Conditional cash

Last night I attended the Newton MA School Committee final hearing and vote on Massachusetts ballot question 2. The committee voted to endorse “No on 2” (my position as well). Question 2 would vastly expand (without additional revenues) charter schools in Massachusetts.

Pretty interesting that the New York & California money only rolls in to promote charter schools in Massachusetts – supposedly because public schools are failing to educate kids in low-income districts – and never to replace the huge annual funding cuts in the budgets of those districts when revenues run low. It’s almost as if the big donors actually have an agenda more concerned with diverting public dollars to private operators and breaking up unions than with any substantive assistance to struggling districts.

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Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Childcare & School

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part III: A right to free and high-quality childcare and education, by Maria.

Education – and the possibility that it means your children can and will do better than you have been able to do – is what drives nearly all American citizens and citizens-to-be to believe in the dream of America. However, to realize that dream, both quality public education and quality early childcare/pre-K must be considered an unquestioned public right for all Americans. Access to both must be guaranteed to all, regardless of means or geographic location, to secure that right.

A need to act

Childcare and education are often intertwined. In order to spend an 8 hour day working, parents drop off their kids at a Pre-K, Daycare Center, or Day Camp that promises an enriching learning environment. Recently it was reported that childcare costs more than college in 24 states. An impressive and depressing statistic when you consider that college tuition “…has been rising almost six percent above the rate of inflation”.

Study after study shows that children who receive pre-school education do better than their less fortunate peers; progress begets progress for the rest of their lives. Competition for Pre-K programs can be so fierce that many schools operate by lottery.

We shouldn’t have to stage a Hunger Games for tots to decide who gets to learn the numbers and colors. We are failing our children and our own futures by not addressing this burden.

Uneven funding

Adding to this challenge is the inherent inequality in the way schools are funded in the United States, through local property taxes. What you and your community can afford to pay (or how much your local government prioritizes educational investment) will determine what kind of education your child receives over a lifetime.

Some parents are fortunate enough to be able to navigate and afford systems that may require applications for a child even before he or she is born. Others are financially secure enough to be able to move to better school districts. Clearly, not everyone can do this.

Should a child be denied a chance at a better life due the geographic circumstances of their birth? Should the quality of their earliest years of school be determined on their parents’ incomes? A meritocracy cannot emerge from such inequalities. These inequalities rob a certain share of our population’s youngest members of the opportunity for a decent start, for arbitrary reasons.

If the core of the American Dream is believing that your children will do better than you did, every child must be provided with at least a baseline of quality education and childcare. For our society to have any hope of realizing a meritocracy to, neither of these can be beholden to rich or poor, urban or suburban, etc.

The right of the people

State constitutions or the federal constitution should be amended to include a free public childcare and schooling provision along the following lines:

“Every person has the right to access high-quality, free education and early childcare regardless of his or her means or geographic location. The legislature [or Congress] shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents.”

Those who wish to supplement public offerings with private options would continue to have that ability, but everyone would have access to a strong starting point before reaching adulthood. The fresh slate promised by the American Dream currently does not exist for a poor child, but it could.

Countries the world over have enshrined the right to a free, high standard of education in their constitutions. If America truly wishes to remain one of the most highly educated countries, we must focus on making education freely accessible to all, while also highlighting quality.

Ensuring free public education and childcare for all children not only increases their chances at fulfilling their parents’ dream of a better future, it would also make sure the future of the parents – and our entire society – is well cared for.

Protecting students from intrusive school social surveillance

Thanks to my State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem for pushing legislation in Massachusetts to protect elementary, secondary, and tertiary public school students from intrusive social media surveillance by school administrators — and for being proactive on this before it becomes a big problem, as it inevitably would without legislation.

No student should have to turn over their passwords and login info to their school just to be permitted to get an education. We cannot develop a healthy, independent, and democratic civil society if students face omnipresent surveillance that discourages them from branching out in their views during a formative period.

I also believe such online monitoring could have a chilling effect on young people being able to examine and test their self-identity, particularly in less welcoming communities.

While students and children do not always have full and unlimited rights, they must retain a reasonable right to privacy. That principle doesn’t change just because technology does.

November 18, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 151

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Big Ideas for Reforming American Governance — A Better Education Reform Movement and Right to Housing. People: Bill, Kelley, Nate. Produced: November 15th, 2015.

NOTE: No show next Wednesday due to the Thanksgiving break. Don’t miss our December 2nd episode.

Episode 151 (52 min):
AFD 151

Discussion Points:

– What might a better, less top-down version of an education reform movement look like?
– How can we fund public schools more effectively and fairly?
– Should there be a constitutional right to housing?

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And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video game blog of our announcer, Justin.

A few thoughts on free public college options for all

There are many ways that the very wealthy already benefit financially from U.S. government policies (which is frustrating to me), but opposing zero-tuition public colleges because rich kids might get to go to public colleges for free seems like a strange position.


What are the odds that Hillary Clinton’s implied scenario of a flood of ultra-wealthy students will suddenly decide to enroll in public universities because the tuition is free now? Won’t they overwhelmingly just continue to go to elite schools where tuition is still charged? (Just like how they tend to go to private school for K-12 even though it is freely available to them in public form.)

And, as a side note about her overall plan (means-testing plus work-study), why should the poorest kids who’ve probably had to struggle the hardest to get to college also then have to work on the side to qualify for tuition coverage under her plan? Why don’t we just make it so everyone, regardless of means, has the right to go to college for free without working in addition to concentrating on their studies — and let the chips fall where they may? Why do we have to make these policies so complicated for no apparent reason? Just offer them to everyone and whoever takes it, takes it. It’s not that expensive.

Free college AND a better Wall St? Sanders sees a way.

Sanders-021507-18335- 0004Senator Bernie Sanders has unveiled his latest policy proposal as part of his Democratic presidential campaign: Free public college, funded via a new financial transactions tax to discourage damaging Wall Street speculation. It’s a step up from his earlier pre-campaign proposal of cutting tuition only in half. Here’s a summary of his new plan:

Annual tuition costs at those institutions add up to roughly $70 billion, according to a fact sheet from Sanders’ office. The proposed legislation would require the federal government to compensate for two-thirds of that sum, with the states making up the additional third.
[…]
The federal funding for Sanders’s proposal would come from a tax on financial transactions. Stock trades, bonds, and derivative trading would be taxed at rates of 0.5 percent, 0.1 percent, and 0.005 percent, respectively. Supporters of the financial transaction tax […] say it is not only a progressive way to raise revenue but would also discourage dangerous levels of Wall Street speculation.

A recent report from economist Joseph Stiglitz and the Roosevelt Institute, intended to provide a comprehensive framework for reworking American economic policy, endorsed a financial transaction tax as a way to “penalize short-term traders and incentivize longer holding periods, thus reducing instability and encouraging longer-term productive investment.”

 
Unfortunately perhaps the biggest pitfall of this plan — though it is (abstractly) an excellent starting point for a negotiation in Congress — is its dependence on state governments for a third of the funding. Low-cost public colleges and university educations are already being demolished in the name of dogmatic tax cuts. This plan depends on somehow convincing dozens of states not to slash funding / hike tuition and fees for their public colleges. But it’s a lot better than nothing.

Related reading on…

How much would it cost to make public colleges free?
Corporate borrowing diverted to shareholders, not investment
Putting Finance Back in the Box
Stock market speculation
Billionaire stock speculation

A subjective case for humanities education

I’ve often heard advocates for the preservation of humanities education programs make their case in quantitative terms. Usually, this case is made by pointing to various studies on how art or music classes translate into X percentage points of increased intelligence, or college admissions chances, or other individual and social benefits.

I have nothing against those studies, and I can’t say for sure whether or not such an approach is effective in persuading anyone to change their mind and make humanities education a priority. Perhaps this strategy makes sense: Provide numbers and data from the scientific community to communicate with the people interested in science and math in their own language, so to speak.

But I’m not entirely sure it’s the best way to make the case. After all, humanities subjects by their nature are fairly abstract and not easily boiled down into calculations and percentages, even with the advent of “big data” and the entrance of sabermetrics into every possible field.

Reframe the debate

I suspect that trying to compete with sciences in purely STEM-oriented terms is not the most effective approach after all. It’s hard to compete with STEM for budgetary prioritization by shoehorning the arts, literature, and history into STEM’s turf, where STEM defines the terms of the debate.

There is a prevailing assumption that everything can be converted into numerical values, and that we can forge our country into a Blue-ribbon technocracy of “best practices” with no subjective judgment calls (or perhaps eventually even directional disagreements altogether). This assumption cannot be accepted at face value if the humanities are ever to regain their rightful place as an integral feature of American public education alongside STEM.

I’m certainly a proponent of ensuring that all our children receive strong sciences educations – I want everyone in a society to know at least the fundamentals of how things work in fields other than their own, so that they are informed, not ignorant – but the advocates of STEM have already made their cases persuasively, while the humanities advocates are struggling (or often failing) to win support in budget battles each year.

For that reason, I think it’s time to make a more subjective and abstract case for humanities education. The terms of the debate itself have shifted too much toward the sciences, a development which undercuts the ability to promote the broader values of strong humanities educations.

As I noted in my rationale above for supporting STEM as well, for me, a big purpose of public education up through high school is to ensure every child graduates with at least a minimum and functional knowledge of how the world works, across all disciplines. Not only does this allow everyone to make a fully informed decision on what profession to pursue, but also it prevents society from Balkanizing into disparate occupations with no systemic knowledge or understanding. The business world buzzword battalion might call this “big picture thinking.”

Reframe the world

One of the key benefits of history and social studies classes, for example, is the ability to formulate a narrative understanding of the world: How we got here, where we are, and where we can (or even should) go next.

Literature classes compel us to ask these questions in hypothetical scenarios, fictional scenes, and timeless situations. English reading courses can teach us critical thinking and assessment of evidence quality in the non-fiction realm.

Language classes allow us not merely to compete in the global economy but to understand how vocabulary and linguistics shape national psychology and individual worldviews.

Music classes unite or bridge us across time and place and culture. Art courses can show us other ways of thinking about the world we live in and the world our forebears lived in.

All of these elements add a dimension of creativity to the future workforce that used to set the U.S. economy apart from its peers for so many years. We need that back.

The new Renaissance human

To me, it is worth noting that many of the early scientific pioneers and thinkers had extensive multi-disciplinary backgrounds. It helped foster their curiosity into making certain discoveries, and it helped them communicate those findings to the wider world. Those days are long over – sciences, mathematics, and more have all branched out deeply enough to require total specialization – but STEM professionals should still have a strong foundation in the full range of humanities, so that they can contextualize their own work within wider policy and political debates.
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