Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday Reading

Modern Mythology — Garrett Epps of The Atlantic looks at the bogus claims about what is and isn’t in the Constitution.

Constitutional argumentation is a means Americans employ to keep from killing each other. Ridiculous claims about the Constitution, then, may often be a sign of political health rather than sickness.

So it’s not surprising that, as we lurch toward summer, the national air is filled with claims about the “plain meaning” and “clear intent” of the Constitution; it’s also not surprising that the “plain meaning” asserted isn’t usually to be found in the actual text, and the “clear intent” supported often has no foundation in the actual history.

But even so, the last time I remember hearing so many dangerous and bogus claims about the Constitution, I was a boy in the segregated South listening to my elders explain that the Commonwealth of Virginia had the power to pass a statute “nullifying” Brown v. Board of Education. That experience taught me to be suspicious of grand claims about the secret meaning of the Constitution (such as the eerily familiar claim, advanced earlier this month in federal court, that the Commonwealth of Virginia has the power to pass a statute nullifying the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act); it also taught me that at some point, constitutional arguments may lead to, rather than prevent, blood in the streets.

The constitutional bosh propounded by charlatans like James J. Kilpatrick during the Civil Rights era was aimed at convincing the nation that racial equality was unconstitutional–instead of being, as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments make clear, commanded by the amended Constitution. Those arguments live on under the surface of the bilge peddled by figures from Glenn Beck to Tom Coburn.

But the current far-right campaign is aimed at an even broader target: it seeks to convince us that the Constitution somehow forbids the United States from becoming a modern nation-state, with an integrated economy, a rational health-care system, a unified national citizenship, an open electoral process, and a system of bedrock civil and political rights.

The Constitution isn’t the only document that breeds mythological interpretations. Nicholas Kristof has a short quiz on the Bible and examines how misinterpretations and intentionally misleading deceptions have distorted its meaning. The only reason it matters is that a lot of people, including legislators, Congressional representatives, and people in power have taken to interpreting the Constitution through the lens of the Bible. They’re using fables and faerie stories to turn the foundation of our nation into some bizarre mix of legal legerdemain and bigotry.

More below the fold.

Fertilizing Grass-Roots Education — The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending a lot of money promoting new initiatives in education in America. Does it come with a price?

For years, Bill Gates focused his education philanthropy on overhauling large schools and opening small ones. His new strategy is more ambitious: overhauling the nation’s education policies. To that end, the foundation is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.

In some cases, Mr. Gates is creating entirely new advocacy groups. The foundation is also paying Harvard-trained data specialists to work inside school districts, not only to crunch numbers but also to change practices. It is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.

“We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive systemic changes,” said Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program. “The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next five or six years, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.

Given the scale and scope of the largess, some worry that the foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought, while others express concerns about transparency. Few policy makers, reporters or members of the public who encounter advocates like Teach Plus or pundits like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute realize they are underwritten by the foundation.

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who said he received no financing from the foundation.

Mr. Hess, a frequent blogger on education whose institute received $500,000 from the Gates foundation in 2009 “to influence the national education debates,” acknowledged that he and others sometimes felt constrained. “As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct,” he said. “There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation.”

Open For Business — Fred Grimm on the gold rush in Tallahassee.

News out of Tallahassee might have been bleak with stuff about cutbacks and layoffs and desiccated budgets for education and public services. But for private companies looking to scarf up public money, the 2011 legislative session was more like an outing in Disney World.

The Legislature kept discovering new and exciting ways to funnel taxpayer money into private bank accounts. Privatization, a kind of right-wing socialism, became all the rage.

Lawmakers decided to privatize prisons and other Department of Corrections operations, though only in the politically safe 18 counties nestled at the southern end of Florida (so much for 1,751 DOC workers). Private medical contractors will take over health services for the entire state prison system.

Most of the state’s three million Medicaid recipients will be pushed into for-profit HMOs, despite profound problems with the HMO model in the state’s five-county pilot program.

The Legislature cut education funding by $1.5 billion but created a mighty business opportunity for the educational testing industry. A new law tosses out teacher tenure and links merit pay to the end-of-the-year standardized tests. In all courses. Not just the old FCAT classes. Which means each school district will need lots of expensive new standardized tests and study guides and grading services. The first year of a similar merit pay plan in North Carolina cost the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District $1.9 million.

Rep. Luis Garcia of Miami captured the essence of this peculiar strain of capitalism back in March, when the Legislature was still debating the merit pay bill. “This bill will be a bonanza for the private companies that make their money grading tests but will do nothing for teachers or our children’s education.”

Each district must pay for its own testing regime, but the state budgeted $41 million to pay a private contractor to compile a statewide test bank. “Bank” here refers to a collection of suggested questions and answers in the various courses that the school districts can access. Not to the honey pot of public money awaiting some lucky testing firm. Robert Schaeffer, public education director of The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), called the merit pay bill “a boon for the testing industry.”

Sen. Nan Rich of Weston noted that the new education law also mandated, oddly, that each student enroll in at least one on-line computer course as a graduation requirement. “That’s a nice little prize for somebody.” She said the private, for-profit companies will relish a chance to stage the low-overhead virtual courses that, under the new law, don’t require a certified teacher to administer the course, or even a physical office in the state.

There’s nothing wrong with private business getting into doing this kind of work if it can be shown that it’s more efficient and less expensive than having it done in the public sector. But that’s a big “If,” and so far no one has proven that it is. But most importantly, no one has shown that the end result — a better education for all of Florida’s students at a lower cost — is anything more than a myth and a sales pitch.

Doonesbury — making the case.