Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Complicated Court

I think we were all warned that the final week of the Supreme Court term would turn us all into hypocrites, and it certainly delivered on that promise. The conservatives had to like the Voting Rights Act case decision and liberals had to like DOMA, and both sides had something to like and dislike about the Affirmative Action and the California Proposition 8 results.

In the end, none of these decisions should have been surprising. The liberal era that reached its height in the late 1960s has been declining for years and the court has done its best lately to rein in what the right sees as its excesses, especially when it comes to government power. They've also set back abortion rights, the rights of the accused, and have ruled fairly consistently for the rights of religious organizations to participate in the public square. To think that any of these issues is sacrosanct would be foolish, but to also think that the court's decisions mean an end to liberal programs would likewise be incorrect.

But the conservatives have also done wonders for the gay rights movement. Not only did they finally strike down anti-sodomy laws, but yesterday's marriage equality ruling is a huge step forward for the recognition that homosexuals must be treated with respect under the law. I know that many African-Americans don't like the comparison between the Civil Rights Movement and today's gay issues, but on a human scale they are exactly the same. It's important that every citizen be welcome and be able to feel relaxed in our society. If you're straight, the world generally works for you. If you're gay, some parts of it don't. Being a member of the majority or the power structure bestows on people a sense that they have control over their destiny. Everyone deserves to feel this way.

I'm looking forward to the day when people are simply married; not same-sex married or married with equality, but just...married. That's the beauty of the court's ruling. I also look forward to the day when all people have access to higher education and the vote. We need to work to make these happen, but I have confidence that we will.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Now Who Are The Activists?

Remember when conservatives across the nation accused liberal justices of being activists? Of making law without interpreting it? Of imposing their political ideology on court cases instead of taking a uniquely 18th century view of the constitution? Good times, no?

Welcome to the conservative majority.

Today's ruling in the Voting Rights Act case shows that the right can be just as activist, just as ideological and just as dismissive of the democratic process as they accused the left of being. It was evident during arguments in March, and the decision was not far off from what many feared would happen.

The court declared that Section 4 of the act (which determined the formula to identify states that needed voting oversight) was unconstitutional. That renders Section 5 moot, because without jurisdictions that are required to get preclearance from the federal government before they enact laws that might violate voter's rights, there is no need for, well, preclearance in the first place. So why not simply declare Section 5 unconstitutional as well? There was at least one vote for that as:

Justice Thomas called for striking down Section 5 immediately, saying the majority opinion had provided the reasons and merely left “the inevitable conclusion unstated.” 

The most disturbing part of the decision came from Justice Roberts, who claims to care about originalism and reliance on the past, except in cases where he doesn't. Thus,

The current coverage scheme, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, is “based on 40-year-old facts having no relationship to the present day.” 

“Congress — if it is to divide the states — must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions,” he wrote. “It cannot simply rely on the past.” 

What makes sense in light of current conditions is a product of the past. That's the bedrock assumption of every history class I've ever taken and one that serious historians would surely agree. It's like saying that Paula Deen said what she said only in light of what's happening in the country in 2013 and forgetting that she is a product of a specific time, place, history and upbringing.

As usual, it took a liberal justice to remind the court why the Voting Rights Act had been passed in the first place and why we still need it today: History. From Justice Ginsburg:

“The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery and there called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act foresaw progress, even in Alabama,” she said. “'The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice,’ if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” 

“That commitment,” she said, “has been disserved by today’s decision.” 

Ginsburg also laid out a chilling future based on today's decision.

She said the focus of the Voting Rights Act had properly changed from “first-generation barriers to ballot access” to “second-generation barriers” like racial gerrymandering and laws requiring at-large voting in places with a sizable black minority. She said Section 5 had been effective in thwarting such efforts. 

As if on cue, and wasting no time in trying to disenfranchise the next generation,

“With today’s decision,” said Greg Abbott, Texas’ attorney general, “the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately. Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”

Finally, you know that things are seriously awry when a liberal has to remind the conservatives of the bedrock of right wing originalist dogma: 

In any event, she said, Congress, which reauthorized the law by a large majority in the House and unanimously in the Senate, was the right body to decide whether the law was needed and where. 

Yes, we have an African-American president and we had more African-American participation in the 2012 election, and we have many more African-Americans in local and state offices. But we still have mischief and we still have false cries of voter fraud from the right. What will happen now because of this decision is that those laws will take affect and aggrieved parties will need to react to them after the fact. You were denied your vote? Oh well. Better luck next time.

Democracy indeed.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Hurry Up and Wait: Putting the Brakes on Teacher Evaluation

As if educators, including me, several times, haven't been clear enough that rushing into an untested teacher evaluation system is a terrible idea, along comes our esteemed Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan to finally get the message: schools need more time to implement, experiment and, yes, evaluate the new system before it becomes operative and to see if it does what it's supposed to do. It won't, because it has fatal flaws in it, but at least giving teachers, administrators and school boards another year might just uncover the folly of using prescriptive tests for evaluative ends.

In any case, Duncan is allowing states to apply for waivers to their waivers, which would require that the Christie administration to do something positive for teachers and students, so I'm not holding my breath. After all, I've sat in a room with NJ Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf and heard him, and other DOE officials, wax rhapsodic about how wonderful this new system is. Meanwhile, the data crunchers don't have all of the numbers, and the numbers they have are not representative of all types of districts.

Then there is this open letter to the New Jersey legislature from noted Millburn Superintendent James A, Crisfield, who makes a powerful case for letting the 2013-14 school year be a test case for every district in the state. That way we can observe how the system works and look to solve the obvious technical problems that the state seems to be ignoring. These include the funding restraints that will restrict districts from purchasing the computers necessary for all students to be able to take the end-of-year evaluations and the rather obtuse attitude the department has about ensuring that the youngest students have the necessary keyboarding skills to actually show what they've learned.

But just in case you think that it's only bitter teachers who are questioning the efficacy of the system, Crisfield reminds us that concerns reach across the education spectrum:
And speaking of fairness, there really needs to be another discussion about the efficacy of using student test scores to judge the effectiveness of a teacher. We’re moving so fast now that we don’t even have the opportunity to fully vet that very troubling (and in most educators’ opinion, highly flawed) aspect of the new system.

In fact, I can’t even explain to my teachers how, exactly, student test scores will affect their ratings, tenure, and pay (and I certainly don’t have the time to discuss with them the research behind, and/or the wisdom of, such ideas).
I like this guy.

This evaluation system has always been a political issue, not an education issue. If the governor was serious about true reform, he would have included far more public school teachers in the process, and he wouldn't have exempted private and charter schools. If you are in a position to do so, please contact your legislator. I can tell you from personal experience talking to them, that members of the Assembly and Senate want to know how affected constituents are thinking on the issues. The only thing we have to lose is control over our profession.


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Monday, June 17, 2013

The Lesson We Never Learn

After 29 years in the classroom, and with a pretty savvy political sense, if I may be so bold, I consider myself a keen observer of most things educational, but this story about Philadelphia's schools made me shiver with anger from the first paragraph:

Andrew Jackson School too agitated to eat breakfast on Friday, an aide alerted the school counselor, who engaged him in an art project in her office. When he was still overwrought at 11, a secretary called the boy’s family, and soon a monitor at the front door buzzed in an older brother to take him home. 

Under a draconian budget passed by the Philadelphia School District last month, none of these supporting players — aide, counselor, secretary, security monitor — will remain at the school by September, nor will there be money for books, paper, a nurse or the school’s locally celebrated rock band. 

I know that this kind of mindless budget cutting has been going on for years and real reformers, as opposed to the self-styled ones on the right, have been warning us that children are in real danger, but somehow this story caught me. Or maybe it just represents the last straw on my particular camel's back. Whatever. I have now officially had enough. If that's the way that Philadelphia's families are going to be treated, then we need an educational Tahrir/Taksim/self-immolating fruit-seller moment in this country. It's that bad now, and it's going to get worse.

Across the river, here in New Jersey, next fall is shaping up to be one of the worst for education since, well, four years ago when Chris Christie promised to destroy collective bargaining, and then made good on it, among other things. All of the polls point to a reelection win for the governor with a slight possibility that his coattails could enable the GOP to take over the state legislature. With a majority, even if it's just the Senate, they can reshape the State Supreme Court, and with both houses they can further erode worker's rights, eliminate seniority, impose radical cuts to public schools and stop funding for programs, like those in Philadelphia, that save lives, literally and figuratively.  

What might save the state is a current challenge to the October U.S. Senate primary, forcing it to be held on the same day as the gubernatorial election. That would bring out more pro-education voters. Opponents of the separate election say they've found a clause that specifically addresses the issue. Let's see if the State Supreme Court agrees.

And then, of course, there's the new teacher evaluation system that's set to go into effect statewide come the fall. Imagine a program that uses bad data in a manner that it wasn't meant to be used, then include horse-trading politicians who have little idea what the legislation says, and put a Commissioner of Education in charge of the system who has little regard for anything other than his political standing and whether the State Board of Education supports him. Oh, need to imagine. New Jersey's got it! 

I'm all for teacher accountability, but this system was created by non-educators as a means of punishing state workers and unions, and making it easier to fire effective teachers who cost too much. If it was about education, then private and charter school teachers would be included in it. But they're not, and that's all you need to know about the intentions of its authors.

So enjoy your summer everyone. Let's hope the shore businesses make lots of money and rejuvenate the towns and people who lost the most. Let's hope that students and teachers find exciting ways to add to their knowledge, or to just forget about formal learning for a while and smell some flowers. In the fall, a new storm will be brewing, but it won't be anything like Sandy. It will just be a lot of hot air.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Monday, June 10, 2013

The High Tech Flower Children Are High

The naivete of the computer geniuses who thought they were extending the ethos of the counterculture by creating an open, honest, democratic society with the Internet is rather stunning. The tech giants were the ones who promoted connectivity, but were never quite as open as they purported when it came to how they were using our data. A look through history should have warned them that any technology from telegraph, the telephone and video started out unregulated and public, but ultimately was taken over by the hucksters, the monetized and, yes, the government. Never forget that the government can open your mail if they suspect a plot, and always remember that the government has opened mail even if they didn't have a reason. So it is today with computer technology

And even when the tech people did warn us, we didn't listen.

"In 1999, Scott McNealy, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, summed up the valley’s attitude toward personal data in what became a defining comment of the dot-com boom. “You have zero privacy,” he said. “Get over it.”

 But the naive attitude continues:

Mr. McNealy is not retracting that comment, not quite; but like Mr. Metcalfe he is more worried about potential government abuse than he used to be. “Should you be afraid if AT&T has your data? Google?” he asked. “They’re private entities. AT&T can’t hurt me. Jerry Brown and Barack Obama can.”

AT&T and Google can't hurt me? Think again Scott. They can raise my bill with bogus charges or keep track of ads I click on and use that data against me if they want. It's then up to me to cleanse my own record. The government can go after me too, but they don't have the financial incentive to do so. Guess which one I'm more afraid of?

The people who brought us the computer revolution were smart, but were perhaps too smart. Their bias was toward maintaining data and recovering information if the system crashes. That's why you truly cannot erase the footprints you make on your machine or in cyberspace. Now that the Congress has passed laws and the courts have upheld their legality, it should surprise no one that the government is mining the data in the name of national security.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

And This Is A Surprise, Why?

Yes, I try to be a good liberal every chance that I can, but honestly, I can't help but think that this NSA surveillance business is a big yawn. We live in an electronic, connected world. We provide information via phone, cable TV, Internet, e-mail, texts, check boxes (especially after we've all thoroughly read the 28 page privacy statement that all website provide us with), billing address is same as mailing address online forms when we buy something, credit card information (stored on a third party server), Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Tumblr, picture sharing sites and on and on and on.

Now we learn that the government, in the name of national security and with the acquiescence of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, has gathered this data (I believe that "scooped" is the reigning cool-person way to describe it) and could use it to discover patterns in our behavior. If they wanted to. It's disturbing, but I cannot share the outrage. I saw it coming, and when I was a corporate technology trainer in the 1990s, I made a point of warning every student who sat in my class that everything they did on a computer, whether on the Internet or in a Word document, was fair game for any eyes that wanted to pry. This is ever more true today. People ignored or minimized this at their peril. And this was before September 11, when the corporations and government had even less of an excuse to watch us.

Okay, perhaps I'm being naive and obtuse and blind and I'm ignoring dangers that other can clearly see, but I don't think so. Maybe this article is absolutely wrong, but again, I don't think so.  Yes, I understand that there's a difference between willingly giving your data and the government mining for it, and I certainly don't want the government to get used to taking data that citizens have not freely given it, but in a way, we have.

This is also part of our history, and has been going on since the Alien and Sedition Acts. And the 1917 Espionage Act. When we signed on to Truman's Doctrine of containing Communism, we tacitly agreed that the government could check that we were loyal. Joseph McCarthy went too far and was too reckless. Richard Nixon did similar things, but he was elected VP and president and had J. Edgar Hoover to both support and threaten him. When they went too far, the Congress reined them in. So it will be today.

The problem now is that the threat of attack is too real and the consequences too terrible to let our guard down for even a second. The Chinese and Iranians are conducting cyberattacks that threaten our systems. How would you like the government to respond? By only following the bad people? That's like asking the police to only shoot or arrest bad guys. Most times it happens, but when it doesn't we react with a fury that sometimes ignores facts or circumstances. The same is true today. The NSA's job is to conduct information-gathering and use that data to find patterns of behavior that might lead to terrorism. To say that they should not be gathering all of the data that they can is counterproductive.

That the press has reported this story based on a whistle-blowers actions shows that our system still works. The government will be held accountable. At this point, that's good enough for me.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Xi Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

Yes, that would be the number one hit on Radio Beijing this week as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the United States on Friday to meet with President Obama. Their agenda will not be full of arms control or contentious issues like North Korea, Iran or who owns which teensy islands in the South China Sea, but rather, personal diplomacy. That's right; President Xi (or is it her...I can never remember) is traveling thousands of miles to meet the chilliest, most standoffish, least huggable American leader since Richard Nixon in order to establish a personal connection on the superpower stage.

Further, Mrs. Xi (is that redundant? OK, I'll stop) won't be accompanying the Mr. to the Republican Dude Ranch, which is a shame because I'm sure there are many Americans who would like to meet her. Mrs. Obama also won't be in attendance because it's getting near the end of the school year and the Obama girls surely have some last minute exams to take. So, it will just be the guys at the Sunnylands retreat, where Ronald Reagan and other GOPers used to sun themselves and cavort with wealthy people who loved them.

As with all meetings between key world leaders, both sides will need to measure the success of the summit. It will be difficult to tell if Xi achieves his goal of making friends with Obama, but I give him credit for making the personal, instead of the political, his particular goal. China isn't ready to take the lead on the world stage. Their economy is large and growing, but subject to volatility brought on by too much state meddling and the ever-present threat of shoddy, or even deadly products. Militarily, they could rival the US in sheer numbers, but their eyes are too big for their stomachs when it comes to how much they can push or bully other countries to do their bidding. At this point, they can't even dissuade North Korea to make significant changes to their behavior. How are they going to challenge more savvy, well-connected and wealthier countries to take them seriously? Xi is most likely aware of this and is taking a slow growth approach to the United States.

Xi is also a member of the generation that came of political age at the time of the June 4th democracy movement in Tienanmen Square. The military crackdown on democracy protesters was a critical turning point, and presumably today's Chinese leadership has learned the dangers of allowing too much freedom along with the warning that too much repression brings. Letting people to get rich in return for agreeing to a one-party state is a risky proposition because the truth is this: Not everyone can get rich, but everyone will be subject to the censors, the police and the Internet trackers. Xi must be looking at Turkey, Syria and Egypt and wondering how he can keep the lid on his country. In the end, it's only a matter of time.

Let's hope that  President Obama can establish a connection with our main rivals in the world, and engage Mr. Xi in a productive dialogue that the two men can use when relations get difficult, because they ultimately will. Then both of them can say that they found success.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Lose the Young, Lose the Future

It shouldn't have taken a report like this to uncover what's wrong with the Republican Party, but now that it's been released, it would be great if the power brokers on the right will heed its call. The problem is that this is the other major American political party and their dysfunction is having a profound effect on our political life. Their obstruction has robbed us of a robust economic recovery from a downturn that they planted the seeds for, with Democratic help in many cases, and their lack of identifiable, fair, economically feasible ideas caused the sequester and downgrade of United States' securities.

But there's more. Here's a summary of how young people see the Republican Party on some of the issues of the day.

Gay marriage: “On the ‘open-minded’ issue … [w]e will face serious difficulty so long as the issue of gay marriage remains on the table.”
Hispanics: “Latino voters … tend to think the GOP couldn’t care less about them.”
Perception of the party’s economic stance: “We’ve become the party that will pat you on your back when you make it, but won’t offer you a hand to help you get there.”
Big reason for the image problem: The “outrageous statements made by errant Republican voices.”
Words that up-for-grabs voters associate with the GOP: “The responses were brutal: closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.”

How many national elections do you think the right can win with perceptions like these? We can ask President Hillary after 2025.

The truth is that most people in this country are trending leftward. Not in overwhelming numbers and not by leaps and bounds, but it is happening. Marriage equality will be the law in significantly more states over the next ten years and the health care law will result in broader insurance coverage, technological improvements in health delivery, and a system that encourages and rewards innovation and cost-cutting.

If you were a young adult in 1985, you know how much the country has changed since then politically, economically and culturally. Imagine what the United States will be like in 2035 after an era of expanded equality, more access for more people to the nation's wealth, less expensive higher education opportunities and a fairer tax code.

Yes, we will have our problems and we could become enmeshed in any number of foreign conflicts (we will get involved in Syria somehow. Mark my words.) and will have our share of domestic disturbances. But if the GOP can reform itself and make the party more responsive to what we need to improve the country, then we will all benefit.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest