Monday, June 30, 2014

With a Court Like This, Who Needs Congress?

The Tea Party and most social conservatives can sleep easily throughout the summer now. The two Supreme Court decisions rendered on Monday should delight the right and make the inaction across the street in the Capitol seems like a mere distraction. Like a fly buzzing around the collective government heads. The conservative revolution has been won, and all it took was five justices and very little money.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the court affirmed that not only are corporations people, they also have religious rights that can be exercised on health care issues. Yes, Justice Samuel Alito did say that he didn't expect the floodgates to open on religious issues, but just look at what the Court's decision on marriage equality did to even conservative states. Lower courts have run riot over anti-gay marriage laws to the tune of 17 states, many of which are in the most conservative areas of the country. Does Justice Alito really think that lower courts will demure when it comes to challenges on religious grounds? I don't.

But just as this Court has affirmed the highest aspirations of the conservative movement, and, I'm sure, cemented the idea that Madison, Adams, Jay and Hamilton would have agreed with them, they are just doing what the liberal courts did in the 1950s through 1970s. Remember that the court found a right to privacy in the 1968 Griswold case, and used that right, which appears nowhere in the Constitution, to decide Roe v. Wade. The Warren court did the same with Brown, basing it on previous, smaller cases that affirmed what the justices believed to be correct decisions.

Alito, clearly the more articulate conservative compared to Antonin Scalia, who just wants to rant, also wrote the majority opinion in Harris v. Quinn, the day's other liberal-bashing case. Here, he and the conservative majority said that some public employees do not have to pay union fees even if they don't want to actually join the union that represents their field. For example, in New Jersey, public school teachers who don't join the teacher's association still have to pay 85% of the association fees because the association represents and negotiates for these teachers. Alito created a new category of worker, a partial public employee who works for both the government and a private person who hired them, and said that this type of employee was exempt from representation fees.

This decision is not major in the sense that it covered a great deal of people, but it does open up the gates to further challenges to unions and laws that require people to pay a representation fee. The next case could give the conservatives an opening to expand the definition to part-timers or support staff or, to be honest, any other public worker. Alito doesn't like unions. It's not just the law; it's personal.

While President Obama and the right wing Republicans duke it out over language and politics, the Supreme Court is moving full steam ahead to craft a country that looks more like 1814 than 2014. The biggest problem, though, is that the former generation had Chielf Justice John Marshall to guide it. We get Alito, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas.

We lose.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Christie: State Workers Pay So Millionaires Will Stay

Remember when Chris Christie's reelection was supposed to herald the coronation of a politician who could reach across the aisle, make deals with the Democrats and solve New Jersey's fiscal problems, all while simultaneously running a campaign for president?

November seems so long ago.

The Governor's signature accomplishment, the pension and benefits bill of 2011, did not, in fact, solve the solvency problem, and his singular failure, not being able to stimulate New Jersey's economy, is wreaking havoc with his budgetary priorities. All along, Christie has held the line against revenue increases and has stated repeatedly that the only fix for the dire fiscal straits New Jersey finds itself in is for him to renege on his promise to make a full pension payment and for public workers to pay more for their health care and retirements.

So naturally, the emboldened Democratic majority in both houses of the Legislature is feeling its oats and yesterday both Senate and Assembly Budget Committees approved budgets that include new revenue from those making over $500,000 per year and new taxes on businesses. Of course, Christie has promised a veto, saying that higher income earners would leave the state in droves rather than pay higher rates. Never mind that there's really no credible data to back up that claim. Yes, you can find some evidence of flight, but even this report's authors admit that:

...while the paper goes into a detailed argument on why tax migration makes financial sense, it states at the beginning that "this paper does not provide proof or hard evidence that high income and/or high net worth residents are leaving New Jersey because of high taxes."
The real truth is that Christie seems to be concerned about the hardships millionaires might face, but he perversely seems to accept hundreds of thousands of public workers seeing more money coming out of their paychecks in pension and healthcare costs without the means to sell their leveraged homes and move to states that have made their pension payments. Many state workers will see their actual take home pay decrease over the next three years. It's no wonder the economy has been very slow to recover in New Jersey. When people have less money to spend and have to worry about saving enough to make up for any shortfalls in what the state can provide for pensions, then people spend less. The Governor wants them to pay more. And this guy wants to bring his agenda to the nation. Terrible.

We have one week of brinkmanship to go before the July 1 deadline for a balanced budget. I doubt the legislature will shut down the government, but any deal will require some compromise from both the legislators and Christie. Meanwhile, like the other state workers following this horror story, I'm holding on to my wallet.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tenure Scare

The recent decision in California regarding teacher tenure is causing a great deal of anxiety in public education and in those states where teacher tenure still has some meaning. The ruling that tenure is unconstitutional because it denies students the right to a decent education in an interesting take on the subject, but it obscures the truth about how tenure works and why it's still needed.

I've already visited the subject, but it's worth repeating that tenure is NOT, I repeat, NOT a guarantee of lifetime employment, no matter how many times the know-nothing reformers repeat that it is. Earning tenure merely means that after four years in one district, a teacher must get a due process hearing if a school district wants to fire them. In New Jersey, the tenure laws were changed in 2012 to streamline the process so it didn't take years and a lot of money in order to fire a teacher. Now, an arbitrator hears the case and generally rules withing five months, and their decision is final.

Opponents of tenure, and these are the people who want to privatize all government functions in the United States except the military, say that tenure, and unions, protects bad teachers and makes it almost impossible to fire them. They also say that seniority rules that protect experienced educators at the expense of newer teachers when there are layoffs are outmoded and result in many young, energetic educators being let go before they can even begin their careers. I will admit that there are teachers in classrooms right now who do not belong there and who should not be teaching. There are also middling teachers for whom a younger replacement might mean an improvement in childrens' education.

But blaming teacher's unions is not the answer.  No, the real reform in teacher retention, training and development rests with the administrators who run the school districts and schools. They are the ones who have the ultimate power to evaluate and make hiring decisions about their staffs. If these administrators keep teachers who should not be in the classroom, then they will be the ones responsible when those teachers do not turn out to be effective educators.

And who are these administrators? They are self-selected people who decide on their own to become principals and superintendents. There is no national or state organization that recognizes and encourages people who would be excellent administrators and sets them on a path to effective leadership. It's the luck of the draw, and the deck is thinning in New Jersey due to Governor Christie's support and signature on a law that limits pay for superintendents and other upper echelon school management. Yes, yes; I've heard the false argument that money doesn't matter in education, at least where pay is concerned, because the false common wisdom is that teachers do not enter their field for the money. If you don't pay people enough, though, then you don't get good people to fill those jobs whose charge is to maintain and grow excellent teaching staffs.

It's a terrible cycle and the California ruling will unfortunately reinforce the idea that if we could only fire incompetent teachers that our schools would improve. Of course, that would be true, but the problem is that schools wouldn't only fire incompetent teachers. They would fire expensive teachers, union leadership members, teachers who cross administrators or don't fit the boss's vision of what a successful teacher looks like. It would also open the floodgates for purely nepotistic and corruptive practices that would make the schools worse. Facebook gave the Newark school system $100 million dollars; don't you think that any corporation would love to make hiring and firing decisions?

There is far more to this reality than what the know-nothings are saying in response to the California ruling. Only time will tell if the political winds indeed do blow eastward in this country.

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Deserter Storm

At this point, the only relevant question I can think of asking in the tale of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is this: If he was the son of a member of the U.S. Congress, would anybody be questioning his patriotism? Perhaps in this hyper-partisan atmosphere we have the answer might be yes, but I doubt it.

As more details emerge about Sgt. Bergdahl's captivity, it's becoming clearer to me that a large swath of our citizenry simply has not learned the lessons of the past and is too ready to jump on anything negative in a person's background to deny them basic human rights. Yes, he had a habit of wandering when he shouldn't have and, yes, U.S. soldiers were killed trying to find him. It is a tragedy that those soldiers died and their families have every right to be angry over the circumstances of their deaths. They should never have happened. This kind of thing happens in war. That's why I hate it.

The worst, unfortunately, is yet to come. Sgt. Bergdahl will come home to a town and country that is deeply divided over whether he should have even been freed, much less traded for five suspected terrorists. He will be called terrible names in person and in the media by those who believe that they are the country's moral arbiters. I have one word for them: Vietnam.

Last week I took my classes to the New Jersey Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. It's a trip that's become a yearly ritual at my school, and this year it was even more valuable because it provided some historical relevance in light of Sgt. Bergdahl's story. Vietnam veterans lead all of the tours and are available for discussion, question and answer periods, and explanations of some of the exhibits at the memorial and education center. To a man, and they were all men, they recounted their experiences as soldiers returning to a divided country in the 1960s and 1970s. They told us about being called baby killers, village burners, Nazis, fascists and murderers. They were young men, some who were drafted and some who enlisted, who saw it as their duty to fight for their country, and their country turned their back on them. Today, they are kind, thoughtful men who are proud to be grandfathers and are happy to tell the younger generation about their experiences.

I thought of Bowe Bergdahl. Not the Sergeant; just the young man, and what he faces in the near future. For the Vietnam veterans there was some strength in numbers. Bowe Bergdahl will face the country alone. John McCain met President Nixon as a hero. I hope that President Obama sticks to his position and does the same for Bergdahl. Yes, he made a terrible mistake which became a tragedy for some of his fellow soldiers. But to hang this whole tragedy on him would be a terrible mistake. Let's hope that we haven't forgotten the lessons of 40 years ago.

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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Educational Food Fight

This past week featured not one, but two terrible ideas related to schools that people need to know about. One is a conservative issue while the other, oddly enough, is one of those issues that has bipartisan stupidity blowing its tailwind (there's a visual, no?).

Declaring that serving school children fresh fruits and vegetables might be too expensive for some districts, the House Appropriations Committee voted to allow states to get waivers so they don't have to meet the health standards. This, of course, is Michele Obama's number one policy concern as First Lady, and she certainly weighed in on the issue, so it's really no surprise that the Republicans would want to allow states to opt out of the program. After all, there are all of those meat, potato, sugar and fast/snack food interests that need to get something for their campaign contributions. And they can't give either Obama a political victory, can they?

The main opposition is that the program is costly and restrictive, and I can se why. Students, at first, probably throw out a lot of nutritious food, especially if they're not getting it at home and they don't like it. And junk food is less expensive than fresh fruits and vegetables because those industries want people to stretch their budgets on those foods, not on apples, kale and avocados.

But the larger issue is that it's the job of schools to educate, not only in the classroom but also in the cafeteria and the playground. Can you imagine schools opting out of safety regulations or allowing students to fight during recess or physical education because, well, isn't competition and survival of the fittest the main building blocks of a free enterprise, entrepreneurial economy? What's the difference between that and modeling and serving healthy food in the cafeteria? What you bring from home is your business. In school, it's in the state's interest to keep people healthy. When you've seen, as I have, students coming our of the cafeteria line with pizza with french fries, then you know there's a problem.

The bipartisan ridiculousness is over the Common Core Curriculum Standards. The left doesn't like them because of their reliance on tests and the right doesn't like them because they want the states to be able to craft their own standards and believe that the federal government has no business regulating schools. Both sides have good points, but in the end, the United States will only be able to compete with other countries if every student learns the same body of knowledge.

And the problem is not just one of geography. States across the country have a hodgepodge of standards that are difficult to reconcile, from when they require students to master certain mathematics and science skills to requiring physical education or how many years of United States History students must take. Where I teach, students do not get any instruction in Greek or Roman history, which is the basis our form of government. Yes, we should be teaching multicultural perspectives, but to be able to graduate from high school with no knowledge of the great people who presaged Western culture is not a quality practice.

The Common Core standards do need serious editing and we do need other evaluative measures than tests to measure their effectiveness. Getting rid of them, though, is not the answer.

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