Commentary Magazine


Topic: Education

‘The West Wing’ vs. ‘House of Cards’: Finding Truth in Fiction

The third season of the American adaptation of House of Cards is coming in for some harsh reviews. It earned them–this season was a mess. There were many contributing factors to this, but surely one of them was the fact that Frank Underwood began the season as president. That is, his rise to power was inherently more dramatic and interesting than his actual governing. In following this plot point, it earned some comparisons to The West Wing. But that’s unfair to The West Wing, and the reason has to do with what Americans see as dramatic when it comes to governing the United States–how we prefer to see ourselves and our political debates reflected back to us on the television screen.

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The third season of the American adaptation of House of Cards is coming in for some harsh reviews. It earned them–this season was a mess. There were many contributing factors to this, but surely one of them was the fact that Frank Underwood began the season as president. That is, his rise to power was inherently more dramatic and interesting than his actual governing. In following this plot point, it earned some comparisons to The West Wing. But that’s unfair to The West Wing, and the reason has to do with what Americans see as dramatic when it comes to governing the United States–how we prefer to see ourselves and our political debates reflected back to us on the television screen.

Over at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Seth Masket sets out to show why, as the headline has it, “‘House of Cards’ is the worst show about American politics. Ever.” What he appears to mean is that House of Cards is the least-realistic show about American politics. He makes a convincing case. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that these shows are all unrealistic in their own ways. They’re fantasy. And although House of Cards plays out as The West Wing’s evil twin–meaner, edgier, and cynical–The West Wing, while cheesy, gets certain things right. Those things are not exciting, but they contain more truth about American politics than most competitors.

The West Wing was a liberal fantasy version of American politics with a Democratic president. But the fantasy was not about eliminating the competition or bulldozing Congress. The fantasy was defeating the GOP in the battle of ideas, and for it to be a true battle, conservative arguments had to be engaged and overcome with better arguments. It was intended to be a fair fight, and a civil fight, with battles the left didn’t always win.

There are three examples that stand out to me, though I imagine there are plenty more.

The first that comes to mind is an ongoing debate between presidential speechwriter Sam (played by Rob Lowe) and Mallory, who Sam is trying to woo. Mallory is the daughter of the chief of staff, Leo; to make trouble for Sam, Leo gives Mallory, who is a public-school teacher, a position paper Sam wrote defending school vouchers. Mallory is livid (the word “fascist” makes a couple of appearances). They go back and forth a few times throughout the episode, and have the following exchange (via West Wing Transcripts):

SAM

Mallory, everything that you’re saying makes sense. I just think that the state of urban schools is such that if you can save even one kid…

MALLORY

[stands] You can save more than one kid.

SAM

Tell me how.

MALLORY

By asking Congress to approve, not just a little, but a lot more money for public education.

Sam laughs.

MALLORY

What?

SAM [stands]

Public education has been a public policy disaster for 40 years. Having spent around four trillion dollars on public schools since 1965, the result has been a steady and inexorable decline in every measurable standard of student performance, to say nothing of health and safety. But don’t worry about it, because the U.S. House of Representatives is on the case. I feel better already.

MALLORY

[beat] Wow.

And again later:

SAM

It occurs to me Mallory, that you attended a private primary school, a private high school and a private college.

MALLORY

What’s your point?

SAM

Well, just that liberals have no problem with rich kids going to expensive private schools, that doesn’t undermine public education. And liberals have no problem with middle-class kids going to parochial schools, that doesn’t undermine public education.

MALLORY

Hang on!

SAM

The idea that letting poor public school students choose private alternatives would destroy public education is simply contrary to our experience.

Sam finally reveals later on that the position paper was “opposition prep”–Sam’s not pro-school choice, he’s just arguing that position for debate prep. Then he tells Mallory his real opinion on education reform:

Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. School should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

Now, who has the stronger position here? Is it the side that points out how government has failed public education and how money hasn’t solved the problem? And that liberals only seem to oppose private education for those who can’t afford it? And that the liberal position that school choice for poor students undermines education in America is not only unproven but contrary to the evidence we have?

Or is it the one that insists more money is necessary, a lot more money, because “schools should be palaces” and somehow “free” to taxpayers who are paying for it? And who hasn’t figured out how to get the money for this scheme? It’s incoherent, it’s unrealistic, and it flies in the face of the data on the subject, to say nothing of basic fairness. But it’s the liberal position. And on The West Wing, it loses the argument.

Another example: Josh, a presidential advisor, is being asked by his assistant, Donna, why Democrats oppose the Republican plan of giving back the budget surplus in tax relief:

“We have a $32 billion budget surplus for the first time in three decades.”

“Yes.”

“Republicans in Congress want to use this money for tax relief, right?”

“Yes.”

“So, essentially what they’re saying is they want to give back the money.”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t we want to give back the money?”

“Because we’re Democrats.”

“But it’s not the government’s money.”

“Sure it is, it’s right there in our bank account.”

Later in the episode, Donna reopens the argument:

“What’s wrong with me getting my money back?”

“You won’t spend it right.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s say your cut of the surplus is $700. I want to take your money and combine it with everybody else’s money and use it to pay down the debt and further endow social security. What do you want to do with it?”

“Buy a DVD player.”

“See?”

“But my $700 is helping employ the people who manufacture and sell DVD players. Not to mention the people who manufacture and sell DVDs. It’s the natural evolution of a market economy.”

“The problem is, the DVD player you buy might be made in Japan.”

“I’ll buy an American one.”

“We don’t trust you.”

“Why not?”

“We’re Democrats.”

And the third example occurs when the (Democratic) White House political team initiates efforts to come to a grand bargain to save entitlements. They need Republican buy-in, and they’re willing to make tough concessions if the Republicans match them each step of the way. But they’re encountering suspicion on the part of Republicans in Congress, and the Republican they really need, the guy who could lead such an effort on the right, is not in Congress anymore. A staffer asks one of the presidential advisors what happened to him. The advisor responds:

Josh and I wrote a TV ad that destroyed his career. We figured if we won his seat, maybe a half dozen others, got more Democrats in Congress, we’d be able to get something done around here.

To recap: the first example is a liberal losing an important argument, and badly. The second is some welcome self-awareness, on the part of Democrats writing and consulting on the show, that some of their policies sound awfully ridiculous when you say them out loud. And the third is contrition, an acknowledgement that the throw-grandma-off-the-cliff advertising Democrats do whenever Republicans want to reform an entitlement and are willing to take political risks to do so erodes trust and paves the way to crisis.

Now, obviously these are exceptions on the show, not the rule. The Democrats usually won. But the point is that shows about American politics display their un-realism in different ways. House of Cards was unrealistic in a deeply cynical way. The West Wing was unrealistic in a naïve way. But the naïve way ended up being closer to home because it at least spoke the language of American politics. House of Cards doesn’t.

I also chose those West Wing examples for another reason. In the first and third examples, the problem doesn’t get solved at all; in the second the Democrats’ position shows that sometimes power trumps principle. There are limits to pretty words and fair play.

Neither The West Wing nor House of Cards is a realistic depiction of American politics. But the America of The West Wing was at least recognizable, especially if you were paying attention.

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Why They Fear Scott Walker

As I write this, the No. 1 “most read” story on the Washington Post’s website is its investigation into the college years of Scott Walker, headlined: “As Scott Walker mulls White House bid, questions linger over college exit.” Most of the time, you don’t need to read such a story to know what it’s about: for Republicans, every silly comment or stunt in their teenage years is in the public interest, and for Democrats the same investigative practice is racist, racist, racist. (Though in 2016 it will be sexist, sexist, sexist.) But there is one aspect of this story that is tangentially related to issues that a rational voter might actually care about. It’s just not what the Post thinks.

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As I write this, the No. 1 “most read” story on the Washington Post’s website is its investigation into the college years of Scott Walker, headlined: “As Scott Walker mulls White House bid, questions linger over college exit.” Most of the time, you don’t need to read such a story to know what it’s about: for Republicans, every silly comment or stunt in their teenage years is in the public interest, and for Democrats the same investigative practice is racist, racist, racist. (Though in 2016 it will be sexist, sexist, sexist.) But there is one aspect of this story that is tangentially related to issues that a rational voter might actually care about. It’s just not what the Post thinks.

The story didn’t come up with anything newsworthy–not even a case of Walker cutting somebody’s hair, like the alleged monster Mitt Romney apparently did. The headline alludes to this monumental failure of journalism: “questions linger” is journospeak for: “we asked a bunch of questions.” In other words, the story is about the media, not Walker. And “questions” only “linger” because their answers were a nonstory. When a newspaper gets its questions answered but still wants to talk only about its questions, they’re basically Geraldo at the opening of the vault.

So why should anyone care? For one, the questions about Walker not finishing school will keep coming up in part because leftists will seek to tie it to Walker’s education policy. A good example of this comes from MSNBC’s David Taintor, who offers the following lede to a story about Walker’s education budget cuts:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a potential 2016 GOP contender who never earned a college degree, has proposed a huge cut in funding for the University of Wisconsin system over the next two years.

Now, is that framing of the issue, to borrow a phrase from A Few Good Men, galactically stupid? Yes, it surely is galactically stupid. But that only makes it more likely that others on the left will use this formulation.

When you combine the budget cuts with the Post’s story on how Walker wasn’t an engaged student and never earned his degree, you see the left painting a certain picture: Not only did Walker not graduate, but he’s out for revenge against the system of higher education that was so unwelcome to him in his youth. A more benign version would hold that he just doesn’t value what they do, but that’s hard to square with the fact that his son attends Marquette, the same school Walker dropped out of.

Is Walker’s college history truly relevant to his budget approach? No. But the line of questioning, and the liberal focus on Walker’s dropout status, is quite relevant to the debate heading into 2016. That’s because Walker’s success despite not obtaining that degree represents a real threat to the government’s education cartel, the public unions it sustains, and the maintenance of the pipeline of left-liberal groupthink and its young adherents.

There is not, and has not been for a long time, a question of the existence of overwhelming liberal bias at institutions of higher education. The inquiries into the phenomenon focus on why that structural bias exists and persists. Whatever the reasons, it’s easy to understand why the liberal establishment wants to protect the biased architecture of American education.

And protect it they do. A college degree has become a kind of certification for entry into many of the higher reaches of the American economy. The government benefits from this financially by running the student-loan scheme, which drives up tuition costs and thus benefits not only big government but its liberal allies in academic administration.

And it’s a self-perpetuating cycle, which is why Democrats are so keen to guard it jealously. The system as it’s currently set up means educational attainment correlates, in general, to higher income. But that education gets increasingly expensive, which puts it in easier reach of those with higher income, who tend to have more education, etc. As the Economist notes, “the best predictor of an American child’s success in school has long been the parents’ educational level”–though money, which is also now related to educational level, “is an increasingly important factor.”

The Democrats’ approach thus perpetuates inequality, which they blame on “the rich” in order to win national office, which they use to perpetuate this system of inequality–another cycle.

Scott Walker calls this whole scheme into question. It’s not that his experience teaches that you don’t need a college degree to get a good job; it’s that you shouldn’t need to need a college degree to have professional and/or political success. Kids shouldn’t be discouraged from going to college and getting their degree as long as the current system persists, in which it usually makes sense for them to get that degree (if they can).

The point is that the system itself shouldn’t persist, at least in its current form. Walker, then, is living proof that the system can and should be reformed, and the world won’t end. Walker is representative of the potential of those outside the liberal economic elite and those who are severely underserved by the government’s college racket and union-friendly approach to education. That’s why Walker’s personal story matters, and why it’s such a threat to the left.

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Should College Professors Teach More Classes and Do More Work?

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has taken some heat for claiming that “it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work.” I think that much of the criticism Walker has drawn is justified. While UW’s own survey research, suggesting that its professors work more than sixty hours per week, cannot be taken at face value, professors, whether they are at big research universities or small liberal arts colleges, have plenty to do.

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Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has taken some heat for claiming that “it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work.” I think that much of the criticism Walker has drawn is justified. While UW’s own survey research, suggesting that its professors work more than sixty hours per week, cannot be taken at face value, professors, whether they are at big research universities or small liberal arts colleges, have plenty to do.

They teach classes, which entails extensive preparation, grading, and communication with students outside of the classroom. They conduct research, which often entails supervising and mentoring students, as well as grant writing. And they serve both on the committees involved in governing colleges and universities and, informally, in various ways, from bringing in guest speakers to advising the campus newspaper. As in all professions, one finds people who are not conscientious, but those who actually do their jobs work hard, often for considerably less than other professionals earn. Still, as two different commentators pointed out this week, Walker’s heavy-handed comments may point to a real problem.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University, observes that research universities like his make every effort—Berlinerblau has to teach only three courses per year—to release professors from teaching responsibilities. Insofar as everyone benefits from the pursuit of knowledge, even if the case is harder to make out for the study of Chaucer than it is for the study of antibiotics, we need not necessarily be troubled by the light teaching loads of professors at places like Georgetown, especially since many of them are superb, hardworking teachers and mentors. But by a kind of contagion, or because of a race for prestige, the emphasis on research at these powerhouses trickles down to colleges and universities whose primary function is teaching undergraduates. Although I think Berlinerblau exaggerates the case some, it rings true to me when he says that although “teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.” We live, he says, “by the unspoken creed that teaching is … not really what one is supposed to be doing. Conversely, doing a lot of teaching is construed as a sign that one is not doing well.”

Berlinerblau thinks that by neglecting teaching, or at least by not thinking more carefully about the drawbacks of a system that devalues teaching, he and his colleagues have left themselves “fatally exposed” to politicians who question the value of a college education, and to educational entrepreneurs—typically bearing technological solutions to the high cost of education—who argue that they can’t do much worse at teaching undergraduates than professors are presently doing.

Sam Goldman, writing for Minding the Campus, calls Walker’s comments “lazy and ill-informed.” But he too thinks that there is a “good case” to be made that the “labor model on which the modern research university depends,” whatever its merits for a Harvard or M.I.T., is “financially unsustainable and educationally counterproductive.” Moreover, there is “nothing crazy” about the desire of many students and parents that professors “spend more time in the lecture hall and less in the lab or archive,” though Goldman insists, importantly, that actually catering to that desire requires changing the orientation of universities—and having fewer institutions that aspire to be first-rate research universities—not just tacking additional courses onto a professor’s schedule.

At least some colleges and universities that presently pride themselves on research will probably, in a competitive environment, have to persuade potential students and their parents that their primary mission is to teach. But Berlinerbrau’s piece touches on one additional problem. Speaking particularly of the humanities, Berlinerbrau concedes that “we erred … in politicizing inquiry to the extent that we did” and in bringing the “same dense and ideologically tinctured brand of” theory to bear on “our vast canon of texts and traditions.” Anyone who has been following the debate over the boycott-Israel movement on campus will understand that more teaching is not necessarily better if what’s being taught in classrooms is, for example, a simpleminded theory, barely, if at all, distinguishable from propaganda, that captures Ferguson and Palestine as two aspects of a single colonial and racist movement.

Goldman, to his credit, has written before of the case campus conservatives could make with other lovers of our “cultural inheritance” in favor of the liberal arts as precisely opposed to propaganda. Writers “like Tolstoy evade contemporary political categories” and pose questions that challenge any moral, political, or aesthetic commitments.” Some such robust defense of what is to be taught, and not only an emphasis on teaching, is needed. Merely giving further lip service to the amorphous category of “critical thinking,” or imagining, as one writer purporting to be an enthusiast for the liberal arts did this week, students as “content creators” and professors as “cognitive coaches” is unlikely to assuage the fears of those, both within and outside of the field of higher education, that we have lost our way.

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Kirsten Gillibrand’s Cruel Assault on Justice

The media’s atrocious coverage of campus sexual assault myths–from uncritically broadcasting fake stories of rape to promulgating false and debunked statistics pushed by the Obama administration to further its “war on women”–has created an interesting phenomenon in response. Good reporters are seeking to “re-report” the stories, in the hopes of setting the record straight and minimizing some of the incredible damage the accusations have done. Cathy Young is one such reporter, and she has a disturbing story at the Daily Beast today that is about more than just flimsy accusations; it’s a chilling example of a United States senator’s abuse of power.

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The media’s atrocious coverage of campus sexual assault myths–from uncritically broadcasting fake stories of rape to promulgating false and debunked statistics pushed by the Obama administration to further its “war on women”–has created an interesting phenomenon in response. Good reporters are seeking to “re-report” the stories, in the hopes of setting the record straight and minimizing some of the incredible damage the accusations have done. Cathy Young is one such reporter, and she has a disturbing story at the Daily Beast today that is about more than just flimsy accusations; it’s a chilling example of a United States senator’s abuse of power.

Young re-reports the story of Paul Nungesser, a German student at Columbia University accused of sexual assault by a former friend, Emma Sulkowicz. The case has become one of the more famous of this crop of stories for two reasons. The first is that Nungesser was cleared of all charges even in a campus disciplinary process weighted against him, so Sulkowicz has taken to trying to bully Nungesser out of school by carrying a mattress around campus. (It is ostensibly an “art” project, but Sulkowicz has said she’ll stop if Nungesser leaves school.) The second is because Sulkowicz was embraced by New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who targeted Nungesser precisely because he was found innocent and even invited Sulkowicz to this year’s State of the Union as her guest.

By any remotely reasonable standard, Gillibrand’s actions should horrify those who care about basic rights. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is that this kind of mob mentality will only help her career, since the left has fully embraced turning its declared enemies into “former people,” whether they are philanthropic libertarian business leaders or male college students.

It’s important to note that these stories should not lessen anyone’s sympathy for victims of sexual assault. And one irony of this particular case is that Nungesser agrees: “My mother raised me to be a feminist,” he had previously told the New York Times. Young’s report makes it easy to believe that. It’s also easy to see why Nungesser was cleared. I recommend reading the whole article, which lays out the timeline quite clearly.

The facts were on Nungesser’s side to such an undeniable degree that even a university hearing rigged in the complainant’s favor had to rule for Nungesser:

Nungesser has his own gripes about the hearing. Among other things, he says he was never allowed to present the Facebook exchanges, which he regards as strongly exculpatory, to the panel: The hearing, he claims, had to focus exclusively on the facts of the alleged attack in an attempt to decide whose version of this event was more credible. Despite this, and despite a low “preponderance of the evidence” standard which requires adjudicators to find in favor of the complainant if they believe it is even slightly more likely than not than the assault occurred, Nungesser was cleared. In late November, the university upheld that decision, rejecting Sulkowicz’s appeal. Nungesser says he now felt free to pursue his earlier plans to spend a semester in the Czech Republic studying at a Prague film school. But he was about to face a new trial—in the media and in the court of public opinion.

He has been the subject of threats, of course, but has been able to retain some anonymity. That anonymity doesn’t help as much in personal relationships, however, where he comes clean about the process he’s been going through. He has a new girlfriend, who Young also talked to for the story. “It’s not like an easy decision for me, to stay with Paul,” she told Young. “But I do because I have overwhelming trust in him.” Even when cleared, the charge carries a stigma. (This is true also because he was cleared of two additional such accusations by women who were encouraged by Nungesser’s critics to lodge similar charges against him.)

And that stigma is something that Gillibrand seems only too happy to facilitate. So much for the rights of the accused, innocent until proven guilty, etc. Gillibrand is participating in a particularly atrocious attack on basic justice in which activists are aiming their fire at those cleared of charges so they can discredit even the innocent. As Young writes:

Last April, a press release from the office of Sen. Gillibrand on the problem of campus sexual assault quoted Sulkowicz as saying, “My rapist—a serial rapist—still remains on campus, even though three of the women he assaulted reported him.”

That is an incredible charge, especially when he was already cleared. But Gillibrand amplified it. Such acts are unimaginably irresponsible when undertaken by ordinary citizens. When you put the power of the state behind them–which is what Gillibrand was doing, since she’s been drumming up support for her preferred government action on the issue–they become cruel and authoritarian. Nungesser has been cleared of wrongdoing and yet Gillibrand is still using the power of the United States Senate to ruin his name. It’s shameful, and it should stop immediately.

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The Real Significance of Cuomo’s Attack on Teachers Unions

It is tempting to play one of those “Pop quiz: who said this?” games with Andrew Cuomo’s comments on teachers unions. The Democratic governor of New York sat down with the New York Daily News editorial board, and he fielded some questions on education. Here are some highlights, in which Cuomo puts his typical tough-guy flourish on what are usually considered right-wing declarations:

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It is tempting to play one of those “Pop quiz: who said this?” games with Andrew Cuomo’s comments on teachers unions. The Democratic governor of New York sat down with the New York Daily News editorial board, and he fielded some questions on education. Here are some highlights, in which Cuomo puts his typical tough-guy flourish on what are usually considered right-wing declarations:

On the lost purpose of strong public educational institutions: “This was never a teacher employment program and this was never an industry to hire superintendents and teachers. This was a program to educate kids.”

On his response to a teachers union member declaring that the union represents the students: “You represent the teachers. Teacher salaries, teacher pensions, teacher tenure, teacher vacation rights. I respect that. But don’t say you represent the students.”

On whether they deserve more respect from him: “I want to treat them with more respect than they have now, but it has to be on the performance and the merits.”

There is much more, and the whole Daily News writeup of the conversation is worth reading. In some ways, though, the less aggressive comments of Cuomo’s could be the more important ones, at least as far as determining the extent of the ripple effects of his open challenge to the unions.

That’s because his criticism of the unions went beyond policy. Here he is on transparency:

During an appearance before the Daily News Editorial Board, Cuomo said the only way change will come to a broken education system is if the public is better informed.

“If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city,” Cuomo said. “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick.

“It’s only because it’s complicated that people don’t get it.”

This line of argument, if the parents only knew, is at the center of limited-government conservatives’ arguments about the state and bureaucracy. Cuomo’s specific charges may be limited in scope, but he’s invoking a philosophically conservative outlook to make his case.

It’s easy, for example, to substitute virtually anything controlled and heavily regulated by the state for “education” in his above quote. “If (the public) understood what was happening with …” is a kind of Tea Party Mad Libs–and rightfully so. One of the main problems with the administrative state is that the government makes it practically impossible for non-experts to navigate the laws that affect them. Legislation is written the way it is precisely for this reason: because if the people only knew, they’d be outraged.

When it comes to education, there are two major problems with the public system with regard to Cuomo’s complaint about secrecy and complexity. The first is that the government and its cronies are enriched by the process, and have more to gain by shielding their actions from sunlight. The other is that the government doesn’t trust parents to raise their own children. And that, in turn, encourages parents to impart that same message to their kids: that they can’t be trusted with independence and cannot exercise personal responsibility.

What Cuomo is suggesting–or, rather, implying would be more accurate–is that parents should flip the script. That would be the result of taking his complaints to their logical conclusion. Why should parents blindly trust the government with their children but have to prove themselves worthy of the government’s trust as parents? It’s ludicrous, authoritarian, and corrosive to civil society.

Instead, the government should have to earn the public’s trust. If the state wants to control much of your children’s lives until adulthood–and that is precisely what the public education monopoly is designed to do–then the state ought to prove its own worthiness. And this means not just transparency but a true market (or something closer to it) in education.

The government should have competition. “Trust us” is not good enough. Parents should know exactly what the public education system is doing and why, and they should have a greater say in it. But even more importantly, they should have other options, so that the government schools can prove themselves worthy of having the amount of control they have over the nation’s youth.

As for Cuomo, his fellow Democrats will certainly be watching closely to see how this plays out. And so will, for that matter, Republican governors. It has been the latter, after all, pressing much-needed reforms to public unions, albeit often in blue states. But a Democrat taking up the reform fight in a deep-blue state is evidence of the strength of the arguments on the side of reform.

Cuomo doesn’t need this trouble. But unions have made such a wreck of the public school system and wasted so much money in doing so that it’s become impossible for any but the most zealous defenders of the status quo to deny. Cuomo will certainly be feeling the wrath of the unions. But their quest to stop him in his tracks will be complicated by the fact that everything he said about them is true.

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Robin Hood Would Be an Improvement

Tonight, President Obama plans to announce some budget outlines in his State of the Union address. One of those goals will be to make a college education all but unaffordable to anyone but the wealthy. He won’t use those words, of course. But it puts the lie to the copycat “analysis” of the president’s cruel budget that he is somehow playing Robin Hood by taking from the rich to give to the poor. Though I generally don’t mind any analogy that correctly paints confiscatory taxes in the service of crony capitalism as theft, in this case the truth is that Robin Hood would be a vast improvement.

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Tonight, President Obama plans to announce some budget outlines in his State of the Union address. One of those goals will be to make a college education all but unaffordable to anyone but the wealthy. He won’t use those words, of course. But it puts the lie to the copycat “analysis” of the president’s cruel budget that he is somehow playing Robin Hood by taking from the rich to give to the poor. Though I generally don’t mind any analogy that correctly paints confiscatory taxes in the service of crony capitalism as theft, in this case the truth is that Robin Hood would be a vast improvement.

The court stenographers at the Washington Post played along over the weekend, “reporting” on Obama’s State of the Union proposals by parroting talking points. The lede: “President Obama plans to propose raising $320 billion over the next 10 years in new taxes targeting wealthy individuals and big financial institutions to pay for new programs designed to help lower- and middle-income families, senior administration officials said Saturday.”

As is generally the case with this administration, the actual reporting had to be done by those outside the mainstream press. Ryan Ellis at Americans for Tax Reform explained five different tax increases sought by the president. And surprise, surprise–they don’t all target those who make up the richest of the rich and are therefore the Democrats’ cash piñatas.

The taxes include an increase in the death tax, proving that Democrats still adhere to Miracle Max’s advice that the only thing to be done with a man who is “all dead” is to “go through his clothes and look for loose change.” It will also include a bank tax that will be passed along to the bank’s customers, as well as a new tax on retirement savings. But the worst among them is probably the tax on education. (Morally speaking, the death tax is probably the “worst,” since organized grave robbing is generally frowned upon in the civilized world. The education taxes are the “worst” from the standpoint of their dishonesty and their burden on those least able to shoulder it.)

Here’s Ellis:

Under current law, 529 plans work like Roth IRAs: you put money in, and the money grows tax-free for college. Distributions are tax-free provided they are to pay for college.

Under the Obama plan, earnings growth in a 529 plan would no longer be tax-free. Instead, earnings would face taxation upon withdrawal, even if the withdrawal is to pay for college. This was the law prior to 2001.

This is remarkably grotesque policymaking, because of how it builds on the Obama administration’s general attitude toward paying for higher education. The federal student loan bubble has artificially inflated the cost of tuition. It doesn’t lower college costs, it merely defers them after increasing them. The government’s approach to paying for college is a loan racket that sees young people taking on mountains of debt to pay for the salaries of administrators and tenured professors.

The goal is not education, either, as much as it is about selling a piece of paper that has become a prerequisite for participation in much of the economy. In other words, while students are being sent to college ostensibly to get an education, the government sees it as a licensing scheme. If and when the bubble bursts, taxpayers will be on the hook for the inevitable bailout.

So it’s already an immoral status quo, held up and protected by liberal establishment politicians, like Obama. But Obama’s tax plan would make the system even less fair. Thanks to the government’s role in ballooning tuition costs, college savings accounts can be crucial to anyone who doesn’t have the disposable income to toss off tens of thousands of dollars a year per student.

So what does Obama do? He attacks the last bastion of college affordability, the savings account. In a follow-up piece at Forbes, Ellis notes that the tax change that made college savings accounts more advantageous were part of George W. Bush’s tax relief for the middle class. Ellis writes:

The 2001 tax law change which the Obama budget repeals resulted in an explosion of mass participation in 529 plans. According to the College Savings Network, taxpayers responded to the changes virtually overnight. Assets in 529 plans doubled from 2001 to 2002 (from $13 billion to $26 billion) and began their fast march to the quarter-trillion dollar level we see today. The total number of accounts grew from 2.4 million in 2001 to 4.4 million just a year later in 2002. There’s every reason to believe that taxpayers will snap back almost as quickly.

The good news is that Obama’s financial abuse of the middle class and poor has to pass Congress (at least until Obama discovers executive authority for that too). Congress is in the hands of the Republicans, but even many Democrats will balk at further blurring the boundaries between the modern welfare state and an organized crime syndicate. But it does give the country a glimpse into the cruelty awaiting them if Congress weren’t standing in the way.

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The NEA’s Racial Profiling Curriculum

Given the volatility and sensitivity of “racial profiling” these days, heightened by recent developments in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and by brand new law-enforcement “guidelines” from the Justice Department, one could be tempted to thank the National Education Association for its recent effort, in league with a bunch of other organizations, to develop curricular materials by which schools and teachers can instruct their students on this issue.

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Given the volatility and sensitivity of “racial profiling” these days, heightened by recent developments in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and by brand new law-enforcement “guidelines” from the Justice Department, one could be tempted to thank the National Education Association for its recent effort, in league with a bunch of other organizations, to develop curricular materials by which schools and teachers can instruct their students on this issue.

One should, however, resist that temptation. It turns out that, once again, the NEA and its fellow travelers are presenting a one-sided, propagandistic view of an exceptionally complicated issue that elicits strong, conflicting views among adults; that carries competing values and subtleties beyond the ken of most school kids; and that probably doesn’t belong in the K–12 curriculum at all.

My mind immediately rolled back almost three decades, to the days when the Cold War was very much with us, when nuclear weapons were a passionate concern, when unilateral disarmament was earnestly propounded by some mostly well-meaning but deeply misguided Americans—and when the NEA plunged into the fray with appalling curricular guidance for U.S. schools.

Here’s part of what the late Joseph Adelson and I wrote in COMMENTARY magazine in April 1985:

[T]he much-publicized contribution of the National Education Association (NEA), to give but one example, looks blandly past any differences between the superpowers. Its one-page “fact sheet” on the USSR simply summarizes population, land area, and military resources. The geopolitical situation of the Soviet Union is captured in an extraordinary sentence: “The Soviet Union is bordered by many countries, including some unfriendly countries and others that are part of the Warsaw Pact, which includes countries that are friendly to the Soviet Union.” The beleaguered Soviets are tacitly compared to the United States, which is bordered (we are told) only by “friendly countries.” The youngster is thus plainly led to conclude that the Russians have rather more reason to be fearful than the Americans and that the relationship between Washington and Ottawa is indistinguishable from the ties between Moscow and “friendly” Warsaw or Kabul.

As one might expect, the student is told nothing by the NEA “fact sheet” about the two political systems—nothing about the Gulag or the KGB, nothing about internal passports or the control of emigration, nothing about Poland or Afghanistan…. Although it is an axiom of today’s educational ethos that on any remotely controversial topic, such as deviant sexuality, schools are to maintain a pose of exquisite neutrality, these curricula openly encourage children to engage in political action. In one instance it is recommended that letters be sent to elected officials and local newspapers; in another, teachers are urged to influence parents “by sharing what we as teachers have discovered about peace and peacemaking.” A New York City unit concludes with an “action collage” of bumper stickers, antiwar headlines, “peace walks,” and disarmament rallies. Another recommends seven separate projects, one of which is to write to Congressmen about nuclear-power plants in the community.

To sum up: nuclear curricula, presumably designed to ease a child’s anxiety, in fact introduce him to fears he has probably not entertained, and exacerbate any that he has. The child is provided with false or misleading political information which makes national policy seem capricious or malevolent or irrational. He is on the one hand taught the virtues of helplessness, on the other recruited to the propaganda purposes of the teacher.

In the years since, the NEA has developed curricular materials across an astonishing mishmash of topics, including just about every holiday and special-focus week or month that you never heard of. (Not only Black History Month, but also National Popcorn Month. Not just St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Earth Day, but also Groundhog Day and Brain Awareness Week.) Check out the website. Some of it’s worth having, and most of it’s harmless. But, as with the arms race of the 1980s, so with racial profiling: When they stray into hot-button adult controversies, let the user beware. And let those who worry about educators brainwashing their pupils beware, too.

How does today’s foray into racial profiling resemble the anti-nuclear curriculum of the 1980s? Consider, for example, this item, written by the Institute for Humane Education and excerpted from one of just three links supplied by the NEA to those who teach grades 3–5:

Human rights are inextricably connected to environmental and cultural issues. For example, the decline in potable water – due to causes such as intensive agricultural systems, pollution, corporate ownership of water rights, and global climate change – is an environmental, cultural, and a human rights issue. Rapid economic globalization – representing a cultural and political shift over the past half century – is resulting in increased slave and child labor. Some religions perpetuate human rights atrocities (e.g., female genital mutilation), making a cultural issue – religious freedom – a social justice issue as well.

Humans are oppressed by the same systems that exploit animals and the environment. Humane education gives us a lens to more clearly see the interconnectedness of these issues….

Balanced? Devoid of its own versions of “profiling”? Such issues arise every time schools are called upon to address a complicated contemporary issue that divides grownups and every time the materials offered to teachers are the work of single-cause organizations: When this topic reaches the fourth-grade classroom, are students going to get accurate, balanced information or the strong policy and political preferences of those who teach them (or who prepare materials that they foist upon teachers, the better to shape the minds of children in directions that the authors favor)?

How could there be any question of “balance,” you ask, when racial-profiling is the issue? Well, consider recent testimony by the Fraternal Order of Police noting that, in the Unabomber case, the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit deduced from available evidence that the likely suspect was a “white male” and observed, moreover, that “generally speaking, serial killers are much more likely to be white males than any other race or gender and investigations into serial killings generally begin with this presumption.”

Or see Heather Mac Donald’s revealing piece citing the Drug Enforcement Administration’s own data on which nationalities are most likely to engage in high-volume drug trafficking. Should police officers monitoring airfields and highways pretend they don’t know this?

Consider, too, not just the Byzantine complexity of the Justice Department’s new “guidance for federal law enforcement agencies,” but also the fact that those guarding U.S. borders against the entry of possible terrorists are specifically exempted from most of that guidance. Why? Because eight-year-olds from Iceland, elderly tourists from Ireland, and nuns from Brazil are extremely unlikely to be involved with terrorist plots against the United States, just as folks from other places and backgrounds are more likely to be so involved. It’s a mighty good thing for our safety that someone was able to persuade Messrs. Holder and Obama to allow for such exceptions. (My apologies to any surviving Byzantines for the impolitic profiling implicit in the first sentence of this paragraph.)

How many fifth graders are going to grasp all this? Why should they be expected to? But if you leave out the complexity, you end up with oversimplification, naiveté, and political correctness.

The other big question to be raised about the NEA’s latest dive into troubled waters: why this topic and not others? What (speaking of terrorists) about a “terrorism curriculum”? I can’t find one on the NEA website—though there’s plenty on “climate change.” What about an anti-Semitism curriculum? I can’t find that, either, though there’s plenty on immigration reform. Who makes these decisions, and based on what? How are teachers and schools supposed to sort through it?

And where does it end? How many contemporary issues of the sort that worry adults should be visited upon school children? At what ages and in which classes and instead of what? Because surely something must be omitted from the regular curriculum to make room for racial-profiling education, just as with lessons about the perils and risks of smoking, AIDS, obesity, drug abuse—and climate change and immigration reform, not to mention popcorn month. Do we skip phonics lessons? Two-digit multiplication? The Declaration of Independence? Isn’t it possible that a close reading of To Kill a Mockingbird might impart messages about racism, tolerance, kindness, and courage within a first-rate English language arts curriculum—instead of turning to one-sided didactic materials from single-issue organizations? Including, alas, America’s largest organization to whose members we entrust the education of our children and grandchildren.

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Disparate Impact Strikes Again

In January, I posted regarding an absolutely idiotic Justice Department mandate that school punishments would be subject to disparate impact analysis to make sure that one racial group at school is not punished at higher rates than other groups. If one racial group makes up one-third of the student body, it should, according to the Justice Department, receive one-third of the punishments meted out for bad behavior, regardless of how much bad behavior that group was actually responsible for. Of course, since it is highly unlikely that bad behavior will occur at the proper ratios, implacable logic demands that either some students will get off scot free, or innocent students must be punished to make the numbers come out right.

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In January, I posted regarding an absolutely idiotic Justice Department mandate that school punishments would be subject to disparate impact analysis to make sure that one racial group at school is not punished at higher rates than other groups. If one racial group makes up one-third of the student body, it should, according to the Justice Department, receive one-third of the punishments meted out for bad behavior, regardless of how much bad behavior that group was actually responsible for. Of course, since it is highly unlikely that bad behavior will occur at the proper ratios, implacable logic demands that either some students will get off scot free, or innocent students must be punished to make the numbers come out right.

Now, Minneapolis Public Schools has signed a deal with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. It had been under investigation for two years because minority students had been being punished at much higher rates than white students. So now:

Moving forward, every suspension of a black or brown student will be reviewed by the superintendent’s leadership team. The school district aims to more deeply understand the circumstances of suspensions with the goal of providing greater supports to the school, student or family in need. This team could choose to bring in additional resources for the student, family and school.

In other words, if you’re white and you get suspended, you’re suspended. If you’re black or brown and get suspended, you get an automatic appeal. How that squares with quaint notions regarding equal justice under law is quite beyond me.

It gets worse:

MPS must aggressively reduce the disproportionality between black and brown students and their white peers every year for the next four years. This will begin with a 25 percent reduction in disproportionality by the end of this school year; 50 percent by 2016; 75 percent by 2017; and 100 percent by 2018.

Translation: Either there will be a miraculous transformation in the behavior of minority students or more and more of them will be let off the hook over the next four years, while their white classmates will feel the full wrath of the school’s displeasure.

As George Orwell would have said, the students are all equal, but some are more equal than others.

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Should University Scholars Face Travel Restrictions?

In 1996, when I was a Ph.D. student at Yale, I received a university travel grant to conduct my dissertation research in Iran. All was going smoothly until a university administrator stepped in. While he knew absolutely nothing about Iran, he simply couldn’t conceive that a Jewish American should travel there. He called me in and concluded that he thought the whole thing should be reconsidered by administrators and lawyers. At the advice of a faculty member friend, I hopped on a plane before they could come to any agreement and went to Iran.

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In 1996, when I was a Ph.D. student at Yale, I received a university travel grant to conduct my dissertation research in Iran. All was going smoothly until a university administrator stepped in. While he knew absolutely nothing about Iran, he simply couldn’t conceive that a Jewish American should travel there. He called me in and concluded that he thought the whole thing should be reconsidered by administrators and lawyers. At the advice of a faculty member friend, I hopped on a plane before they could come to any agreement and went to Iran.

The simple fact is that Iran is a far more dangerous place for Iranian-Americans (whom the Tehran regime insists travel on Iranian passports) than people like me who have no family connection to the country. Not everything inside the Islamic Republic went smoothly, but the Iranian archives in my experience were generally more receptive to me than the Carter Library in Atlanta was, when I was researching my recent book which touched upon Carter’s attitudes toward North Korea. In the end, my dissertation ended up sharing Yale’s top prize. Needless to say, ignoring the hand-wringing of Yale administrators was a good choice.

In the 15 years since I submitted my dissertation, the situation of those seeking to conduct research in the world’s hotspots has gotten worse, not only for Yale but almost every other university. The problem isn’t the students, but rather administrators and lawyers. At most universities, there has been administrative mitosis, with deanships, assistant deanships, assistant provostships, multiple registrars, department directors, council coordinators, and various counselors proliferating and subdividing. Each must regulate and expand domains in order to make work. Rather than advance up an academic ladder, alas, too many faculty members end up seeking the far more lucrative administrative track. Add into the noxious mix the lawyers, and dysfunction boils over. Rather than raise a generation of young adults, the university lawyers’ notion of in loco parentis represses individual accountability and responsibility.

Too often, academic research and risk-adverse lawyering are mutually exclusive. I’ve been fortunate over the past few years to participate in the Alexander Hamilton Society, which takes national security and foreign policy thinkers to college campuses and has them talk to students and debate with faculty. (This semester, for example, I’ve been to Stetson University, Washington College, and will be heading to Holy Cross tomorrow and Northwestern next week.) At many campuses, students and faculty say that university administrators and lawyers refuse to fund or, in some cases, even allow research in areas in which there are active State Department warnings.

Here’s the problem: Not only are State Department warnings notoriously broad—they seldom specify districts and cities and instead paint with a broad brush, the equivalent of confusing downtown Detroit with rural Nebraska—but, more to the point, it’s the world’s trouble spots which are the most important to research. Sure, with tongue in cheek, I’d say that if I could do my Ph.D. work all over again, maybe I’d be tempted to study the effect of Club Meds on local economies, but I’d much rather have universities churning out scholars of Iraqi, Iranian, Yemeni, Chinese, Korean, or Venezuelan studies. At some point, universities are going to have to choose which they should prioritize: real academic study or the zero-risk policies that their in-house counsels advise, and by which their in-house counsels’ careers too often were shaped. Perhaps at some point, a student or professor will be hurt or worse in a third-world country. That would be tragic. And their grieving family might even take the university to court for allowing their loved one to travel to a far-off, dangerous land. But until universities stand up and fight for their academic freedom, they are destined to become second-class coffee klatches rather than intellectual engines relevant to contemporary world international studies.

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Of Talents and Truants: the Absurd D.C. Public Education Bureaucracy

Wow. If anyone out there still needs evidence (and as we all know, sadly, they do) of the extreme bureaucratic toxicity to children of the public school system, they need look no further than this pretty breathtaking Washington Post story from our nation’s capital.

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Wow. If anyone out there still needs evidence (and as we all know, sadly, they do) of the extreme bureaucratic toxicity to children of the public school system, they need look no further than this pretty breathtaking Washington Post story from our nation’s capital.

Avery Gagliano is 13, and a piano prodigy. She performs Mozart and Chopin across the globe; she is an international music ambassador for the Lang Lang Foundation; in March, she won the junior grand prize at the Chopin International Piano Competition.

Unfortunately for Avery, she is (or was) also a (straight A) student at Washington D.C.’s Alice Deal Middle School. And as far as the D.C. public school (DCPS) bureaucracy is concerned, traveling the world playing concerts and winning competitions–while maintaining a stellar academic record–is simply not any better a reason to miss more than ten days of school than, say, hanging out, smoking dope, and playing video games. So, when her admirable musical accomplishments took her over the ten-day limit, Avery officially became a truant–something for which her parents could be prosecuted.

Here’s how DCPS greeted Avery on her return from winning the Chopin competition: with a truant officer. And with this email to her parents from one Jemea Goso, “attendance specialist” with the “Office of Youth Engagement” (can’t you just hear Mr. Orwell chuckling?): “As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.”

Appeals to DCPS’s better nature failed. And since Avery’s parents can’t afford some $36,000/year in private school tuition (take note, scholarship offices at Sidwell Friends, Cathedral, and Georgetown Day), not to mention a court case, she is now being home-schooled.

As a former DCPS parent conversant with the sludge of mediocrity that passes for a DCPS education, I could go on and on about how Avery isn’t missing much (besides the company of her friends).

But suffice it to say, score one for the Office of Youth Engagement!

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The Soda Ban and Helicopter-Mayoring

Today the Michael Bloomberg era in New York City drew to a close. Not officially, of course; Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty was inaugurated at the beginning of January. But today it can begin in earnest, and in modest acclamation: the soda ban is dead. And with it exits a style of governing that will most indelibly be remembered for perhaps its greatest flaw: an obnoxious paternalism that told even the city’s starving homeless precisely what they can and cannot consume.

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Today the Michael Bloomberg era in New York City drew to a close. Not officially, of course; Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty was inaugurated at the beginning of January. But today it can begin in earnest, and in modest acclamation: the soda ban is dead. And with it exits a style of governing that will most indelibly be remembered for perhaps its greatest flaw: an obnoxious paternalism that told even the city’s starving homeless precisely what they can and cannot consume.

New York State’s highest court today rejected the final appeal to keep the ban on large sodas in place. The New York Times headline on the story is “City Loses Final Appeal on Limiting Sales of Large Sodas,” but I think we’re all winners here, the city included. Bloomberg is to be commended for some of his policies: the full-throated defense of public safety chief among them. But Bloomberg got caught up in paternalistic social engineering and the soda ban was one of the most invasive–and illegal–results. The Times reports:

In a 20-page opinion, Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr. of the State Court of Appeals wrote that the city’s Board of Health “exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority” in enacting the proposal, which was championed by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The decision likely will be seen as a significant defeat for health advocates who have urged state and local governments to actively discourage the consumption of high-calorie beverages, saying the drinks are prime drivers of a nationwide epidemic of obesity.

Two lower courts had already sided against the city, saying it overreached in attempting to prohibit the purchase of sugared drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces, about the size of a medium coffee cup. By a 4 to 2 vote, the justices upheld the earlier rulings.

In that article, however, you can see who Bloomberg’s real constituents were: first and foremost, the media. Proponents of intrusive statist powers are, according to the Times, “health advocates.” Simply because they say so. Even though some of the schemes the “health advocates” have pursued have been shown to produce exactly the opposite result–that is, the population’s choices become less healthy. But as with most liberal projects, the intentions are all that matter. Who wouldn’t want to ban large sodas? Think of the children.

The irony of the Bloomberg administration’s overreach on sugary drinks is that such helicopter-mayoring overshadowed other policies and came to identify him. He’s been replaced by a much more liberal politician, who may actually restore some of Bloomberg’s reputation. Say what you will about Bloomberg’s nanny statism, but he did not acquire his inspiration for public service by watching the Marxist Sandinistas.

Bloomberg’s record on public safety threatens to be undone by de Blasio, whose election ended the era of hugely popular and undeniably successful police commissioner Ray Kelly, after which the police were instructed to stop gun violence by smiling at passersby. It’s too early to say if the resulting recent spike in violent crime is here to stay, but all indications are that de Blasio’s terrible ideas about public safety are just as irresponsible and unserious as they seemed when they began emanating from Planet Brooklyn during the campaign.

The biggest initial threat to de Blasio’s public approval was his staunch opposition to charter schools. De Blasio prefers to delegate his education policy to the unions, with the result that minority students have even fewer opportunities. De Blasio soon realized that trashing proven educational opportunities perhaps struck the wrong “tone.” (We can cut de Blasio some slack here though: it’s doubtful the Sandinistas had anything to say about charter schools, so the mayor was learning on the job.)

De Blasio represents a different kind of progressivism than Bloomberg’s version of city governance. For Bloomberg, that has advantages. Had he been followed by a more conservative mayor, his successor would have simply built on the better policies Bloomberg instituted while quietly scrapping the restrictions on fizzy bubblech. Instead, he’s being followed by an ideologue testing the limits the people will place on his airy radicalism, using New Yorkers as crash-test dummies.

That may leave New Yorkers pining for Bloomberg, but there’s a caveat: de Blasio has so far shown himself responsive to public opinion. If that ends up curtailing his leftist impulses, such populism will distinguish itself from the pompous elitism with which New Yorkers had in recent years been treated.

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Tory Rivalry Obscures Islamism Debate

In Britain, the storm surrounding the attempted Islamist takeover of several public schools continues to play out, but much of the debate is becoming willfully side-tracked. I wrote about the case itself on Monday; since the story initially broke, a number of other spin-off debates have emerged. Not least among them has been a particularly fraught war of accusations at the top of Britain’s governing Conservative party. This, as it turns out, has had as much to do with internal rivalries for the party leadership as it has with a fundamental disagreement over the handling of the matter itself. Then there have been attempts by the left to stoke a debate about Islamophobia and another about Britain’s state-funded parochial schools—a real red herring given that the problem here had nothing to do with faith schools and exclusively concerned events at secular public schools. The preference of many in the media for focusing on these secondary debates is perhaps itself an indication of just how poisonous confronting radical Islam can be in Britain.

That said, the embarrassing and all-too-public fight that has broken out among government ministers has brought to the surface significant factional rivalries as well as some key disputes regarding Britain’s strategy for dealing with Islamic extremism. The fight involves two particularly charismatic and powerful figures within David Cameron’s cabinet: Home Secretary Teresa May and Education Minister Michael Gove. It is widely speculated that May is positioning herself as a potential successor to Cameron, while Gove is understood to be more closely allied with the chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, who has been suggested as another potential candidate for the leadership, although in truth neither May nor Osborne is particularly liked by the British public. Still, they haven’t acquired quite the reputation that Michael Gove has. His proactive and radically conservative education reforms have seen him wildly demonized by teachers unions and a large part of the British press. Gove’s efforts to roll back the follies of “child-centered learning,” to drive up standards through a traditional curriculum, and his latest policy advocating that “British values” be taught in school have won him admiration with a conservative hardcore, while provoking fierce criticism from many other quarters.

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In Britain, the storm surrounding the attempted Islamist takeover of several public schools continues to play out, but much of the debate is becoming willfully side-tracked. I wrote about the case itself on Monday; since the story initially broke, a number of other spin-off debates have emerged. Not least among them has been a particularly fraught war of accusations at the top of Britain’s governing Conservative party. This, as it turns out, has had as much to do with internal rivalries for the party leadership as it has with a fundamental disagreement over the handling of the matter itself. Then there have been attempts by the left to stoke a debate about Islamophobia and another about Britain’s state-funded parochial schools—a real red herring given that the problem here had nothing to do with faith schools and exclusively concerned events at secular public schools. The preference of many in the media for focusing on these secondary debates is perhaps itself an indication of just how poisonous confronting radical Islam can be in Britain.

That said, the embarrassing and all-too-public fight that has broken out among government ministers has brought to the surface significant factional rivalries as well as some key disputes regarding Britain’s strategy for dealing with Islamic extremism. The fight involves two particularly charismatic and powerful figures within David Cameron’s cabinet: Home Secretary Teresa May and Education Minister Michael Gove. It is widely speculated that May is positioning herself as a potential successor to Cameron, while Gove is understood to be more closely allied with the chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, who has been suggested as another potential candidate for the leadership, although in truth neither May nor Osborne is particularly liked by the British public. Still, they haven’t acquired quite the reputation that Michael Gove has. His proactive and radically conservative education reforms have seen him wildly demonized by teachers unions and a large part of the British press. Gove’s efforts to roll back the follies of “child-centered learning,” to drive up standards through a traditional curriculum, and his latest policy advocating that “British values” be taught in school have won him admiration with a conservative hardcore, while provoking fierce criticism from many other quarters.

The latest dispute has erupted as both May and Gove’s offices sought to very publicly implicate one another for the failings that allowed hardline Muslims to seize control of the running of several schools in Birmingham. The criticism from Gove’s side appears to have been that the Home Office has been too focused on targeting terrorism at the expense of efforts to counter the culture of hardline Islam that breeds the terror threat in the first place. For her part, May accused the ministry of education of having failed to act upon warnings from 2010 that Islamist practices were being implemented in some of Birmingham’s state schools. Over the weekend the prime minister was forced to intervene, Gove was required to apologize, and May was obliged to fire one of her advisers.

It is unfortunate to see these two figures squabbling in this way. While May’s record is somewhat mixed, as home secretary she has shown a serious commitment to confronting both law and order issues and the threat from radical Islamic preachers, who she has gone to great lengths to have extradited where possible. Michael Gove is arguably even stauncher in his opposition to radical Islam. His 2006 book Celsius 7/7: How the West’s Policy of Appeasement Has Provoked Yet More Fundamentalist Terror and What Has to Be Done Now is one of the few serious intellectual defenses of the war on terror to have come out of Britain.

It is hard to imagine that this fight is nearly as significant as the Conservative party’s more fundamental split over Europe, or between Cameron’s “modernizing” faction and the social conservatives in the party. Yet in addition to the pages and pages given over to that story, much of the media has kicked the real issues into the long grass, concentrating instead on arguments about parochial schools and Islamophobia. While the BBC has continued to express skepticism about the authenticity of the so called “Trojan Horse” letter that first sparked this episode, the findings of the government investigation have at least done something to demonstrate that the initial concerns were warranted. Now, however, those who were always hostile to the notion of state-funded parochial schools are seeking to use this scandal as another opportunity to advocate for their abolition. And of course Jewish faith schools have been a common point of reference, despite how relatively few of Britain’s faith schools are affiliated with the Jewish community. Yet whether one favors parochial schools or not, that debate is irrelevant here. The issue at hand concerns secular public schools, and presumably this whole affair could have happened in a Britain in which faith schools never existed.

The preoccupation with internal Conservative party wrangling, with arguments about Islamophobia, and the campaign pieces for and against faith schools all demonstrate just how spooked many British journalists are by the prospect of having to grapple with the actual facts of this case. Only a very few have actively done so. It would be a very great mistake to shy away from having a hard-headed discussion about the influence of Islamism in British public life and civil society by instead becoming side-tracked with these secondary debates.

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A Turning Point in the Battle to Rescue Public Education?

The battle over public education was never quite the same after the New Yorker published a deep dive into New York’s “rubber rooms” in 2009. These were rooms in which hundreds of teachers accused of misconduct–which could mean physically abusing or molesting students–spent their days, instead of working, while still reaping their salaries and benefits. They couldn’t be let near kids. But they still couldn’t be fired. Here was a key paragraph early on:

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

There have been other milestones in education reform and specifically with regard to the unions, but if you want to know just why Republicans in blue states like Chris Christie and Scott Walker had success reining in the unions, the unjust and expensive unaccountability captured in situations like the “rubber rooms” generally sits atop the list. Reforms have tackled the pay and benefits structure, however. Now there may be another turning point, in a milestone court ruling out in California. The Wall Street Journal reports:

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The battle over public education was never quite the same after the New Yorker published a deep dive into New York’s “rubber rooms” in 2009. These were rooms in which hundreds of teachers accused of misconduct–which could mean physically abusing or molesting students–spent their days, instead of working, while still reaping their salaries and benefits. They couldn’t be let near kids. But they still couldn’t be fired. Here was a key paragraph early on:

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

There have been other milestones in education reform and specifically with regard to the unions, but if you want to know just why Republicans in blue states like Chris Christie and Scott Walker had success reining in the unions, the unjust and expensive unaccountability captured in situations like the “rubber rooms” generally sits atop the list. Reforms have tackled the pay and benefits structure, however. Now there may be another turning point, in a milestone court ruling out in California. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a closely watched court case that challenged California’s strong teacher employment protections, a group of nine students have prevailed against the state and its two largest teachers’ unions.

A California Superior Court on Tuesday found that all the state laws challenged in the case were unconstitutional. The verdict that could fuel similar lawsuits in other states where legislative efforts have failed to ease rules for the dismissal of teachers considered ineffective.

The student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California argued that the statutes protecting teachers’ jobs serve more often to keep poor instructors in the schools—hurting students’ chances to succeed. The teachers’ unions said state laws didn’t preclude school districts from making their own hiring and firing decisions.

Among the laws challenged in the case was California’s “Last-In, First-Out” layoff statute, which requires layoffs based on seniority rather than classroom performance. Also challenged were complex dismissal statutes for ineffective teachers that plaintiffs described as costly, burdensome and involving “a borderline infinite number of steps.”

If the California case were unique, this would be a local victory. As the “rubber rooms” illustrate, it isn’t. In New Jersey, for instance, the process for firing a teacher is essentially rigged against the district, with time delays and the costs of attorney’s fees and the teacher’s salary on top of a replacement instructor for the duration of the process, with no guarantee the teacher can be fired at the end of it. As a result, even attempting to fire a teacher becomes an arduous, and usually avoided, course of action. In Wisconsin, union privileges meant teachers were indeed fired–good teachers, and young teachers, so that those with seniority could keep their generous benefits and job security.

New Jersey and Wisconsin are not alone either, but they illustrate why there was public support for getting union privileges under some control even in liberal states: the policies are so clearly rigged against the students. In California, the students bringing the court challenge argued–correctly–that the policies were exceedingly harmful to the students. The purpose of education is to benefit the students, and government schools were failing miserably.

I’ve written about this before: the students suffer because bad teachers can’t be fired and budget cuts can’t touch what’s been granted the unions in their collective bargaining agreements, so the students lose out on books, educational technology, tutoring, library facilities, after-school activities, and anything else the unions can pick clean off the carcass of public education.

The problem was that the process by which those contracts were won was in essence corrupt. Politicians seeking union backing (usually liberal Democrats) promise taxpayer money for it, some of which is then spent on getting such politicians reelected. It’s a cycle that leaves the taxpayers–you know, those footing the bill–and the students without an advocate.

Yet the system is not so easy to reform. After all, contracts are contracts. And the same politicians in thrall to the unions obviously cannot be relied on to legislate some relief. The California case may provide a way out of this conundrum: the courts. As the Journal notes:

Research has pointed to teacher quality as the biggest in-school determinant for student performance. In recent years, many states have moved to simplify dismissal procedures for ineffective teachers and to encourage districts to consider teacher performance in layoff decisions rather than relying solely on seniority.

Efforts in California failed in the legislature, so students and their advocates took the case to court—a novel way to test the long-standing state policies.

A novel way, perhaps, but one that provides a glimmer of hope for students. It shouldn’t have been necessary to come to this point, but now that it has American public education may take another step toward once again fulfilling its mission.

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Race, Reparations, and the Idea of America

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy. President Lyndon Johnson may have noted in his historic civil-rights speech at Howard University in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But his advisers and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.

It may not be intended as such, but this is, in reality, a stern rebuke to the leftist tendency to hijack the black struggle and tether African Americans to their preferred policy aims. The left does this with regard to women and other minorities as well–the old joke about the New York Times reporting the apocalypse: World Ends, Women and Minorities Hardest Hit. But the struggle of African Americans was and is different; the left’s insistence that the issue of the day–climate change, inequality, environmental regulations–can or should be reduced to a “black issue” is precisely the act of ignoring African Americans’ history in the service of white liberals’ power.

Coates’s essay also highlights the tendency of well-intentioned liberal initiatives that end up exacerbating black economic dislocation and discrimination instead of alleviating it. For example, Coates discusses residential segregation, redlining, block busting, federally blessed “restrictive covenants,” and other methods of housing discrimination whose effects are still felt especially in or near major cities. This made them particularly vulnerable to predatory lending and the housing bubble. Here’s Coates:

Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself.

The government’s involvement in efforts to sell mortgages to uncreditworthy black potential homeowners in such areas was supposed to be the antidote to redlining, a major historical correction. But in many cases lenders were pressured by the government to ignore the creditworthiness of minority applicants, and the result is something like: Housing Bubble Ends, Minorities Hardest Hit.

Aside from a cautionary tale about government intervention in the marketplace, this geographic isolation would also seem to argue for ways not only to help improve minority neighborhoods but also to get kids from those neighborhoods into better schools. The current government monopoly on such education, supported by the unions and Democrats at the highest levels including President Obama, guarantees the promulgation of an effective segregation and the breathing of life into a particularly insidious legacy of the Jim Crow era that the Great Migration could have, but did not, undo.

And that brings us back to the issue of reparations (to close the “wealth gap,” as Coates says) and the reason Coates wants to have this “national reckoning.” He writes:

A nation outlives its generations…. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.

Should the slaveholding of the Founders be as relevant as their political ideas in understanding the founding philosophical underpinnings of our nation’s identity? Coates seems to think so; later he writes that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it,” adding: “And so we must imagine a new country.”

Which opinions of the Founders must we carry as an addendum to the Constitution? Slavery was a violation of our founding principles. But the case for abolition was not just a moral one; it was also an economic one. This is what Acemoglu and Robinson show, and it’s what the historian David Brion Davis notes in his latest book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. He writes of Connecticut abolitionist Leonard Bacon’s argument that slavery was a long-term strain on the American economy:

Even apart from the desire for racial homogeneity, most American commentators shared this republican conviction that slavery subverted the nation’s prospects for balanced economic growth and prosperity, at least in the longer term.

Bacon wasn’t claiming that the institution of slavery didn’t provide economic benefits to those who practiced it, of course. But he, like many of his age, understood slavery as a betrayal of the American system, not just a moral failing. It was a bug, not a feature.

So yes, a tremendous amount of wealth was built up in America from the subjugation and plunder of black slaves. But to argue that the American identity and the country’s conception of self is not separate at all from its history, to argue that the idea of America is inseparable from the idea of racism and oppression, requires its own selective reading of America’s past and produces a false rendering of the American project.

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Time to Eliminate Ethnic Studies?

Earlier this month, word broke that the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan is demanding that racial and ethnic studies required as part of the core curriculum for the College of Literature, Science and Arts be also required at the university’s other component colleges, such as the College of Engineering. The student government president supported the new requirement, according to a Daily Caller report:

It would be helpful for economics students to study “poverty, inequality and labor through the scope of race,” he [Sagar Lathia] suggested. Activists hope that any proposal approved by the administration would assert identity-based themes — such as gender, sexuality, immigration status, religion and race — as a core focus of the curriculum at each of the university’s colleges.

Frankly, the opposite might be truer: It might be comforting to students who seek education simply to amplify their political beliefs—after all, that is pretty much the effect if not the purpose of most racial and ethnic studies courses—but engineering courses would teach a discipline of thought and the difference between fact and theory that would enhance any Michigan student’s education, even if they lowered the grade-point average of those more accustomed to being marked on effort rather than result.

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Earlier this month, word broke that the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan is demanding that racial and ethnic studies required as part of the core curriculum for the College of Literature, Science and Arts be also required at the university’s other component colleges, such as the College of Engineering. The student government president supported the new requirement, according to a Daily Caller report:

It would be helpful for economics students to study “poverty, inequality and labor through the scope of race,” he [Sagar Lathia] suggested. Activists hope that any proposal approved by the administration would assert identity-based themes — such as gender, sexuality, immigration status, religion and race — as a core focus of the curriculum at each of the university’s colleges.

Frankly, the opposite might be truer: It might be comforting to students who seek education simply to amplify their political beliefs—after all, that is pretty much the effect if not the purpose of most racial and ethnic studies courses—but engineering courses would teach a discipline of thought and the difference between fact and theory that would enhance any Michigan student’s education, even if they lowered the grade-point average of those more accustomed to being marked on effort rather than result.

Perhaps the University of Michigan—and other prominent schools—should go further, however, and eliminate race and ethnic studies courses altogether, at least at the undergraduate level, because they are hopelessly narrow and deny students the broader base and context they would need to address race and ethnicity in a serious way. There is nothing wrong with African-American history, Latino studies, or gay studies, but they are by definition compartmentalized, more suited for a final thesis project or a Ph.D. concentration than the broader base a bachelor’s degree should afford. To use an area studies metaphor, limiting oneself to any specific ethnic group in the context of U.S. history is akin to studying Jordanian or Palestinian history without studying Islam, Christianity, broader Arab history and, for that matter, Ottoman history and Iran. Or, perhaps in the world of medicine, the analogy would be to studying gynecology without studying physiology, anatomy, or chemistry.

Perhaps the students taking race and ethnicity courses believe that U.S. history isn’t adequately reflective of their own experience, but embracing a willful ignorance of broader American history isn’t the way to further either knowledge or citizenship, nor is it the way to acquire the perspective to understand the difference in importance between Cesar Chavez and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This does not mean minorities or women should be ignored in history. But certainly social history classes and, where appropriate, political or diplomatic history classes as well, might incorporate them.

Ethnic studies do a disservice to many of those immersing themselves because it promotes intellectual ghettoization to the detriment of education. And while feminist theory, gender theory, and racial theories might sound good in narrow academic jargon, too often they become a cover to supplant research with politics. Simply put, theory is for people who don’t have libraries. Two cheers for the Black Student Union at Michigan for starting a debate. But now that debate is opened, perhaps it can be pursued to the opposite conclusion, one that prioritizes educational rigor over politics and inclusiveness over separation.

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Playing Politics with NYC’s Magnet Schools

Eight of the specialized public high schools in New York City, including Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech, rely on a standardized admissions exam. Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his campaign that this system, although it treats every student the same, is unfair, because it does not allow a sufficient number of minority candidates to prevail. This year, just 8 black students and 21 Latino students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School (disclosure: I attended Stuyvesant in the 1980s), leading de Blasio to repeat his claim that admission should be based on a range of factors, including recommendations and grades. Blacks and Hispanics, who make up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth grade class, make up only about 12 percent of the group of students admitted to the elite schools that use the exam.

To judge the controversy, it is worth reading this New York Times story from last year, which observes that at least one minority has enjoyed great success on the admissions exam: 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s students at that time were Asian. The story begins with Ting Shi, who, for his first two years in the States, “slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown.” Because his parents worked 12-hour shifts, he “saw them only on Sundays.” After two years of test prep, including after-school and summer classes, Ting scored well enough on the exam to get into Stuyvesant.

The public magnet schools have been a means for non-affluent families to get an education on par with the education they would receive at a first-rate private school. You would think that people on the left would view the success of Asians in the system as a sign of the triumph of merit over racial and, in many cases, economic privilege. But Asians are the wrong kind of minority, and their success, far from meriting celebration, apparently needs to be rolled back.

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Eight of the specialized public high schools in New York City, including Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech, rely on a standardized admissions exam. Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his campaign that this system, although it treats every student the same, is unfair, because it does not allow a sufficient number of minority candidates to prevail. This year, just 8 black students and 21 Latino students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School (disclosure: I attended Stuyvesant in the 1980s), leading de Blasio to repeat his claim that admission should be based on a range of factors, including recommendations and grades. Blacks and Hispanics, who make up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth grade class, make up only about 12 percent of the group of students admitted to the elite schools that use the exam.

To judge the controversy, it is worth reading this New York Times story from last year, which observes that at least one minority has enjoyed great success on the admissions exam: 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s students at that time were Asian. The story begins with Ting Shi, who, for his first two years in the States, “slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown.” Because his parents worked 12-hour shifts, he “saw them only on Sundays.” After two years of test prep, including after-school and summer classes, Ting scored well enough on the exam to get into Stuyvesant.

The public magnet schools have been a means for non-affluent families to get an education on par with the education they would receive at a first-rate private school. You would think that people on the left would view the success of Asians in the system as a sign of the triumph of merit over racial and, in many cases, economic privilege. But Asians are the wrong kind of minority, and their success, far from meriting celebration, apparently needs to be rolled back.

It must be acknowledged that, although the city has made free test prep available and is engaged in outreach efforts, children in better school systems on average have a better chance of scoring well on the test. Children in “lower-income families have less access to high-quality elementary and middle schools.” But this argument proves too much. Since the quality of one’s elementary and middle school education presumably has something to do with one’s preparation for high school, the claim that standardized tests are imperfect indicators of merit, which is true enough, is a front for a call to lower admissions standards. Any standard that fails to admit a sufficient number of blacks and Hispanics will be denounced as, in the words of Lazar Treschan of the Community Service Society of New York, “academic apartheid.”

To see that this complaint–that the tests don’t really measure merit–is a front, one has only to imagine what would follow if New York took the route of considering recommendations in admissions, which, incidentally, would mean that someone would have to be paid to read all those recommendations. It seems likely that this standard would benefit children in affluent school districts whose parents will push for such recommendations and whose teachers will have more time and resources to devote to identifying and helping promising students. If, after adopting this more expensive admissions system, we found that no more or only a few more black and Hispanic students were admitted, a new measure of merit would have to be found. The sole guide to whether or not a system is gauging merit, for those who object to the admissions exams, is whether an unspecified target number of blacks and Hispanics are admitted.

Asian parents and students compelled to defend the tests have been “puzzled about having to defend a process they viewed as a vital steppingstone for immigrants. And more than a few see the criticism of the test as an attack on their cultures.” While one should hesitate to characterize “Asian culture,” there is no question that attitudes toward test taking play a role in this debate. Students interviewed by the Times asserted that “rigorous testing was generally an accepted practice in their home countries.” In contrast, those who object to the exams on “philosophical grounds” argue that “you shouldn’t have to prep Sunday to Sunday, to get into a good high school.”

Although I agree that deploying so much industriousness to pass a standardized exam is not the best possible use of an eighth graders’s time, I suspect that this time is better used than that of parents and children struggling to game the more holistic standards used for admission to private schools. However that may be, once we concede what seems undeniably true: that children are not responsible for the families they were born into or the school districts in which they happen to reside, we also have to acknowledge what attempting to rectify that unfairness at the level of admissions standards requires: not developing a new merit system, but doing away with merit systems altogether.

State Assemblyman Karim Camara, a Democrat from Brooklyn, plans to introduce legislation that would give the city power to change the admissions criteria for the specialized schools (the admissions criteria for three of the schools are fixed by state law) and “specify what other admissions criteria should be used.” This move, which affects only the small percentage of New York City’s students who attend public magnets and seeks to replace a system that has worked for students like Ting Shi, is unlikely to improve New York City’s school system in any way. But it is certainly, as Mayor de Blasio has shown, good politics.

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Perry’s Deconstructive Governing Agenda

In his speech at CPAC, Texas Governor Rick Perry brought the crowd to its feet by saying this:

Nowhere does the Constitution say we should federalize classrooms. Nowhere does it give federal officials primary responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm, the water we drink. And nowhere does it say Congress has the right to federalize health care… It is time for Washington to focus on the few things the Constitution establishes as the federal government’s role: defend our country, provide a cogent foreign policy, and – what the heck – deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays. Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business!

This points to a concern of mine and which Michael Gerson and I wrote about recently in an essay for National Affairs. For starters, Governor Perry’s interpretation of enumerated powers is more restrictive than what many of the Federalist Founders believed. (See the essay and here  for more.) As for Governor Perry’s line of argument: He says the Constitution doesn’t give “primary” responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm and the water we drink. But in fact, the Constitution doesn’t affirm even a secondary role for the areas mentioned by Perry. Is it really his position, then, that the federal government should have no role in education, health care, and clean air and water? What about child immunization? Support for the National Institutes of Health? Pell grants? The GI Bill? All of the New Deal? Bans on child labor? The Second National Bank (signed into law by the “father” of the Constitution, James Madison)? After all, the Constitution says nothing about establishing a national bank.

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In his speech at CPAC, Texas Governor Rick Perry brought the crowd to its feet by saying this:

Nowhere does the Constitution say we should federalize classrooms. Nowhere does it give federal officials primary responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm, the water we drink. And nowhere does it say Congress has the right to federalize health care… It is time for Washington to focus on the few things the Constitution establishes as the federal government’s role: defend our country, provide a cogent foreign policy, and – what the heck – deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays. Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business!

This points to a concern of mine and which Michael Gerson and I wrote about recently in an essay for National Affairs. For starters, Governor Perry’s interpretation of enumerated powers is more restrictive than what many of the Federalist Founders believed. (See the essay and here  for more.) As for Governor Perry’s line of argument: He says the Constitution doesn’t give “primary” responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm and the water we drink. But in fact, the Constitution doesn’t affirm even a secondary role for the areas mentioned by Perry. Is it really his position, then, that the federal government should have no role in education, health care, and clean air and water? What about child immunization? Support for the National Institutes of Health? Pell grants? The GI Bill? All of the New Deal? Bans on child labor? The Second National Bank (signed into law by the “father” of the Constitution, James Madison)? After all, the Constitution says nothing about establishing a national bank.

It’s worth quoting here, as I have before, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who made this observation:

Perhaps the most important act of the Continental Congress was the Northwest Ordinance which provided a direct federal subsidy for education. Almost the first act of the Congress established by the present Constitution was to reaffirm this grant. A plaque on the Sub-Treasury on Wall Street commemorates both actions. This does not invalidate the view that the federal government ought not to exercise any responsibility, but it does make nonsense of the view that the Constitution – presumably because it does not mention the subject – somehow bars such an exercise.

It is one thing – and I think very much the right thing – to argue for a more limited role for the federal government and conservative reforms of everything from entitlement programs to education, from our tax code to our immigration system to much else. It’s quite another when we have the kind of loose talk from the governor of the second most populous state in America.

I realize that some people will argue that what Perry is offering up is simply “red meat” for a conservative audience. It’s a (lazy) default language those on the right sometimes resort to in order to express their unhappiness with the size of the federal government. But words matter, Governor Perry is actually putting forth (albeit in a simplified version) a governing philosophy, and most Americans who hear it will be alarmed by it.

As a political matter, running under the banner of “Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business!” hardly strikes me as the best way to rally people who are not now voting for the GOP in presidential elections. I’m reminded of the words of the distinguished political scientist James Q. Wilson: “Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics.”

According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, only 33 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Republican Party while 61 percent had an unfavorable view. Having a prominent GOP figure give a speech in which he insists that virtually the entire modern state is unconstitutional and therefore illegitimate probably won’t help matters. Then again, neither does having the 2008 vice presidential nominee give a speech in which she takes great delight in re-writing Dr. Seuss.

This is not what the Republican Party or the conservative cause needs just now.

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Inequality’s Inconvenient Truths

Pop quiz: which Tea Party fiscal conservative said the following: “If you want to live in a more equal community, it might mean living in a more moribund economy.” Since this is obviously a trick question, here’s the answer: Annie Lowrey, the economics writer for the New York Times. Lowrey was offering a bit of common sense and basic economics. As such, the Times is a strange place for it: this sort of talk is usually the province of conservatives trying to explain how market economies work.

Lowrey’s piece was occasioned by the release of a study on inequality in American cities by the left-leaning Brookings Institution. To be sure, the study’s author, Alan Berube, does not think a city with high inequality is in the clear: “It may struggle to maintain mixed-income school environments that produce better outcomes for low-income kids. It may have too narrow a tax base from which to sustainably raise the revenues necessary for essential city services. And it may fail to produce housing and neighborhoods accessible to middle-class workers and families, so that those who move up or down the income ladder ultimately have no choice but to move out.”

But the causes of that inequality, the conditions that foster it, and the surest means to reduce it all throw cold water on President Obama’s inequality rhetoric and the class-warfare battle lines the Democrats have drawn. Contrary to the rich-getting-richer rhetoric the president relies on, Berube found that between 2007 and 2012, of the cities that saw dramatic increases in inequality, “most were not places where the rich made astronomical gains, but where low-income households suffered most from the recession and weak recovery…. Inequality increased across cities despite the fact that rich households were less rich in 2012 than in 2007.”

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Pop quiz: which Tea Party fiscal conservative said the following: “If you want to live in a more equal community, it might mean living in a more moribund economy.” Since this is obviously a trick question, here’s the answer: Annie Lowrey, the economics writer for the New York Times. Lowrey was offering a bit of common sense and basic economics. As such, the Times is a strange place for it: this sort of talk is usually the province of conservatives trying to explain how market economies work.

Lowrey’s piece was occasioned by the release of a study on inequality in American cities by the left-leaning Brookings Institution. To be sure, the study’s author, Alan Berube, does not think a city with high inequality is in the clear: “It may struggle to maintain mixed-income school environments that produce better outcomes for low-income kids. It may have too narrow a tax base from which to sustainably raise the revenues necessary for essential city services. And it may fail to produce housing and neighborhoods accessible to middle-class workers and families, so that those who move up or down the income ladder ultimately have no choice but to move out.”

But the causes of that inequality, the conditions that foster it, and the surest means to reduce it all throw cold water on President Obama’s inequality rhetoric and the class-warfare battle lines the Democrats have drawn. Contrary to the rich-getting-richer rhetoric the president relies on, Berube found that between 2007 and 2012, of the cities that saw dramatic increases in inequality, “most were not places where the rich made astronomical gains, but where low-income households suffered most from the recession and weak recovery…. Inequality increased across cities despite the fact that rich households were less rich in 2012 than in 2007.”

What they need most, then, is job creation. The Brookings study finds that cities with high inequality are better at producing wealth–and for good reason. The job market in such cities tends more toward growth industries. Lowrey’s follow-up on the report includes comments from Berube on the desirability of some of the causes of inequality, even if some of its effects are undesirable:

But in some cases, higher income inequality might go hand in hand with economic vibrancy, the study found. “These more equal cities — they’re not home to the sectors driving economic growth, like technology and finance,” said its author, Alan Berube. “These are places that are home to sectors like transportation, logistics, warehousing.”

He added, “In terms of actual per capita income growth, these are not places that would be high up the list.”

Lowrey is of course not far behind with the caveats and qualifications. “That does not mean that measures intended to mitigate inequality will necessarily reduce the vibrancy of a local community,” she chimes in. But she leaves it at that. It’s not much of a defense of efforts to combat inequality. It basically amounts to: Efforts to reduce inequality will very likely pose a threat to economic growth and employment, but it’s possible, certainly, that not every attempt to mitigate inequality will crush the poor and unemployed under the counterproductive weight of liberals’ good intentions.

Roundabout rhetoric on this issue is necessary for the left because they can’t just come out and say what they mean without losing elections. Namely, that their desire to feel morally superior to others is more important than the actual welfare of their intended beneficiaries.

In fairness, elsewhere in the Times piece we do get a suggestion for reducing urban inequality without confiscating the wealth of others or destroying economic growth: “But New York and many other cities have promised to tackle inequality, in part by shifting the tax burden, but also through initiatives aimed at attracting middle-class families with cheaper housing and better schools.”

How do you cut inequality without destroying the economy? You simply import people who aren’t rich and aren’t poor! But what does this tell us about the concentration on income inequality? That it’s a case of misplaced priorities. Importing not-rich-but-not-poor residents doesn’t make any structural change to the city’s economy so much as it papers over the causes of inequality by gaming the numbers.

Democrats and the president make the case that the key to fighting inequality is making the poor un-poor. Importing middle-class folks from the suburbs doesn’t do that, does it? Sure, it may have peripheral benefits for the less well-off. But it doesn’t rescue others from poverty. It simply makes it look like poverty is less endemic. It’s a cosmetic façade, in other words. Which is what may make it so attractive to liberal policymakers.

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Union PSA: Show Some Appreciation, You Lachanophobic Anarchists

Imagine, for a moment, an America in which federal workers’ generous compensation and job security were closer to that of their private sector counterparts. Or, alternatively: imagine an America in which there was less redundancy in the federal workforce, saving taxpayer dollars. Or imagine an America in which there was less bureaucratic red tape to be enforced against struggling entrepreneurs or business owners, thus necessitating a less robust federal workforce. Or imagine, as John Lennon might if he were around today, there’s no TSA.

All that probably sounds delightful. Which is why unions representing federal employees don’t want you to imagine any of that. Instead, they invite you to imagine, as their new ad campaign hopes you will, “Life without federal employees.” But they mean, of course, any federal employees. That’s the basis for a renewed effort by federal unions to burnish their image in the minds of the Americans that they believe don’t fully appreciate them. As the Washington Post reports, the National Treasury Employees Union is releasing their own version of public service announcements on behalf of federal employees:

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Imagine, for a moment, an America in which federal workers’ generous compensation and job security were closer to that of their private sector counterparts. Or, alternatively: imagine an America in which there was less redundancy in the federal workforce, saving taxpayer dollars. Or imagine an America in which there was less bureaucratic red tape to be enforced against struggling entrepreneurs or business owners, thus necessitating a less robust federal workforce. Or imagine, as John Lennon might if he were around today, there’s no TSA.

All that probably sounds delightful. Which is why unions representing federal employees don’t want you to imagine any of that. Instead, they invite you to imagine, as their new ad campaign hopes you will, “Life without federal employees.” But they mean, of course, any federal employees. That’s the basis for a renewed effort by federal unions to burnish their image in the minds of the Americans that they believe don’t fully appreciate them. As the Washington Post reports, the National Treasury Employees Union is releasing their own version of public service announcements on behalf of federal employees:

For example, one 15-second PSA says:

Without us, you should be afraid of your salad.
Without us, our borders would go unprotected.
Without us, we would live in fear of a nuclear meltdown.
Federal employees. They work for U.S.
TheyWorkforUs.org

Without overpaid bureaucrats, you’d be mired in lachanophobia if you knew what was good for you. Of course, you probably wouldn’t know what was good for you without federal employees to tell you. The Post continues:

The announcements are being sent to 300 television stations and 1,000 radio stations in top markets.

This is NTEU’s third campaign “and each time it keeps getting bigger,” Kelley told reporters Wednesday. Between June 2011 and June 2012, radio, television and cable outlets ran NTEU PSAs 25,048 times, worth $7.4 million in media time, according to the labor organization, which said 292 million people saw or heard those PSAs.

The current PSAs are available on TheyWorkforUs.org. On the Web site, NTEU asks the public to imagine what life would be like without feds. NTEU also supplies the answer:

“You wouldn’t want it.”

It’s worth pointing out here just how much the union has to stack the deck to get some appreciation. Jews make a blessing on their food to thank God for it before eating; the NTEU wants you to thank a union before fearlessly diving into your leafy greens.

In reality, the choice is surely not between anarchy dominated by nightmarish salad monsters and a bureaucratic superstate that chases off your kid’s lemonade stand. What Americans don’t like about the federal workforce has more to do with the fact that government employees make more than their private-sector counterparts, generally get far better benefits, and in many cases those employees are tasked with putting up obstacles to private-sector jobs. And they tend to think private-sector employees are working harder for less money than public-sector workers.

Americans—even those who support unions—are often uneasy with certain public-sector union rights, like the right to strike. Chris Christie had success in New Jersey by asking teachers unions to pay their fair share—less than their fair share actually: anything at all—by contributing a bit to their benefits, as private-sector employees did. They realize that, as Daniel DiSalvo has written, “In today’s public sector, good pay, generous benefits, and job security make possible a stable middle-class existence for nearly everyone from janitors to jailors. In the private economy, meanwhile, cutthroat competition, increased income inequality, and layoffs squeeze the middle class.”

And Americans are sensible enough to understand the moral hazard in such a state of affairs, where powerful government employees can negotiate from their government employers more and more of the private sector’s money. But even more than the chutzpah it takes for unions to put out ads attempting to shame the public into thanking the unions for taking their money, this campaign is an indication that public-sector unions are well aware of their continued image problem. That they think equating disapproval of their work with anarchy is the way to fix it shows that it’s likely to persist.

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Conservatives and Culture

Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

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Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

Indeed, as everyone knows, the most glaring lack of diversity in liberal media and cultural institutions is lack of intellectual and ideological diversity. The right produces plenty of talent, but the left’s rigid orthodoxy and enforced groupthink too rarely take the risk of exposing their audience to a dissenting view.

But the larger obstacle to the construction of conservative cultural institutions is that conservatives are so often by nature averse to the infusion of partisan politics into every facet of private life that would be required. Take each of the institutions Ruffini mentions.

Harvard: this is a stand-in for liberal academia overall, but it’s a good example since it retains its high status even as it basically gives its students A’s just for showing up. How does a place like Harvard become what it is today, when it once had such prestige and promise? Easy: the politicization of education by liberals who don’t want their students to be challenged. Do conservatives even want their own version of that? Should they? I don’t think they should, and I don’t they really do either. I think they yearn for the influence such institutions have, but greatly—and appropriately—disapprove of what it takes to get there.

New York Times: this is a stand-in for the liberal mainstream media, especially since the Times itself is going through such a crisis of credibility right now. But Ruffini already answered this one when he spoke of National Review’s ace political reporter Robert Costa going to the Washington Post. Conservative alternatives are too easily defined as such. More importantly, the Times mostly bellows groupthink and has allowed its bias not only to seep into its news reporting, but to become its news reporting. Why would conservatives want to foist another such institution on the country?

Hollywood: Here again we recently got a good look at how this operates. Actress Maria Conchita Alonso lost work because she supported a Republican. This new Hollywood blacklist is seemingly getting government sanction by federal authorities targeting any other nonconformists.

Blacklists, propaganda, the politicization of education—this is what it took for liberals to succeed in dominating cultural institutions. Which brings me to the last example: Silicon Valley. Ruffini answers this question with a sharp observation later in his discussion, when he writes:

If there are = numbers of smart righties as smart lefties, where do they go. On the right, they go into business. On the left, into politics

And thank goodness for that! Of course we want smart conservatives going into politics, and there are plenty. But it’s the sign of a healthy outlook when Americans are driven to the private sector instead of lusting after power. We are a nation with a government, as the saying goes, not the other way around.

It may be politically marginalizing to the right that conservatives believe in the need for a society outside the suffocating bureaucracy of the federal government, while leftists don’t. But the fact that conservatives believe in a life outside of partisan politics is healthy both for the conservative movement and the country on the whole. It’s a worthy, if frustratingly disempowering, sacrifice.

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