Sunday, September 28, 2014

Let the People Draw the Lines

I live in one of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation.

That’s a hotly contested honor, but I think I can prove my case.

Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District has been the subject of lawsuits for years, and was the subject of a case heard by the Supreme Court in 2003. One of the complainants in that case, Susan Furey, argued that the strangely shaped district was  created "solely to effectuate the interests of Republicans," and offered evidence that the General Assembly relied "exclusively on a principle of maximum partisan advantage" when drawing the plan "to the exclusion of all other criteria." She described the district looming “like a dragon descending on Philadelphia from the west, splitting up towns and communities throughout Montgomery and Berks Counties."

While the Supreme Court justices found the complainants’ evidence compelling, they concluded “that political gerrymandering claims are nonjusticiable because no judicially discernible and manageable standards for adjudicating such claims exist.”

To put that in normal English: even though there was clear evidence that the map had been drawn to benefit the party in power,  and even though voters’ rights are infringed by political gamesmanship over district boundaries, the courts can’t/won’t/aren’t likely to intervene unless there’s clear legislative authority to do so.

On the basis of that decision, the most recent district reapportionment resulted in an even more bizarre drawing of the District 6 map: areas of urban poverty were neatly divided to provide an even stronger margin for the party in power.
Green marks District 6 according to lines drawn in 2001. The light blue line
shows District 6 as redrawn in 2011. The red dot is candidate Mannon Trivedi's
home. The pretzel shapes in the middle are lines drawn in and around Reading. 

Yes, I can hear you yawning.



Does this matter?

I promise you, it does.

Southeastern Pennsylvania, where I live, is a wonderfully diverse region, with wealthy Main Line communities just miles from urban blight, conservative white neighborhoods surrounding towns full of immigrants, universities and colleges scattered through towns, cities, suburbs.  

We have a high number of young voters, plenty of moderates, many Independents like me, and lots of passionate, politically savvy voters from every point on the spectrum.

Which makes it hard for the parties to keep control.

In a region like mine, the parties have two choices:

Offer candidates who appeal to both sides of the aisle.

Or carve up districts in ever more creative ways to ensure a wider margin.

For my own district, the 2011 redistricting meant that candidate Manan Trivedi found himself removed from his own constituency, with those who knew him best voting elsewhere in the 2012 election.  

Incumbent Jim Gerlach, in office since 2003, won the 2012 election , but discussed the implications of gerrymandering in an interviewthis year when he announced he would not be returning: 
"When you have 435 seats (in the House of Representatives) but only 50 are competitive, you only have 50 members who need to be flexible, and it gets harder and harder to find common ground,” he said. “And every 10 years when they re-district, more districts get a little bit safer."
 Gerlach said he recognized the irony of that statement coming from someone who has arguably benefitted from the re-drawing of a district that now includes parts of five counties, but not one entire county, but few would say his district has historically been “safe.”
 Democrats at the national level have repeatedly targeted the 6 District as “winnable” since 2002, and Gerlach’s margins of victory often have been ridiculously thin. Some national publications have, at times, called them the slimmest in the nation.
 (Perhaps that’s why Gerlach’s announcement that he will not run again made news across the country, including in New YorkLos Angeles and San Francisco.)
 We’ll soon find out if the 2011 gerrymander was enough to keep Gerlach’s GOP successor safe.

Yes, gerrymandering has been around as long as there have been elections.

The term was coined in Massachusetts, in 1812, when Governor Gerry signed a redistricting bill in Massachusetts to benefit his own party. One of the districts in Boston was said to look like a salamander, yielding the word-play that lingers: “Gerry-mander.”

But gerrymandering then was a crude science compared to the practice now.

With demographic research and computerized data-mining, politicians can draw district lines with far greater exactness, splitting opposition groups with amazing precision.

Both parties do it, often without apology. I was amazed to find discussions of potential gerrymanders offered on public websites, with detailed rationale and careful explanations of how outcomes could be controlled.

A direct consequence of this practice is congressional gridlock. As Gerlach said, if parties can guarantee control of particular districts, then they can choose the candidates for those districts with little attention to alternative views.

Incumbents benefit, as do party leaders.

Power is retained by those who play the game, while voters lose interest when they realize the outcome is rigged long before the general election.
A simple graphic device devised by Fair Vote demonstrates the reality of the game. A fair line can yield even results. A more deviously placed line can ensure half the voters are totally unrepresented. 

Civic groups in some states have begun to fight back.

In Arizona, the League of Women Voters was part of a successful citizen initiative to amend the state constitution to create the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, providing for a non-partisan commission to determine election boundaries rather than the state legislature.

The first application of that amendment took place during the redistricting of 2011. At the same time, the state legislators filed suit against the commission and Arizona's Secretary of State (in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission CV12-01211-PHX-PGR). 

The legislators argued that the commission itself is illegal. The suit was dismissed by the U. S. District Court, so the legislators have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reviewed the case on July 7, 2014; their conclusions could be announced sometime in October.

Press discussions of the situation would be funny if they weren’t so sad: citizens using legal remedies in an attempt to select the legislators; legislators suing their own state to maintain control.

That won’t happen here in Pennsylvania. We’re one of 26 states without the right to a citizen-initiated referendum.  

Which means in Pennsylvania the only recourse for citizens is to sue the state, as happened unsuccessfully in 2003, and with mixed results in 2013.

Which also means it’s highly unlikely our state legislature, or house representatives, are the people we would choose if the lines were drawn more fairly.

I know people – far too many – who say democracy in the US is dead.

Some days, I think they may be right. At least here in Pennsylvania.

A line from a Jack Johnson song keeps echoing in my head: 
Well, he tried to live, but he’s done trying
Not dead, but definitely dying.
I know people - again, too many -  who say it's a waste of time to vote, since the outcomes are rigged and the candidates come to power owing favors to party leaders and corporate sponsors, with no interest in serving the public good. 

I understand their point. 

And when I dig into issues like gerrymandering, I find myself discouraged.

Yet – what’s the alternative?

I spent the weekend with the state board of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.

Even as we met, word came in from districts around the state where politicians are playing more games: pulling a candidate who looks unpopular and trying to insert someone voters don’t yet know. Just weeks before the elections.

Pulling out of agreed-on debates just days before the debate was to take place, refusing to answer voters’ questions and effectively silencing opponents who were eager to discuss issues together.

The work of democracy is complicated, costly, endlessly aggravating, often perplexing, too rarely rewarding.

The way forward is as convoluted, as hard to untangle, as my own District 6 boundaries. 

Even so, I'm convinced the alternative is worse.

Ways to engage:

All about Redistricting’s How Can the Public Engage offers a list of ways citizens can engage with the process, questions to ask about how boundaries are drawn, and more information about why this matters..

It’s also worth looking at candidate’s web pages (find them through Smart Voter in PA  or through Vote 411 in most other states), and it's worth spending some time studying incumbent’s voting records, and major contributors. Some candidates demonstrate a strong awareness that our processes are broken and need fixing, Others show a steady disregard for voters’ rights and abuses of process.

Make sure you’re registered (you can check that online) and if you know citizens who might have trouble registering, print out forms and help them fill and file them. The deadline, in Pennsylvania, is October 6.

Vote, and encourage others to vote.

Even if sometimes it feels pointless. 

This is the fifth in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?" 

Earlier posts:  
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
Privatization and Elementary Math, September 14,  2014
Who is Allowed to Vote? September 21, 2014 
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.   

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Who Is Allowed to Vote?

Who is allowed to vote?

Think of the wars fought, the lives lost, the years of struggle, protest, imprisonment, over that simple question.

The American Revolution comes to mind: the cry of “No taxation without representation” captured the outraged response to the idea that colonists would pay for a government they had no hand in choosing.

Yet, even after the Revolution, only six percent of the population was eligible to vote. White, literate, Protestant landowners could cast their vote, while slaves, people of color, Catholics and Jews, men without property or education, and women of every description were not offered a say, despite their own suffering in the long, hard days of war.

Those in power rarely want to share it. That principle seems true, across centuries, across continents.

It took another war before male African Americans were granted the rights of citizens with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. A half-century after that women were finally allowed to vote, after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. The first inhabitants of our nation, Native Americans, were the last to receive the vote, under the Indian Citizens Act passed by Congress in 1924.

I recently attended an event “Celebrating the Right to Vote,” organized and hosted by our local League of Women Voters. I was moved to hear a talented young actress read the “Declaration of Rights of the Women ofthe United States,” delivered from the steps of Independence Hall by Susan B. Anthony on July 4, 1876.

I found myself wondering how many Americans have read that document, or know the story behind it.

And why it isn’t required reading in US history classes.

As Susan B. Anthony read: 
It was the boast of the founders of the republic, that the rights for which they contended, were the rights of human nature. If these rights are ignored in the case of one half the people, the nation is surely preparing for its own downfall. Governments try themselves. The recognition of a governing and a governed class is incompatible with the first principles of freedom.
 The Synchroblog topic this month is “race, violence, and why we need to talk about it.”

That post is due on Tuesday.

But Tuesday is also National Voter Registration Day.

A reminder that too many citizens (currently about one in four) are not registered and do not vote.

A governed, rather than governing class.

I’ve been wondering: is there some connection between our lack of understanding about the history of suffrage, our lack of engagement in registration and voting, and the lingering deep divides between those who enjoy and hold tight to power and those who feel marginalized and excluded?

I have no answers.

Yet – it’s interesting to consider the political scene playing out in Ferguson, Missouri.

Protests following the death of young African-American Mike Brown called attention to racial inequity in Ferguson’s governing structures:

Two-thirds of the town’s residents are black.

Its mayor and five of its six City Council members are white.

Three of the town's 53 police officers are black.

How did that inequity happen?

There are lots of ways to encourage participation, and many more ways to discourage it.

Registration, for instance: voter registration can be managed in ways that encourage or discourage participation. Some nations register voters automatically at the age citizens become eligible to vote, and allow that registration to move easily as citizens move. Some use the same number given for taxes (like our Social Security number). Some send all eligible citizens a postcard, informing them of the location of their polling place, based on the address of their last tax return.

In the US, 42% of eligible voters are not registered. And of those registered, far fewer vote than in most other developed countries.

The Voter Participation Center, attempting to track under-represented groups, has defined the “rising American electoratee”: "unmarried women, people of color and young people between 18-29.” This group makes up over half (52%) of the US population eligible to vote. 42% of this group is not registered to vote.

Transience, financial stressors, difficulty finding information, unpublicized voter registration deadlines: all conspire to keep people from the polls. 42% of the under-represented "rising American electorate" group moved between the 2006 and 2010 election.

Interesting, isn’t it? 42.1% of this group moved between 2006 and 2010. 41.9% of this group was not registered for the 2010 election.

Automatic, universal registration would be the simplest, possibly the least expensive option. But on-line registration, currently used by a growing number of states, would be a good first step. 

A Pew study of states that have enabled on-line registration found that it 
saves taxpayer dollars, increases the accuracy of voter rolls, and provides a convenient option for Americans who wish to register to vote or update their information.  . . . Online registration is cost-effective for states, convenient for voters, and secure, because it reduces the potential for fraud while improving the accuracy of voter rolls.    
Same day registration is another option, currently used by the District of Columbia and a handful of other states. Citizens need to show proof of residency and current ID. Simple safeguards are in place to provide protection from fraud.

Every state has its own rules about registration. Some, like Pennsylvania and Missouri, have deadlines far before elections. Pennsylvania’s deadline is 30 days before the next election (this year, October 6th). Missouri’s registrations must be “received before 5 pm (or normal close of business) on the fourth Wednesday prior to the election.” Good luck sorting that one out. 

New voters and newcomers to states with early or confusing deadlines often find out too late they’ve missed it. Which sometimes seems to be the point.

Beyond registration, there are other ways to make voting easier or harder, to engage voters or to exclude them from the process.

Early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and all-mail voting all make voting easier for the elderly, for workers who live far from where they work, for those whose work schedules make it hard to get to the polls, for single parents trying to balance work, child-care, and a trip to the polls.

Moving election day to a weekend (as most other nations have done), or making it a national holiday (as is the case in almost every other nation) would also make voting easier.
But some states are not interested in making voting easier.

While citizens groups around the country have pushed for easier registration and more accessible elections, legislators in some of our states have resisted efforts to broaden participation, and have instead spent a great deal of time and money passing legislation to make voting harder.

Voter ID laws, passed in states which already have low voter participation, in effect make registration much harder. Many rural and older citizens have inadequate birth documentation. Married women often have difficulty documenting name changes, and often have discrepancies between names on photo ID and other documentation.  Low income citizens often don’t have drivers’ licenses or other photo ID, and often don’t have easy ways to obtain them. The League of Women Voters has been party to lawsuits in multiple states (including Pennsylvania) offering testimony about the ways Voter ID laws disenfranchise eligible voters.

Down the street from where the body of Michael Brown lay for hours after he was shot three weeks ago, volunteers have appeared beside folding tables under fierce sunshine to sign up new voters. On West Florissant Avenue, the site of sometimes violent nighttime protests for two weeks, voter-registration tents popped up during the day and figures like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. lectured about the power of the vote.
 In this small city, which is two-thirds African-American but has mostly white elected leaders, only 12 percent of registered voters took part in the last municipal election, and political experts say black turnout was very likely lower. But now, in the wake of the killing of Mr. Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white Ferguson police officer, there is a new focus on promoting the power of the vote, an attempt to revive one of the keystones of the civil rights movement.
  “A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected,” said Shiron Hagens, 41, of St. Louis, who is not part of any formal group but has spent several days registering voters in Ferguson with her mother and has pledged to come back here each Saturday. “The prosecutor — he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council — they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”
 In Pennsylvania, prosecutors, judges, mayors, county sheriffs – all are elected.
So are the people who make the rules about elections, draw the lines for election districts, control the process, close out voices that don’t fit the current power grid.

Registering voters won’t change what happened in Ferguson, MO.

But as Antonio French, an African-American alderman from nearby St. Louis who has been documenting the protests, insists: “If people want to see change in how they're represented, they need to register and vote.”

Join me in promoting Voter Registration Day, and in encouraging eligible citizens to vote.

And join me in opposing candidates who have squandered time, trust, and resources promoting legislation that limits voting rights and makes it harder to register or vote.

Some helpful tools:

Can I Vote? website gives voter registration information by state, confirms what name and party you're registered with, and links to online registration (for states that offer it) or a downloadable registration form.

866 Our Vote  offers links to voter registration information, and offers information about absentee and provisional ballots, and how to report problems at the polls.

Vote 411 in some states and in others, (including Pennsylvania and California) Smart Voter provide sample ballots by zip code, and links to candidates’ own websites. 

The Brennan Center for Justice provides research about voting rights, election modernization, and ways to expand access and engagement. 

This post is part of the September Synchroblog on race, violence, and how to talk about it. Other posts:

This is the third in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?" 
Earlier posts: 
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
 Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
 Privatization and Elementary Math, September 24,  2014 
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.   

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Privatization and Elementary Math

I’ve been watching the push toward privatization in the new “prison industry,” “education industry,” and more, with both perplexity and alarm.

And wondering when and how the theology of free market salvation gained so many devoted believers.

I didn’t major in business, but even I know that rule number one for any for-profit business is maximize profits, minimize costs.

So, for instance, in the push to privatize prisons, preservation of inmate contact with families has been sacrificed to maximizing profit from phone calls (more than $1.13 a minute until a federal cap was putin effect in February 2014)  Profits are  maximized through “insourcing” work to inmates, some paid as little as $0.25 an hour.   And intensive lobbying shapes legislation to keep prisons full As I discussed in more detail in an earlier post, privatization of prisons incentivizes incarceration; a net result is that many states now spend more on prisons than education, and one out of four inmates – globally – is held in a US prison. 

Maximize profits, minimize costs. 

from The For Profit Prison Boom in
One Worrying Infographic
 Business Insider, January 27, 2014
Prison industry profits are high, and CEO salaries are higher. Damon Hininger, president of CorrectionsCorporation of America (CCA), the oldest and largest private prison company in the US, earned $2,772,435 in 2012. The company has given over $5,200,000 in campaigncontributions (three fifths of that to state campaigns), has spent over $20,700,000 in lobbying on crime, detention, and immigration issues, and has contributed generously in the past to ALEC the American Legislative Exchange Council) which has written and promoted many of the laws responsible for increased sentencing and overcrowded prisons. Ever penny spent, every dollar of the more than $300,000,000 in profit last year, came from state and federal taxes. 

Maximize profits, minimize costs.

Even in obvious for-profit industries, that simple equation leaves out other important values: worker safety, employee satisfaction, truth in advertising, safeguarding of air and water, robust local economies.

Free-market principles too often reward short-term behaviors, externalizing costs to communities, workers, consumers and pushing long-term consequences onto unsuspecting others.

Setting that aside - are there arenas that should be outside the reach of for-profit motivation?

Medicine? What happens when a doctor will profit form a particular diagnosis, or prescription of a particular drug? Which diseases receive attention when profit shapes practice? Which low-cost solutions are ignored? What happens when marketing models stall low-cost sharing of essential vaccines or medications, costing human lives?

Roads? Ports? Airports? Does competition make them safer, more accessible?

Mail and package delivery? Internet access? Phone service? What happens when providers choose the most lucrative markets, and leave remote areas with no suppliers at all?


Advocates of “small government” often describe privatization as a way to shrink government expense.

It’s an interesting theory that ignores some elementary math. 

In practice, it works if the government abandons the enterprise completely, or ignores the quality of services given. Otherwise privatization adds a costly layer of oversight, regulation, and administration.

Not to mention the money spent in political influence, the corporate salaries, the shareholder profits.

Privatized education works if we agree some kids are just not worth educating.

Or convince ourselves that for-profit corporations will put kids before profit without extensive regulation and costly oversight.

Or buy the idea that teachers should be paid less, trained less, treated as hourly workers in an industry with high turnover and little job satisfaction.

The economic challenges of local school districts I posted about last week are compounded by the push to expand for-profit charter and cyber schools, funded with public money.  

Advocates of “school reform,” “school choice” and “smaller government through privatization” need to spend some time on basic math.

The numbers don’t add up.

A charter school is an independent public school established and operated under a charter from the local board of school directors. Charter schools must be established as public nonprofit, nonsectarian entities by teachers, parents, institutions of higher education or museums.
Some excellent charter schools formed by parents and non-profit widened access to excellent education, and opened doors of opportunity to students who struggled in larger, over-burdened public schools.  

But despite the “nonprofit, nonsectarian” definition, Pennsylvania has allowed for-profit firms to provide teachers, curriculum, administrative support, or complete on and off-site management,
blurring completely the definition of “nonprofit.”

It has also allowed for-profit firms to create and manage publicly funded cyber schools.

And it has allowed those schools to collect per-pupil fees equivalent to those of each student’s local district, without regard for the real cost of teaching that student, and without any public scrutiny of profit, expenses, or relationship between advertised claims and student results.

Dig even a little and the evidence is overwhelming: while investors and CEOs of these firms enjoy large profits, students, teachers, and school districts pay the price.

Just a small sampling:

1. A 2009 national study by CREDO, (Center for Research on Education Outcomes),a research unit at Stanford University,  found that 
Compared to the educational gains the charter students would have had in their traditional public schools, the analysis shows that students in Pennsylvania charter schools on average make smaller learning gains.  

2. No PA cyber charter schools made adequate yearly progress in 2011-2012 (the most recent year available). According to an April 2014 report by the Democratic House Education Committee: 
For 2010-11, while 94% of school districts met AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), 75% of public schools met AYP. In contrast, only 61% of charter schools met AYP and only two of the 12 cyber charter schools met AYP. . .
 For 2011-12, while 61% of school districts met AYP, 50% of public schools met AYP. In stark contrast, only 29% of charter schools met AYP and none of the 12 cyber charter schools met AYP (9)
3. Charter schools and siphon off students with mild, easily addressed special education needs, leaving more expensive-to-teach students in local schools. In Pennsylvania, charter schools have no limit on how many special education students they claim, while local schools are held to a percentage. A detailed evaluation by The Center for Rural Education found: 
A single payment amount for all types of special education students does not reflect the wide variation in the costs of different types and intensities of services that various students need. Under the current funding formula for special education tuition payments, the charter schools received substantially more in tuition payments for special education students than they reported spending for special education. As reported on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website, in 2012-13, charter schools received $351 million in tuition payments from school districts for special education students and had $151 million in special education instruction and related expenditures, an excess of
$200 million. In 2011-12, the reported data were $295 million in special education tuition payments received from school districts for special education students and $134 million spent for special education, a difference of $161 million.
There is no provision for review of excesses, and no mechanism to have that money refunded to school systems that were forced to pay excessive amounts.    

4. Several of Pennsylvania’s cyber schools have been involved in fraud investigations:
PA Cyber . . .  has been receiving well over $100 million in public money annually, a portion of which prosecutors allege that Trombetta was using to fund businesses that functioned as his "personal ATM machine" and "personal retirement account. 
Page 1 of a 4 page chart from Charter and Charter
Cyber School Reform Update
 (pp 9-12)
In March 2013, the Democratic House Education Committee study offered an extensive “fraud chart,” listing a long list of abuses against a long list of charter corporations. Many had multiple offenses, including multiple salaries, unsubstantiated expenses, incomplete or inaccurate financial disclosures, conflicts of interest, use of public funds for personal expenses.

In 2010, Attorney General Jack Wagner  asked for a moratium on creation of new charter and cyber schools until the legislature addressed the flawed funding system. That moratorium didn’t happen. Charter school reform bills have been introduced, killed in committee, watered down until they reform nothing.

Public funds pay the CEO salaries of these for-profit firms (those numbers are not publicly available) and public funds are used to fatten the campaign funds of compliant legislators on both sides of the aisle.) A major contributor to Governor Tom Corbett in 2010, Vahan Gureghian, is one of the top political contributors in Pennsylvania, and in the last few years has built multi-million dollar mansions in both Gladwyne and Palm Beach.   

Those dollars all came from Pennsylvania’s education budget – a budget stretched too thin to provide counselors and librarians for urban kids, or after school sports in cash-strapped rural towns.  

Next time you hear someone talking about “school reform” ask yourself: what does “reform” mean?

Who is paying to publicize that message?

Who will profit if that “reform” takes place?

And does privatization really make government smaller, or just shift public dollars for common goals to private pockets?

Take some time to do the math.

Next steps?

The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania education page offers links to organizations involved in education, and descriptions of current legislation.  

Education Voter of Pennsylvania offers more detailed information, and link for contacting local representatives. 

And two League of Women voter tools can help voters find out more about local candidates positions. In many states, Vote 411, and in others, (including Pennsylvania and California) Smart Voter provide sample ballots by zip code, and links to candidates own websites. 

This is the third in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?"

Earlier posts:
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014  

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.   

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Back to School Lament

 The haves vs the have nots of education spending, April 14, 2014 AxisPhilly,
Philadelphia schools open tomorrow, two weeks after most area schools, with another round of cuts and an uneasy dependence on a still-unapproved increase in the Philadelphia cigarette tax.

According to a group called Fund Philly Schools, cuts in 2011 and 2012 took 86 percent of non-teaching assistant positions, 101 school nurses, half of the counselors. The system was left with 42 certified librarians for 249 schools.

Last year’s round of cuts went deeper, removing all 127 assistant principals, 676 teachers, the remaining 283 counselors, 1,202 aides, 307 secretaries, for a grand total of 4000 layoffs in less than three years, along with reductions in teacher training, supplies, student transportation vouchers, after school programs.

Some of those let go – one of every four - have since been rehired, after Superintendent Hite insisted schools would be unsafe with such inadequate staffing.

But it’s hard to picture how education happens in an environment where teachers’ jobs are so at risk, where classes are so under-resourced, where supports suburban students take for granted are no longer available.

I spent much of last week with a friend who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, attending a school where the classes were so large, and transience so constant, that many teachers never knew her name, a school where she never felt safe. Last year her two young children attended an elementary school with 31 children in each class, a school with no nurse, no library, no playground, no after school programs, no aides to give special attention to students falling behind.

I’m writing a series of posts about issues of importance in the upcoming state and local elections, and for me, education funding will be a high priority.

Pennsylvania is one of just three states in which school funding is still closely tied to local taxes, yielding one of the most inequitable models in the country.

A campaign ad for Governor Corbett featuring his wife Sue claims that Pennsylvania is “one of the top states in the country in what we spend per pupil on education.”

Factcheck responded in a feature article appropriately named “Playing Politics With Education”:   
It’s true that Pennsylvania’s per-pupil spending of $13,340 in 2012 — the latest data available from the U.S. Census — ranks 13th highest in the country. That’s well above the national average of $10,608 per pupil (though less than neighboring states such as New York, $19,552; New Jersey, $17,266; Delaware, $13,865; and Maryland, $13,609). But that’s largely due to the generosity of local taxpayers, not the state. . .
 As a percentage of elementary/secondary public school funding, Pennsylvania’s state contribution — 36.1 percent — is well below the national average of 45.5 percent, and ranks 45th.
This is not a new problem. School funding inequity was studied, and corrections put in place, in the not-too-distant past. According to advocacy group PA School Funding:  
In July 2006, the General Assembly called for an independent statewide Costing-Out Study to determine the resources needed to help all students achieve the state’s academic standards.  Act 114 of 2006 required the study to address two issues – adequacy and equity.  The study of adequacy was to determine what it costs for all of our students – no matter where they live – to attain state academic standards.  The study of equity was to address the growing gap between high- and low-spending districts and the implications for the quality of education received by students and for local taxpayers.  That study, completed in December 2007, concluded that Pennsylvania was under-funding K-12 education by more than $4 billion and that the system then in place relied too heavily on local property taxes.
 As a result of that study, the Pennsylvania General created a research-based funding formula, implemented in 2008-09 school year and used in the two following years, similar to funding formulas now in use around the country.
 The formula measured the number of students in each district, community poverty levels, and local tax effort, allocating relatively more funding to districts that are larger, are poorer, and have higher property taxes.
 The formula also recognized the additional costs associated with educating students in poverty and English language learners, distributing relatively more funding to districts with higher numbers of these students.
Unfortunately, that funding formula was abandoned in the first year of Governor Corbett’s tenure.

Since then, state investment in local education has been cut even further. In February 2013, The Education Law Center published  Funding, Formulas, and Fairness: What Pennsylvania Can Learn From Other States, documenting cuts in PA education spending, comparing Pennsylvania to every other state, and concluding:
Money does matter. Extensive research shows that investments in public education create huge long-term social and economic benefits. How these public education investments are made also matters. As citizens, we want our public dollars invested accurately, fairly, and transparently.

The question this report set out to answer was: How do states throughout the country invest this precious resource — public education dollars — accurately, fairly, and transparently?

Our research shows most states use data-driven, cost-based education funding formulas to meet these goals. Most of these formulas use accurate student data, account for differences among school  districts, direct funding to address those differences, and do so with a goal of ensuring all students have adequate funding to meet state standards.

The research also shows that Pennsylvania has become a national outlier by not taking that approach. The Commonwealth does not currently use an education funding formula, and its leaders cannot guarantee that state education dollars are being distributed accurately, fairly, or transparently (1)
Somehow, our schools, and the children they serve, have become pawns in a complicated, highly-
politicized, high stakes game of chess.  Rhetoric and accusations fly from every direction.

There are strong forces determined to shift investment from public schools to privatized education. While educational options can be healthy, the current rules allow charter schools to make unverified claims while performing below their public school counterparts, receive public money that becomes private profit, and choose only the students most easily and affordably educated (motivated children with informed and motivated parents) or that fit their preferred, homogenous demographic

There are also strong voices that hold teachers accountable for steep, and growing, pension liabilities. The Fordham Institute notes: "While pension underfunding is widespread, the situation in Pennsylvania is particularly dire" (1). Their anaylsis suggests that: 
Pennsylvania’s imminent crisis derives from the state’s complicated history in which it has failed to make actuarially-determined "annual required contributions". This history shows how defined-benefit plans and some loose rules for public accounting have left pensions susceptible to political shenanigans. In Pennsylvania, the bull market of the late 1990s was, perhaps ironically, a key enabler (4).
Philadelphia’s current woes are extreme, but in many ways shared by small towns and cities across the state. Teachers are blamed for decisions made by politicians, financial regulators, investment bankers. And students pay the price in an underfunded, adversarial system.

I’m thankful for the great education my children received, and impressed by the excellent school my grandchildren currently attend.

But I grieve - deeply - for children given less.

I want the same great education for my friends’ kids in Philly, for my friends’ kids in farm towns and aging coal towns across the state.

When zip code determines the quality of a child's education, our futures are all made poorer.

So this November, I'll be looking for politicians who don’t stoop to blaming teachers, who understand the importance of a strong public educational system, who have demonstrated a commitment to a fair, adequate, predictable funding formula.

And trying to find candidates who won’t further their careers at the expense of children, parents, and the teachers who serve them.
Two League of Women Voter tools can help voters find out more about local candidates. In many states, Vote 411, and in others, (including Pennsylvania and California) Smart Voter provide sample ballots by zip code, and links to candidates own websites. 

For education advocacy action ideas, check out Education Voters PA. 

This is the second in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?"

Earlier posts:
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014  

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.   

Monday, September 1, 2014

What Are Workers Worth?

 “Don’t muzzle an ox when you are using it to grind grain.”

 “Workers are worth their pay.” (I Timothy 5:18)

Happy Labor Day!
Today I’m starting a series of posts about issues of importance in the upcoming state and local elections.

And today, in honor of Labor Day, the topic is labor law, wages, and our growing class of working poor.

It's a heavy, complicated topic, and I'm only scratching the surface. 

Even so, it's a topic worth struggling with.

For American workers, state elections are far more important than most of us realize.

Minimum wage, laws regulating overtime and sick leave, protections against wage theft, the role of unions: these are all heavily influenced by state legislators, many facing election on November 4.

Non-presidential elections often slip by with little attention, but for workers, state elections carry heavy consequences, and are often decided by just a handful of votes. A candidate for my own state senate race, canvassing door to door, reminded me that some area elections have been decided by single digit numbers; a look at Wikipedia’s list of “close elections” shows that some state elections have been decided by just one vote.

I may have said it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m a registered Independent. There are aspects of every party platform that I can’t support, and I’m looking for candidates whose positions are shaped by wisdom, concern for justice,  personal courage and conviction, rather than dictated by the prevailing party machine.

So – in what way is my own vote shaped by my understanding of work and concern for the rights of workers?

I posted about work, and workers, several years ago, and still affirm my conclusions: 
Of all people, Christ’s followers should be first to advocate for fair pay, fair conditions, equal benefits for workers.
In the three years since posting that I've seen up close, through the lives of friends, the challenges of low-income workers. Aheadline just last week threw those challenges into sharp relief: a woman working four part-time jobs died while napping in her car between shifts.

An analysis by the non-profit, non-partisan Center forBudget and Policy Priorities describes the accumulating forces that have undermined earning power and put workers in jeopardy:

The federal minimum wage ($7.25) and minimum for tipped employees ($2.13) have not kept pace with worker productivity or cost of living:
It seems fair that the minimum wage should maintain some rough parity with productivity (a measure of how much the average worker produces each hour), because productivity increases determine the nation’s capacity to raise its income. By that measure, since productivity has increased by 80 percent since 1973, the minimum wage should be about 80 percent higher in real terms than it was in 1973; instead of $7.25, it
would be $15.15. . . .
Another indexing option is to set the minimum wage high enough to keep a full-time worker with a family out of poverty. In 2013, that would require $11.30 an hour. (Pathway to Full Employment, 2)
Waiting for Change:
The $2.13 Federal Subminimum Wage
While federal minimum wage discussions remain stalled in partisan gridlock, 21 states have passed legislation setting higher minimums wages. PA Senate Bill 1300, raising the minimum wage to $8.20, then to $9.15 on January 1, 2015, $10.10 on January 1, 2016, and tied to a cost-of-living adjustment in the years beyond that, appears to be lost in committee.

PA House Bill 1896, with a similar graduated increase to $10.10 and an increase in the tipping wage income from Pennsylvania's current minimum of $2.83 to $5.05, or 50% of the minimum wage, was dismissed by the Labor and Industry Committee, despite 70 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle.

Living wage ordinances tie public spending to a higher minimum, often termed a "living wage," an amount needed to keep a family from poverty in a particular area. A recent Philadelphia ordinance requires any contractor or subcontractor employed by the city to pay $10.86 an hour, increasing to $12.00 an hour in 2015, enough to put a family of four just above the poverty line.

Unrealistic salary tests for exempt employees allow employers to overwork and underpay a significant percentage of the US workforce:

“Exempt employees” don’t punch a clock and are not held to minimum wage standards or overtime regulation. From 1938 to the mid seventies, the “exempt employee” salary test was adjusted regularly to reflect inflation and increases in the cost of living. From 1975 to the present, that level has been adjusted only once, in 2004, to  $455 a week, or $23,660 a year, a poverty income, just under the poverty level for a family of four.

That unrealistic level allows employers to bypass both minimum wage and overtime regulation. 
“The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2000 reported that an increasing number of American workers — between 19 and 26 million (20 to 27 percent of the full-time workforce) in 1998 — were subject to the exemptions.” (Pathway 3-4)
Legislation weakening worker protections and bargaining rights mean less full-time jobs, erratic work schedules, less safe workplaces, less training, less job security, and lower wages: 
Burt P. Flickinger III, a consultant for the retail industry, says that, “Over the past two decades, many major retailers went from a quotient of 70 to 80 percent full time to at least 70 percent part time across the industry.”  David Ossip, a workforce scheduling software maker, says, “Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts.” (Pathway 6) 
Business Insider, Labor Share of Corporate Profits 2012
I’ve seen the havoc on family life when workers’ schedules change from week to week, with shifts are
posted Sunday for the week ahead. I’ve also seen the financial hardship when employees can send workers home if work is slow, with no recourse on the part of the worker, and compensation for time and money spent in travel, or wages lost because of shortened shifts.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 provided workers avenues for weighing employee needs against employer profits: 
In the past, unions would protect workers from the abuse of erratic work schedules, but with the decline of unions in general and the weakness of union density in the service sector in particular, union protection is, at present, a limited solution. (Pathway 7)
Opinion about unions is sharply divided, in part due to poor behavior on the part of some union leaders in the past, in part due to apparent union inflexibility in the present. Yet, I go back to my conclusions of three years ago: 
Historically, churches, and people of faith, have stood with unions on behalf of workers. Whatever their failings, for the past century and a half unions have been the strongest advocates for fair pay, safe workplaces, reasonable hours. Without unions, workers in mills, mines, factories would still be pushed to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Unions helped win workmen’s compensation, workplace safety standards, child labor laws. . . . No unions have been perfect, and power and money always leave the door open to abuse, but all of us, union workers or not, owe a great debt to the work of unions. 
As I look at the November elections, I’ll be looking for candidates who affirm an increase in minimum wage, and for candidates who have creative solutions to the needs of workers.

Two League of Women Voter tools can help voters find out more about local candidates. In many states, Vote 411, and in others, (including Pennsylvania and California) Smart Voter provide sample ballots by zip code, and links to candidates own websites. 

This is the first is a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?"

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.