Last week, 35 former Atlanta educators were forced to take a perp walk, reporting to law enforcement authorities for arrest in connection with the nation’s biggest (so far) academic scandal. It was a disturbing spectacle. Once among the pillars of metro Atlanta’s middle class, they’ve been reduced to pleading that they don’t belong in jail.
And that may be true. The charges of a widespread conspiracy to cheat may represent the ambitions of a local prosecutor rather than any top-down plot carried out by a confederacy of criminals. But I don’t waste sympathy on the defendants: They deserve the ignominy of association with thugs.
I’m reserving my pity for the students in Atlanta’s public schools. They’re the victims of this massive fraud, the helpless pawns of adults who callously overlooked the needs of their charges and focused on preserving their careers.
Unfortunately, that’s been a recurrent theme in 40 years of school-reform efforts across the country. Whether represented by unions or organized as a powerful voting bloc or both, public school educators have put their paychecks front and center, discounting the needs of their students. Even good teachers — dedicated, hard-working and inspiring ones — have rallied to protect their peers, some of whom don’t deserve their support.
Atlanta’s scandal has reinforced long-standing criticisms of widespread testing in schools, a strategy that was exalted by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. The critics are right: The overdependence on standardized tests has calcified instruction, failed students and encouraged fraud. Educators in poor neighborhoods, where students are more likely to score poorly, are singled out for official reproach.
Conversely, teachers, principals and superintendents who show miraculous results — turning failing students into suddenly brilliant ones — are showered with praise, promotions and, frequently, money. It’s no wonder, then, that some Atlanta teachers had after-school “parties” where they erased students’ answers and replaced them with the correct ones.
While Atlanta may have the best-documented case of test-related fraud, it’s by no means the only one. In an exhaustive investigation published last year, USA Today found evidence of fraudulent test scores in six states and Washington, DC. Even the vaunted Michelle Rhee, who led a reform effort in Washington, has been implicated, accused of turning a blind eye to suspicious test results.
But for all the problems associated with No Child Left Behind, Bush deserves credit for this much: He recognized the failures of public schools that are not doing very much to educate children from less-affluent homes. He described a culture freighted with “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” a phrase that still rings true.
For years, too many teachers in low-achieving schools have blamed their failures on children and parents, describing homes in which discipline is poor, mediocrity is lauded and failure is acceptable. If those teachers believe there is nothing to be done to improve the academic standing of those children, why teach? If the children are too “dumb” or too deprived to profit from their instruction, why do they stay?
Reams of research bear out the complaints of educators who say teaching poor kids is challenging: Children from less-affluent homes are more likely to read below grade-level, to need special help, to score poorly on standardized tests. But that hardly means they can’t learn.
They need teachers who believe in them. Those who believe they’re being unfairly tarnished by unworthy students don’t fit the bill. As psychologists point out, kids pick up those signals easily enough and behave as the teachers expect them to. In other words, they learn little or nothing.
In addition to dedicated teachers, those children need a community that’s also committed to them. That includes the politicians, activists and church groups who spend an inordinate amount of time defending educators rather than demanding good schools for the kids.
As Atlanta’s disgraced educators surrendered last week, a group of activist preachers — Concerned Black Clergy — assembled to suggest that racism was involved. “Look at the pictures of those 35,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald. “Show me a white face.”
Would that McDonald and his allies were as concerned about Atlanta’s public school students, 80 percent of whom are also black.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, April 6, 2013
Pooh-poh this if you like, since it comes from the Center for American Progress, but the group just released a big study showing that–across 10 measures like the number of firearms homicides, number of total firearm deaths (including accidents etc.), law enforcement agents killed by firearms, and so on–the deadliest states are those with the most lax gun laws.
The “top” 10: Louisiana, Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, South Carolina, New Mexico, Missouri, Arkansas, and Georgia.
Now I know conservatives are thinking: No way these places are deadlier than New York and other states with big cities that have very violent neighborhoods. But according to CAP, New York and New Jersey, for example, rank 46th and 47th in gun violence. The full “bottom” 10: Nebraska, Maine, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Iowa, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii. That’s basically a combination of sparsely populated states and states with strong gun laws.
Does this check out with other information? Here’s another study showing Louisiana as the “least peaceful” state in the country. Here’s a third that also has Louisiana at the top (yes, I know that’s mainly because of Nawlins), but also features largely Southern and Southwestern states as the most violent, with New York in the bottom half.
This will never change, unless gun laws undergo some kind of serious revolution, because obviously the people who live in these places accept these levels of violence. I think it’s not merely that they are resistant to changing gun laws. There’s some deeper thing about the relationship between violence and concepts like justice and fate. That is to say, for example, that I think cultural responses to a seven-year-old girl accidentally killing herself with her father’s rifle are different in Georgia than they are in Connecticut.
I’m not saying Georgians wouldn’t care. Obviously, they’re human beings. But I am saying that they on some level would be more likely to accept that this is just how life goes sometimes. It’s a fatalism about life that probably has to do with some combination of comparative lack of opportunity and religious attitudes (that is, matters are in the Lord’s hands, etc.).
And by the way, if you haven’t been checking Joe Nocera’s blog (the NYT columnist), you may wish to do so. He’s just listing gun violence reports from around the country. It’s pretty chilling to read. There’s also the Slate gun-death tally; 3,293 gun deaths since Newtown.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 3, 2013
“A Shameful Waste Of Taxpayer Money”: North Carolina Lawmakers Introduce Law To Establish An Official State Religion
What is it about GOP state legislators that drives them to create laws that have no hope of surviving constitutional scrutiny yet always succeed in running up millions in legal fees to be paid by taxpayers on the way to failure?
And why is it that these same lawmakers are always among the ones crying foul when taxpayer money is spent on things such as healthcare for children or food stamps for the hungry but gladly blow big money on useless challenges to the United States Constitution?
Apparently, helping kids and seniors get needed healthcare is a shameful waste of taxpayer money while paying lawyers big money to pursue hopeless cases that only serve to further political careers is both noble and enlightening.
Over the past few years, red state after red state has taken to passing anti-abortion laws designed to subvert the Supreme Court’s judgment in Roe v. Wade—despite the reality that these state laws, on their face, clearly violate the law.
Recently, many have watched in amazement as Mississippi legislators filed a piece of legislation that would establish a state committee empowered to decide which federal laws the state will agree to follow and which ones they will chose to ignore. According to these Mississippi state lawmakers, they possess the power to ignore any federal law they wish as a result of their state sovereignty—despite a United States Constitution that clearly says otherwise.
But now, in what can only be seen as the coup de grâce in a Republican rebellion against the U.S. Constitution which is sweeping the nation, legislators in North Carolina are preparing to take on one of the most fundamental notions upon which our nation was founded—the freedom of religion and the importance of that pesky wall that separates church and state.
Meet North Carolina Representatives Carl Ford (R-China Grove) and Harry Warren (R-Salisbury), the primary sponsors of a bill introduced into the state’s General Assembly that would clear the way for the state to adopt an official, state religion.
The proposed law, introduced earlier this week, states that the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment—which prohibits Congress from passing laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion in America—simply does not apply to the states. The bill goes on to proclaim the sovereignty of the states in this matter while proclaiming that each state is free to make its own laws respecting an establishment of an official religion and that such an establishment cannot be blocked by either Congress or the judiciary.
If you are of the mind that these North Carolina lawmakers have it right, allow me to introduce you to Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court case that established the three-pronged test—called “The Lemon Test”— for determining when a state has run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause:
- The law or state policy must have been adopted with a neutral or non-religious purpose.
- The principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.
- The statute or policy must not result in an “excessive entanglement” of government with religion.
Clearly, there is no way that a state can create an ‘official’ religion without going very wrong when it comes to meeting The Lemon Test as established by the highest court in the land.
We should not be overly surprised that such an effort to ‘break’ the Constitution—not to mention the will of the Founders—should come from the state of North Carolina. This is the same state that continues to have a provision in its State Constitution requiring that nobody may run for a public office in the state unless that candidate affirmatively states his or her belief in God. Never mind that such a requirement is, again, in direct contradiction to the U. S. Constitution’s prohibition against religion as a prerequisite for serving in public office or the many writings of the Founders expressing their strong feelings against religion as a disqualifying factor for holding office.
And never mind that North Carolina has never removed this requirement from their Constitution despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961) which held that such a law violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. It was in the Torcaso case that the Court wrote—
“We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person “to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.” Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”
So, is this latest effort to subvert a fundamental premise upon which this nation was founded simply the work of a few misguided public officials in North Carolina looking to score some points with the electorate?
Sadly, it is not.
Joining in the fun, as a co-sponsor of the bill allowing North Carolina to establish an official state religion, is one of the most powerful members of the North Carolina General Assembly, GOP Majority Leader Edgar Starnes. Apparently, expecting a leader in so important a role to show some fealty to the law and the legal underpinnings of the nation is asking a bit too much when compared to the opportunity provided that elected official to score a few political points.
I would call these ‘cheap’ political points but there is nothing cheap about the bills the state will rack up as they work to move their faulty legislation up to the United States Supreme Court in order to make their point.
For me, the overriding question presented by this latest effort to subvert the Constitution is just how long it will take for those who self-identify as strict constitutionalist—typically people who also identify as Republicans—to understand that their taxpayer dollars are being squandered by the millions by their elected officials.
When public servants have come to the point where they are desirous of turning their backs on citizens of their state whom may not subscribe to the same religious beliefs of those elected officials, we are on the road to an America that the Founders would neither recognize nor approve.
By: Rick Ungar, Op-Ed Contributor, Forbes, April 3, 2013
“Virginia Is The New Florida”: New Voter Suppression Efforts Prove The Voting Rights Act Is Still Needed
In 2011 and 2012, 180 new voting restrictions were introduced in forty-one states. Ultimately, twenty-five laws and two executive actions were passed in nineteen states following the 2010 election to make it harder to vote. In many cases, these laws backfired on their Republican sponsors. The courts blocked ten of them, and young and minority voters—the prime target of the restrictions—formed a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than in 2008.
Despite the GOP’s avowal to reach out to new constituencies following the 2012 election, Republican state legislators have continued to support new voting restrictions in 2013. According to a report by Project Vote, fifty-five new voting restrictions have been introduced in thirty states so far this year. “The 2013 legislative season has once again brought an onslaught of bills to restrict access to the ballot, including proposals to undercut important election laws that have recently opened the electorate to more voters,” writes Erin Ferns Lee. These measures include “strict photo ID policies…voter registration restrictions; voter purges; [felon] disenfranchisement; and policies to cut back or revoke voting laws that have made voting more convenient.”
Here’s the breakdown of where such laws have been introduced.
• Mandating a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot: Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Washington, Wyoming
• Restricting voter registration drives: Illinois, Indiana, Montana, New Mexico, Virginia
• Banning election-day voter registration: California, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska
• Requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote: Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia
• Purging the voter rolls: Colorado, Indiana, New Mexico, Texas, Virginia
• Reducing early voting: Arizona, Indiana, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin
• Disenfranchising ex-felons: Virginia.
(On the plus side, thirty states have also introduced measures to make voting easier by adopting online voter registration, election-day registration, expanded early voting and the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons.)
Most of these measures are still pending before state legislatures, but Virginia, which has gubernatorial and legislative elections this year, is leading the way in enacting new voting restrictions. On January 21, 2013, as Virginia State Senator Henry Marsh, a longtime civil rights activist, attended President Obama’s second inauguration on Martin Luther King Day, the deadlocked Virginia Senate took advantage of Marsh’s absence to pass a new redistricting map that reduced Democratic seats by diluting black voting strength in at least eight districts. The measure was ultimately defeated in the Virginia House, but the move set the tone on voting rights for the legislative session.
On Tuesday morning, as the nation followed the debate over Proposition 8 at the Supreme Court, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed a strict voter ID bill. In the last election, Virginians could vote by showing a number of different IDs, including a utility bill, a Social Security card or, this being the South, a concealed handgun permit. The new law restricts the forms of acceptable ID to a driver’s license, a passport, a state-issued photo ID card, a student ID with a photo on it or an employee photo ID. The Commonwealth Institute, a progressive research group, estimates that 869,000 registered voters in Virginia may lack these forms of photo ID, and says the new law will cost the state anywhere from $7 to $21 million to implement.
McDonnell’s spokesman called the photo ID law “a reasonable effort to protect the sanctity of our democratic process.” Yet the measure will likely only exacerbate the existing problems in Virginia’s election system, according to voting rights experts. In the last election, Virginia voters waited up to seven hours to cast a ballot. “Long lines across the state were a result of insufficient resources, poor allocation of resources that did exist, and frequent breakdowns of aging voting equipment,” according to a post-election report by the Election Protection coalition.
Moreover, study after study has shown that voter ID laws disproportionately impact young and minority voters. Not only are these constituencies less likely to have photo ID, but even in states without ID laws, black and Hispanic youth were significantly more likely than whites to be asked to show ID. According to a Politico write-up of a new report by political scientists at the University of Chicago and Washington University, “17.3 percent of black youth and 8.1 percent of Latino youth said their lack of adequate ID kept them from voting, compared with just 4.7 percent of white youth.” Mamie Locke, chairman of the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus, called the ID law “a continuation of attempts by Republicans to suppress the vote of individuals who are not likely to support their right wing agenda.”
Nor is voter fraud a rampant problem in Virginia, as supporters of the voter ID law suggest. There have been only thirty-five cases of alleged election fraud since 2000 in the state, according to an exhaustive survey by News21, and only five cases led to plea deals or convictions. Ironically, the one major case of election fraud in the state last year concerned a GOP firm charged with dumping voter registration forms.
Virginia must receive approval for its election change from the federal government under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The new voting restrictions enacted in Virginia and introduced elsewhere across the country show why Section 5 is still very much needed. If anything, the statute should be expanded in light of contemporary voter suppression efforts, not eliminated.
Virginia is quickly becoming the new Florida when it comes to electoral dysfunction. Like Florida, Virginia also passed new laws this year to restrict voter registration drives and to purge the voter rolls of alleged non-citizen voters. In Florida, such measures forced groups like the League of Women Voters to halt voter registration efforts and wrongly labeled thousands of eligible voters as non-citizens. All of this is happening, coincidentally, in a crucial election year for the Commonwealth.
The continued push to restrict the right to vote reveals the extent to which conservative power remains deeply embedded in the states, thanks to the 2010 election and subsequent aggressive gerrymandering by GOP state legislatures to protect their majorities. To combat this imbalance, Howard Dean’s group Democracy For America is launching a new effort to flip state legislatures from red to blue. The group will start, fittingly, in Virginia this year, and then expand to Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2014. DFA plans to spend $750,000 targeting five seats in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2013. Jamelle Bouie explains why this is savvy politics:
It’s hard to overstate how smart a way this is for liberal groups to invest their time and money. Virginia, in fact, is a great case study for why it’s key for Democrats to make gains on the state level. Democrats control both Senate seats in the state, and it was key to Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. Despite this, Republicans control all three statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general), the House of Delegates, and have the tie breaking vote in the state senate. The result? Republicans have been able to push a strong conservative agenda in the state.
With Congress deadlocked, the states are where the action is. It’s good that people are finally taking notice, especially as state politics continue to shift further to the right in many places.
By: Ari Berman, The Nation, March 28, 2013
Over the weekend, we learned that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg will spend $12 million airing ads in 13 states pushing senators to support expanded background checks for gun purchases. NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre, in his usual restrained fashion, described Bloomberg’s engagement as “reckless” and “insane,” but what’s so remarkable is that this is something you need an ad war to accomplish. After all, universal background checks (which would extend such checks to gun shows and private sales) enjoy pretty much universal support, with polls showing around 90 percent of Americans in favor, including overwhelming majorities of Republicans and gun owners.
And yet, not only are lots of Republicans still holding back, but even some Democrats are afraid to take a position on universal background checks. Greg Sargent reports that at least five Democratic senators—Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA), Kay Hagen (NC), Joe Donnelly (IN) and Heidi Heitkamp (SD)—are refusing to say where they stand on the issue. There’s only one reason why: the abject, soul-gripping fear of the red-state Democrat.
There are certainly some times when a legislator would want to withhold judgment on an issue or a bill. Maybe it’s highly technical, or complex and multifaceted, or something that hasn’t been contemplated before, and she needs time to study it and weigh the pros and cons before making a decision. But this isn’t one of those cases. Sure, there are some particulars that would need to be worked out, but at this point the question is relatively simple: Do you support requiring some kind of background check for private gun sales, or not?1
But even with the knowledge that they would have pretty much their entire constituencies behind them if they came out for universal checks, they can’t bring themselves to say where they stand.
This is just one obvious case, but if you’re a red-state Democrat, you have to live with this kind of fear all the time.2 Since you know your party is unpopular in your home state, you have to be constantly looking for ways you can buck the party, and worrying about the times when you support the things your party stands for. Even if your leadership understands the necessity, it has to make things a bit uncomfortable with your colleagues. You’re forever worrying that the voters you represent will grow angry with you, and saying to them, in effect, “Please don’t be mad at me.” And the more the issue touches on “cultural” matters implicating what people see as their identities, the more fear it inspires, since the senator doesn’t want to be tarred with the lethal “She’s not one of us” attack in her next election.
All politicians have to worry about upsetting the folks back home, which is why they aren’t, as a group, particularly courageous. But the more precarious your electoral situation is, the less freedom you have to just say what you believe. And the red-state Democrats act as though they have no freedom at all. It just seems like a terrible way to live.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, March 25, 2013
1. The NRA’s argument against universal background checks has two parts. The first is that criminals won’t get them, so why bother? By that logic, of course, there’s no point in having laws against murder or robbery either. The second is that it will be an inconvenience for law-abiding gun owners, adding crushing “bureaucracy” to the simple process of adding to your arsenal. The truth, however, is that there are so many licensed gun dealers in America that you’re never more than a few miles from one. I made some graphs breaking out the numbers state by state here; Mayors Against Illegal Guns (an organization funded by Bloomberg) distributed the data geographically to show that 98.4 percent of Americans live within ten miles of a gun dealer. What that means is that instead of completing your gun purchase in 60 seconds, it might take you an hour, since you’d have to go down to the gun shop and have them run a check. Unless you’re buying a gun every day, that doesn’t seem like that much of a burden.
2. There are some blue state Republicans too, but for some reason they don’t seem to have so many visible displays of terror. Perhaps Mark Kirk and Susan Collins wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, having suffered through nightmares in which their constituents chase after them with pitchforks and torches, enraged by their refusal to support minimum-wage hikes and same-sex marriage. But somehow I doubt it.