Fight Over Funding the Status Quo

It’s April which means Fairfax County is now coming to the end of the annual school budget fight civil discussion of priorities between the school district (formerly known as both the overly-large school district and my employer) and the county Board of Supervisors.

The continuing conflict that usually comes to a temporary resolution every May arises because our local school board has no authority to raise it’s own local money. They get some funding directly from the state and from federal government programs, but most of their budget comes the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (in something known as the “transfer”).

Early in the budgeting process, the school superintendent starts by laying out the district’s “increasing needs”, tossing out some numbers that will make everything run smoothly, and warning about the programs that could be cut or canceled without full funding. Soon after the supervisors, working totally independently, announce how much money they can afford transfer to the district (and accuse the superintendent of being irrational).

Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots

After a couple of months of back and forth, the school board ignores the supervisors and puts together a budget for the next year based on those “needs” and other priorities. Of course, the amounts don’t match (in the past five years, I don’t remember them even being close) and both sides ramp up the hype.

School supporters take to local news media and social network channels, attempting to build community pressure on the Board to increase their figure. The superintendent talks about larger class sizes and diminished programs (sometimes even threatening to take away the Friday night gladiator matches, aka high school football), which she says will lead to a mediocre education for the kids.

On the other side, Board members make a lot of pronouncements about the county coffers being empty with nothing more to give, and lecturing school administrators on the concept of living within their means (file that under the heading: do as I say, not as I do).

Both sides are right to some degree. And are also full of crap.

The community in which we live is one of the richest in the nation (second or third depending on who you ask). At the same time, the vast majority of people living here don’t have kids in school and so have no direct interest in one side of the fight. Which means the two top priorities, for most residents as well as most Board members, are keeping taxes as low as possible and keeping the value of their property as high as possible.1

Those Board members know very well that raising taxes – any taxes – is likely to cost them their job; at least attract a very strong challenge to unseat them. And, since we already have “good” schools, at least according to the usual statistical measures, the perceived corrolation between that and property values is already assured. At least until the next election. All is good here in Lake Wobegon.

On the superintendent’s side of things, the school population continues to grow at around 4000 to 5000 students each year. And increasing numbers of students in the system are non English speakers, qualify for low income benefits, or require special education services (or combinations of those categories), all of which add to the cost of running the district. Add in the pressures of providing decent pay and the increasing cost of benefits and you get a lot of upward pressures on increasingly tight budgets.

However, even if the school board got all the funds they asked for, the money is largely paying for very conventional educational programs. Although the superintendent promises “innovation”, preparing “global citizens”, and “creative” solutions to the system’s problems, her plans include very little change in the basic structure of the school process – curriculum, instructional practice, standardized test-based student assessment. Nothing different from what it was in more flush times ten years ago.

School administrators and the politicians who allocate the funding for them should be working together to find alternatives to the way things have always been done. Are there alternative models of “school” that work better for kids with differing interests and skills? Are there alternatives to property taxes that make paying for an educated society more reliable and equitable? Can we make schools more valuable than just supporting property values to the general public? Maybe by integrating schools with those communities in ways that benefit even those who have no children in the system?

I don’t have all the answers but it doesn’t seem as if either side in this debate is even asking the questions.

Instead we have school leaders fighting to fully fund the status quo in an education system that is still riding its successes from twenty years ago 2. And community leaders who are satisfied with schools that are “good enough”, as long as the property tax stays the same, and the Friday night football game starts on time.

Where It All Started

I am a big fan of the writing of Neil Postman. His 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co-authored with Charles Weingartner) was a major influence early in my teaching career and the concepts he discussed in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1988) only seem to get more real and frightening thirty years later.

In a recent post, Larry Cuban reprinted a talk Postman gave in 1998 titled Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change, based on his “thirty years of studying the history of technological change”. It’s full of sharp ideas and well worth your time to read. But this observation of American education seems especially prescient.

Who, we may ask, has had the greatest impact on American education in this century? If you are thinking of John Dewey or any other education philosopher, I must say you are quite wrong. The greatest impact has been made by quiet men in grey suits in a suburb of New York City called Princeton, New Jersey. There, they developed and promoted the technology known as the standardized test, such as IQ tests, the SATs and the GREs. Their tests redefined what we mean by learning, and have resulted in our reorganizing the curriculum to accommodate the tests. [emphasis mine]

Remember, this predates the glorification of standardized testing that was No Child Left Behind, although it was about the same period in which the Texas education “miracle” of George W. Bush and his first education secretary Rod Paige (then Houston superintendent), the godfather of NCLB, was taking shape.

Postman follows that accurate assessment of where our current educational system was born with this equally accurate assessment on the birthplace of 21st century American politics.

A second example concerns our politics. It is clear by now that the people who have had the most radical effect on American politics in our time are not political ideologues or student protesters with long hair and copies of Karl Marx under their arms. The radicals who have changed the nature of politics in America are entrepreneurs in dark suits and grey ties who manage the large television industry in America. They did not mean to turn political discourse into a form of entertainment. They did not mean to make it impossible for an overweight person to run for high political office. They did not mean to reduce political campaigning to a 30-second TV commercial. All they were trying to do is to make television into a vast and unsleeping money machine. That they destroyed substantive political discourse in the process does not concern them. [emphasis mine]

A one-paragraph explanation of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Fearing the Fear Itself

We here in the US are heading into yet another “election year” in 2016. And it would be nice if everyone kept these thoughts from the brilliant Charlie Pierce in mind as we withstand the flood of fear mongering from the candidates who want to lead us.

If you want to see what losing the war on terror really looks like, don’t look to the Middle East. Instead, watch the television commercials approved by the various Republican presidential candidates. The three Democratic candidates are better, but not by much.

The fact is that you can’t win a “war” on terror any more than you can win a “war” on hate or a “war” on any other easily activated human emotion, if there are enough powerful institutions that can profit from its activation. It’s really up to the rest of us, as active citizens in a self-governing republic, to keep things in perspective about the genuine dangers and the fantastical ones by which other people profit. There are genuine threats to our safety–bridges near collapse, gas leaks that may ruin a whole town, the unfettered access to firearms and the readiness to use them. That should be inspiration enough for We, The People to fulfill our pledge to each other to provide for the common defense and to promote the general welfare. John Quincy Adams was only half-right; if America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy, then it ought not to create them here at home, either.

I wish we had more of those “active citizens”, instead of media-created “average” Americans. People who passively accept the ominously-voiced crap dispensed in 30-second bursts of political advertising as fact. Along with the ratings-bait fair and balanced “debates” that substitute for civic dialog in this country.

The Rising Tide

Politicians in the US have set up the topic of global climate change as a “fair and balanced” debate between two well-supported sides, with a willing assist from news media that love a good fight.

It’s nothing of the sort. You can quibble with the details but there’s just too much credible research piled up leading to the conclusion that the waste products of modern human society are changing the world’s atmosphere, and not for the better.

Rather than jumping into the findings from the 90 something percent of scientists who understand this issue, the writer of a long, and very scary, story in New Yorker Magazine starts with the very personal story from an area of the country that will be heavily impacted by the rising tide: Miami-Dade County, Florida. For them, flooding from rising seas is a matter of when, not if.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of this century. The United States Army Corps of Engineers projects that they could rise by as much as five feet; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts up to six and a half feet. According to Wanless [Hal Wanless, the chairman of the University of Miami’s geological-sciences department], all these projections are probably low. In his office, Wanless keeps a jar of meltwater he collected from the Greenland ice sheet. He likes to point out that there is plenty more where that came from.

“Many geologists, we’re looking at the possibility of a ten-to-thirty-foot range by the end of the century,” he told me.

In the Miami area “the average elevation is just six feet above sea level”. There are other cities along the American coasts in similar circumstances, not to mention a large part of the rest of the earth.

Many of the world’s largest cities sit along a coast, and all of them are, to one degree or another, threatened by rising seas. Entire countries are endangered–the Maldives, for instance, and the Marshall Islands. Globally, it’s estimated that a hundred million people live within three feet of mean high tide and another hundred million or so live within six feet of it. Hundreds of millions more live in areas likely to be affected by increasingly destructive storm surges.

Unfortunately, too many people in South Florida, and I suspect elsewhere, are counting on the rapid development of new technologies to protect coastal areas, or even reverse the impact of climate change.

“I think people are underestimating the incredible innovative imagination in the world of adaptive design,” Harvey Ruvin, the Clerk of the Courts of Miami-Dade County and the chairman of the county’s Sea Level Rise Task Force, said when I went to visit him in his office.

I’m not sure faith in an “incredible innovative imagination in the world of adaptive design” is going to be enough. Imagination will probably not spare the people of Miami and elsewhere from our incredibly short-sighted “leaders” who are more interested in the next election or next quarter’s profits.

Anyway, there is much more to this very complex issue, more than can be addressed even in a long article. But this one is a good overview and well worth your time. Maybe even send it to one of those politicians who still believe there are two sides to this issue.

The Magic of Technology

I haven’t been paying much attention to the perpetual presidential campaign, beyond Stephen Colbert’s brilliant Hungry for Power Games segments and a few other trusted sources.

One of which is Wired, where a recent short post offers a few examples of just how clueless our national leadership really is when it comes to technology. In that article, the writer highlights some crazy ideas (out of many more I’m sure) that came from the most recent Republican debate.

Like Donald Trump’s idea about “closing areas” of the internet “where we are at war with somebody”. As with many things he says, this proposal is very short on details.

It’s not exactly clear what Trump means by “closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” and we’re not exactly sure Trump knows what he means, either. Our best guess is that he’s saying it’s possible for the US to shut down Internet access in countries like Syria. That’s problematic, not only because it would shut off millions of innocent people from the Internet, but also because the US simply doesn’t control the Internet in countries like Syria, and neither do US companies.

Then we have former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina who claimed that the tech industry would be “happy” to assist intelligence agencies like the NSA in the “war on terror” (just as she did at HP, apparently by agreeing to sell them a bunch of servers), it’s just that no one has asked them.

But the bigger problem is Fiorina’s assertion that the tech community hasn’t been asked to be part of this work. In reality, government has not only asked technologists to be part of the counterterrorism effort, it’s begged them. Just last week President Obama called on tech companies to work with law enforcement in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack. Meanwhile, FBI director James Comey urged companies like Apple to reconsider end-to-end encryption.

But those were just the most recent appeals in the encryption battle that has been building between Silicon Valley and Washington DC. For years, tech companies like Apple and Google have fought tirelessly against government proposals that would require them to build so-called “backdoors” into their encrypted technology. They argue that this would make their technology–and their users vulnerable–and so far at least, they’ve won.

Hopefully, they will continue to win the fight against those “backdoors”, since there’s no such thing as an opening that only good guys can use. Plus it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad.

But no matter. The other candidates on stage “with the exception of, perhaps, Cruz and Senator Rand Paul” also “seem far more interested in restoring the country’s surveillance capabilities than they are in protecting Americans’ privacy.”

Finally, it’s not exactly current technology but when it comes to “carpet bombing” and fighting ISIS, at least one candidate has a lot of catching up to do, not to mention with the legal and moral issues involved.

The biggest problem in all this, however, is that far too many of our leaders, on that debate stage and elsewhere, are ignorant of the internet, digital encryption, and more. They seem to ascribe magical properties to the technology, believing that just using the authority of the president, technology can be used to shape the world to fit their vision.