Sunday, October 25, 2015

Failing Our Future

"Budget Impasse is Killing Schools"
Pennsylvania is now almost four months into a costly budget impasse, and underfunded school districts are going further into debt, with over $410 million borrowed so far, according to the state’s Attorney General  Eugene DePasquale.

Our poorest school systems are operating without school nurses, counselors, librarians.

And our already inequitable schools become more inequitable by the minute.

The impasse has prompted some school districts to blockpayment to charter schools, calling attention to state law that requires charters to be funded even when districts don’t receive state funds. 

And the impasse offers further fuel to a lawsuit filed last year  by the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, six school districts from across the state, and seven representative parents. The suit asks for redress of a school-funding model that fails to meet the state constitutional requirement of a "thorough and efficient system of public education" for all children, allowing wealthy schools districts to spend 33 percent more per pupil than the poorest.

The suite was dismissed by the PA Commonwealth Court, and has been appealed to the PA Supreme Court (one more reason to think carefully about the three seats open in next Tuesday’s Supreme Court election).

Pennsylvania has some of the best schools in the country.  

And some of the worst.  

Even our best, though, rank poorly compared to the worst among the public schools of Finland.  (An interactive US New site allows comparisons of schools to a mix of national averages).

Our system is based on more and more unfunded legislative mandatesexpensive standardized tests that punish underfunded systems and subvert real learning,  mind-numbingly detailed objectives, endless paperwork that zaps teacher motivation and accomplishes little, constant labeling and competition with ever less support.

Finland’s system, forty  years ago, refuses any standardized tests until just before graduation – from high school.

Funds all schools at the same level, with careful formulas to add extra support to at-risk students with language differences or other special needs.

Provides autonomy and free education to all teachers.

Affirms the value of play, music, art, and physical instruction at every level of early childhood education.
from Programme for International Student Assessment/PISA (2003)

Works in close harmony with other support systems to make sure children are healthy, well-fed, and able to learn.

The revolution in Finnish education wasn’t apparent to the world until 2000, when  the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted a sampling of 15-year-old's academic skills from 57 nations. Finland placed first in reading, fourth in science, fifth in math. The next time the PISA was administered (2003) Finland was first in reading and science, second in math. 

The US was 18th in reading, 22th in math, 28nd in science.   

The test doesn’t assess fluency in other languages, but on that Finland would again be at the top, with the US near the bottom. All Finnish students are expected to be fluent in Finnish, Swedish and English by the age of 16. Accommodations are made for children from other language backgrounds (Sami, Roma, or other immigrant groups), but all are given instruction in at least three, often four languages.

What’s striking about this is that Finland’s per pupil expenditure is almost identical to that of the US, school days are far shorter, students are given frequent 15 minutes breaks for socializing or active play, and equality of education is valued far higher than quality.

There’s also far more emphasis on teaching children to empathize with others, think issues through, and practice logic and problem solving, all activities difficult to measure on a standardized test.

Compare the page after page of detailedCommon Core objectives to the more general, even philosophical Finnish National Curriculum Guidelines.  

Finnish students matriculation exams, taken at graduation, are created by a board composed of university professors, high school teachers, and education policy-makers (not independent for-profit corporations), and graded first by the students’ own teachers, then by members of the board. Questions assess student ability to think, communicate, and weigh complex ideas: 

  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels predicted that a socialist revolution would first happen in countries like Great Britain. What made Marx and Engels claim that and why did a socialist revolution happen in Russia?”  
  • In what sense are happiness, good life and well-being ethical concepts?
  • Choose three world religions and compare the role and use of a holy image within them.
  • Some politicians, athletes and other celebrities have publicly regretted and apologized for what they have said or done. Discuss the meaning of the apology and accepting it as a social and personal act.
Finland’s educational reforms were driven by a vision of the future: the idea that to be economically successful, the country would need to rely on a highly trained workforce. With that goal in mind, a comprehensive program was designed to ensure that all children – at every economic level, from any language background, with any disability or special need – would receive optimum care, at public expense, from before birth to tax-paying adulthood. The program was economically driven: an economy works best when all it’s members are well-prepared to work at optimum capacity. Less crime, less poverty, less expensive to treat chronic illness. 

Key components: 
  • Excellent prenatal care
  • A “Baby Box” for all expectant parents, with clothes, diapers, mattress, other baby supplies, and books for parents and children.  
  • Generous paid parental leave and ongoing “flextime” for parents of young children. 
  • Free early childhood education designed to help all children enter school with the sae basic skills and readiness to learn
  • Free healthcare for all children
  • Free well-designed education from early education through vocational training or university

Tests can’t capture the full impact of such a comprehensive investment in the well-being of children. Consider, instead, the World Economic Forum’s annual Human Capital Index, which quantifies how well countries develop and deploy their human capital, "including information on education levels of the employed, unemployed and the inactive members of the population as well as the specific qualifications of the latest entrants to the workforce."

Finland is consistently in the top five; in 2015, it was number one.

The US? Number 17. Right behind Estonia and Slovenia.

Part of the index ranks countries on their effective investment in children 15 and younger.

On that, again, Finland was first. The US was 40th. 

I’d like to think our investment in our children would be prompted by love of neighbor, by hunger for justice, by compassion for those caught in cycles of poverty.

But even simple economic good sense should make clear that something needs to change, and soon.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Justice Matters

This week I attended a Pennsylvania Supreme Court candidates’ debate, and found myself timing judges. Each justice had a minute to answer, so for an hour and a half, I held up my cards: thirty seconds, ten seconds, then a bright yellow STOP.

It felt odd, and a little amusing, to be timing judges.

Strange, and a little wrong, to be thinking about which judges I would vote for.

Describing the incident to others in the days after, the response was often the same: What? We elect judges?

Pennsylvania is one of eight states that still elects judges at every level: municipal courts, Common Pleas Court, Superior and Commonwealth Courts, Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The first set of debate questions addressed the scandals that have led to a record-number of vacant seats on the seven-member Supreme Court. Chief Justice Ron Castille recently retired at the mandatory age of seventy. Justice Seamus McCaffery retired after suspension related to sexually-explicit emails. Justice Joan Orie Melvin was indicted, suspended, and disbarred after charges she used government staff to perform campaign work. One of the remaining four justices,  Justice J. Michael Eakin, is now under investigation for his own part in the offensive email scandal: 
Scroll through the state Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin's private inbox and it seems as if everyone is in on the joke: judges, state prosecutors, assistant U.S. attorneys, public defenders, private lawyers. 
Everyone, of course, except the defendants or victims who could wind up in their courtrooms or offices. 
As one of the candidates pointed out, the sexist, racist, homophobic nature of many of the emails calls into question the possibility of a just hearing for anyone in the denigrated groups, but also raises concern about "overly chummy" relationships among justices, prosecutors, public defenders.

An independent Judicial Conduct Board and a Court of Judicial Discipline exist to investigate judicial misconduct, but the PA Supreme Court has chosen to override both entities, and address past and current concerns “in house.” The candidates agreed that the Supreme Court should not investigate itself, but apparently there’s no mechanism in PA law to ensure independent review.

An important question posed to the candidates asked about equal access to justice in Pennsylvania, focusing on issues of bail, public defenders, and investigative resources for indigent defendants. The candidates were clear in their acknowledgement that equal access does not exist in Pennsylvania. Court schedules are crowded, public defenders are overburdened, and Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that provides no state funding for public defenders. “It’s a question of money,” several candidates affirmed.
Who follows any of this?

Who cares about it?

Why does it matter?

On a simple economic level, as one candidate pointed out, it costs more in the long run to deny real justice: defendants who are pushed through the system without a fair trial can appeal, and appeal again, with lengthy court cases, and heavy attorney fees.

And then there’s the issue of prison costs: states across the country are now spending more on incarceration than on higher education,  In Pennsylvania, state investment in education has been cut repeatedly, with a moratorium on new school construction, while money for prisons continues to grow, with a $400 million prison complex under construction, to provide room for 300 additional inmates. 

But far beyond the costs of appeals and incarceration are the economic cost in wasted lives, damaged families, lost present and future income. I’ve watched in horror the spiraling cost to families ripped apart by unfounded accusation, inadequate legal representation, illogical incarceration, resultant trauma and anger, subsequent delinquency, a downward spiral of poverty and injustice.

And then there’s the damage to whole communities when the ruling paradigm is incarceration, with the resultant ongoing consequences to families and to ex-offenders after they serve their time:
many return to find that Pennsylvania law prevents them from getting liscences to do certain types of work, prevents them from getting housing and sometimes bars them from entering their former neighborhoods altogether. These types of laws are known as "collateral consequences," and according to a national website that tracks them, Pennsylvania has nearly 1,000 of these restrictions.
"It's become almost like a sport for the legislators to create all these barriers," says Angus Love, a lawyer with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.  
There’s no simple fix to the compounded injustice that plagues our state, and our nation. Some states have moved to merit selection of judges. That would be a start. The House Judicial Committee will be hearing testimony Tuesday about HB 1336, which would remove the three statewide courts (Supreme, Superior, and Appellate) from partisan elections. 

Then there’s the statewide budget: we’re more than 100 days into a budget impasse between the PA legislature and governor. Buried in all the partisan spin is the reality that the budget proposed by the legislature provides ample funding for prisons and little redress of major cuts to education which have left Pennsylvania with the most inequitable school funding in the country.

Add to that a complex structure of laws that strip poorcitizens of their rights while protecting the affluent and well connected, and a legislature far more interested in preserving partisan power than addressing inequities of education, policing, or access to justice.

Again, I pause to listen to the voices in my head: you think too much.

Really, who can expect us to pay attention to this?

What does anyone know about voting for judges, or legislators, or any other of the myriad of offices Pennsylvania sends our way for election?

That’s the hoped for response.

From the two-party machine that works hard to keep us voting the party line.

From the party leaders who reward compliance with nominations and legislative leadership positions.

From the deep pockets that fund the process in expectation of allegiance from judges and legislators who dance to keep them happy.

Years ago our rector Martyn Minns, then lead pastor of Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, asked the congregation to join him in memorizing Luke 4:18 to 21, Jesus' public reading from Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
Breaking Chains

    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
  and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Our church had gained recognition for its support for the pro-life movement. Martyn insisted that our care for the weak and powerless should go far beyond that to provision for the homeless, welcome for the stranger, proclamation of freedom for those imprisoned, sturdy opposition to all forces of oppression. 

I’m encouraged to see the Pennsylvania Council of Churches call attention to justice in its annual gathering this week, titled “Lord, Let Our Eyes Be Opened: Breaking the Chains of Mass Incarceration.” 

For those of us who can’t attend, there are still ways to engage.  Our local League of Women Voters started investigating criminal justice in PA last year. Since then, I’ve repented - often - of my years of inattention, and worked hard to understand the issues and possible solutions.

A readable introduction is Human Rights Watch's Nation Behind Bars, which offers a clear overview of the problem, and recommendations for change. 

For a book length discussion, check Michelle Alexander’s highly recommended The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

And there are plenty of organizations providing information and opportunities to engage. I follow DecarceratePA, the Sentencing Project, the Vera Institute of Justice, the Justice Policy Institute, and Justice Fellowship, led for years by a friend, Dan Van Ness, who still attends Truro Church. 

The first step in change is to understand, to pay attention, to care at least a little.

And vote. This year’s election will set the tone of the PA Supreme Court for decades to come.

Check the Pennsylvania Bar Association recommendations found on PAVoteSmart, and link from there to candidates answers to questions. Find out more through the League of Women Voters of PA’s statewide Voters’ Guide.

 Justice matters.

There are lives hanging in the balance. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Final Synchroblog

For the last four years I’ve been part of a group called Synchroblog, a loose community of bloggers responding each month to a question or topic. That group is ending, after almost a decade of sharing posts and encouraging each other in faith and writing.  I’ve enjoyed many of the voices I’ve met through Synchroblog, been challenged by some, frustrated by others. As with any other conversation, there have been times when the prompts seemed random or strangely off-target, and other times when a question or idea has opened new vistas, or drawn my thoughts in an unexpected, rewarding new direction.

The final prompt, for this month’s Synchroblog, is this: “If this was my last blog post, here’s what I would say…”

I’ve been rolling that question around in my head. I do occasionally wonder if it’s time to bring my blog to an end: why do I do it? Is it worth the time and effort?

I started as a form of spiritual discipline, as a way to focus research or bring a thought to conclusion. I am an abstract random thinker, with a hyper-link mind; it’s too easy for me to leap from idea to idea without ever attempting to organize my thoughts.

Rather quickly, though, I came to see blogging  as an expansion of voice, a place to say what I wanted to say, without needing permission, without asking what the audience might want, or looking for ways to monetize the outcome. After years of submitting short stories that didn’t fit a narrowly defined audience, multiple rejections of novels that would never be best sellers, sending off youth ministry articles and not even the courtesy of response, it felt good to write a blog post, proof it myself, and then hit Publish.

That still feels good. But beyond that, I found in blogging an interesting new community and place of conversation. Synchroblog at its best contributed to that: the goal was always to read each other’s posts, offer comment, reflect on the ways different bloggers approach the same question from such very different places.  

Social scientists write about “the third place,” a place that isn’t home, isn’t work, where people find community and conversation happens. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz built his coffee empire on that vision: coffees shops that provide 
A place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home. . .
Our mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time. 
I’ve had some good conversations over Starbucks coffee.

And I’ve had some good conversations through Synchroblog.

But I find myself looking past the goal of “good conversation” towards something deeper.

Here’s the question behind the question: how do we really learn to listen?

And how do we wedge open our carefully wrapped assumptions to hear the voices that fall outside our range of frequency?

I had hoped, some years ago, that blogging, and the Internet itself, would provide an avenue for genuine dialogue on topics that divide us.

More often, it seems a giant echo chamber, where we all find voices that mirror our own, cut off or ignore those that say things we’d rather not hear.

We speak before we listen, write more than we read, label then dismiss.

As part of my blogging life, I try, every six months or so, to take time to look for other voices I should hear. And I ask, often, over coffee with friends or past colleagues or students, “What should I be reading?”

One younger friend recommended Vinoth Ramachandra, a friend of her parents, Sri Lankan ay theologian, thinker, speaker, blogger.

Another messaged me: Read Christian Winan, poet, and author of moving memoir My Bright Abyss.

Synchroblog led me to kathy escobar, “pastor, writer, advocate, speaker, rule-breaker, pot-stirrer, dreamer”.  She often says things I wish I'd had the courage to say, or describes her church and ministry in ways that prompt renewed prayer and hope. 

Frustrated googling led me to other voices, including Austin Channing, a blogger “passionate about the work of racial justice and reconciliation, especially as modeled and led by women."

Channing has been posting lately about anger: anger at injustice, racism, sexism, oppression, at forces that try to define and deny experiences and emotions that don’t fit the acceptable, agreed-on narrative.

from kathy escobar | love. justice. mercy
Reading her recent work, I’m reminded why I blog, why I read blogs: because the mainstream media too often misses the point.

Because the strongest, clearest voices are those that won’t bring a profit, or entertain a crowd.

Because God calls us, all, to be agents of reconciliation, to cry out for justice, to speak truth to power in whatever way we can find.

But to return to theSynchroblog prompt, “If this was my last blog post, what would I say?”

I pray, often, about continuing this blog. Is it the best use of the time invested? Is the fruit commensurate to the effort?

Some days I wonder. Some days I ponder an exit plan.

Then someone mentions something I posted, comments on a point I made, asks a question, reminds me that although my voice is small, it’s heard.

And will be heard.

Synchroblog or not.

Blog or not.

Vocal chords or not.

What I’d say, on the last post, next to last, in some way in every post, in my work and words each day:
God is a God of love and justice.

His love is made clear in our labor for justice.

His love is felt best when we serve him completely.

When we mistreat creation, shut out the stranger, diminish the other, reject the gifts of women, give preference to the powerful and rich, we distance ourselves from God himself and from the blessings he has promised.

There are just two things that matter:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, mind, being. 

And love your neighbor – every distant, voiceless neighbor – as yourself.

Links to other Synchroblog posts;

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Government: By Us or Against Us?

U.S. Gun Policy: Global Comparisons, 
Counsel on Foreign Relations
Is government “us” or “them”?

Is government with us, by us, part of us, or is it some alien force, out to get us, quietly working against us?

This week I was grieving – again – the loss of life on a college campus, and the casual “stuff happens” response of some of our national leaders.

Thinking again of the way Australia responded to concern about misuse of guns: just twelve days after a mass shooting in 1996, a new, conservative Prime Minister and moderate coalition government joined their people in deciding “we aren’t going to let this happen again.” New laws were quickly passed restricting ownership of automatic and rapid-fire weapons, and a buyback program collected over 700,000 guns, at a cost of over 230 million dollars. Guns are still permitted for farmers, hunters, and other approved uses, with strict regulations about storage, licensing, and purchase. There hasn’t been a mass killing in Australia since, and records show a speedy and lasting decline in gun deaths throughout the country.

Talk to Australians, and there’s no sense at all that “they” took our guns. There is great pride in the decision to value human life over the right to own assault guns, and pride in a government that worked so quickly to express the grief and concern of a strong national majority.

Here, every discussion on tighter regulation of guns prompts cries that  “they” want to take our guns, while others grieve that “they” won’t do anything to protect our kids from an overflow of weapons in the hands of angry men.

Are we “them”?

In recent travels in both Finland and Sweden, in brief conversations about politics and social policy, I was struck with how close the speakers seemed to the practice and policy of their countries. There is a sense of “we”, a pride in what “we” have decided and carry out.

In Sweden, for instance, “we” – by law – provide in-home care for anyone over 65. Activities, household help, hot meals, transportation, health care: all needed services are provided at a low fee for those who can pay, and are free for those who can’t.  Sweden leads the world in percent of GDP invested in elder care, and is considered a global leader in health care for the aged.

In Finland, “we” practice “jokamiehenoikeus:” “every person’s right” or “freedom to roam.” The right to private property is carefully balanced against the individual’s right to wander freely on open land, pick flowers, wild fruit and mushrooms, camp, swim, and enjoy the natural beauty of the Finnish countryside. There is no sense that a far-off “they” is depriving property owners of rights. Instead, there’s a shared pride in the way rights have been carefully balanced to ensure a common value.

Some of that sense of shared ownership of decisions could be traced to the size of those countries. And sure, some of it may be my idealized simplification of two beautiful countries I’d love to spend more time in.
U.S. Voter Turnout Trails Most Developed Countries, Pew Research

Yet it's also undeniably the case that citizens of Finland, Sweden and Australia are far more closely engaged in the political practice of their nations than the average American citizen. All three are consistently among top ten nations for percent of population voting in national elections. Meanwhile, the US has been consistently sinking toward the bottom of that ranking. Less than half of us voted in the 2014 elections. Many of of us aren’t even registered: 51 million people, almost one in four.

Which may go a long way toward explaining our sense of government as “them,” “other”, even, too often, the enemy: trying to take our guns, steal our money, tell us what to do.

Australian commentator Michael Pearse praised and critiqued President Obama’s speech this week calling for response to our epidemic of gun violence: 
In his very fine speech this morning, full of sorrow and frustration, President Obama made a mistake: Australia is not like the United States. We decided not to be.
We decided to grow up instead and become a more reasonable, rational society that explicitly values human life and prefers to think the best of people, rather than the worst. 
The US is too immature a society to be allowed to play with guns. It has never shed its Wild West mythology. Americans still use their courts to kill people, which sends a message in its own way. Read The New Yorker's account of the Rodricus Crawford case and see a state that thinks taking a life is a no big deal. It's a country that values property more than life.
Unlike the US, we collectively decided to have a decent social safety net, the concept of a living wage and make good education freely available. Most of us are wary of those with extreme views of any kind. . . .
Unlike Australia, the US is at war with itself, strongly divided on racial, religious, political and social lines. We have our problems, significantly worse in some places than others, but overall our gaps are bridgeable. The US seems to prefer to use its societal chasms as moats and defend their borders. 
I’m on the board of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, and this year I’ve become director of both Election Reform and Social Media. I’ve been happily helping to promote Pennylvania’s recent inauguration of Online Voter Registration, but also digging around in laws and regulations to try to understand the many impediments to informed voter involvement.

Take this simple issue of voter registration. Many democracies register citizens automatically. If every citizen has a number (like our Social Security number) and every number has a birth date, it’s a simple matter, in this age of computers, to generate lists of all eligible voters, and to maintain accurate records of where those voters live.

Both Finland  and Sweden, like most democracies in developed nations, have this type of universal, automatic registration.

In Australia, voter registration is mandatory, and voting is compulsory. Elections are overseen by non-partisan election commissions, and district boundaries are drawn by independent, non-partisan commissions.

The US model of voter registration depends on a fraying network of public and non-profit agencies, with many opportunities for error in reading illegible handwriting, possible fraud by partisan groups who have been known to collect registration forms then “lose” those indicating affiliation with the opposing party, simple clerical error.

Universal registration, according to any study ever done, is less costly, less prone to error or fraud, and more conducive to voter involvement.  

An analysis of registration practices by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance notes: 
The most often excluded or non-included populations, by law or de facto, are peasants, ethnic minorities, women, the illiterate and the poor. With the exception of a few countries, disenfranchisement around the world today tends to be more a matter of degree and of practice than of a legal phenomenon. . . .
A very sensitive question is why registration is sometimes difficult for eligible voters. International experience indicates that complicated and costly registration procedures are usually put in place for two main reasons: a) an intent by governments to prevent or discourage certain groups from voting (e.g., peasants, urban slum dwellers, ethnic groups, women); and b) the complexities of identifying eligible populations after civil conflicts (e.g., displaced persons, refugees, exiles), including situations where the mere spelling of names may be a problem (e.g., Cambodia, Western Sahara, Kosovo).  
It's sobering to think that the US would be on the list of nations making registration difficult , yet it's true that much legislative energy (and public expense) is spent on producing and debating laws that would exclude eligible citizens. Voter ID laws, “English only laws,” narrowing of election hours, obstacles to absentee ballots.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed in response to events in Selma, Alabama and the advocacy work of many civil rights leaders and groups, bans racial discrimination in voting practices by the federal government as well as by state and local governments. It opened the door to enfranchisement of millions of minority voters and helped diversify the electorate and legislative bodies at all levels of American government.

Congress reauthorized the VRA four times, most recently in 2006, when both the House and the Senate approved the measure overwhelmingly in a bipartisan manner after extensive hearings and collection of more than 15,000 pages of testimony documenting the continued need for vigilance regarding discriminatory election practices.

But in 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the VRA which required jurisdictions with a past history of discriminatory practice to apply for preclearance on any new election legislation.

Groups around the country are asking for a Voting Rights Amendment to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the VRA, and to address continuing discriminatory practices.

But real government by the people, for the people would go far beyond VRA provisions.

Various democracy watchdogs and think tanks have identified many ways to engage citizens and make participation in government easier:

Universal registration would be an obvious first step.

Next: no excuse absentee ballots.

Extended voting hours.

Vote by mail.

Non-partisan redistricting efforts.

Primaries which allow participation by third-party or unaffiliated voters.

Help for voters with disabilities or trouble reading English.

Public funding of elections so less wealthy candidates have a chance.

There have been many strong, sensible bills introduced into Congress and state legislatures around the country that would make registration and voting easier, ensure every vote counts, motivate voters.

In some states those bills pass. In many, they’re blocked. Or, as here in Pennsylvania, sent to die in committees overseen by party leaders disinterested in real democracy.

It’s interesting to see who votes for and against those bills.

Who is working hard to provide government “of the people, for the people.”

Who is working hard to ensure a game of “us” and “them."

I’m not usually willing to be a single issue voter.

But this year? On the question of expanded or contracted franchise?

I'll be voting for those who believe in "we the people."