Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Conservative Court Turns Left

The same court that brought us corporations as people, unlimited political money, abortion restrictions, a step backwards in voting rights, and unequal pay has now thrown some serious bones to the left in the form of a stronger Affordable Care Act and a right to gay marriage. I'm sure that wherever they are, David Souter and Sandra Day O'Connor are smiling just as broadly as President Obama and millions of formerly marginalized United States citizens are across this land.

It just goes to show you that handicapping Supreme Court decisions based on the justices' questions and demeanor during oral arguments is dangerous, unpredictable sport. Remember that the Chief Justice asked only one substantial question during the health care arguments, but he surprised almost everyone by writing a rather forceful decision upholding the law. Justice Kennedy was widely seen as the bellwether on marriage equality, and he provided the fifth vote to recognize that dignity comes in many forms.

The Originalist Triplets from Different Mothers--Scalia, Thomas and Alito--certainly didn't disappoint their right wing adherents by pointing out to us that laws should be read as written and that if marriage was a right, then why didn't the nation recognize it until now? Never mind that the country didn't recognize civil rights for African-Americans for over 100 years after the Civil War, and that was with an amendment specifically crafted to remedy that injustice. Justice Thomas's career-defining quote about how slaves did not lose their dignity because the government allowed them to be enslaved was not only a jaw-dropping bit of incongruity, but also a shocking misunderstanding of what the word means.

But this is the danger of the originalist doctrine. It presumes to know exactly what the Framers meant not only in their time, but in ours. I'm no legal expert, but I've committed my professional life to teaching history and my reading is that those men who gathered in Philadelphia were a bit more flexible on legal interpretations than the originalists give them credit for.

Rather than be shocked at what American society has become, I think they would be pleased, perhaps even giddy, at the idea that we've become as multicultural, open, democratic and accepting as we are now. I would be disappointed if Madison, Washington, Hamilton or any of the others came to our century and said that we had completely misread the meaning of their words. After all, they included both the elastic clause and the ability to amend the constitution.

Meanwhile, Scalia, Thomas and Alito (and sometimes Roberts) would roll back civil rights laws and would have us believe that the Fourteenth Amendment, the one that guarantees every citizen equal protection of the law, has nothing to say about guaranteeing LGBT Americans, well, the equal protection of the law. or that four words in the health care law were meant as grenades that would blow it up rather than mechanisms to guarantee that less-well-off Americans could get affordable health care. Scalia especially seems to believe that the only rights that Americans have are the ones granted in 1787. How thoroughly regressive.

It's worth noting that another group, Confederates, also believed they knew the true meaning of the Republic. They wanted to live in a country that allowed states to decide almost all aspects of public policy, protect slavery and Jim Crow, and to nullify federal laws they didn't agree with. That's why they broke away and were almost successful in creating such a country. Their loss still resonates in the south and it's time to bring that era to a close. We shouldn't destroy every vestige of it, but it's past time to take down the flags and statues (and put them in museums where they belong), and to rename some streets. We'll be a better country for it.

What history will more likely remember is the rock-solid support for humanity and progress that the four liberals--Sotomayor, Breyer, Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg--continue to fight for. Their opinions were subsumed under Kennedy and Roberts, but they should rightly be proud, and thanked, for their steadfast support for the citizens of this country.

As we move forward from last week, we need to remember that many states will be required to recognize marriages, but off the alter those states can continue to discriminate based on sexual orientation and use religious belief as a hammer against full equality. I certainly support religious values, but it's time to recognize that Biblical prohibitions that discriminate, marginalize and promote hate are...wrong.

Bu that's a discussion for the future. Right now I'm going to buy some rainbow sherbet, kick back, and celebrate America.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Race Confronts Race

Racial politics is sometimes like the weather. Everybody complains about it or has an opinion about it, but there's precious little that we can seemingly do about it. Here we are again, having the same conversation about the same issue and the politicians are crafting their statements and the sociologists are telling us about how the Internet is the problem and the gun enthusiasts are telling us that it's a mental health issue and there's a debate about whether this is only a hate crime or is it home-grown terrorism. And then there's that darned Confederate flag flying on the ground of the state capitol. Which seems to be causing a bit of angst in the Republican Party.

The race is on and race is now a major part of it. This time, though, it feels different.

Nine African-Americans were killed in their church simply because they were African-Americans. Yes, I know that many people say that Walter Scott and Eric Garner and Michael Brown were killed because they were African-American, but they were also involved in activities that brought them attention from the law. The victims in Charleston were doing no such thing. They were being good citizens, were praying, were welcoming a stranger into their world as many other Americans would. Such a terrible tragedy.

What we know for sure is that the shooter did not like black people, and he said so explicitly. He grew up in a country that's supposed to be post-racial with a more enlightened group of young people who did not experience the Civil Rights movement or institutional segregation. They're supposed to be more welcoming, more open, more accepting. We now know about one of the exceptions to that interpretation.

But we are also at the beginning of a presidential election cycle and we need to measure the candidates and potential candidates against their words and actions. The initial reactions were sober and immediate, with quick condemnations and expressions of horror and disbelief. That sentiment soon turned to the issue of why Dylann Roof perpetrated this crime. Many on the right called it an attack on religion. Some said worse things.  President Obama looked anguished and sad when he addressed the news media the day after the killings, and his inclusion of the gun issue showed that he truly regrets not being able to get any kind of meaningful background check legislation through the Congress.

I want to know specifically what the candidates plans are in reaction to this event. They all say that we need to bring the country together, but how will they do this? I understand that I might have to wait a good long time, but now is the moment when we need to push anyone who wants to occupy the Oval Office in 2017 for answers. Specific answers.

Right now we're asking questions from our homes and places of worship. Next time, we'll be in the streets.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fifteen Days In June

Ready for the summer? Well hold on because the next 15 days will be key to determining the shape of the presidential race.

First up is Jeb Bush. The smart one. The able one. The one who thinks through his actions before taking them. The one with the long-term policy proposals that are not exactly aligned with the conservative wing of the Republican Party. The one who is daddy's favorite.

The one whose brother absolutely ruined the Bush name. Dang.

Jeb is not a bad candidate and he's making an effort to separate himself from George W. The extent to which he can do that will determine whether he successfully fends off more base-friendly candidates like Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Right now, it looks like many Republicans are wary and might be looking elsewhere. If Jeb can raise enough money and scare off some other candidates, he can win, but he'll have to convince many right wing voters of his commitment to their cause.

Governor Chris Christie is also getting ready to announce his run fresh off a victory courtesy of a New Jersey State Supreme Court ruling in his favor on the landmark state worker's pension and benefits bill he negotiated with the Democratic legislature in 2011. He's running on his ability to work with the opposite party, but the problem is that he's repudiated his own law and the court ruled it to be unconstitutional. Now the Democrats have sworn not to negotiate further with him. Will he mention any of this?

Of course not. Christie will shamelessly repeat that he can work with Democrats, but that train has left the station. Plus, he has the Bridgegate scandal to answer to and a problem making himself stand out from the rest of what will probably be a 15 candidate field. His first job is to make sure that he's polling high enough to be included in the first GOP debate in August. He's good in debates and in front of crowds, so I wouldn't count him out yet. But he's got a tough race ahead of him.

Hillary Clinton also began her push for the presidency yesterday. She gave a good speech and is clearly focusing on the middle class and income inequality. She's a bit farther to the left than her husband, but the Democratic Party is also more liberal these days. Her problem is similar to Jeb's in that we know a great deal about her and her past. She has a clearer road to the nomination, but she does need to be mindful about giving too much to the Sanders-Warren wing of the party.

And don't forget that we have two big Supreme Court decisions yet to be announced between now and June 30 on marriage equality and ACA subsidies. By July 1 we'll have a good idea of how the candidates will need to adjust their messages in light of whatever the court decides.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Education By Dummies

Politicians can talk all they want about how changes to the American education system such as the Common Core, new testing rubrics and teacher evaluation systems will vault us into the top tiers of learned nations over the next few years, but, really, that's not going to happen if what's happening in Arizona and other states doesn't get fixed.

At least 30 states spent less per student this school year than in the year before the economic downturn began, and 14 states, including Arizona, have cut per-pupil funding by more than 10 percent over that period.

The drop is not simply a reflection of state economies still struggling to recover. Experts say politics and policy have also played a role.

Of the seven states with the deepest cuts in education from kindergarten to 12th grade, six — Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin — also cut income tax rates, leading to a series of vigorous protests and public disputes between lawmakers and educators that are still playing out.
The Great Recession was terrible, but that part about cutting taxes and school funding is reprehensible. There is simply no excuse to give money back to taxpayers when the schools have a library that nobody can use or that run out of supplies before the end of the school year.

But that's not the only problem. Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie recently did an about-face and said that he no longer supports the Common Core Curriculum Standards but does support the PARCC tests that are based on...the Common Core. This neat bit of contradiction, endemic to Republican politicians, not only makes no sense; it invites testing students on skills and content that they will not learn in their classrooms. Couple this with the Governor's previous bashing of teachers and their association, and his severe education budget cuts and you have the scary proposition of someone sitting in the Oval Office who supports testing, but not the people who will be delivering a curriculum that is yet to be determined.

Christie has good company in another soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Not only did he and the GOP-led legislature end collective bargaining for public employees, now he's proposing a bill that would significantly affect tenure in public colleges and universities. That law would repeal the idea of shared governance when it comes to tenure and is best explained this way:
Shared governance gives powers to faculty, staff and students over such matters as instruction, personnel matters and student services. The shared power is not the adversarial relationship many think of, Fair said. “It’s a conversation across the different bodies to reach consensus on what is best for the institution,” she said.

And while the employment protections conveyed by tenure can seem self-serving, Compas said, that is not what it is about.

“Tenure doesn’t protect anyone who breaks university rules or doesn’t do their job. Instead, it is a cornerstone of academic freedom,” he said. “It provides protection for faculty to challenge conventional notions and present ideas that often are unpopular,” said Compas, who has tenure.
What Walker wants to do is to take tenure decisions away from the shared model and transfer authority to a state body that is--surprise!--appointed by the governor. I'm guessing that the makeup of the body will be sharply different than the people making tenure decisions now. And I can see great mischief in how it will be applied should this bill pass. Which it most likely will.

These are but three examples of how terribly education policy is made and implemented in the United States. After 2016, it could get even worse.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest