Sunday, March 29, 2015

No More Nuance: The Right Is In Charge

Just when it seems that the Republican Party can get some things done, as evidenced by last week's budget and the bipartisan agreement on Medicare and the Children's Health Insurance Program, along come reminders that the uncompromising, hawkish right wing is still in charge of the agenda.

Witness the new Indiana law that, under the guise of religious liberty, will allow businesses and individuals to discriminate against customers guests because they are gay. The reaction was immediate:
Supporters say discrimination concerns are overblown and that the Indiana measure merely seeks to prevent the government from compelling people to provide such things as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable on religious grounds.
Love the "merely." Remember when states merely wanted to prevent blacks and whites from marrying, going to school together and adopting children, all under the rubric of religious freedom? Remember when country clubs, public pools and fraternal organizations could merely reject Jews for membership? I do.

Religious freedom and democracy, like freedom and equality, don't always mix well, and any clear reading of the intent of the Founders will show that their bias was to have a functioning democracy with religious protections built into the laws, and not a religious legal system with democracy mixed in for good measure. That we have overcome most of our de jure racial prejudice in the years since 1789 shows great progress. That many Americans continue to believe that there are people out there deserving of our discrimination and prejudice is disturbing and obnoxious. If you want to practice your religion as a private citizen, that is eminently your right. When that practice upsets the moral, ethical and legal boundaries of our representative democracy, then you are overstepping your rights as an American.

Fortunately, we do have many reasonable voices who are speaking against this law. Most notable for our present purposes is the NCAA. which will be holding the Final Four basketball championships in Indianapolis next weekend. There have already been calls to move it, which is unlikely, but other business groups are also concerned, as should the NFL and major corporate entities that are planning to hold national events in the state.

The message should be clear: No discrimination, no prejudice, no bias, no hate, no how.

But this is not the only recent story that shows the right wing to be uncompromising to its detriment.  In the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit and speech to Congress, his divisive comments about Israeli Arabs and statements, since modified, that show him against a two-state solution, the Republican Party's has a new litmus test: Support Israel 100% or face the wrath of base primary voters and others in the party. Even former Secretary of State and widely respected diplomat James A. Baker, was attacked for presuming to say that Netanyahu's actions and words were detrimental to regional peace.

Republicans seem to have lost the last crumbs of nuance that existed in the party as recently as 2005. It's gotten to the point that you are either all in for Israel, with no complaints, or you must be pro-Iran. That is most ludicrous and extremely dangerous. Uncompromising attitudes lead to unnecessary actions, like, let's say, wars in Iraq and Vietnam. They leave no room for the United States to recognize that other countries and people, such as the Palestinians and Iranians do not always agree with their leadership or are all terrorists or that they have their national interests at heart. We don't need to agree with them, but we do need to respect their points of view. Backing any country 100% with no room for dissent is the height of intellectual irresponsibility.

The irony is thick and viscous: These same Republicans who say they support Israel's policies certainly do not support all of the Obama Administration's policies, not should they be expected to. I've been cognizant of national politics since Richard Nixon was president and I have never, and I almost never say never, supported a state or national administration without question. That would be dangerous and foolish. Yet the right wing is imposing this test on all Republicans.

If the Republicans want to govern, they will need to be much more flexible in their approach. This is why they lost winnable national races in 2010 and 2012, and why it took a favorable national map for them to win the Senate in 2014. They are setting themselves up for another fall in 2016 if they continue promoting discrimination and division.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

All Eyes On Israel

We're going to need our mucking boots today because we're going to wade into the Middle East. Until now, I have assiduously avoided all mention of the region because it's messy and confusing and controversial and, quite frankly, my ideas have, shall we say, evolved over time. But the events of the day are far too important and compelling for me to stay away from the issues, so I am now going to opine. With FEEling.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a first- and world-class jerk who has no business actually running a government. His comments last week on the eve of the Israeli elections regarding a two state solution with the Palestinians and his warnings about Israeli Arabs voting in droves have only widened the differences between Israel and both the US government and many American Jews. His speech in front of Congress, orchestrated by the House Republican leadership and done without consulting or notifying the Obama Administration, was a new low in political gaming and rogue foreign policy. That the speech almost ended up actually costing Netanyahu his election, and thus his need to play the racist, far-right card, told us that he would do anything to win votes (not a bad thing in and of itself, mind you). His persistent warnings about Iran's intentions to build a bomb and use it on Israel are complicating the nuclear talks between the US and Iran, and his approval of new Israeli settlements is angering our allies around the world.

And yet...

Netanyahu and his right wing government, is the only institution that is standing between Israel's future existence and radical, terrorist, anti-Semitic entities that want to destroy it. His focus on Israel's security is a prerequisite for winning and holding national office and, along with the economy, is the main issue for both domestic and foreign consumption. He's a strong leader and has been able to navigate his way through the thickets of his country's political system en route to 4 national election victories.

I support Israel and believe that it must survive and thrive as a testament to its Jewish roots, its democracy, its vibrant culture and its place as an island of hope in a hostile world. I also believe that there should be a state for the Palestinians because the present political and social arrangement is unsustainable and in some cases, inhuman. But now we are stuck because the current state of world affairs is so polarized and unforgiving, that any compromise seems to be impossible. Radical Islamic groups would like nothing more than to see Israel destroyed. Israel needs to confront its adversaries and deserves the right to defend itself against attacks from both rockets and words.

What to do? The easy thing is to say that the Arab and Islamic states need to formally recognize that Israel exists and will continue to exist, and that the Israelis need to recognize that they will have to give up some land that they won in the six day war of 1967. Militant groups will need to give up their weapons and stop using them against Israel, and Israel will need to loosen some of the border restrictions so that the Palestinians can freely conduct commerce and make their economy grow. Sounds easy, right?

Of course it isn't and Netanyahu isn't going to help. He's going to hold a hard line now and wait to see who the next US president is going to be, hoping it's someone he can work with, since his relationship with Obama is probably irreparable. I'm sure he'd love to see a more aggressive neo-conservative Republican, but I think Hillary Clinton would fit the bill too.

In the meantime, he'll continue to oppose anything that might threaten Israel and will oppose any agreement with the Iranians. And there will be an agreement with the Iranians because deep down I think the Iranians want an agreement on their nuclear program. The Iranian economy is in a shambles because of sanctions and the middle class (yes, there is a middle class) is demanding a place in the larger world. A nuclear agreement would also hold the Iranians to specific actions and inspections that, while there are many who say they will ultimately ignore any limits, will require Iran to play by the world's rules if it wants to be taken seriously. I could be utterly misreading the politics, but I don't think so. Attacking Israel with a nuclear weapon will only invite Iran's destruction. They clearly don't want that.

The prospects for genuine peace in the region look about as bleak as they ever have, and it will probably take a new generation of leadership to improve them. Of course, weren't we saying the same thing in the 1970s?

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest   

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pearson Jumps the Shark on PARCC

We are truly in deep PARCC mode now. Perhaps the April/May test administration should include readings from the Pentagon Papers.

Pearson Education, the company that produces the PARCC tests, and is reportedly being paid over $22 million dollars in New Jersey alone, is monitoring social media to check for security breaches and other untoward activity.  The latest example is in the Watchung Hills Regional school district, where evidently a student tweeted a test question and Pearson was able to flag it. The company then contacted the New Jersey Department of Education, which then contacted the school district. A fuller discussion is here. I can certainly understand test security because every teacher in New Jersey is warned annually that any data breach can result in the loss of their teaching license.

In the new testing world, though, the students may control the balance of power. Think about it: The new tests are being given exclusively on computers to an audience that, shall we say, is less than enthusiastic about sitting for hours to complete them. Students also have access to the Internet on their own devices. Mix in the politics of test refusal and the widely acknowledged fact that these tests count for zilch to the people who are taking them, and you have a messy brew that was just waiting to foam over. And think again if you think this is only happening in New Jersey.

Testing has always been a part of education and the PARCC is just another in a long line that stretches back decades. What's upset many more people about these particular tests is that they are tied to the Common Core Curriculum Standards, which are unpopular on both the right and the left, and which most school districts just implemented formally this past September. That means that students in grades 3-11 have only had six months with which to work with some new, sophisticated concepts. How are these tests going to do anything except tell us that we have more work to do? What's worse, many parents and teachers with college educations and advanced degrees have taken the practice tests and have been flummoxed by what PARCC says are the correct answers.

The tests are also unpopular because they are being administered over a couple of weeks in two separate time frames; one now and one during late April or early May. This is taking an extraordinary amount of time away from classroom teaching and learning that is, presumably, the point of having children go to school and hiring teachers to instruct and mentor them. As someone who teaches Advanced Placement courses, I can tell you that this schedule has put enormous pressure on me to find time to properly prepare students for the early May AP tests while they are also taking the PARCC.

Then there is Pearson Education (remember Pearson Education? This is a column on Pearson Education). They will be paid about $22 million dollars for the tests in NJ, which is below the original estimate, but it's still a great deal of money. Now the company is trolling through social media, monitoring student behavior and expecting that nobody will ever talk about the tests in a world where we are all connected.

This will not help schools and states that are trying to limit the number of students who are refusing to take the tests, and could possibly lead to more students not taking them in April/May. In the high school where I teach, approximately 35% of eligible students are not taking the tests. When I was proctoring the tests last week I did notice that a number of students were logging on to the test program on their computers, cycling through the pages in about 30 seconds, then taking out a book to read. Civil disobedience is alive and well.

Every social movement has its tipping point. This could be the one for Pearson and PARCC.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest    

Sunday, March 8, 2015

On Education: Can't See the Forest for the Bushes

Remember the education president? That would be George H.W. Bush, who promised that he would focus on improving schools so that the United States would be number one in educating its children for the new millennium. His Goals 2000: Educate America Act had terrific political nuggets such as:

All children in America will start school ready to learn. 

The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.

United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning. 

Of course, these goals were not met because they aren't realistic. Public institutions that suffer from inadequate funding and political interference can't guarantee that all students or every adult will do anything except be disappointed that as a nation, we couldn't do better.

The along came his son, George W. Bush, who promised that the No Child Left Behind Act would do for America what its smaller implementation had done to Texas in the 1990s. This meant that all students would pass state tests by 2014 and schools that didn't perform, either overall or because any subset of racial, ethnic or gender categories did not score well enough on said tests, would be closed. Bush even made Houston Superintendent of Schools Rod Paige the Secretary of Education.

That's when the real story of how the Texas Education Miracle became one more Bush myth. It turns out that Paige and Bush cooked the graduation rate books, inflating the number of students who met school standards and essentially erased the records of students who dropped out or had discipline problems.

The NCLB was based on faulty numbers, but that didn't stop it from infecting every aspect of school reform for the next decade. Testing became rampant and disruptive. Private testing companies like Pearson Education got very wealthy creating tests and changing the curriculum. President Obama's embrace of this model was disturbing, and has led us to where we are today, wasting huge chunks of time modifying what students need to know and testing them not once (March), but twice (late April or early May).

Now word comes that the third Bush who wants to be president, former Florida Governor Jeb, promoted a charter school in Miami that is now closed, but he's running as if the school is a shining successful example of his education agenda. The basic problem seemed to be that as a private citizen, Bush was able to raise money and be the face of the school, but as governor, he could not have his name on the school's letterhead nor could he raise funds privately. Other issues also intervened, namely that Bush had to balance the state budget and unfortunately there wasn't enough to pay for public schools and charters. Simply, the toy lost its luster.

But at least he has a policy that applies to the classroom. Compare that to Governor Chris Christie's approach to education. He's focused solely on economics and making sure that teachers, and indeed all public unions, pay more and more for their benefits while he skirts his own law and refuses to make full payments to the pension system.

In fact, you would think that Christie and the New Jersey Education Association made a major agreement on teacher benefits, according to a speech Christie made in Florida last week. There is no agreement, and there won't be one on his terms. But I guess that when you're running for president, you can say anything you want, and in the end, most people won't know or care to know the difference.

That's what happened with the two previous Bushes. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest     

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Elected, Perchance to Govern?

Mitch McConnell, moderate. I thought I'd never see that characterization, but after last week's embarrassing, incompetent, dangerous gambit the House Republicans played, he's looking like the only GOP adult in the room. John Boehner seems to have lost his caucus and is now dependent on the far right to dictate what gets done in the House, and what's getting done is virtually nothing. Kicking the Homeland Security funding argument to this week will do nothing except make Friday night another frantic opportunity for brinkmanship and Obama-bashing. In the end, Homeland Security will get funding and the president's immigration changes will stand. The real losers will be the people who work for the agency as they bite their nails and wait to see if they'll be getting paid for another week. If terrorists read American news sources, they are surely laughing at us.

Not content to make itself look bad on the domestic front, the Republicans doubled down and asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come and speak to a joint session of Congress, an honor he will deliver this week. Never mind that his visit, essentially a jab at the Obama administrations efforts to negotiate a nuclear treaty with Iran, will only put more on strain US-Israel relations, although there are reports that things might be getting less strained. Mr. Netanyahu, I'm sure, will have important things to say. The problem is that he might want to think twice before attaching himself to the clown car Congress that can't seem to find money to pay for homeland security, much less debate a serious issue like a possible Iranian nuclear weapon.

This is also the week that the Supreme Court will hear arguments in King v. Burwell, the case that challenges whether the federal government can give subsidies to people who buy health insurance on the federal exchange. The plaintiffs believe that only those who buy policies on state exchanges should get subsidies. Which of course begs the question, if the court rules for the plaintiffs, will they work feverishly to make sure that the states without exchanges set them up quickly so the law can work and millions of people can keep their health care?

Of course not.  This is most likely the final attempt to destroy a law that is working wonderfully and is fundamentally changing the health care landscape for the better. Also, the states that would suffer the most if the subsidies are struck down will be the poorest, reddest states in the country. You know, the ones whose citizens vote against their interests by electing governments that seek to limit the programs their people desperately need.

And the state that would suffer the most? Florida. Does Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio have a fall back plan if millions of Floridians lose their health insurance? No. Do both of them want to be president? Of course, but what a catastrophe either of them would be.

And finally, this week will see the rollout of the PARCC tests across the nation. School districts are hoping that their technology holds up and that students can navigate the many screen they'll need to use in order to answer the questions. Some families have decided that they don't want their students to participate, so they've opted out, or "refused" to take the tests as the officials like to characterize it, The testing will take almost three weeks and then return in late April or early May, taking more valuable time and resources from classrooms and actual learning. The tests will mean almost nothing to students, but for teachers, they will count for 10% of their yearly evaluation (in New Jersey, at least). I give these tests five years, and then the education establishment will move on to something newer.

March is certainly roaring in.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest