Sunday, November 15, 2009

Obama administration affirms right wing education ideology

Today on Meet the Press President Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked about how the administration's strategy in public education is to ignore "inputs," focus on "outcomes," and "not reward failure." How removing resources and ignoring conditions at troubled schools would improve them Duncan didn't say.

Here again is another unfortunate Obama capitulation to the conservative movement ideology, which has been attacking public school teachers and unions and calling for "outcome based education" for years. On this very MTP show teachers and unions were attacked by name.

There are a number of fallacies in Duncan and the conservatives' argument, chief among them the implicit belief that children are some sort of automatons upon whom you can exert teaching strategies that will automatically get them to an educational point deemed satisfactory. I shouldn't have to explain that children are complex and varied beings who bring radically different experiences to public school, and have to reconcile those experiences with the goals of public education, and that there are other factors besides teachers and their unions that affect education.

Duncan's main point seemed to be that "We need to start to focus on outcomes, not inputs. " But how can "outcomes" be predicted and controlled without controlling the "inputs"? In the case of education there are many "inputs," but in Duncan's view, and those of the other MTP guests, the only one worth talking about are teachers.

Some of the other "inputs" have a far greater impact than a teacher. For example, many children are damaged by the time they get to school with ailments ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to having been raised in a violent home or by a television. Preschool years are crucial to the physiological development of the brain. Tracks laid down in the early brain can be difficult to undo. Domestic violence or drug abuse may continue in the student's home.

Certainly socioeconomic status has a lot to do with the success or failure of a student. SES goes a long way beyond the student himself or herself. It is in fact determined by the SES of his or her parents. Are Duncan and conservative critics asserting that schools, in order to succeed, must in part raise the SES of the families of their students? That might be implied, but the simple narrative of the bad teachers and their greedy unions has been so driven into the American consciousness by the conservative movement that even Democrats refuse to acknowledge other causes of school failure.

Under-funding of schools is another factor that contributes to success or failure. But addressing funding would involve increasing taxes, which as we all know is off the table. Whatever "reforms" are contemplated must be done on the cheap.

Thus teachers and schools become the focus of so-called "reform" efforts aimed at increasing standardized test scores. Obama's education policy not only hurts his relationship with another prime constituency, public school teachers, it will actually hurt students in a number of ways.

Perhaps most importantly the Obama/Duncan approach is a long-term political loser because it engages conservative ideology on its own terms, then adopts both the right wing ideology and, to some degree, the policy, that, in the end, will not produce results.

Explicit in this discussion is the idea that somehow the state of our education system is responsible for the country's current economic condition, and that it somehow represents a way back to prosperity. Newt Gingrich said on MTP " is the number one factor in our future prosperity..." But - it's not. We can't educate ourselves out of the economic bind we are in. As Paul Krugman wrote in Rolling Stone magazine, "Being highly educated won't make you into a winner in today's U.S. economy. At best, it makes you somewhat less of a loser." Fortune magazine reported that between 2000 and 2004 "real annual earnings of college graduates actually declined."

For going on 25 years each administration in Washington and in the states has proposed some new "reform" aimed at improving education and closing the learning gap between racial groups. I don't need to tell you that these "reforms" have not helped, but in fact hurt public education. What would be the effect of having your professional world re-oriented by political opportunists every few years? Instead of capitulating to right wing ideology I've got an idea: How about funding schools to a proper level and letting states and local school boards run their districts the way they want? After all, they're the ones who pay for it. And if we really want students to do better the only way is to look at all the "inputs," not just the politically handy targets.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The month Democrats lost the majority?

November may be the month that the national Democrats lose their congressional majorities, and the month that Barack Obama increased his chances of being a one term president.

Obama supporters - and I was one - I voted for him - can rightfully point to a number of small but significant achievements of the young administration. As but one example is the passing of the SCHIP program, which provides health insurance to children. But when the rubber has hit the road, Obama has too often continued Bush administration policies and caved to interests that Democrats thought they were dispensing with in the November 2008 elections. I realize that the administration is only 10 months old, and there are some retrograde Democrats in congress. Neverthless, we didn't send them to Washington to give the appearance of change - we sent them for real change. Sure, Obama is much better than Bush or McCain. But who wouldn't be?

What Obama and the Democrats don't seem to understand is , as Lester Thurow would put it, many of the political issues under consideration present a zero-sum game. For citizens to win someone has to lose. The prime example is the attempted compromise with health insurers in the debate over health care reform, where for consumers to win insurance companies must lose.

In other areas Obama has rewarded failure in a way that compromises him politically while providing little actual benefit. Examples include rescuing banks and insurance companies in a way that privatized profits but socialized losses, to defending Bush administration rendition and secrecy in the courts. And the Democrats have for some reason dropped the single most important issue to organized labor, one of its most steadfast constituencies, card check for union elections. Now Obama is apparently going to escalate the war in Afghanistan, even as leading voices are providing him cover if he decided to reverse course there.

Note that these compromises have not gained them support from those they compromised with nor from his left and young base, which are both growing increasingly disenchanted with Democratic leadership.

Health care is the perfect example of the folly of attempted compromise. Here are the incontrovertible facts: We spend double on health care in the U.S. over any other country in the world, yet get worse results. Tens of millions have no health insurance, and treating them helps drive up costs for those who do pay. So-called "insurance" companies specialize in denying coverage to their policy holders who actually use the insurance. Nearly every other Western democracy has either single-payer or socialized medicine. The problem in this country is so obviously the dominance of the insurance companies that the only way you couldn't see it was if your job required you not to see it.

It's the same with Medicare Part D, possibly one of the worst government programs ever enacted. Part D was so stupid that insurance companies had to be bribed with $8 billion in government money to even provide the policies. The government was also forbidden from using its huge buying power to negotiate lower prices with drug companies. The laws were stacked against the consumer. Insurers are free to change their drug formulary at will any time, but consumers can only change plans once a year, in a set "window."

But President Obama has refused to directly take on the interests that must lose in this debate for us to win. He and Rahm Emanuel reportedly negotiated a secret deal with the drug companies before debate even began that included $80 billion in profit concessions in exchange for not addressing the inequities in the drug marketplace. Similarly he has tried to negotiate with the health insurance industry, promising them more profits if they agree to help cover nearly everyone.

Make no mistake: The health insurance reform passed by the Democrats in the House will lead to Democratic congressional losses. Here's why: The bill will not, cannot work. Take the individual mandate. The bill specifies that individuals who do not purchase insurance from the private companies will pay a tax penalty in lieu of their purchase. Buried in the bill are the specifics of those penalties. It specifies that individuals will pay a 2.5 percent surtax on their adjusted gross income, up to some specified average cost of insuring that individual through the health insurance exchange. Let me say that again, the maximum penalty will be the average cost of the insurance. The minimum will be 2.5 percent of adjusted gross income.

Take a 50 year old who has $50,000 in adjusted gross income but doesn't buy insurance. That person would pay a penalty of $1,250. Ask yourself what insurance company is going to provide full medical insurance to a 50 year old for $1,250? They wouldn't. So that 50 year old goes without insurance until he gets sick, after which he merely buys insurance, since the companies cannot discriminate against pre-existing conditions. After he gets better he dumps the insurance.

Multiply that perverse incentive to NOT buy insurance times millions of people and you understand that the insurance companies will hike premiums beyond all recognition. I understand that not all citizens will be getting their insurance in this way, but at some point fewer and fewer people will buy insurance, driving rates higher and higher. The bill pays lip service to some government agency approving rate increases, but how could they be denied when the insured will over time primarily be only sick people?

You get the picture. Compare what was passed to the simplicity of just adding Medicare Part E that would allow everyone to buy into, or a single payer system. Legislation for those two plans would be under 200 pages, I bet, and would be easy to understand. But that would take away the insurance companies' control of the market, and with it much of their profits, and that is something the Obama administration and the Democrats in congress are loathe to do. So, after all this fighting about health care reform, the final product may very well end up being a giant fail. And if and when it does, the Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Katherine Kersten knows her audience

From Kersten's column today in the Strib:
"Sex between men and women creates new human beings."
Thanks for clearing that up.