Logic, Simple and Fair

October 10, 2012

On the eve of a major national election, it really does not seem to be productive to have adults pointing their fingers and blaming others when we know good solutions require diverse perspectives, compromise and critical thinking.

Fact is: President Obama has championed some great solutions and legislation, only to be continually stymied by some in Congress who steadfastly refuse to debate or discuss.

I’m having some real trouble trying to understand: Why or how is any of this Barack Obama’s fault?

What I’ve observed over the past several years is the GOP Cabal led by John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell hell-bent on stopping anything that could possibly improve our domestic economy.

Yet, despite their herculean efforts – as close to Treason as I can envision – the S&P 500 hovers near an historic high and the unemployment rate has steadily descended, most recently clocking in at 7.8%.

President Obama inherited a society and an economy which suffers from at least 4 decades of whipsaw and erratic decisions.

Our public education system is broken. There are some bright spots: for example, Maryland and Florida. In general, we need to stop pointing fingers, and get to work to move our K-12 system into the 21st century.

We have way too much government. Not at the Federal level, specifically. Not at the state level, specifically. But, we’ve not really stepped back since around 1776 to figure out: How could we be most efficient? How could we be most effective?

I know for sure that New York State – where I live and pay obscene amounts of taxes – sales, property and income – is completely out of touch with the real world.

There is hope and potential out there, but it won’t actualize because of empty political rhetoric.

Real and sustainable progress is only possible if we as a nation demand that our leaders stop bickering and start collaborating.

Otherwise, we will soon end up as a colony of China (or the Koch Brothers).

Makers vs. Moochers

September 18, 2012

Plenty of comments – supportive and otherwise – on Mitt Romney’s comments at a private political fund-raiser in May 2012.

Romney — who called President Obama to task for dividing our nation — himself divided our nation into two groups: the Makers and the Moochers.

47% of Americans, he said, are people “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

I think it’s useful to look back into history to see what we can learn from the past.

The Brown vs. Board of Education decision (1954) was a seminal Supreme Court decision which ostensibly eliminated the ‘separate but equal’ education doctrine, yet ultimately drew a line in the sand, and created a truly apartheid K-12 education system across most of the U.S.

Add into that equation the impact of heavily subsidized highways which supported the automobile and which exacerbated ‘sprawl’; the prolific conversion of farmland into residential subdivisions; and the residual effects of HUD policies from the 1930’s which encouraged low-income households to exclude wage-earning males.

Pretty soon, we in the U.S. had a perfect laboratory from which to grow a sub-culture which favors 15 and 16 year old girls to make babies, leave school and go on public assistance. The boys? They might go to prison, or maybe die from a drug overdose or a shooting.

Who cares about them anyway? Certainly not Mitt Romney!

It is amazing to learn that this new model exists and flourishes in the Native American communities in New Mexico, in native villages in Alaska, as well as in most cities in the continental U.S.

Is this something Obama created or supports? There is no evidence to support that.

This model of exclusion seems to date back to many prior decades, even centuries — we might even say it began around 1620 when the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth — and now, Romney wants to further polarize our citizenry with his bullshit incendiary commentary.

The real sadness here is that for the past 30 years, or so, there seems to have been no focus on encouraging or developing critical thinking skills for students in public schools.

It would seem that regular people who were challenged and encouraged to do some original research and thinking would be able to differentiate between pure unadulterated bullshit and a more nuanced and careful flowchart that traces back to root causes, and allows for informed conclusions which might result in solutions to our current mediocre position in the world landscape.

Sad. Very sad…..

In the New York Times on July 23, 2012, Laura Klein posted a very provacactive and strong op-ed piece on the failures of special education programs in NYC.

While I absolutely agree with Ms. Klein, I have some additional thoughts I want to share.

Our current K-12 education model was really conceived around an agrarian society and has not been updated (in New York State) since 1907, or so.

Many changes have occurred in our economy and society since then, with accelerated change beginning in the 1960’s.

Today, even in “traditional” 2-parent households, it is quite unusual to find only one parent in the workforce, and that poses a challenge where the K-12 model is 8 AM to 3 PM, and the workplace model is 8 AM to 5 PM.

Now, factor in the growing number of single parent households in America.

If we look back to 1965, we find that about 10 percent of American children lived in single parent households.

In 2011, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted an exhaustive study looking at changes in family structure in 27 industrialized countries.

That OECD study found that in the U.S., about 26% of children were being raised by a single parent, compared with an average of 15% across the other countries.

More telling: 72% of African-American children today grow up in a single parent household.

In the larger picture, females constitute about 83% of the total number of single parents, and single fathers around 17%, and years of evidence tell us that – although the wage gap has narrowed over time – today’s women earn 77.4 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Extensive research in child development over the past several decades has confirmed that the early years (birth to age 8) form the foundation for a full range of human competencies and are the time when young people are most receptive to the effects of both positive and negative experiences.

Researchers have identified several risk factors which – when present – predict adverse outcomes for children, and when absent (or carefully mitigated) can reduce or eliminate the long-term probability of negative outcomes for children, which include reduced economic success and lower quality of life in adulthood.

The single most predictive risk factor is poverty, which is often accompanied by limited parental education achievement; parental mental health problems; social isolation or neglect; and living in an environment where crime and violence regularly occurs.

Two widely-cited intervention programs, the Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarian Program, used randomized child assignment and long-term follow up to study the effects of early interventions on social behaviors of severely disadvantaged children.

In both the Perry and Abecedarian Programs, there was a consistent pattern of successful outcomes for the children in the program compared with control group members.

Participants in the more intense Abecedarian Program had an increase in IQ which persisted into adulthood. This early and continued increase in IQ is important because IQ is a strong predictor of socio-economic success.

Effects of these interventions also reflected a wide range of positive social behaviors, including higher scores on achievement tests; achieving higher levels of education; the need for less special education intervention; placement into higher wage jobs; more likely to own a home; and less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated (when compared to individuals from the control groups).

Many studies have shown that these aspects of behavior translate directly or indirectly into high economic returns.

One economist (Heckman) has estimated the rate of return (the return per dollar of cost) to the Perry Program is in excess of 17%, which is clearly higher than long-term returns on stock market equity and suggests that society at large can benefit substantially from these kinds of interventions.

It is my contention that investing in high-quality early education programs which are both reflective of the economic realities of today (read: 7 AM to 7 PM) and fully articulated with public schools and the expectations of kindergarten readiness will rapidly change the paradigm noted in Ms. Klein’s essay, and will also create a long term benefit to the U.S. economy.

If we continue to push children along through the K-12 system ill-prepared for future workforce opportunities, we will continue to wring our hands and despair that jobs are moving overseas.

In early July 2012, our national unemployment number came in at 8.2%, yet there were some 3 Million private sector jobs open and unfilled.

Why?

Jobs are open and unfilled for a number of reasons, often related to labor mobility and/or experience and training. A poorly educated individual is just not a good candidate to help bolster our domestic economy, and that is a tragic waste of our limited resources.

If even some of the research on the importance and economic return for investing in quality early childhood education is true, then why aren’t we demanding that our public school systems re-engineer themselves to address our 21st century economy?

Trouble in Paradise?

May 13, 2012

At an aggregate level, the population of Westchester County, New York is reasonably diverse: racially, religiously and economically. Get down to the details, and you will find classically segregated neighborhoods, towns and schools. There have been several attempts to break this socio-economic logjam, most recently a landmark consent decree between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Westchester County signed in 2009.

It is now May 2012, and Westchester County is in trouble. The County is in trouble with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because of some alleged oversights in how the County managed federal CDBG funds. U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote has ruled that Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino is required to promote ‘source of income legislation’, which would prohibit discrimination against tenants using Section 8, disability income or other government income to pay rent.

Mr. Astorino vetoed the legislation in 2010 and that veto was one of several matters the monitor assigned to the case was asked to rule by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The monitor sided with HUD but the county appealed that decision.

U.S. District Court Justice Cote said in her most recent ruling, “Under no reasonable understanding of the term can the County Executive be said to have discharged the obligation to promote source-of income legislation when he vetoed the legislation. The veto was an unambiguous breach of the duty to promote…The County Executive’s action constituted the very opposite of what was required under the Settlement, and placed the County in breach.”

County Executive Astorino has vowed to fight the federal government because – despite the written agreement and the court affirmation of his duties under the settlement – he says that he believes he is right.

HUD is withholding federal funding from the County until the County is in compliance with the settlement, an amount that has now reached $12 Million combined for 2011 and 2012, all because of this seemingly foolish ongoing legal stalemate.

Most unfortunate: The withheld money is for affordable housing; new sidewalks; and nonprofits including A-Home ($30,000); Westchester Residential Opportunities ($145,000); and the Housing Action Council ($120,000); each of which is working closely with Westchester County to meet its obligations under the settlement.

It is also money for homelessness prevention; scholarships for disadvantaged youth; summer evening programs for teens; and a medical van for seniors. It adversely affects communities that aren’t even part of the settlement.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development invests a great deal of time and resources each year to ensure that eligibility for various housing-related subsidies is carefully indexed to local markets.

In Westchester County, HUD defines a 2 person household as “low-income” if their gross annual household income is $58,250 or less. That is almost 400% of the Federal Poverty level.

One of the HUD programs available to low-income residents in Westchester County is the “Housing Choice Voucher Program” (a.k.a ‘Section 8’) which assists low-income households by limiting their contribution to their monthly housing expense to 30% of their gross monthly income. There are 17 Section 8 program offices in Westchester County. Each office is an independent program with its own waiting list for assistance, program guidelines and areas of assistance. The availability of apartments which accept Section 8 assistance for renters is limited due to the lack of non-discriminatory ‘source of income’ requirements for landlords.

Westchester County is also in trouble because it is planning to increase the amount that lower income working parents are required to pay for subsidized child care. Westchester County’s plan to increase this share from 20% to 35% of “above-poverty income” will severely and negatively affect many households which are already struggling with the high costs of housing and transportation. Safe, affordable and quality early learning is a societal mandate if we are to have a productive workforce today, and for the future.

We know from 2010 Census data that 30% of Black (or African American) households were headed by a female householder, no spouse present, three times as high as White alone households (9.9 percent), and the “majority of female family households with no spouse present contained own children of the householder…”

2010 Census data for Westchester County tells us that 36.9% of households headed by a single female with children under 5 years are living at or below the federal poverty level.

For a 2-person household, the 2012 definition of living at 100% of the Federal Poverty level anywhere in the continental U.S. is an annual income of $15,130. (Note the disparity between this definition of poverty, and HUD’s definition of “low-income” at $58,250 or less.)

Some will say that there is no connection or correlation between the housing case and the child care subsidy case.

What I see here are two seemingly unrelated actions which will have disparate negative impact on people of color, particularly single female heads of household.

This sort of behavior by an elected official is not only wrong, it seems to be a clear violation of the purpose and intent of federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

Elected School Boards?

April 7, 2012

Very frustrating, very disappointing, very stupid….

The Mount Vernon City School District (NY) has been an underperforming district for at least 2 decades.

Instead of finding ways to improve student outcomes, our elected Board of Education demonstrates their collective incompetence by mysteriously ‘suspending’ Superintendent Dr. Welton Sawyer in early November 2011.

Now (fully 5 months later), we learn that the reason for the suspension was something called, ‘irreconcilable differences’.

We also learned that we, the hard working, money earning Mount Vernon Taxpayers, will continue paying Sawyer’s $269,403 yearly salary through May 31, even though he hasn’t worked full time since Nov. 4, when the Board of Education suspended him.

Further, we will also have the privlege of covering five years of Sawyer’s post-employment health insurance, as well as 50 percent of his health insurance bill in the second five-year period. (That is what he would have received under his employment contract after working a minimum of five years.)

Other financial perks for Sawyer include 10 unused vacation days and $42,500 in tax-deferred annuity retirement payments.

If this isn’t proof that our Elected School Board is a recipe for disaster, what more evidence do we need?

Oh, wait! There’s more!

In another bone-headed move, our elected School Board members decided that because the newly created and state-approved Amani Charter School would take “money away from financially distressed public schools”, they refused to fund it.

Amani appealed to the State (which had approved the Charter after an incredible uphill battle) and the State agreed to pay Amani directly by intercepts of state aid to the MVCSD since it opened in the fall of 2011.

Our elected Board of Education filed legal papers in state Supreme Court last year asking for a reversal of state education officials’ original approval of a charter.

Ruling on the suit in October 2011, the judge vacated the Charter, but the Regents reapproved it a week later, followed almost immediately by the District appealing the Regents decision, and renewing the legal battle.

Amani Executive Director Debra Stern said recently she hopes the state will, once again, reinstate the Charter saying, “This school has been under attack since its inception. We view this as an attack on the basic civil rights of high-needs, high-poverty kids in Mount Vernon.”

Now, those who know me know that I’m not a big fan of Charter Schools in New York State.

I mostly don’t care for them because they tend to create plenty of tension between the parents of students who ‘win the lotto’ and those who don’t — see: “Waiting for Superman”.

I also am not fond of the way charter schools are funded in New York State — but that is a state legislative / policy issue, not a local issue.

In fact there are some examples of fabulous School District & Charter School partnerships and cooperation that have led to great outcomes.

Public School #68 in Buffalo had deteriorated to become one of Buffalo’s worst performing elementary schools serving students in a very low-income neighborhood. Now known as the Westminster Charter School, it’s charter was sponsored by the Buffalo Board of Education and it has become a nationally recognized model of school transformation — now the inspiration and centerpiece for a recently awarded $6 Million federal Promise Neighborhood grant.

We — the taxpayers of the City of Mount Vernon– need to get involved in our schools. We need to look at what is working elsewhere; what is being done and spent here; why; who is making the decisions; and what are the outcomes?

Most people from inside (and outside) our city assume that the School District and the City are one in the same.

Some of us know the School District and the City are two completely independent entities which — for the most part — are not working in harmony to create efficiencies, champion best practices, and to achieve optimum outcomes for the children and taxpayers in Mount Vernon.

We just can’t allow this to continue for one more week — we need radical change in the City Charter and in our School District governance model — NOW!

I am writing from Toney Westchester County, NY.

Our current County Executive, Rob Astorino, recently decided to charge mostly poor families in our County an extra $120 a month for subsidized child care, while most families still grapple with the worst effects of the recession.

Much like presidential candidate Mitt Romney, County Executive Astorino is sending the message that he is out of tune with the proletariat, and that he has distain for the lower and middle-income people who are the majority of the workforce in New York’s lower Hudson Valley.

Our County Executive recently announced that he would ask for permission from New York State to increase from 20 percent to 35 percent the amount of money charged families who use subsidized child care. Now, two years into his four year term, Astorino has been consistent in his apparent campaign targeted at cutting child care and a number of other services that help to keep the working poor working.

In the end, Astorino knows that this gets relegated to be a ‘women’s issue’ and he knows that women have little, if any, influence on election outcomes.

In fact, equal access to quality child care is way more than a ‘women’s issue’, it is a long-term societal issue.

The positive impacts of quality early care and learning on early cognitive development have been well documented.

Children from households with 2 parents who are both college graduates probably benefit the least from high-quality child care, because they start out with a ‘competitive advantage’ from their home environment.

The children who need the most help — those from single parent households where the mother’s highest level of educational achievement is GED or less — are the most in need of rigorous, reliable and high-quality ECE programs.

The positive impact of universal and equal access to quality ECE is clear: on individuals, on families and on society overall, although the positive program outcomes are more often gleaned from European data because of the political ‘yo-yo-ing’ that exists in the U.S.

Westchester County is one of the highest cost areas in America.

Why wouldn’t the residents and businesses in Westchester NOT want to set an example for other U.S. areas in terms of equal access to high-quality early care, if for no other reason than to create a salubrious environment for employers that need a productive workforce?

In the final analysis, discrimination against children due to economic circumstances has disparate impact on children of color.

Isn’t this just another proof that the housing lawsuit really may have merit?

How Very Sad

May 18, 2011

I live in the City of Mount Vernon, New York.

Mount Vernon is a small city (70,000 residents) located immediately north of New York City.

As a stand-alone city, Mount Vernon is fully self-sufficient, including a school district.

The Mount Vernon City School District (“MVCSD”) currently has about 8,600 students.

According to recent census statistics, there are about 12,500 residents of Mount Vernon in the 5 to 18 age group, which implies that nearly 4,000 young people who live in the City of Mount Vernon attend schools outside of the District.

What seems to have occurred over the past several decades is an economic exodus from the MVCSD, among families with economic resources in search of school environments that have a high probability of both admission to — and graduation from — a “good” college or university that will lead students to a career which allows income (cash-flow) sufficient to support a middle class life style.

This economic exodus has helped to support and/or encourage a concentration of higher need students into MVCSD (and other similar districts which are predominantly urban).

Dozens – maybe hundreds – of studies have confirmed that the primary predictor of success in school is highly correlated to household economic status.

Subsequent demonstration projects have shown that creative interventions can offset socio-economic disadvantages, and put children from economically challenged households on par with their middle-class peers.

On May 17, 2011 a small group of eligible voters – less than 10% — flocked to the polls in Mount Vernon and defeated the proposed MVCSD budget for 2011-12.

I am not smart enough to determine if the proposed school budget was an optimum budget, but I do know that the presented budget was very much like the contingency budget that will likely be adopted instead.

So, the small percentage of eligible voters who came out to the polls accomplished little, except to highlight that the civic participation among citizens of the City of Mount Vernon is awful.

No excuses.

In a city where over 30,000 residents are eligible to vote, why are just 8.5% turning out to vote?

I think the MVCSD is one huge culprit in this mess.

Where were they with proactive information?

I’m not a happy tax payer. I really would like to think that young people in my community have an equal opportunity with their peers in other communities, across New York State, and the U.S.

I don’t think we are there now, and I’m angry!