Republicans want government to fail

Seriously.  How can their be any doubt about this from an objective observer.  I was listening to last week’s Slate political gabfest yesterday and David Plotz was making the point that Republicans are actively sabotaging government so they can make the claim that government doesn’t work and thereby undermine the Democratic agenda to effectively use government for the common good.  Sadly, to a considerable degree, this project is working.  I was about to simply link to a Drum post that highlights how Republicans are refusing to properly fund the federal bureacucacies that handle immigration— all the better to foment a “crisis.”

Obama has tried to get funding for more judges as part of the annual budgeting process. No luck. He’s tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform that included funding for more judges. No luck. Now he’s trying to get emergency funding for the border crisis that would include money for more judges. So far, no luck.

There are, obviously, multiple causes of the current border crisis. As usual, though, Congress is one of them—and, in particular, obstructive congressional Republicans who aren’t really much interested in doing something that would fix an ongoing border crisis that provides them with useful political attack ads. If Congress needs someone to point the finger of blame at, all they have to do is look in a mirror.

Okay, good enough post.  But then just before I was going to post this, I came upon this Wonkblog post actually titled, “One political party is actively working to make government fail (guess which one!)”  And this is not just some blogger musing, the post is based on a study by esteemed Political Scientist, Paul Light.  Here’s the key:

Republican contributions to government failure, on the other hand, have been “very deliberate.” Here Light minces no words, and its worth quoting him at length:

Republicans exploited the Democratic cowardice by doing everything in their power to undermine performance. They stonewalled needed policy changes, and made implementation of new programs as difficult as possible; they cut budgets, staffs, and collateral capacity to a minimum, proving the adage that the logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing; they used the presidential appointments process to decapitate key agencies, and appointed more than their share of unqualified executives; and they muddied mission, tolerated unethical conduct, and gamed the performance measure process to guarantee failing scores for as many government policies as possible.  [emphasis mine]

Again, Paul Light is not exactly Daily Kos.  This comes from a fair, reasoned analysis.  And, honestly, this is truly shameful.  Republicans are actively working to make things worse for the American people.  Sure, they convince themselves that this is just collateral damage for a greater good of a smaller government led by Republicans.  But honestly, this is just truly deplorable.  And sadly, quite effective as most Americans just don’t pay enough attention to realize what’s going on and who to blame.  They just know government is not working.  Are Democrats partially at fault?  Of course.  But let’s be clear, there’s only one party in America that is actively undermining attempts to make government work for the American people.

The problem is not too many bad teachers, but too few really good ones

So, last week, a California judge struck down California’s teacher (K-12) tenure law.  Regadless of the legal points, this was a really, really dumb law.  Dana Goldstein:

Here’s where the judge is right: It is difficult—actually, close to impossible—to argue that California’s teacher-tenure system makes sense. Research shows that most first-year teachers are mediocre at best. But good teachers tend to make huge jumps in effectiveness by the end of their second year on the job, and those improvements are often visible through classroom observation and students’ rising test scores. Yet California evaluates teachers for tenure in March of their second year of work, before two full years of student-teacher data are available.

This means that under current California law, principals are forced to make high-stakes decisions about teachers without enough evidence. This disadvantages students, who might get stuck with sub-par instructors, but it also hurts teachers, who aren’t given enough time to prove their skill. Once a teacher earns tenure, it can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars—and countless administrative and legal man-hours—for a district to permanently remove him from his job. And in the event of budget cuts or school closings, California law mandates that the least experienced teachers be laid off first, even if they are more effective than their older colleagues, a policy known as “LIFO,” or “Last In, First Out.”

That said, I actually learned some things about teacher tenure I had not known:

Tenure has existed in K-12 public education since 1909, when “good-government” reformers borrowed the concept from Germany. The idea spread quickly from New Jersey to New York to Chicago and then across the country. During the Progressive Era, both teachers unions and school-accountability hawks embraced the policy, which prevented teaching jobs from being given out as favors by political bosses. If it was legally difficult to fire a good teacher, she couldn’t be replaced by the alderman’s unqualified sister-in-law.

And also from a great column by Katherine Rampell

Weakening job security in the absence of other reforms may even discourage good people from entering or sticking with the profession.

That’s because job security is one of the key forms of compensation that we still offer to educators as their salaries have gotten less competitive over time, thanks to a pesky combination of women’s lib and stingy taxpayers.

Think about it this way: Once upon a time, if you were a talented, educated, ambitious woman who wanted to work outside the home, few career options were available to you – basically teaching, nursing and not much else. Women’s opportunities have widened considerably over the past few decades, which, of course, is a very good thing. But this also means that teaching (still a predominantly female profession) is no longer the default path for the United States’ best and brightest women or, for that matter, for the best and brightest Americans of either gender. In the United States, only about a quarter of new teachers come from the top third of their college classes, and just 14 percent of those end up in high-poverty schools…

Part of the reason that teacher salaries have stagnated is that taxpayers are unwilling to shell out the dough required to give them raises today. So instead, politicians offer higher compensation tomorrow – funded by future taxpayers who can’t yet vote them out of office – in the form of more generous pensions. Which is where tenure becomes so important in retaining talent: The only way to credibly guarantee to teachers that they won’t get fired before their pensions vest is by giving them strong job protections.  [emphasis mine]

Both Rampell and Goldstein point out that firing bad teachers is only a small part of the problem.  Rampell:

But improving the quality of teachers who work with poor kids seems more about insufficient inflow of the talented than insufficient outflow of the untalented. One study, based on a policy change in Chicago, found that even when dismissal rules are relaxed, many principals still choose not to fire anyone – including at the worst-performing schools – perhaps at least partly because of the challenge of finding decent replacements.

And Goldstein:

But here’s where Judge Reulf’s theory is faulty: Getting rid of these bad laws may do little to systemically raise student achievement. For high-poverty schools, hiring is at least as big of a challenge as firing, and the Vergara decision does nothing to make it easier for the most struggling schools to attract or retain the best teacher candidates…

The lesson here is that California’s tenure policies may be insensible, but they aren’t the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state’s middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute.

Educational equality is about more than teacher-seniority rules: It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers.

The most recent Slate political gabfest also had a great discussion on this issue.  They made the point (borrowing from Goldstein’s other writings, I believe) that the best performing school systems around the world have teacher tenure, teacher’s unions, etc.  These are not the problem.  The problem is that we do not treat teaching as a highly-skilled, highly-professionalized, highly-compensated career.  All the best educational system do.  We need to start there.  Of course, that means more taxes.  Oh well, so much for improving education.

Value of the convention

I was interviewed by the local news yesterday on why we even still have conventions and isn’t it crazy that the public subsidizes them (I love WordPress in general, but their minimal support for embedding videos other than youtube really drives me crazy).

I must say, my comments ended up being heavily influenced by reading this post from Seth Masket earlier in the week:

I rather enjoyed Hanna Rosin’s thoughts on this question during last week’s Slate Gabfest:

Look, most Americans pay no attention to politics, and then comes the convention, and then it’s like a pageantry, and that’s as interesting as politics is going to get. I feel it’s slightly bogus when political reporters say things like, “Oh, no policy happens.” Like you were going to write about policy if it did happen? All you do is write about image and message for the entire year and then the convention comes and you complain because it’s only about image and message.

I agree with Rosin: the pageantry matters! This is the part of the election cycle where normal Americans (read: not political junkies) begin to pay attention to the candidates, the parties, and the issues, and the conventions are a big part of how that happens.

Along these lines, conventions serve as an opportunity for a party to present its candidates and its stances to the general public. Those who only learn about the current election from advertisements are getting a somewhat abbreviated and decidedly negative perspective; the conventions are the parties’ chance to define themselves and lay out their arguments for why they should be in charge. We also get to see some of the up-and-coming candidates in a party; the next two weeks will give most Americans their first opportunity to hear from some of the likely 2016 presidential candidates.

And Jonathan Bernstein:

But really, the reason I think that the conventions are worth saving is because both a democracy and its political parties need rituals, and we really don’t have that many left. Indeed, the rise of the parties over the last 30 or 40 years has been accompanied not by renewed and updated rituals but by a political culture that continues to demand we vote the person and not the party and which considers independent voters to be superior to partisans. Against that, the funny hats, the balloon drops, the roll call of the states and the rest of it aren’t much … but at least they’re something. Until someone can come up with good 21st century customs and rituals appropriate to our modern parties, I’m all for hanging on to what we have – and so I’m very glad that the conventions have survived 40 years after their original political function was stripped from them.

Now, I think you could make a good argument that when parties are raising tens of millions of their own for the convention that the public subsidies may be out-dated, but even if no real “news” happens, conventions remain an important part of our democracy.

The Shame of Wall Street

So, I was listening to this week’s Slate Political Gabfest and Slate editor David Plotz went on a fabulous anti- Wall Street rant in response to this instantly famous Op-Ed by former Goldman employee Greg Smith who went off on his former employer for basically lying to their clients to maximize Goldman’s profits.  Clearly an entity where the primary goal was short-term profit at any cost.

The main point of Plotz’s rant was that hopefully it would become an at least somewhat shameful thing to work for Wall Street firms such as Goldman.  These are not engines of capitalism, but simply entities that make profits through ever-more convoluted ways of making financial transactions more opaque and therefore less efficient.  Absolutely not the place and purpose we need American’s best and brightest working for.  Alas, that seems to be the preferred destination of all too many Ivy League and MIT, etc. grads.  How much better for America’s best mathematical minds to be designing new software algorithms for medical research, or heck, just video games, than using their abilities to get an additional 1% return for Goldman.   Anyway, this NYT article was far too anecdotal for my preference, but essentially argues that students are increasingly defensive and embarrassed about pursuing Wall Street jobs.  Hooray!

Photo of the day

During this week’s Slate Political Gabfest, David Plotz mentioned this movie poster that struck him as hilarious.  I have to agree.  The movie is now in my Netflix queue.

A Mike Nichols film, no less.


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