Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Tactful Hypocrite

The World Cup, and more specifically its international organizing body, FIFA, has come under immense scrutiny leading up to its 2014 iteration in Brazil. Most criticisms of the situation are aimed at the host country’s inability to provide adequate hospitals, schools, and shelter to its citizens while FIFA, a tax exempt non-profit organization that is expected to rake in $4 billion plunders what it can from its host nations. The tournament’s conclusion will see FIFA leave the host country with a projected $15 billion tab but with beautiful new stadiums that history has shown have little utility once the games have been completed. All this while the vast majority of Brazilians live in an underdeveloped nation where, according to Pew Research they cite their most pressing concerns are crime, government corruption, and healthcare.

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I’ve seen City of God. I know how this ends, and it isn’t good.

Late night comedian John Oliver had an especially poignant if not sardonic (let’s just say I did reputably on the SATs) take on FIFA. I won’t rehash any more of it, but in the end he remarks that he will still watch the games because ultimately he is passionate about the product/sport. Like a drug dealer that knows he’s got the best product around, FIFA essentially has free reign to charge whatever it wants to obtain the largest profit (see: Qatar). It can make ridiculous demands as countries bid for the prestige and exclusivity that comes with being a World Cup host. That irony isn’t lost on me, in which citizens protesting this “coveted” honor have their elected government sending out its own soldiers to protect, well not the nation’s but someone’s interest.

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I am not a huge soccer fan but I will watch some of the World Cup. I image that there are a lot of people that aren’t happy with how FIFA conducts its business but will keep their eyes glued to the TV regardless. After all, it is the most widely viewed sporting event in the world by a large margin so this is the biggest game out there in terms of advertising revenue. I fear that if the Philadelphia Phillies were found to be using sweat shop labor to make their frog lawn accessories I still don’t think I could let myself root for another team—some sacrifices are non-negotiable. But why is this and what is the conscientious sports fan to do? Should I swear not to purchase any products I see advertised during the World Cup for a year? Or should it be two? Maybe I should just agree to only buy the competitor’s products (hello RC Cola, Powerade and Hydrox!) for a time. If I truly wanted to stay away from companies that promote suffering in the world be it directly or indirectly, I’d be a) spending a lot of time doing research and b) lead a much more bland lifestyle. If I don’t wish to separate myself from all companies that promote harm, at what point do I say, “I’m okay with the level of public harm that is caused by Target, but I won’t dare touch any Nike products”?

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What John Oliver doesn’t quite approach but hints at during his monologue is a real problem for those who wish to promote the greater good. For many people to watch the World Cup and turn a blind eye is as easy as can be. For some, like the Danish reporter who got paid to be in Brazil to cover the tournament, he could no longer cover the sport while stomaching the idea of the destruction that FIFA and the government are causing to line the pockets of the few. FIFA is a prime example of a dilemma presented to the public in which an entity that controls a popular and addictive product could be performing a net disservice to the world. Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, has become the corrupt, sycophantic face of much of the ire. There have been calls on him to not seek re-election as FIFA President, but Sepp, being the consummate professional, has no plans to step down or cease his attempt at being elected for a 5th term. And why should he? FIFA has been widely criticized for its vast—and quite honestly, impressive—displays of alleged corruption for years but people keep coming back in record numbers to watch the sport they love. Changing heads of this often-called mob-run organization will do little to change its destructive ways. If anything, FIFA will find less overt ways to extract money and resources from nations, and perhaps they will skim a little less of the top, but no doubt they will still leave poor nations worse off than before they arrived. This will subdue calls for the abolition of FIFA for a long enough time until people forget about the destruction in their wake.

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Of course FIFA is not the only party at fault, as politicians from the host country use the initial World Cup excitement as a platform on which to seek re-election or push through less than popular agendas. For countries like South Africa and Brazil (and perhaps Qatar in 2022), being awarded the World Cup is a signal to the rest of the world that your country is an official player in geopolitics. Never mind the crumbling infrastructure, protests, and mass strikes, Brazil as a part of the BRIC economies was on its way to playing with the big boys as far as world leaders believe, but now, almost as importantly, it is cemented in the minds of the international public too.

How can I criticize these entities’ clear apathy towards the treatment of the poorer citizens of their host country, even find ways to profit off of it, yet participate in the excitement and pageantry that this spectacle has become? Justifying watching the games at a bar is just one way. Telling myself that I’m not tuning in on my own TV and ratings companies have no way of tracking that I am indeed contributing as one out of those hundreds of millions of viewers. That doesn’t sound so bad actually. I could also justify that not wearing a few pieces of Nike clothing won’t shut the sweatshop down so it couldn’t be all that bad. If everyone thought this way then of course activism wouldn’t accomplish much and corporate interests would consistently triumph.

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Being aware of a cause, although perhaps not actively engaging in protests, writing letters to politicians, or boycotting their sources of funds holds value as well. As Malcolm Gladwell outlined in The Tipping Point, prior to blood doping becoming popular among bicyclists at the turn of the century, there was a time when many honest riders held off on cheating until they believed that they were no longer in the majority of being a clean athlete, or that they felt their chances of winning were too compromised not to cheat. This point from inaction to action (aptly termed the tipping point) can send a shockwave through a movement and can facilitate its growth exponentially. In his example, when the tipping point for doping was reached, a large number of bicyclists suddenly began to dope even though they were initially morally against or ambiguous towards it. There are personal decisions that I can make to try to speed up this point of no return for causes, but being preachy or a wet blanket at jovial events isn’t really as fun as it sounds. Oh I see you’re drinking a cold, refreshing Coke. Did you know Coke is alleged to be involved in murder and torture of union-affiliated employees over the past several decades in Guatemalan and Colombian bottling plants? See, moralizing kinda sucks for everyone involved. On the flip side, going to bed without a roof over your head and with an empty stomach in a dangerous favela also seems pretty sucky.

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Perhaps the salt in the wound for the poor and those that take advantage of the public works is that soccer is their game. One of the biggest reasons that soccer is so prevalent throughout the world is because a ball can be easily stitched together with all kinds of materials, it can be played nearly on any type of ground surface, and it is a fundamentally simple sport to pick up and play with virtually no learning curve. This is not ice hockey that FIFA is “forcing” countries to take on massive amounts of debt and build stadiums for. They aren’t erecting coliseums for polo. Soccer is their game that is getting marketed, re-branded, and sold back to the people for an exorbitant cost. It would somehow be more appropriate if FIFA was displaying games that didn’t interest the very people it screws.

Even in a country like the U.S. that has many adequate facilities already in place to be able to support a large, multi-city “mega-event” such as the World Cup, it doesn’t necessarily make economic sense to become a host. According to economics professor Dr. Dennis Coates in World Cup Economics, on whether the U.S. should seek the World Cup in 2022:

“A study of the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States found substantial lost output, with the final result showing that the pre-World Cup predictions were up to $13 billion off-target. The existing evidence of negative economic impact from other World Cups, combined with the self-interested motivation of the Bid Committee members and the lack of disclosure of the economic impact study all point to the conclusion that the US taxpayers are better off saying no to an expensive and secretive World Cup bid.”

This dilemma has no easy solution. The name of the game is deciding how much time/effort/money to put towards some causes while justifying to yourself that you don’t have enough time/effort/money to put into other causes. Do you go for the bigger national or international causes because they can help more people, or do you support the smaller or local ones because your contribution can have a greater impact? It’s a balancing act that I haven’t even come close to mastering. Perhaps you’d enjoy stretching yourself thin and just support every cause you believe in, while noble, that route isn’t for everybody. Even if boycotting the World Cup was shown to effectively change FIFA policies how many people have the will power to do so? When sympathizing with those being taken advantage of, it’s a tough decision that often gets overlooked. Everyone has that point that no matter how much you love a team or a product, when the company behind the brand does things that outweigh your personal satisfaction with that product, action needs to be taken. How thoroughly do we really want to investigate companies whose products we utilize? For soccer fans like Oliver it’s a cut and dry decision to watch the games, but more needs to be discussed about the struggle to find your own tipping point.

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Informed Student Advocates Pursue Reforms that, Unlike Vergara v. California, Actually Address Inequity

Judge Rolf Treu just ruled in favor of Students Matter in Vergara v. California, deeming teacher permanent status (commonly called “tenure”), due process protections for teachers with permanent status, and seniority-based layoffs unconstitutional.  Treu’s opinion unfortunately reflects a misunderstanding of education research and teacher employment law’s effects.  His decision also erodes labor protections without increasing the likelihood of an excellent education for students in low-income communities.

Reformer excitement about the ruling demonstrates how successfully the plaintiffs have conflated teacher employment law with the existence of ineffective teachers.  Informed advocates for low-income students and communities, on the other hand, are deeply disappointed because both ethical considerations and a thorough analysis of the case indicate the error in Treu’s findings.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) plans to appeal the decision and higher courts will hopefully see through the plaintiffs’ weak case.  No matter the appeal’s outcome, Treu’s opinion raises two issues considerably more significant for low-income students than teacher dismissal and layoff procedures:

1) Teacher evaluation and support practices: Treu wrote that 18+ months of employment is not “nearly enough time for an informed decision to be made regarding the decision of tenure,” arguing that administrator fear of permanent status deprives “teachers of an adequate opportunity to establish their competence.”  He wants “to have the tenure decision made after” California teachers finish BTSA, an induction program teachers must complete to clear their credentials, and he suggests a timeline of three to five years.

Treu is correct that some ineffective teachers are currently retained and some good teachers are currently dismissed under California’s system, but he’s wrong about the primary reason why.  Instead, inadequate approaches to teacher evaluation and a lack of quality teacher support have long hindered the development and retention of excellent teachers.  Nearly two years is far longer than a supervisor should need to evaluate teacher performance and potential for growth if evaluation systems provide frequent opportunities for meaningful feedback and support about specific teacher practices.

Unions and many reform organizations actually agree about the goals of teacher evaluation.  The New Teacher Project (TNTP), for example, believes that “the core purpose of evaluation must be maximizing teacher growth and effectiveness, not just documenting poor performance as a prelude to dismissal.”  Similarly, CTA believes that “the purpose of an effective teacher development and evaluation system is to inform, instruct and improve teaching and learning; to provide educators with meaningful feedback on areas of strength and where improvement is needed; and to ensure fair and evidence-based employment decisions.”  Though reformer support for the use of standardized test score results as a percentage of teacher evaluations may decrease teaching quality and detract from student learning, TNTP and CTA also agree about many areas in which evaluation practices need improvement: the training administrators receive on how to give meaningful feedback, the quality of professional growth plans and professional development opportunities, and the frequency and length of classroom observations.

Extending new teachers’ probationary periods indefinitely will not address the underlying causes of the problem Treu identifies.  In fact, the argument that two years isn’t “nearly enough time” implicitly grants license for administrative incompetence and practices that inadequately address new teachers’ professional needs.  Education stakeholders committed to developing and identifying great new teachers should instead pour their time, money, and energy into aligning evaluation and support systems with their goals.  San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) and the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA), for example, have invested in administrator training, evaluative consulting teachers with content-area teaching expertise, evaluation documents that more accurately define effective teaching and require narrative feedback, a Teacher Quality Panel consisting of both teacher and administrator members, and non-evaluative instructional coaching support.

2) School funding: Treu’s ruling erroneously considers Vergara v. California part of a historical record of education-related court cases including Brown v. Board of Education, Serrano v. Priest, and Butt v. California.  These three cases, unlike Vergara, dealt with undebatable and direct inequities in access to educational opportunity for low-income and minority students: segregated schools (Brown), inequitable access to school funding (Serrano), and inequitable access to a full school year (Butt).  Treu fails to note that, despite the Serrano case and the advent of California’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), major inequities in education funding persist in California today.

In 2012-2013, for example, SJUSD received approximately $9,000 per pupil in revenue.  During the same year, Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) received about 60% more money per pupil, approximately $14,500.  While California guarantees a certain amount of annual funding called a “revenue limit” to every school district in the state, some districts, like PAUSD, bring in property tax revenues that exceed the revenue limit.  These “basic aid” districts keep their excess property tax revenue and often pass parcel taxes that further increase the funding discrepancy between lower-income districts and their higher-income basic aid counterparts.

More funding is not a panacea for low-income schools – how districts spend their money determines its return – but research is clear that funding matters a great deal.  Politicians who cut education-related spending for poor communities often cite a 33-year-old study by Eric Hanushek to oppose equitable school funding, yet even Hanushek himself cautiously supports it.  Asked in a 2006 interview if “it’s a good idea to give very high-poverty districts more funding per pupil than an average district,” Hanushek responded: “I think so. I think you have to provide extra resources and help for kids who start at a lower point because of their backgrounds.”  It’s impossible to support educational equity and justify the funding discrepancy between SJUSD and PAUSD.

One of the most important provisions of the LCFF – the supplemental funding it provides to districts that serve high numbers of English language learners, students from low-income families, and students from foster homes – moves California in the right direction.  However, basic aid districts that have long been able to afford better resources for students will continue to exist.  Based on the case history Treu cites, one could construct a very strong case that the existence of basic aid districts violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the California Constitution.  Advocates for low-income students could also make an indirect equal protection case about Proposition 13’s effect on school funding disparities.  Unlike Vergara v. California, these cases could continue the tradition of Brown, Serrano, and Butt by remedying a clear instance of educational inequity.

Treu’s ruling also invites an analysis of the definition of appropriate due process.  The judge asserts that “[t]here is no question that teachers should be afforded reasonable due process when their dismissals are sought,” but he claims that current protections for teachers with permanent status constitute “uber due process.”  Treu proposes replacing teacher dismissal law with the rights guaranteed by the decision in Skelly v. State Personnel Board; because of Skelly, permanent employees facing dismissal must receive “notice of the proposed action, the reasons therefor, a copy of the charges and materials upon which the action is based, and the right to respond, either orally or in writing, to the authority initially imposing discipline.”

In essence, Skelly rights ensure that employers treat permanent employees with some semblance of courtesy and respect.  While Treu asserts that due process considerations are “entirely legitimate,” however, he forgets to mention that probationary teachers do not have Skelly rights; in California, probationary teachers can be non-reelected (fired) without cause.  Treu’s argument is completely contradictory given current law – he simultaneously contends that he believes in the concept of due process and that districts should be able to deprive people of it for three to five years.

Labor organizations support Skelly’s basic protections for all employees because of the extensive history of inappropriate employer practices and a belief in treating people fairly.  Due process protections should also include a requirement that administrators adequately support permanent teachers before attempting to dismiss them.  A support-first mindset is not only the most ethical approach, but it’s also important because, as Jack Schneider explains, “you don’t put…effective teacher[s] in every classroom by holding…sword[s] over their heads.  You do it by putting tools in their hands.”  Advocates for workers rights support streamlined dismissal processes for employees who are unwilling or unable to improve; the defendants in Vergara just know that society and schools benefit when employers are required to treat their employees like human beings.

Judge Treu accurately identifies a few key issues in his decision: administrators may struggle to identify quality teaching in fewer than two years, layoffs may deprive schools and students of stellar teachers, and teacher employment law may fail to grant teachers an appropriate amount of due process.  Unfortunately, Vergara v. California neither improves teacher evaluation and support practices nor rectifies the funding inequities that lead to layoffs and resource cutbacks in districts that serve low-income students.  The decision also ignores the complete lack of due process afforded to probationary teachers and fails to deliver a thoughtful recommendation about how to empower teachers to grow professionally.  Informed, honest student advocates who care more about “providing each child…with a basically equal opportunity to receive a quality education” than about destroying organized labor should therefore hope that an appeals court will reverse Treu’s decision.  In the meantime, they should begin work on reforms more likely to improve opportunities for low-income students.

Note: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on June 13.

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Political “Pragmatism” Undermines Progressive Goals

The Working Families Party (WFP) bills itself as “New York’s liveliest and most progressive political party.” Founded in 1998, the WFP sought to use fusion voting and community organizing to “hold politicians accountable” to an admirable set of progressive principles including but not limited to “full public financing of elections…community control and equitable funding of our schools …a guaranteed minimum income for all adults[, a] universal ‘social wage’ to include such basic benefits as health care, child care, vacation time, and lifelong access to education and training …[and a] progressive tax system based on the ability to pay.” For many years, the WFP successfully propelled progressive politicians like Bill de Blasio into elected office.

Unfortunately, however, WFP leaders have lost sight of the party’s original intentions. Despite vocal opposition from many members, the WFP voted on Saturday, May 31 to back Andrew Cuomo in his bid for reelection as New York’s governor. While Cuomo secured the endorsement by promising to support, among other things, a minimum wage hike, public funds for campaigns, and the Democratic Party’s attempt to win control of the state Senate, his actions as a first-term governor demonstrate his unwillingness to actually pursue a progressive economic agenda. He deserves some credit for driving New York’s recent gay rights and gun control legislation, but there’s a reason big business and Republicans love Cuomo: he has worked to dismantle the estate tax and pass massive additional tax cuts, significantly undermined de Blasio’s progressive education initiatives and opposed de Blasio’s proposal to raise New York City’s minimum wage, killed efforts to publicly finance elections, tried to lift a moratorium on fracking, and consistently trampled on other progressive values.

The WFP, in large part, has itself to blame for Cuomo’s anti-poor economic policy agenda – the WFP gave Cuomo its endorsement during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign despite Cuomo’s explicitly pro-corporate platform. The WFP’s endorsement then and decision to stick with Cuomo now illustrate how a misguided concept of political pragmatism, endemic in Left-leaning circles, makes progressive policy considerably less likely in the long run.

The WFP’s endorsement was driven in part by the belief that Zephyr Teachout, the WFP’s alternative candidate, would be extremely unlikely to win in a three-way election that included Cuomo and Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate. Similar concerns about candidate “electability” surface frequently during each Presidential election; pundits and party operatives insist that votes for third party candidates are wasted. Yet psychological research and poll data indicate that liberal voters routinely underestimate the number of other voters who share their policy preferences. Fewer voters care about electability than the media would have us believe and most Americans want the distribution of wealth in the United States to mirror the significantly more equitable distribution in Sweden. As evidenced by Seattle’s recent election of socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant, claims about who is and isn’t electable are self-fulfilling prophecies; third party candidates have a chance to win when we base our votes on candidate policy instead of our perception of candidate viability. Historical data suggests that a progressive third-party candidate could be particularly viable in the case of New York’s 2014 gubernatorial election.

Perhaps even more troubling is the message the endorsement sends to Cuomo and other politicians. Cuomo has spent the past three-and-a-half years actively undermining most of the WFP’s espoused principles; by granting Cuomo its support anyway, the WFP has given Cuomo license to ignore its legislative priorities during his second term.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2011, “telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any [politician] motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle” (a description that sadly fits most politicians) “will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional.” Greenwald’s argument applies just as appropriately to Cuomo and the WFP today as it did to Barack Obama and progressive Democrats three-and-a-half years ago. Like Left-wing Democratic support did for Obama in 2012, the WFP’s endorsement, as Salon’s Blake Zeff notes, will allow Cuomo “to make a mockery of the party’s entire priorities list and then waltz to re-election” in 2014.

When we continue to support Democrats who undermine progressive causes, we enable their behavior (comic from http://americanextremists.thecomicseries.com/comics/522).

The Working Families Party’s support for Cuomo mirrors progressive support for Obama in 2012 (comic from http://americanextremists.thecomicseries.com/comics/522)

Which is more important: the difference between mainstream Democrats (like Obama and Cuomo) and mainstream Republicans (like Mitt Romney and Astorino), or sending the message, loud and clear, that the failure to enact progressive policy will hurt politicians at the ballot box? Progressives who argue for a lesser-of-two-evils approach to electoral politics aren’t necessarily wrong – there’s probably enough of a difference (though not as much as most people think) between members of the two major political parties to impact some people’s lives. However, our essentially unconditional support for Democrats-by-name-only deprives us of the opportunity for meaningful challenges to American plutocracy in the long run. Until we draw a line in the sand and punish Democratic politicians who cross it, we’ll continue to get Cuomo- and Obama-style Democrats who actively exacerbate income inequality and further disadvantage people unlucky enough to be born poor.

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