Education

FOR-PROFIT COLLEGES: Stealing America’s Future

David Halperin, Stealing America’s Future, joins Thom Hartmann to discuss what’s happening with for-profit colleges. As the cost of a higher education goes up – more and more Americans are turning to for-profit colleges to get what they think is more bang for their buck. But are for-profit colleges really just a big scam fueled by a never-ending supply of student loan debt?

The War on Veterans

Congress and the White House are much better at starting wars than cleaning up after them.

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Do you remember Cory Remsburg? He’s the Army Ranger who received a standing ovation from Congress during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address a few weeks ago.

Applause is nice, especially from such influential people. It sure beats those cuts the Pentagon wants to make to veteran benefits.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is now trying to sell vets on his plan to scale back the number of U.S. troops, as well as what taxpayers are spending on active-duty and retired forces. After he announced his ideas, Hagel brought them straight to a town hall meeting with soldiers at Fort Eustis in Virginia. “There was no applause,” Military.com reported.

Before and After a War, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Before and After a War, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Whenever Washington winds down its wars and our troops become needy veterans, interest in their welfare always flags. Senate Republicans just blocked a comprehensive $21 billion bill that would have beefed up veteran education, health, and other benefits.

But that’s not all. Food stamps were just cut for some 170,000 vets, pensions will soon decline, and the Department of Veterans Affairs admits a backlog of 393,000 benefit claims after making great progress toward getting caught up.

About 30 percent of the vets who serve in war zones return from the battlefield with undiagnosed or untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. Some half a million are suffering from it now.

Clearly, Congress and the White House are much better at starting wars than cleaning up after them.

Military debates in Washington generally revolve around the costs of manpower, equipment, and logistics. Finding the money needed to cover the medical bills and pensions of veterans is always harder to squeeze into the federal budget.

The Pentagon only lists 19,000 troops officially wounded by enemy action in Afghanistan and gives them good care. The other hundreds of thousands with mysterious brain or emotional injuries have to prove it. But first they need to succeed in gaining an appointment at the Department of Veterans Affairs — better known as simply the VA — and demonstrating that they were honorably discharged.

That can be tough.

William Dolphin, a Purple Heart Vietnam veteran, is now fighting for that right in federal court. The Army gave him a bad conduct discharge years ago for being AWOL upon confusion over where he was supposed to convalesce after leaving the hospital. He’s been suffering from PTSD for four decades.

“All I’m asking is that the Army recognize that I served my country proudly,” Dolphin says.

There’s another new lawsuit filed in March by a group of Vietnam vets who went through a similar ordeal. It’s seeking class-action status.

And things haven’t changed much since the Vietnam War. Washington still sees wasting record sums of money on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a high priority while vast numbers injured veterans go without adequate psychiatric care. At least 55,000 veterans remain homeless despite the existence of dozens of programs that specifically target this problem.

If our leaders really want to honor Cory Remsburg, they should stop making people go through what he experienced. It’s time to stop waging unnecessary wars and start taking better care of our wounded warriors.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. Follow her on Twitter @ESGrecoOtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. OtherWords.org

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The Margin Tax a Hot Potato for Democrats

— by Rich Dunn, NVRDC 2nd Vice Chair

Last week Nevada Appeal columnist Bo Statham presented the progressive case against this year’s education initiative, an issue that’s dividing Democrats in a year when party unity has never been more important.

Those divisions were plain to see at January’s state central committee meeting, where a resolution supporting the initiative passed 92-78 overall, but was voted down in the north by a 51-3 margin after members heard from construction union representatives that the proposed law would cost jobs in their industry. In the south, a large turnout of teachers put reform of education funding top of mind, so the resolution passed.

All Democrats I know agree that Nevada needs a higher level of funding for public education, unlike many Republicans, who want to divert existing public funding from district schools to private and charter schools. But this is a question of priorities, and the only way to get this state’s priorities straight is to elect more Democrats.

That’s something about which we should all be able to agree, yet in 2010, when we had a chance to elect a governor who made education his top priority, we didn’t see the level of commitment needed to make it happen. Instead we ended up with a Republican governor who allows his party’s tax aversion to trump adequate education funding. Sadly, it appears that our party is now giving him a pass for reelection, which brings to mind the oft-repeated political adage: Elections have consequences.

Margin tax not the answer for state education

— by Bo Statham

The Education Initiative, better known as the Gross Margin Tax proposal, will be on the 2014 ballot for voter consideration. Supported passionately by those who believe Nevada’s public school system requires higher funding, the tax would raise an estimated $800 million a year dedicated to that purpose. The business community vigorously opposes the proposed tax.

This column will not please either supporters or opponents. Instead, it focuses on the need to restructure Nevada’s tax system to more equitably provide required funding for all public needs.

It seems beyond question that K-12 education is in need of greater financial resources, but a gross margin tax on a segment of the business sector would be neither fair nor a good component of Nevada fiscal policy.

Sponsored by the Education Initiative Political Action Committee, formed primarily by teachers and school groups, the margin tax would be a new levy of 2 percent on businesses with annual incomes of at least $1 million. Gaming revenue is exempt. A company could deduct from total income certain expenses or alternatively chose to deduct 30 percent of total income, whichever results in a lower tax.

It is important to understand this would not be an income tax, which is based on a company’s profit. The proposed margin tax would be assessed even if a company made no profit.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute described the margin tax as “one of the most hare-brained schemes ever to come before state lawmakers.” The independent Tax Foundation calls gross-receipts taxes “distortive and destructive.”

Underlying opposition to the tax is the fear it will make Nevada less competitive. But let’s look at the facts.

The Tax Foundation ranks Nevada, one of nine states without corporate and personal income tax, third overall in its 2014 Business Tax Climate index but 36th in Best States for Business and Careers. Forbes concludes, “While Nevada scores well in business costs, it does not score well in factors such as labor supply, economic climate, and quality of life.” CNBC’s 2013 business ratings found Nevada ranked “well in business friendliness and cost of living, but did not rank well in areas such as the economy and education.”

A fair interpretation of these ratings is that Nevada’s fiscal policy results in a very attractive tax burden for businesses and residents but a poor environment for economic development. The state fails to foster skilled labor, education, economic climate and quality of life that are valued by business.

According to a 2011 U.S. Census Bureau report, Nevada’s state revenue per capita of $3,848 was the second-lowest of all states, and state spending per capita of $4,848 was the fourth-lowest. This “low taxes-low public funding” tradition reflects an anti-government mentality that does not serve Nevada well.

Increased financial support is one vital component of improving public education in Nevada, but a gross margin tax is not the way to fund it. The proposed tax would only add to an already-failed fiscal policy that is misguided, inequitable and regressive.

Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aide and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at bostatham@me.com.

It’s Time for Voters to Take Out the Senatorial Trash

— by Vickie Rock, Humboldt Dems Secretary and proud Navy Veteran

Today, S1982 came up for a vote in the Senate. S1982 is the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014.  S1982 amends federal veterans provisions, revising or adding provisions concerning medical services and other benefits provided to veterans and/or their dependents through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in the following areas:

  • survivor and dependent matters, including benefits for children of certain veterans born with spina bifida;
  • education matters, including the approval of courses for purposes of the All-Volunteer Force and the Post-9/11 Educational Assistance programs;
  • the expansion and extension of certain health care benefits, including immunizations, chiropractic care, treatment for traumatic brain injury, and wellness promotion;
  • health care administration, including extension of the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Professional Scholarship Program, and
  • complementary and alternative medicine;
  • mental health care, including an education program and peer support program for family members and caregivers of veterans with mental health disorders;
  • dental care eligibility and expansion, including a program of education to promote dental health in veterans;
  • health care related to sexual trauma, including appropriate counseling and treatment and a screening mechanism to detect incidents of domestic abuse;
  • reproductive treatment and services, including fertility counseling as well as adoption assistance for severely wounded veterans;
  • major medical facility leases;
  • veterans’ employment training and related services;
  • veterans’ employment, including within the federal government and as first responders;
  • career transition services;
  • employment and reemployment rights of members of the Armed Forces after active duty service;
  • small business matters, including contracting and subcontracting participation goals with federal departments and agencies;
  • administrative matters, including regional support centers for Veterans Integrated Service Networks;
  • the revision of claims based on military sexual trauma as well as claims for dependency and indemnity compensation;
  • jurisdictional matters, including with respect to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims;
  • the revision of certain rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, including protections with respect to the expiration of professional licenses, a prohibition on the denial of credit or the termination of residential leases due to military service, and the temporary protection of surviving spouses under mortgage foreclosures; and
  • outreach and miscellaneous matters, including: (1) repeal of the provision of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 that reduces the cost-of-living adjustment to the retirement pay of members of the Armed Forces under age 62, and (2) the accounting for discretionary accounts designated for overseas contingency operations/global war on terrorism.

When the bill came up for a vote, we witnessed pure unadulterated partisanship run amok as 41 reprehensible members of the REPUBLIBAN displayed their disdain, not support, for our troops and voted against passage of S1982:

Alexander (R-TN) . Ayotte (R-NH) . Barrasso (R-WY) . Blunt (R-MO) . Boozman (R-AR) . Burr (R-NC) . Chambliss (R-GA) . Coats (R-IN) . Coburn (R-OK) . Cochran (R-MS) . Collins (R-ME) . Corker (R-TN) . Cornyn (R-TX) . Crapo (R-ID) . Cruz (R-TX) . Enzi (R-WY) . Fischer (R-NE) . Flake (R-AZ) . Graham (R-SC) . Grassley (R-IA) . Hatch (R-UT) . Hoeven (R-ND) . Inhofe (R-OK) . Isakson (R-GA) . Johanns (R-NE) . Johnson (R-WI) . Kirk (R-IL) . Lee (R-UT) . McCain (R-AZ) . McConnell (R-KY) . Paul (R-KY) . Portman (R-OH) . Risch (R-ID) . Roberts (R-KS) . Rubio (R-FL) . Scott (R-SC) . Sessions (R-AL) . Shelby (R-AL) . Thune (R-SD) . Toomey (R-PA) . Vitter (R-LA)

It’s one thing to shut down our Government because they don’t want to pay the bills that they authorized and that they had already incurred.  It’s another thing entirely when they send our children to unwarranted wars and then refuse to provide necessary funding to support healthcare for the injuries of war incurred, PTSD, sexual trauma, traumatic brain injuries, et.al.  Our troops should never be thrown out with the trash like these GOP Tartufes did today.  This is an election year.  It’s time for voters across this nation to take out the Senatorial trash.

Make College Education a Reality

Kate Marshall, NV State Treasurer (Candidate for NV Secretary of State)

I wanted to share my recent op-ed in the Reno Gazette Journal on my College Kickstart program–a non taxpayer funded college savings account for our school age children here in Nevada.    Ensuring that everyone has access to higher education, is a personal mission of mine, and I am proud that soon we will expanding this program statewide.

Nearly 81% of the jobs of the future will require some sort of post secondary education.  Yet only 30% of Nevadans have some sort of post secondary Education.  This needs to change  and I am committed to ensuring our kids not only know that they can achieve a college degree but are given tools to achieve that dream.

Take a moment to read my personal story in the op-ed below and join my campaign team so we can continue to create opportunities for our kids to succeed.

From Reno Gazette Journal on February, 12th 2014

Kate Marshall: Make college education a reality

As a young child, I thought the most I could strive for in life was to get a job with benefits. College just wasn’t part of my picture. It wasn’t until a nun from my school showed up at my house to talk to my mother about me, and my future, that my outlook changed.

When you grow up in a family, or in a place, where college isn’t openly discussed, a child needs to be told what possibilities there are for his or her life. Children need to be told that they can reach further than just a job, or just a job with benefits.

With that in mind, my office has launched an exciting new initiative aimed at instilling the dream of a college education in the minds of Nevada schoolchildren. The Nevada College Kick Start Program (CollegeKickStart.nv.gov) has established 529 college savings accounts for all 2013-14 public school kindergarten students attending school in Nevada with an initial deposit of $50.

Studies have shown when a child has a savings account with his or her name on it — no matter how much is in the fund — that child is seven times more likely to go to college. College savings send a strong message to children: “You are a college saver. You are college-bound.” That is true, regardless of your family income, where you grew up, your ethnicity or whether your parents went to college.

The accounts were established with fees paid to the state by private investment firms, not taxpayer dollars.

The funds can be used for any institute of higher education, whether it’s culinary, technical; Truckee Meadows Community College; University of Nevada, Reno; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Harvard or any accredited institution of higher learning. It cannot be used for any other purpose than to pay higher education expenses.

We have also partnered with our Nevada College Savings Plans program manager, Upromise, to drastically reduce the minimum amount needed to open a SSgA Upromise college savings account. Parents can set up a 529 college savings account with as little as $15 — reduced from $250. And for those families making less than $75,000, the state will match up to $300 a year for five years, within the availability of funding.

Parents or other caregivers can open this parallel account and deposit whatever they can afford into that account so they’ll be better prepared when the time comes for their child to attend an institution of higher learning.

An educated workforce is critical as we work to diversify our economy and create jobs with better pay and benefits. It is essential that more Nevada families begin discussing and planning for college now so that more of our youths will attend and graduate from an institution of higher learning.

We need to let all children know that they can go to college. Let’s put everyone on the same starting line and make a college education a reality for thousands of Nevada’s children.

Kate Marshall is Nevada state treasurer.

College Kickstart

by Kate Marshall, NV State Treasurer

KateMarshallIf you have not already heard the news, yesterday, I announced the statewide launch of Nevada’s College Kick Start program!

The Nevada College Kick Start program establishes $50 in a college savings account for every kindergarten child in Nevada’s public schools.  This year approximately 35,000 accounts will be opened with the goal of creating a college bound culture here in Nevada.

Studies have shown that children who have a college savings account in their name are 7 times more likely to attend an institution of higher learning. It is important to note that even a small account improves a child’s determination and preparedness for college and higher education, regardless of family income, ethnicity, or the educational attainment of the child’s parents.

The accounts (funded without tax payer dollars) will accrue interest for 13 years and can only be used for qualified higher education expenses at any institution in the United States.  The Nevada College Kickstart program will also encourage families to begin saving for college earlier rather than later.

According to The Future Ready Project,

“81% percent of U.S. jobs are middle- or high-skilled – and require at least some postsecondary education, be it a two-year or four-year degree, technical certification,  apprenticeship or another training program.”

Yet, only 30% of Nevadans have a postsecondary education according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce.

With the costs of a college education escalating it is important to reachout to Nevada’s hard working families and offer a path for their children’s future. Nevada families that open a college savings account are also eligible to receive matching funds up to $300 a year.

The Nevada College Kickstart is just one step in a series in our progress towards making Nevada a premier state to learn, live, and play.

Thank you for letting me take time to share with you this important program. And — if you would like to learn more here is the Washington Post write up on my program or visit collegekickstart.nv.gov

A ‘No Excuse’ Approach to Education Everyone Can Support

by Jeff Bryant

“No excuse” has been a mantra from people who present themselves as advocates for “reforming” America’s public schools. And the term is a “pillar” of more than one popular charter school franchise.

The term originated from the belief that “the schoolteacher’s age-old excuse” was that factors outside the classroom – such as “not enough money, indifferent parents, kids arriving at school not ready to learn, and bureaucracy” – were reasons for poor test scores and school dropouts, rather than, focusing on the real, unaddressed cause of low achievement: teacher “malperformance.”

Over the last 20 years, “no excuse” has become the law of the land as state after state – incentivized by Obama administration policies such as Race to the Top – is now rolling out evaluation systems that make teachers the ones who are most accountable for rises and falls in student test scores.

Classroom teachers have raised the alarm, in increasingly louder voices, that blaming “ineffective” teachers and “failing schools” for systemic dysfunction in public education is not only unfair, it’s downright “dangerous.”

For sure, “no excuse” policies have led to numerous instances of talented teachers being unfairly fired.

Teachers have pointed out repeatedly that sourcing learning failures to multiple factors is not making “excuses.” They assert that making classroom teachers the primary targets for “accountability” is overly simplistic and ultimately detrimental to students because it causes teachers to engage in more test prep and to narrow the curriculum to what is most likely to appear on the tests.

“No excuse!” reply the “reformers.”

And back and forth it has gone. Until now.

Last week, the term “no excuse” was forever rebranded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. His use of the term, in the most honest way possible, was made necessary when faced with the blatant truth of what the nation is doing to its system of public education. And now we have a use for “no excuse” that everyone who cares about education can support.

A Fiasco In Philadelphia

Duncan wielded the term “no excuse” when confronted with the fiasco occurring in the public school system of Philadelphia.

In the past two months, Philadelphia public schools have sustained a fiscal one-two knock-out punch.

First a catastrophic “doomsday budget” was enacted by a state appointed commission that oversees the schools rather than a locally elected school board. The budget cuts essential school personnel such as counselors and safety officers; eliminates art, music and physical education programs; and provides unacceptably low funds for books, paper, and other supplies.

“The plan would institute unlimited class sizes and reserve the right for the district to contract out union jobs,” explained Andrew Elrod in Dissent. “Other clauses absolve the district of the responsibility for providing water fountains and educators’ desks.”

Layoff notices were promptly sent to over 3,800 district personnel, including hundreds of classroom teachers.

The second blow, as Daniel Denvir reported in Philadelphia’s City Paper, came from Pennsylvania’s conservative Republican governor Tom Corbett, who pushed through the state legislature an Orwellian named “rescue plan” that shorted Philadelphia schools even further, coerced city government to wring even more money from its low-income tax base, and permanently restructured the tax burden so even more financial responsibility would fall on the cash-strapped city.

The alarming nature of these funding cuts prompted education historian Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to write a letter to Duncan requesting his intervention. The letter, posted at Ravitch’s much-trafficked blog site, warned about what the cuts would do to the schools: “Everything that helps inspire and engage students will be gone.” They beseeched Duncan to “publicly intervene” because “the children of Philadelphia need your help. Do not let them down.”

A few days later, Duncan responded to this outreach. As reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer, In his released statement, Duncan declared, “There’s no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century.” (emphasis added)

In a separate interview at The Huffington Post, Duncan expanded his criticism. “I’m concerned about a lack of commitment, a lack of investment. … massive cuts and a loss to basic curricular offerings. … When you see all counselors, social workers, assistant principals, drama, art, music – everything being eliminated, what’s left? What’s left is not something that folks can feel proud of or good about.”

But “No excuse?” Really?

Hasn’t budget austerity routinely been the reason for closing schools and firing teachers? Weren’t educators supposed to make resource-deprived schools “work” despite what irresponsible legislators do to school budgets? Because, you know, it’s “all about the kids?”

Or perhaps, the situation in Philadelphia has revealed to Duncan, and others, just how badly America’s public schools are hurting and who really is to blame for the pain?

Philadelphia Story Long Time In Making

As Elrod reported in the Dissent piece, “Austerity is nothing new in Philadelphia, nor is the district’s insistence that teachers take the fall for budget deficits.”

Since 1981, conservative-minded budget sharks have gone after school funding, personnel, and teacher salaries in Philadelphia, especially after the state-created School Reform Commission took over in 2001 and effectively neutered the union and allowed the unilateral imposition of contracts. “Since then, perdurable budget deficits have eroded school district resources in a process accelerated by the recession,” Elrod stated.

In fact, as Ravitch and Weingarten noted in their letter to Duncan, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed “a budget that fails to adequately fund schools while at the same time dedicating $400 million for a new prison and pushing through a set of tax breaks for corporations. This is on top of $1 billion in education cuts over the past two years.”

The assault on the funding of Philadelphia’s public schools is not only longstanding – it’s intentional and engineered from outside the city.

Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker explains at his blog School Finance 101:

Through the state’s dysfunctional and inequitable approach to providing financial support for local public districts, Pennsylvania has for some time (but for a brief period of temporary reforms) actually been trying to put an end to Philly schools. And it appears that they may be achieving their goals. To summarize:

Through the state’s dysfunctional and inequitable approach to providing financial support for local public districts, Pennsylvania has for some time (but for a brief period of temporary reforms) actually been trying to put an end to Philly schools. And it appears that they may be achieving their goals. To summarize:

There is indeed, to quote Duncan, “no excuse” for a public school system to be blatantly targeted for bankruptcy.

It’s Not Just Philadelphia

The situation with public education in Philadelphia follows a pattern that is becoming all too common across America.

As a financially burdensome model of school reform has been rolling out across the nation, draconian budget cuts have made it increasingly impossible for schools to adapt to the new terrain of high-stakes testing and the increased scrutiny of teachers.

As Bruce Baker notes in the same blog post cited above, there are other places, principally Chicago, where schools needing funding the most are enduring deep cuts. Baker wrote, “Chicago and Philly are consistently among the most screwed major urban districts – operating in states with the least equitable state school finance systems.”

Even in smaller municipalities, such as Baton Rouge, La., and Memphis, Tenn., the same dynamic is taking place, as state leaders carve out affluent white communities from racially mixed districts and leave the district – now made even more minority, even more low-income – with schools that get lower standardized test scores and fewer resources to help struggling students.

Competitive Pressures Don’t Help

As public schools are increasingly under the gun to meet strict mandates, seeing their budgets axed and services cut to the bone, charter schools and other types of privately operated education providers are being ramped up as competitive entities.

In such a competitive system, there will be increasing gaps between children and families who can manage the system and those who can’t. And there is no excuse for that disparity.

A more positive way forward would be to take the guidance offered earlier this year by an independent commission chartered by Congress to advise the U.S. Department of Education.

The Commission’s report, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy For Education Equity And Excellence,” declared, “The federal government must take more seriously its profoundly important responsibility” to address inequality in the nation’s K-12 public schools.

And the report authors called on the federal government to take corrective action against “local finance and governance systems [that] continue to allow for, and in many ways encourage, inequitable and inadequate funding systems.”

It would be helpful if Duncan would heed this advice and explain what kinds of corrective actions his administration is prepared to take. In the meantime, telling state and local officials “no excuse” is at least a good start.

A “No Excuse” We Can Believe In

The idea that elected state and local officials and top public school administrators should not be the ones most accountable for what’s happening in America’s system of education – and that primarily classroom teachers, the most underpaid people in the system, should – seems crazy on its face. But that nevertheless has been the case.

As a Texas school superintendent, John Kuhn, wrote at the site of edu-blogger Anthony Cody,”no excuse” school reformers contend, “Accountability is only for the teachers.” Reformers never join into any “visible or sustained pressure to address school funding, no pressure to address the inequity of resources or the unequal opportunity to learn.”

Duncan’s more honest use of “no excuse” changes that.

In his statement to the Pennsylvania officials overseeing the Philadelphia mess, Duncan urged, “We must invest in public education, not abandon it.”

So yes, “No excuse.”

When valued neighborhood schools are shuttered with no more justification than a press release, there’s no excuse.

When public school administrators are forced to cut learning opportunities that keep students safe, healthy, engaged, and supported. No excuse.

When teachers and parents have to speak out to prevent larger and larger class sizes…

When students walk out of school because their favorite subjects and teachers are cut…

When whole communities have to turn out into the streets to protest the plundering of the common good…

No excuse. No excuse. No excuse!


This work was published on Friday, July 12, 2013 by Campaign for America’s Future at Common Dreams and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License (Photo: Rally to save Philadelphia schools from Business Insider)

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

A ‘No Excuse’ Approach to Education Everyone Can Support

by Jeff Bryant

“No excuse” has been a mantra from people who present themselves as advocates for “reforming” America’s public schools. And the term is a “pillar of more than one popular charter school franchise.

The term originated from the belief that “the schoolteacher’s age-old excuse” was that factors outside the classroom – such as “not enough money, indifferent parents, kids arriving at school not ready to learn, and bureaucracy” – were reasons for poor test scores and school dropouts, rather than, focusing on the real, unaddressed cause of low achievement: teacher “malperformance.”

Over the last 20 years, “no excuse” has become the law of the land as state after state – incentivized by Obama administration policies such as Race to the Top – is now rolling out evaluation systems that make teachers the ones who are most accountable for rises and falls in student test scores.

Classroom teachers have raised the alarm, in increasingly louder voices, that blaming “ineffective” teachers and “failing schools” for systemic dysfunction in public education is not only unfair, it’s downright “dangerous.”

For sure, “no excuse” policies have led to numerous instances of talented teachers being unfairly fired.

Teachers have pointed out repeatedly that sourcing learning failures to multiple factors is not making “excuses.” They assert that making classroom teachers the primary targets for “accountability” is overly simplistic and ultimately detrimental to students because it causes teachers to engage in more test prep and to narrow the curriculum to what is most likely to appear on the tests.

“No excuse!” reply the “reformers.”

And back and forth it has gone. Until now.

Last week, the term “no excuse” was forever rebranded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. His use of the term, in the most honest way possible, was made necessary when faced with the blatant truth of what the nation is doing to its system of public education. And now we have a use for “no excuse” that everyone who cares about education can support.

A Fiasco In Philadelphia

Duncan wielded the term “no excuse” when confronted with the fiasco occurring in the public school system of Philadelphia.

In the past two months, Philadelphia public schools have sustained a fiscal one-two knock-out punch.

First a catastrophic “doomsday budget” was enacted by a state appointed commission that oversees the schools rather than a locally elected school board. The budget cuts essential school personnel such as counselors and safety officers; eliminates art, music and physical education programs; and provides unacceptably low funds for books, paper, and other supplies.

“The plan would institute unlimited class sizes and reserve the right for the district to contract out union jobs,” explained Andrew Elrod in Dissent. “Other clauses absolve the district of the responsibility for providing water fountains and educators’ desks.”

Layoff notices were promptly sent to over 3,800 district personnel, including hundreds of classroom teachers.

The second blow, as Daniel Denvir reported in Philadelphia’s City Paper, came from Pennsylvania’s conservative Republican governor Tom Corbett, who pushed through the state legislature an Orwellian named “rescue plan” that shorted Philadelphia schools even further, coerced city government to wring even more money from its low-income tax base, and permanently restructured the tax burden so even more financial responsibility would fall on the cash-strapped city.

The alarming nature of these funding cuts prompted education historian Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to write a letter to Duncan requesting his intervention. The letter, posted at Ravitch’s much-trafficked blog site, warned about what the cuts would do to the schools: “Everything that helps inspire and engage students will be gone.” They beseeched Duncan to “publicly intervene” because “the children of Philadelphia need your help. Do not let them down.”

A few days later, Duncan responded to this outreach. As reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer, In his released statement, Duncan declared, “There’s no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century.” (emphasis added)

In a separate interview at The Huffington Post, Duncan expanded his criticism. “I’m concerned about a lack of commitment, a lack of investment. … massive cuts and a loss to basic curricular offerings. … When you see all counselors, social workers, assistant principals, drama, art, music – everything being eliminated, what’s left? What’s left is not something that folks can feel proud of or good about.”

But “No excuse?” Really?

Hasn’t budget austerity routinely been the reason for closing schools and firing teachers? Weren’t educators supposed to make resource-deprived schools “work” despite what irresponsible legislators do to school budgets? Because, you know, it’s “all about the kids?”

Or perhaps, the situation in Philadelphia has revealed to Duncan, and others, just how badly America’s public schools are hurting and who really is to blame for the pain?

Philadelphia Story Long Time In Making

As Elrod reported in the Dissent piece, “Austerity is nothing new in Philadelphia, nor is the district’s insistence that teachers take the fall for budget deficits.”

Since 1981, conservative-minded budget sharks have gone after school funding, personnel, and teacher salaries in Philadelphia, especially after the state-created School Reform Commission took over in 2001 and effectively neutered the union and allowed the unilateral imposition of contracts. “Since then, perdurable budget deficits have eroded school district resources in a process accelerated by the recession,” Elrod stated.

In fact, as Ravitch and Weingarten noted in their letter to Duncan, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed “a budget that fails to adequately fund schools while at the same time dedicating $400 million for a new prison and pushing through a set of tax breaks for corporations. This is on top of $1 billion in education cuts over the past two years.”

The assault on the funding of Philadelphia’s public schools is not only longstanding – it’s intentional and engineered from outside the city.

Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker explains at his blog School Finance 101:

Through the state’s dysfunctional and inequitable approach to providing financial support for local public districts, Pennsylvania has for some time (but for a brief period of temporary reforms) actually been trying to put an end to Philly schools. And it appears that they may be achieving their goals. To summarize:

Through the state’s dysfunctional and inequitable approach to providing financial support for local public districts, Pennsylvania has for some time (but for a brief period of temporary reforms) actually been trying to put an end to Philly schools. And it appears that they may be achieving their goals. To summarize:

There is indeed, to quote Duncan, “no excuse” for a public school system to be blatantly targeted for bankruptcy.

It’s Not Just Philadelphia

The situation with public education in Philadelphia follows a pattern that is becoming all too common across America.

As a financially burdensome model of school reform has been rolling out across the nation, draconian budget cuts have made it increasingly impossible for schools to adapt to the new terrain of high-stakes testing and the increased scrutiny of teachers.

As Bruce Baker notes in the same blog post cited above, there are other places, principally Chicago, where schools needing funding the most are enduring deep cuts. Baker wrote, “Chicago and Philly are consistently among the most screwed major urban districts – operating in states with the least equitable state school finance systems.”

Even in smaller municipalities, such as Baton Rouge, La., and Memphis, Tenn., the same dynamic is taking place, as state leaders carve out affluent white communities from racially mixed districts and leave the district – now made even more minority, even more low-income – with schools that get lower standardized test scores and fewer resources to help struggling students.

Competitive Pressures Don’t Help

As public schools are increasingly under the gun to meet strict mandates, seeing their budgets axed and services cut to the bone, charter schools and other types of privately operated education providers are being ramped up as competitive entities.

In such a competitive system, there will be increasing gaps between children and families who can manage the system and those who can’t. And there is no excuse for that disparity.

A more positive way forward would be to take the guidance offered earlier this year by an independent commission chartered by Congress to advise the U.S. Department of Education.

The Commission’s report, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy For Education Equity And Excellence,” declared, “The federal government must take more seriously its profoundly important responsibility” to address inequality in the nation’s K-12 public schools.

And the report authors called on the federal government to take corrective action against “local finance and governance systems [that] continue to allow for, and in many ways encourage, inequitable and inadequate funding systems.”

It would be helpful if Duncan would heed this advice and explain what kinds of corrective actions his administration is prepared to take. In the meantime, telling state and local officials “no excuse” is at least a good start.

A “No Excuse” We Can Believe In

The idea that elected state and local officials and top public school administrators should not be the ones most accountable for what’s happening in America’s system of education – and that primarily classroom teachers, the most underpaid people in the system, should – seems crazy on its face. But that nevertheless has been the case.

As a Texas school superintendent, John Kuhn, wrote at the site of edu-blogger Anthony Cody,”no excuse” school reformers contend, “Accountability is only for the teachers.” Reformers never join into any “visible or sustained pressure to address school funding, no pressure to address the inequity of resources or the unequal opportunity to learn.”

Duncan’s more honest use of “no excuse” changes that.

In his statement to the Pennsylvania officials overseeing the Philadelphia mess, Duncan urged, “We must invest in public education, not abandon it.”

So yes, “No excuse.”

When valued neighborhood schools are shuttered with no more justification than a press release, there’s no excuse.

When public school administrators are forced to cut learning opportunities that keep students safe, healthy, engaged, and supported. No excuse.

When teachers and parents have to speak out to prevent larger and larger class sizes…

When students walk out of school because their favorite subjects and teachers are cut…

When whole communities have to turn out into the streets to protest the plundering of the common good…

No excuse. No excuse. No excuse!



This work was published on Friday, July 12, 2013 by Campaign for America’s Future at Common Dreams and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License (Photo: Rally to save Philadelphia schools from Business Insider)

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

An Endangered Species Up in Arms

The number of students taking humanities courses is plummeting, and financing for liberal arts education is being tea-partied to death.

— by Donald Kaul

Donald Kaul

As many of you already have intuited, I don’t know everything. Nobody does, I suppose. More importantly, I don’t know everything about anything.

I’m what used to be called “a generalist,” someone whose knowledge in any direction is a mile wide and a quarter-inch deep.

Sad to say, we generalists are an endangered species.

Everywhere, the pressure is on young people to specialize. They’re also being urged to concentrate on the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. Why? These are disciplines that can predictably get you a job upon graduating from college.

A Florida task force last year went so far as to suggest that college courses in the humanities — literature, history, the social sciences, the arts — be made more expensive than STEM courses just to steer students away from them.

Kaul-Humanities-tom.belteThis idea has the humanities people up in arms.

Duke University President Richard Brodhead headed a study group of educators, business leaders, artists, and politicians that recently delivered a report to Congress decrying the attitude that studying the humanities and social sciences is a waste of time.

“This facile negativism forgets that many of the country’s most successful and creative people had exactly this kind of education,” he said.

The report comes at a time not when hordes of students are crowding into “wasteful” humanities classes, but rather when attendance in them is plummeting and financing for liberal arts education is being tea-partied to death.

Our higher education system is forgetting what education is supposed to do in the first place.

I entered college as an engineering student — a mistake on the order of Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. I was lucky though. I made a last-minute escape to the English department where I was not only allowed to read novels for fun but also find out about things I was actually interested in — history, psychology, architecture, and the arts.

I hasten to add that I had no idea what I was going to do with this information. Neither did my father, a tool and die maker who wanted me to join one of the more practical professions — preferably dentistry. He wanted me to make a living without being in danger of killing someone.

That didn’t appeal to me either. Like many students (particularly English majors) of the 1950s, I wasn’t going to school merely to learn a trade. I was out to become an educated person — well-read, witty, sophisticated — like someone in a Noel Coward play.

Unfortunately, Coward never tells you how his people earn a living. When I graduated with my English degree firmly in hand I had no answer for my father’s question: “What now, bigshot?”

Thus, I drifted into journalism. It wasn’t an unfamiliar story in the newspaper business of the time. Back then, it served as a refuge for failed novelists, playwrights, and other flotsam bearing a liberal education.

The thing is, it worked out fine for me. I led an interesting life, had a lot of fun, and earned enough to raise a family in modest comfort. Moreover, at one time or another, I pretty much put to use everything I had learned in college.

And that’s my point — a point these STEM people miss — there’s nothing wrong with learning for its own sake. Knowledge doesn’t go to waste. It comes in handy somewhere along the line, sometimes in the most unlikely places.

I realize that the world now is a very different place from the one I grew up in. Back then, you didn’t have to be a hedge fund manager to work your way through school for one thing. But another difference is that workers today change jobs, even professions, four, five, or six times during their working lives.

Specialists who know only one thing might be left out in the cold when circumstances change. Generalists have the intellectual tools to adapt.

Actually, we’d be better off if more of our politicians had read a few more good novels. Or if perhaps they’d written a poem or two.

Knowing something is always better than knowing nothing.


OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. OtherWords.org  Photo credit to Tom Belte/Flickr

This Week in Congress

Congress returns from recess, and will deal with the student loan interest rate this week, along with a spending bill for federal energy and water programs.

In the Senate —

The Senate adjourned in late June without passing a bill dealing with student loans, but is hoping to make progress this week. Two bills will be considered:

  • The Keep Student Loans Affordable Act (S 1238): would lower the 6.8% interest rate on subsidized student loans back down to 3.4% for another year.
  • - The Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act (S 1241): would set the rate at that of the 10-year Treasury note plus 1.85 percent. -

The Scoop: Neither of these bills has yet to be summarized on THOMAS.  The bipartisan bill is purported to be much closer to a version passed by the House in June. Passing it in the Senate would likely set up a House-Senate conference that could work to reach an agreement on a final bill. Passage of the one-year extension, however, could delay progress on the issue further, as House Republicans have indicated they are not likely to advance a simple extension.

In the House — 

In the House, members will deal with a major spending bill for 2014:

- The Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act(HR 2609):  This bill spends about $30 billion on energy and water programs in the federal government, and is nearly $3 billion below the spending level for 2013.

The House will also consider:

  • The National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act (HR 761): aimed at boosting the production of strategic “rare earth” elements. (Summary on Thomas)
  • The FOR VETS Act (HR 1171): donating federal property to veterans’ organizations. The “Formerly Owned Resources for Veterans to Express Thanks for Service Act of 2013″ or the “FOR VETS Act of 2013″ if passed, would authorize the transfer of federal surplus property to a state agency for distribution, through donation, within the state, for purposes of education or public health for organizations whose membership comprises substantially veterans, and whose representatives are recognized by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) in the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims under laws administered by the Secretary.
  • The Financial Competitive Act (HR 1341): requiring a study of differences in derivative markets in the U.S. and overseas.   I call this one the “Pass the Buck” law, in that it would
    • Direct the Financial Stability Oversight Council to study and report to Congress on the likely effects that differences between the United States and other jurisdictions in implementing the derivatives credit valuation adjustment capital requirement would have on: (1) U.S. financial institutions that conduct derivatives transactions and participate in derivatives markets, (2) end users of derivatives, and (3) international derivatives markets.
    • Require the study to recommend steps Congress and the constituent agencies of the Council should take to: (1) minimize any expected negative effects on U.S. financial institutions, derivatives markets, and end users; and (2) encourage greater international consistency in implementation of internationally agreed capital, liquidity, and other prudential standards.
  • The Audit Integrity and Job Protection (HR 1564): easing regulations that require public companies to rotate their external auditors. This bill would:
    • Authorizes the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service (NPS), to make improvements to a support facility, including a visitor center, for a National Historic Site administered by the NPS if such project: (1) is conducted within the agency’s existing budget, (2) is subject to a 50% non-federal cost sharing requirement, and (3) is conducted for a unit of the NPS which has the authority to establish a support facility outside the park’s boundary.
    • Allows the NPS to operate and use all or part of a support facility, including a visitor center, for such a Site: (1) to carry out the duties associated with the administration and support of such Site, and (2) only in situations where there is an agreement between the Secretary and the commissioners of the county or parish in which the facility is located.

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