Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Reading

Stopping Mass Killings — Tom Junod in Esquire says that everything we know about them is wrong.

NOBODY KNOWS who he is and nobody knows who he was. When he was a young man—a boy, really—his anonymity fueled his desperation, and for a short time his desperation made him known. He didn’t become famous the way other desperate and aggrieved young men have, but he made himself well-known enough to think that when he came home after eight and a half years in prison, there might be cameras waiting for him on his front lawn and people interested in asking him questions. There weren’t. There was just his family and the rest of his life.

So Trunk—a nickname he acquired when he went away—has returned to where he started out. He couldn’t be more unknown. He couldn’t be more anonymous. On the days he goes to college, he takes a bus. He walks a half hour to the bus stop, no matter the weather. He walks in the heat, he walks in the cold, he walks in the rain, he walks in the snow. The bus ride takes another forty-five minutes, and when he gets to the school, it’s also an anonymous affair—a small college attached to a state system and situated a long way from any major highway. He doesn’t care; he works hard at his studies and his academic record is immaculate. He has ambitions. He has friends. He does not mind being anonymous or feeling alone, because he feels accepted and has accepted himself. “The last year and a half, everything is as it’s supposed to be,” he says. “I have zero feelings of societal frustration.”

Trunk does, however, think often of the person who is out there right now feeling the way he used to feel. The person with a grievance. The person with a plan. The person with a gun—hell, an arsenal. The person we feel powerless against, because we don’t know who he is. All we know is what he—or she—is going to do.

Can he or she—they—be stopped before they become what we in America call “mass shooters”? We are so convinced they can’t be that we don’t even know if anyone is trying to stop them. Can they be understood? We are so convinced the evil they represent is inexplicable that we don’t try to explicate it. Mass shootings have become by now American rituals—blood sacrifices, propitiations to our angry American gods, made all the more terrible by our apparent acceptance of them. They have become a feature of American life, and we know very well what follows each one: the shock, the horror, the demonization of the guilty, the prayers for the innocent, the calls for action, the finger-pointing, the paralysis, and finally the forgetting. We know that they change everything only so that everything may remain unchanged.

But we are wrong about that. Mass shootings are not unstoppable, and there are people trying to stop them. They are not even inexplicable, because every time Trunk hears of one he understands why it happened and who did it. We have come to believe that mass shooters can’t be stopped because we never know who they are until they make themselves known. But Trunk was almost one of them once. He was a heartbeat away. And what he understands is that shooters want to be known, not through the infamy of a massacre, but before they have to go through with it. They want to be known as much as he, years later, wants to remain unknown, walking to the bus stop in the rain.

Unaccountable — Pedro Noguera in The Nation looks at the lack of transparency in charter schools.

Advocates of charter schools frequently make the argument that by providing parents with “choice,” the educational system—public schools and charter schools alike—will be forced to improve through greater accountability. As the New York City Department of Education has insisted, charter schools “offer an important opportunity to promote educational innovation and excellence [and] bring new leaders, resources, and ideas into public education.” Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, DC, schools chancellor (and ex-CEO of StudentsFirst, a market-based school-reform organization), seemingly agrees, stating that “accountability has to sit everywhere in the system. The children have to be held accountable for what they’re doing every day; the parents, teachers, school administrators, all the way up.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan, supportive of many charter-school initiatives, has spoken on how we “need to be willing to hold low-performing charters accountable.”

The problem here is that charter schools are frequently not accountable. Indeed, they are stunningly opaque, more black boxes than transparent laboratories for education. According to a 2013 study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, only 29 percent of charter schools outperformed public schools with similar students in math, while 31 percent performed worse. Most charter schools, in fact, obtained results that were no better than traditional public schools. So what was that 29 percent doing right? And what went so wrong with the failing 31 percent? There are a few reasons why it’s nearly impossible to find out.

To begin with, unlike public schools, which are required by law to show how they use public resources, most charters lack financial transparency. Many of the most successful charter schools pay higher salaries to teachers and administrators and offer students a longer school day and year. A recent study of the highly acclaimed charter-school chain KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) found that “KIPP receives an estimated $6,500 more per pupil in revenues from public or private sources” compared to local school districts. The study could only document an additional $457 in spending per pupil, however, because KIPP does not disclose how it uses money received from private sources. The additional spending appears to be made possible by supplemental funding from organizations like the Walton Family Foundation (run by the founders of Walmart), which has been a major donor to charter schools across the country. According to its website, the Walton foundation supports charters because “we invest in organizations and programs that empower parents to choose among high-performing schools and insert competition into public education.” However, unlike public schools, charter schools are not required to disclose how such funds are raised and used.

Transparency is especially important with for-profit charter schools to prevent fraud and the misuse of public funds. The Pennsylvania auditor general found that the state’s largest charter operator had pocketed $1.2 million in “improper lease-reimbursement payments.” In Philadelphia, where dozens of public schools have been closed due to budget shortfalls, the 2013 state budget projected spending $729 million on charter networks, despite several reports of scandals involving their operators. In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has emerged as a national spokeswoman for the charter movement; she earns over $500,000 a year—more than double what the city’s public-schools chancellor makes, even though Moskowitz is responsible for only a fraction of the number of students.

[…]

Transparency will not put an end to charter schools or eliminate the threat they pose to traditional public education. However, we could begin to address these inequities by fostering a level of public accountability that currently does not exist. Moreover, if charter schools are to serve as the engines of innovation envisioned by their earliest advocates, we must also determine whether the ones that obtain the best results do so because of truly novel and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, or simply because they have more money and fewer disadvantaged students. Finally, if it is true that some charter schools have genuinely found more effective ways to serve children, then they should be encouraged to collaborate—rather than compete—with traditional public schools.

Despite the considerable momentum that charter schools have gained in terms of growth, it is important to keep in mind that around 85 percent of American children attend traditional public schools. In most parts of the country, these schools continue to be our most accessible and stable institutions—a vital part of the social safety net for poor children, whose numbers have grown dramatically since the 2008 recession. Charter schools, on the other hand, were never intended to serve all children. So if the charter-school movement is going to serve as a means of revitalizing—not undermining—public education, greater transparency and collaboration with public schools must be required.

Never Too Late — Andy Borowitz on the GOP attack on the Clintons’ granddaughter.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) — A Republican Super PAC defended the broadcast, on Saturday morning, of an attack ad highly critical of Hillary Clinton’s newborn granddaughter, Charlotte, who was born on Friday.

The ad raises several serious questions about the newborn, at one point accusing her of being “related to Benghazi.”

In criticizing a one-day-old infant, the ad is believed to be the earliest political attack ad on record.

“Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky is fair game,” a spokesman for the Americans Concerned About Charlotte Super PAC said. “We have to assume that she is the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2052.”

Doonesbury — Watch this space.