of the last 30 years. The United States will not be looking to become more religious, nor will it be demonizing gays and lesbians or attempting to make reproductive choices a matter of whimsy for the government instead of a collective decision made by people and their doctors. We will be paying attention to the world, but not trying to run it according to a naive ideology that says we can bring our form of democracy to everyone. And for the first time in our history we will have a health care system where all citizens not only can have care, but must have care because it's the right thing to do.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would never make a speech like this, and thank heaven they won't have the opportunity to do so. They would take us backwards. We are now moving forwards.

Obama called out the conservatives by fighting back against labeling people who use government services as "takers," a word the GOP used to little effect in the 2012 campaign. We need programs to help the poor and to try to educate every child and to make sure that the elderly get care when their resources have dwindled or disappeared. We need adjustments to the tax code and to close the dreaded loopholes in the code, and to use the revenue from those actions to strengthen the United States, not to reward the wealthy or corporations with more tax cuts or advantages.

During Obama's first term, the right was fond of saying that the great liberal realignment never occurred and that the only reason Obama was elected was because of the recession or the weakness of the Republican candidates. The Tea Party revolt of 2010 was supposedly the end of the "mistake."


What 2008 uncovered was cemented in 2012. The country's experiment with smaller government, massive income and resource inequality and a sense that large corporations and institutions were going to swamp the middle class is over. Yes, big money does support Democrats and Republicans alike, but that will be remedied, as will all of the issues that the GOP ignored for decades. We will have climate legislation, more revenue, marriage equality and immigration reform. It will take more than four years to accomplish these. The pace will ebb and flow. But they will be done.

And it all starts with today.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

The New Jersey Education Reform Train Wreck

Oh, the power of the pen. Or keyboard. Whatever.

As the President of the Madison Education Association, I'm going on an adventure to Trenton at the end of January with Madison Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Michael A. Rossi and Madison Board of Education President Lisa Ellis. We're going to meet with Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf and members of his staff about the frustrations we're feeling while trying to implement the new teacher evaluation system (EE4NJ), the Common Core Standards, and PARCC.

How, you ask, did this happen? Because of a letter Dr. Rossi wrote, and testimony he made in front of the State Board of Education, with input from Ms. Ellis and me, that obviously struck a chord in the august halls of the Department of Education. It's been picked up in the media, but I will reproduce it below in its entirety. It speaks volumes about the state of education reform in New Jersey and what happens when ideological politicians get an idea in their heads, but don't think through either the consequences or implications of their actions. I will provide updates as I get them.

State Board Testimony of Madison, NJ Schools Supt. Dr. Michael A. Rossi

January 15, 2013
 359 Woodland Road  •  Madison, NJ  07940 

Dear Members of the New Jersey State Board of Education,
The purpose of this note is to provide (in as diplomatic a fashion as possible) a reasonable, reliable and valid analysis of the proposed implementation schedule for all the new initiatives. I am in my 25th year in education and have taught or supervised at the elementary, middle, high school and collegiate levels. I have been in districts with less than 200 students and ones with more than 10,000. My sister taught for 38 years and my dad for 55. Currently I have the distinct honor of leading one of the finest academic, extra-curricular and athletic organizations in America. I know how difficult it is to effectuate change even in one district and cannot imagine how challenging your task must be. Accordingly, I seek not to complain but simply to point out stark realities. In Madison, we have faculty and staff with multiple advanced degrees, savvy and seasoned administrators, parents that support everything we do both philosophically and financially, and most importantly, determined, bright and wonderful students. All of this combined, and even with umpteen awards in all walks of education, and we are, to a person, confused, overwhelmed and altogether concerned about trying to roll out several initiatives at once.

It is not that we do not support you, are resistant to change, nor are we unwilling to spend money (to date we have had to allocate close to a half million dollars) trying to get ready for EE4NJ, Common Core, PARCC, Principal Evaluation, etc.). Our teachers and administrators want to do a good job and want to help you achieve your goals, but simply put, it is far too much too fast. I offer some concrete examples to underscore our concerns.

EE4NJ: We are trying very hard to work through just a simple understanding of how the state wants this to work. Non-tested areas need benchmark assessments, how the anchor and ‘outside’ observer process will work is nebulous at best; nursing, guidance and CST areas have been given little direction (the last communique is this area suggested to look at other state models), and the district and school based panels have yet to be given a solid understanding of their roles, how often they should meet and to what extent they shape the process. On top of this we have to develop a new principal evaluation system and have been given no direction about Directors and Supervisors.
Common Core: Although we have been conversing about the Common Core for a few years now it is a gargantuan task to revise all K-12 curricula, work on framing out units of study, get teachers familiar with it, imbed into our lesson planning and then connect to state tests. There are only so many committees that we can form to write curriculum without compromising the educational process. If we take teachers out of the classroom we lose instruction; if we do it after school we either lose coaches or advisors and/or we have to pay people per contract language. Additionally, the essence of the Common Core calls for assessments at the end of each unit. Besides the bizarre notion that these total over 200 tests K-12 just on the Common Core, we have not been given any direction as to whether or not those assessments will be a reality, when we will know and how they will be administered.

PARCC: I cannot say this any other way but to describe it as a train wreck right now. The power point on this mentions no less than 12 tests for our current 6th graders when they reach high school. Those would be on top of Common Core assessments, benchmark assessments in non-tested areas, SATs, ACTs, APS, and then classroom teacher tests. Functionally, at this point, Madison cannot implement PARCC because the design is to be on computers that do not use XP as an operating system, which our entire district has. Even with the resources here we cannot turn that many computers over by 2014-2015. Combine all this with the most recent announcement that PARCC will not work with I-PADs and other BYOD initiatives suffice it to say we will grind all computer assisted teaching to a halt to do the PARCC testing.

NJDOE Overhaul: With the major structural changes in tow, the RACs just being formed and the county folks now employees at will, it is almost impossible to get any assistance. So much has changed so fast most people do not even know if they will have a job next year let alone be able to provide real leadership. It is disheartening to go to state meetings and leave with the feeling that no one has any real idea of where everything is headed and few questions can be answered.
Before we can address the aforementioned, those of us in the trenches still have our list of 93 unfunded mandates, we still have QSAC, daily considerations in special education, I & RS, etc., etc. There has been no relief to the pile of reports we have to submit, and now add to everyone’s list concerns related to Sandy and Newton, Conn. If Madison is feeling like this is going to go poorly rest assured most of NJ is as well.

Please ask the Governor for at least another year for all this and/or more pilots to emerge. Frankly, I think it will help his re-election and will certainly solidify you as someone who wants this to work well.
Look at thi
s way: if you were on a BOE and the Superintendent came in and said that in a couple years he wanted to change all K-12 curricula, change the entire K-12 teacher and staff evaluation process, change the entire testing process (and oh by the way your current operating systems all have to be replaced), and restructure the leadership model for the district, would you want that individual to forge ahead despite widespread concerns?

I am very sorry for the length of this note but I do speak for the vast majority of those of us working in the field. I realize some areas need an immediate overhaul but the current approach has the potential to wreak havoc on great school systems, of which there are many in NJ.
Please slow down.

Michael A. Rossi, Jr., Ph.D.

PS.  This letter is written with the support of our BOE President, Mrs. Lisa Ellis, and our Teacher’s Union President, Robert Grundfest.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Tide Is Turning For Obama

Whatever happened to the Republican opposition? Obama hasn't even taken the oath of office for the second time and already the GOP has caved on the fiscal cliff, the prospect of immigration reform, and Sandy relief. Oh, and their opposition to any and all forms of gun control is going to cost them at the ballot box. Maybe not in their gerrymandered districts, but on a national level. Newtown was a tipping point. Mark my words.

The negotiations over the debt ceiling and spending cuts will likely go the president's way too. Why? Because more of the public wants a compromise that includes modest adjustments to entitlements rather than the slash and burn Greek/Spain approach that the "take your medicine" caucus led by Eric Cantor is proposing. Do not ever forget that the true purpose of the Republicans Party's spending program is to overturn the New Deal and Great Society. They've hated those programs for almost 80 years now and for a long time they could taste the victory they believed was rightfully theirs.

But then came November 2012 and the revenge of the real math league that correctly forecast an Obama victory. That didn't just anger the right; it led to conspiracy theories and a final take-no-prisoners approach to governing that the GOP thinks is a winning strategy. It isn't.

So now they're talking about forcing the president to accept drastic cuts in exchange for a debt ceiling rise. The only problem is that most Americans are on Obama's pragmatic side because they understand that the Recession caused the deficit, not the other way around. Once we get ourselves out of the downturn, and we're slowly doing just that, the deficit will narrow. People will be productively back at work. Tax revenues will rise. Consumers will begin spending again, if only cautiously. So the GOP's strategy is doomed to fail. They've tried it before and our credit rating was cut. Now there's evidence that it could be cut more. We've seen this movie. It doesn't end well.

President Obama seems like a new man these days, issuing ultimatums and using the power of his office to effect change on gun control and, I'm assuming, on immigration. He's said that he's no longer going to negotiate on the debt ceiling and he's exactly right. If push comes to shove, he should invoke the 14th Amendment and let the Congress and the Courts figure out if he's right. He's said he won't do that. Too bad. The other option is to call Congress's bluff and let them take the heat when the government shuts down. Ask Newt Gingrich how that worked out the last time.

Oh, wait. I don't care what Newt says.

The boss has a new attitude. And things are about to change.

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

GOP Threat: Stop Us Before We Kill Ourselves!

Can the Republican Party possibly do more to inflict damage on itself? Is this a cry for help from a psychologically wounded group? Perhaps we should give every GOP member of Congress a gun and watch them shoot themselves in the foot. Or form a circular firing squad.

The honest truth is that we are witnessing the end of an era and the implosion of the party. The election of 2012 signaled the beginning of the end of the conservative era and like most things these days, the decline is coming swiftly and unmercifully. The fiscal cliff deal is emblematic. Denying the Northeast hurricane aid was a public-relations disaster. The worst is yet to come.

Now we get to look forward to two more rounds of economic negotiations on the debt ceiling and entitlement programs. Other writers are saying that these will be fought on more sure-footed GOP ground. I don't buy that for one second. Having been beaten soundly by the president on the tax issue, they now have little leverage on the debt ceiling or budget cuts.

Think about it.

Most Americans already blame the Republicans for almost scuttling a New Year's deal and then witnessed first hand the comeuppance of John Boehner at the hands of those frisky Tea Party conservatives. They saw how the party hesitated to even raise taxes on millionaires and how the House abdicated its responsibility and needed to be bailed out by Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden.

And this was the easy deal.

Most Americans, again, do not want severe cuts to their government Medicare and safety net programs, but that's exactly what the GOP is peddling. And the sheer size of the cuts that will be necessary to achieve Paul Ryan's aims will ultimately prove to be a disaster for them. I just know that Boehner and Cantor will overstep the mandate they think they have and will also want their pound of flesh from Obama to make up for the just-completed deal.

Likewise for the debt ceiling. The country certainly remembers that it was the right that played brinkmanship with the budget in 2011 and got us a lower credit rating. Just let them do the same thing again and see what happens.

Of course, all of this is predicated on the idea that the president keeps his cool and doesn't give away more than he needs to in the negotiations. The left is not happy with the tax deal, but really, how much can you push tax cuts for the wealthy? The difference between what he wanted and what he got is miniscule, which is exactly the problem, budget-wise, and Obama still came out a winner. Plus he's already offered cuts to social programs that the GOP has rejected as too little. He's in the driver's seat.

The GOP is still convinced that only their ideas are correct and I seriously doubt that they will come out with specific proposals on how to retire the debt responsibly or which tax loopholes they want to close (which will also be unpopular). So the way I see it, this should be a good season for the president and Democrats.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Fiscal Abe

Just when you thought we knew so much, along comes history to teach us a lesson in humility. Of course I'm talking about the present political and fiscal morass, but the history lesson comes from our star attraction of the season, Abraham Lincoln.

Neither the left nor the right seems to be happy with the deal worked out in the Senate concerning the tax hikes and lack of spending cuts to avoid the fiscal calamity that won't come quickly anyway. But the larger lesson here is that solving the nation's problems take time and, in most cases, many steps. There will be no grand bargain, and I challenge anyone to show me an instance where the two parties immediately came together to solve a problem the first time they attempted it (outside of war). Far-reaching bills and programs have evolved over time, for good and for ill, with additions and tweaks based on the moment and level of political will. So it will be with us.

For perspective, consider Lincoln and the major issue of his day: Slavery.

Think the parties are divided today? The debate over slavery led to beatings of legislators, acts of violence in statehouses and a rehearsal for civil war in Kansas. Abolitionists protected runaway slaves when it was expressly illegal to do so and proponents of slavery abducted free blacks to make up for their losses. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that slavery was legal. Case closed.

But of course, case not closed. So how did we get from the Dred Scott decision to the Thirteenth Amendment, which ultimately abolished slavery? Very slowly.

Columbia University History Professor Eric Foner does his usual terrific job framing the story in this article from Tuesday's New York Times. In it, he reminds us that Lincoln did not, in fact, free the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, whose 150th anniversary was January 1. It took years to do that and Lincoln made many enemies along the way.

The real lesson, though? From the article:

Like all great historical transformations, emancipation was a process, not a single event. It arose from many causes and was the work of many individuals. It began at the outset of the Civil War, when slaves sought refuge behind Union lines. It did not end until December 1865, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which irrevocably abolished slavery throughout the nation. 

But the Emancipation Proclamation was the crucial turning point in this story. In a sense, it embodied a double emancipation: for the slaves, since it ensured that if the Union emerged victorious, slavery would perish, and for Lincoln himself, for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life. 

The slaves were freed first in areas where the Northern government did not even have jurisdiction (the southern states), and not in areas where it did (border states such as Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri). For abolitionists, this was not enough. For slaveholders, it was an abomination. 

And then there was President Lincoln's attitude, which also had to change. Slowly:

While not burdened with the visceral racism of many of his white contemporaries, Lincoln shared some of their prejudices. He had long seen blacks as an alien people who been unjustly uprooted from their homeland and were entitled to freedom, but were not an intrinsic part of American society. During his Senate campaign in Illinois, in 1858, he had insisted that blacks should enjoy the same natural rights as whites (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but he opposed granting them legal equality or the right to vote. 

By the end of his life, Lincoln’s outlook had changed dramatically. In his last public address, delivered in April 1865, he said that in reconstructing Louisiana, and by implication other Southern states, he would “prefer” that limited black suffrage be implemented. He singled out the “very intelligent” (educated free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy. Though hardly an unambiguous embrace of equality, this was the first time an American president had endorsed any political rights for blacks. 

It took a four year war and the suppression of southern representation in Congress to finally rid the country of the scourge of slavery. There was no grand bargain. It required a president who took a stand, and a slow process that pleased noone.

Our constitution was written to slow down the pernicious influence of passion and haste. We are supposed to deliberate and debate and recognize that a balance of powers will provide us with the best chance of solving our problems. It is frustrating and sometimes we do ourselves some harm while paying it respect. So for those of you who see evil in the Republican's attempts to undermine President Obama's every turn, or see the president as having given up too much in the fiscal negotiations, I say, relax. Take one step at a time. Neither side is evil and neither side's program will lead to the country's destruction. Taxes will go up and some social programs will need to be changed, slowly. The tax code will be modified, slowly The chances that you will be completely satisfied with any of these developments, or the speed with which they occur, will be close to zero.

 That's how we know we're getting it right.

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