Category Archives: Education / Youth

The Kids Are All Right!

I have several friends who have stopped watching/reading the news. They find the daily assault just too depressing.

But along with the deluge of dispiriting news they’re avoiding are some very encouraging stories. I recently came across one.

THE NATIONWIDE CAMPAIGN to stifle discussions of race and gender in public schools through misinformation and bullying suffered a reversal in Idaho on Monday, when a high school senior vocally opposed to book bans and smears against LGBTQ+ youth took a seat on the Boise school board.

The student, Shiva Rajbhandari, was elected to the position by voters in Idaho’s capital last week, defeating an incumbent board member who had refused to reject an endorsement from a local extremist group that has harassed students and pushed to censor local libraries.

Rajbhandari turned 18 only a few days before the election, but evidently he was already well-known in the school district as a student organizer on climate, environmental, voting rights, and gun control issues.

Pretty impressive for a 17-year-old.

If your reaction to a high school senior on a school board is less than enthusiastic, that’s  understandable. But the difference between Rajbhandari and his opponent was stark.

In the closing days of the campaign, his opponent, Steve Schmidt, was endorsed by the far-right Idaho Liberty Dogs, which in response helped Rajbhandari win the endorsement of Boise’s leading newspaper, the Idaho Statesman.

Rajbhandari, a third-generation Idahoan whose father is from Nepal, was elected to a two-year term with 56 percent of the vote.

Rajbhandari insisted that he’d wanted people to vote for him rather than against his opponent, but acknowledged that he had been shocked that Schmidt wouldn’t reject the far-right group’s endorsement.

The Idaho Liberty Dogs, which attacked Rajbhandari on Facebook for being “Pro Masks/Vaccines” and leading protests “which created traffic jams and costed [sic] tax payers money,” spent the summer agitating to have books removed from public libraries in Nampa and Meridian, two cities in the Boise metro area

Rajbhandari had started leading Extinction Rebellion climate protests in Boise when he was only 15 years old, and it was through that activism that he became familiar with Liberty Dogs and its tactics.

“We used to have climate strikes, like back in ninth grade, and they would come with AR-15s,” he said, bringing rifles to intimidate “a bunch of kids protesting for a livable future.”

When he was 16, Rajbhandari had publicly confronted Idaho’s then- far-right lieutenant governor, who had set up a task force to “Examine Indoctrination in Idaho Education.” He accused her of investigating an entirely imaginary threat and endorsing baseless conspiracy theories to generate support for her candidacy.

When Idaho’s Liberty Dogs endorsed Schmidt along with a slate of other candidates for the school board (all of whom, fortunately, ended up losing), Rajbhandari texted his rival to say, “You need to immediately disavow this.”

“This is a hate group,” Rajbhandari says he told Schmidt. “They intimidate teachers, they are a stain on our schools, and their involvement in this election is a stain on your candidacy.” Schmidt, however, refused to clearly reject the group, even after the Idaho Liberty Dogs lashed out at a local rabbi who criticized the endorsement by comparing the rabbi to Hitler and claiming that he harbored “an unrelenting hatred for white Christians.”

We old folks repeatedly hear –and repeatedly repeat!–accusations about the apathy of the younger generation. The following paragraphs of the linked article give the lie to that lazy characterization.

The initial impetus for Rajbhandari’s run for office was a feeling of frustration that the Boise school board was simply ignoring pleas from student climate activists to make a clean energy commitment. Two years ago, he said, a group of high school and junior high students tried everything they could think of to urge the board to make a commitment to renewable energy. “We sent emails; we did a postcard drive and wrote like 300 postcards; we met with our local power company; we had a petition, we delivered the largest petition ever to our school district,” Rajbhandari said, but the board never responded. “Last year, I wrote a letter to our school board president, just asking for a meeting … and I never got anything back. But I know that he read my letter because about a week later, I was called to the principal’s office.”

“That’s when I knew I was going to run” for a seat on the board, Rajbhandari recalled. “Because that is indicative of a problem. Students are the primary stakeholders in our education, right? And yet our board wasn’t seeing us as constituents, and they weren’t willing to meet with us, and they weren’t taking our ideas seriously,” he said.

The kids are okay. We “elders” just need to get out of their way…

 

We Need A New Version Of The GI Bill

Among the multiple newsletters I receive is one called The Signal. It recently had a thought-provoking report on a growing gender divide among young Americans.

Apparently, over the past few years, young women have become more liberal than young men. Forty-four percent of women aged 18 to 29 consider themselves “liberal,” compared to only 25 percent of men in the same age range—a major change from 30 percent of young women and 27 percent of young men considering themselves liberal a decade earlier.

The article attributed the increase in progressive politics to a series of trends: fewer women in that age bracket are married than was previously the case;  more are educated and religiously unaffiliated, and they “spent formative adult years during the presidency of Donald Trump, whom a strikingly high ratio of them disliked.”

The bulk of the article was an interview with the researcher, and his observations (and their implications) were all interesting, but what struck me was the following.

Politically, climate change is important to Get Z. Gun policy is important. LGBTQ issues are important. I expect abortion to become tremendously important. Yet there isn’t one preeminent, animating political issue for this generation. What’s happened instead is that political identity has become increasingly central to people in defining who they are. It’s become a stand-in for character or even personality. That’s unfortunate in some ways. It leads Americans to be more politically segregated and to shut down political conversations based on the belief that knowing someone’s politics means you know what you need to about their whole life story and whether they’re part of your good tribe or not. We’re on track to become even more politically segregated—more politically polarized—and I believe the decline of institutions and the unraveling of our civic life are playing important roles in that process.

That analysis leads to the question “What can we do to ameliorate this political segregation?”

How about a requirement for national service, an updated version of the wildly successful GI Bill?

Here’s my proposal: upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one or two-year program of civic service. Upon satisfactory completion of that service, the government would pay for two years of college at a state university or trade school. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

Civic service would require young people from disparate walks of life and different political “bubbles” to work together. Service performed for local government and vetted nonprofit organizations would also focus their attention on the common good–a concept missing from the worldviews of far too many Americans, young and old.

We have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans. That disparity is especially pronounced among the young.

Poverty is a reliable predictor of low political participation and efficacy. Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an affordable opportunity to go to college or trade school—an opportunity they may not have otherwise—and conditioning that opportunity on a year or two of civic service—would do three extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt; and it would cut across the “political segregation” that is turning Americans who disagree with each other into enemies who cannot communicate with each other.

As we’ve seen in the current discussion of Biden’s debt forgiveness program, the need to borrow money in order to afford college keeps many young people from getting the education they need. It keeps others from taking lower-paying jobs with nonprofits and humanitarian organizations after they graduate. The massive level of student loan debt is also a substantial drag on the economy, because payment on those loans prevents large numbers of  graduates from setting up households, buying homes and appliances and even starting families–all activities that keep the economy humming.

As with so many other aspects of contemporary American life, the burdens fall most heavily on those who can least afford them.

A new version of the GI Bill along these lines would require young Americans to meet and work alongside people from outside their “bubbles;” enable informed civic participation, and begin the task of permanently reducing our horrific levels of student loan debt.

It would be a win-win-win…..

 

Inequality And Democracy

The continuing arguments about Biden’s loan forgiveness program are shining a bright light on several ongoing issues of American governance.

The first and most obvious is the hypocrisy I’ve already addressed.  Somehow, tax law changes and generous subsidies (funded by all taxpayers) that enrich the already rich are fine. Only when there is an effort to lift the fiscal boot off the necks of the less fortunate do we hear about “unfairness.”

In addition to these examples of selective outrage, there have been more reasonable observations about debt forgiveness being a “band-aid.” I certainly don’t disagree with the pundits who have pointed out the multiple problems with American higher education–very much including the enormous costs. That said, the argument seems to be that , in the face of failure to revamp the entire system, we shouldn’t be  trying to relieve even a portion of the burden.

There’s a name for this argument:making the perfect the enemy of the good. In other words, if we can’t immediately perfect a situation, we should do nothing. This approach is self-evidently wrong, if for no other reason that we have inconsistent views of what “perfection” would look like, and considerable evidence that most lasting improvements  are partial and incremental.

Actually, the partial nature of Biden’s debt relief order highlights an overarching issue: the gridlock that currently keeps the federal government from functioning properly. (I would argue that what Biden and the Democrats have achieved legislatively is little short of miraculous, given the lockstep Republican opposition to virtually any measures  they propose.) Thanks to structural elements of American governance that are obsolete-everything from the Electoral College to the filibuster to the pervasive gerrymandering that has facilitated the election of ideologues and outright mental cases–Congress has become increasingly mired in partisan and cultural warfare. That legislative inability to function properly has led to the increasing use of Presidential authority to get anything done–and that reality threatens to legitimate an authoritarianism that is contrary to the Constitution and the Separation of Powers.

Translation: not a good thing.

All of these issues–highlighted as they are in the current arguments over debt relief– threaten American democracy. The Republican bias toward rewarding the wealthy (socialism for the rich; brutal capitalism for the rest) contributes to the already-huge disparities between haves (or have-a-whole-lots) and have nots, and that disparity (along with the growth of White Nationalist and all-out fascist groups) is a huge threat to social stability and democratic self-government.

The enormity of the economic gap was recently highlighted by an article in Common Dreams.

In the nearly three decades since 1995, members of the global 1% have captured 38% of all new wealth while the poorest half of humanity has benefited from just 2%, a finding that spotlights the stark and worsening gulf between the very rich and everyone else.

That’s according to the latest iteration of the World Inequality Report, an exhaustive summary of worldwide income and wealth data that shows inequities in wealth and income are “about as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century.”…

“In the U.S., the return of top wealth inequality has been particularly dramatic, with the top 1% share nearing 35% in 2020, approaching its Gilded Age level,” states the report, whose contributors include prominent economists Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman. “In Europe, top wealth inequality has also been on the rise since 1980, though significantly less so than in the U.S.”

There is copious research on the connection between political instability and economic inequality. As one study found,  long-term inequality has “strong empirical support as exogenous determinants of political instability.”

It isn’t just that research confirms what we all learned in Econ 101–that a broad and healthy middle class is an essential element of democratic stability–it turns out that political instability holds back financial development as well. “The findings indicate that inequality-perpetuating conditions that result in political instability and weak democracy are fundamental roadblocks for international organizations like the World Bank that seek to promote financial development.”

Or to put that into somewhat less “academic” terms: pigs get fed, but hogs get slaughtered.

The hogs who are screaming about debt relief and the dire consequences of helping middle class households (according to CNN: about 75% of the benefit will go to households making $88,000 or less per year) would be wise to consider just how much they benefit from programs costing far more–programs that take from the poor and middle-class to pad the pockets of the rich and connected–and how much their own longterm prospects depend upon political and social stability.

Being a hog is actually bad for the bottom line.

 

 

School Scandal

I recently had a disquieting conversation with a friend of mine about the political perspectives of certain college students. She teaches as an adjunct at my former university, and noted recent conversations with students who were expressing opinions that could only be described as  examples of Christian Nationalism. 

She also noted that these sentiments almost always came from students who had come to the university from private Christian schools–many of them thanks to Indiana’s massive voucher program.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize that program, and I have done so repeatedly–in just 2021, I explained its dangers  here, here and here.

The voucher program in Indiana has not only failed to improve educational outcomes, it has funneled money primarily to religious schools, allowing many of those institutions to produce students who are–at best–unacquainted with democratic diversity and unaccepting of Americans with different values and beliefs. At worst, they teach students to disdain Americans who don’t share their fundamentalist dogmas.

Steve Hinnefeld’s blog, School Matters, recently reported on the massive growth of Indiana’s voucher program, and its staggering costs.

Indiana awarded $241.4 million in the 2021-22 school year to pay tuition and fees for students to attend private schools. That’s 44% more than the state spent on vouchers the previous year.

The increase, detailed in a Department of Education report, isn’t surprising. The Indiana General Assembly in 2021 vastly expanded the voucher program, opening it to families near the top of the state’s income scale and making the vouchers significantly more generous.

Nearly all the 330 private schools that received voucher funding are religious schools. Some discriminate against students, families and employees because of their religion, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity. Indiana is bankrolling bigotry.

Initially, vouchers were sold to the public as a way to allow poor, primarily minority children to escape failing public schools. Perhaps that was the goal of a few proponents, but it is now evident that the primary goal was to construct a “work-around” of the First Amendment’s prohibition on publicly funding religious institutions–Hinnefeld reports that some 20% of voucher households last year had incomes of $100,000 or more. (Indiana’s median household income is $58,000.)

When the program started, supporters said it wouldn’t cost anything, because, if the students didn’t have vouchers, the state would be paying for them to attend public schools. They don’t even pretend to believe that anymore. In 2021-22, 70% of voucher students had no record of having attended a public school in the state. Most voucher funding is going to families that intended all along to send their kids to private schools — and often had the means to do so.

The program initially served both low- and middle-income families. Last year, the legislature threw the door open to high-income families. Now, a family of five making $172,000 can receive vouchers worth over $5,400 on average per child. For about half of all voucher students, the award covers the full cost of tuition and fees at their private school.

Vouchers also promote racial segregation. Far from being a way for poor Black families to escape inferior “ghetto” schools, Hinnefeld reports that  Indiana’s voucher population has grown whiter and markedly less poor–some 60% of voucher students are white. Considering that vouchers tend to be practical primarily in urban areas, that is an over-representation. Only 10.5% of voucher students are Black, compared to 13.5% of Indiana public and charter school students.

The program might still seem justifiable if Indiana private schools were academically superior. They aren’t. Researchers at the universities of Kentucky and Notre Dame found that students who received vouchers fell behind their peers who remained in public schools.

Hinnefeld quotes Doug Masson, who insists that there were three real reasons Indiana legislators created the voucher program: to reward their friends, to punish the teachers’ unions, and to fund religious education.

And that “religious education” is overwhelmingly fundamentalist and nationalist. A study I referenced in one of my previous posts analyzed textbooks from two major publishers of Christian educational materials ― Abeka and BJU Press–used in a majority of Christian schools. The study examined  the books’ coverage of American history and politics and found that they delivered what you might call a “curated”(i.e. skewed) history, and taught that contemporary America is experiencing “an urgent moral decline that can only be fixed by conservative Christian policies.”

Even more troubling, the analysis found that language used in the books “overlaps with the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.” One scholar was quoted as saying that, as voucher programs have moved more children into these schools, Christian Nationalism has become more mainstream.

Your tax dollars at work……there’s a reason I call Indiana’s General Assembly the World’s Worst Legislature.

 

 

 

 

 

Where’s George Soros When We Need Him?

Despite all the accusations prompted by MAGA fever dreamers (George Soros paid for those Jewish space lasers over California!), normal Americans don’t have anything remotely commensurate with the funding sources and highly sophisticated organizational infrastructure of the far Right. That worries me.

A recent report from the Tampa Bay Times began by following just one of the many astroturf groups masquerading as spontaneous grassroots organizations.

This one was “Moms for Liberty.” Much like similarly misnamed organizations (“Patriots for Truth, Justice & the American Way,” or “Grandmas for Cuddly Kittens”), “Moms for Liberty” emerged pretty much full grown during the most recent assault on public education. The author applied a four-part test to determine whether any particular educational group was legitimate or contrived.

The first part of the test is financial: has the organization grown at a pace that only an undisclosed donor’s monetary resources could manage?

Moms for Liberty incorporated as an Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4) organization, a form that lends itself to dark money political shenanigans. It exploded on the scene with its leaders being guests on Fox News and breaking into the Washington Post. It has a well-developed website and extensive social media reach. Moms for Liberty has formed three federal and one state political action committees, one of which is a SuperPAC able to accept unlimited donations. Its careers page is seeking state coordinators to work with the chapter chair coordinator, and a communications officer.

This “grassroots” group of “just-your-average-mom” members also managed to hold a fund raiser with Megyn Kelly (top ticket $20,000), and to co-host The American Dream Conference featuring former Trump Cabinet secretary Ben Carson. An upcoming national summit (presenting sponsorships for $50,000 are sold out), will feature Ron DeSantis, Carson, Sen. Rick Scott and Betsy DeVos.

Just your average PTA members….

So who is really funding these Rightwing mamas? Here’s a clue: they aren’t getting by on T-shirt sales.

They’ve barely even heard of the Koch brothers! Yet perhaps they’ve heard of the Council for National Policy. Two of Moms for Liberty’s National Summit sponsors, the Leadership Institute and Heritage Foundation are critical members of the Council for National Policy, a secretive network of right wing billionaires and Christian fundamentalist leaders that underwrites and coordinates right wing politics.

When the author looked to see who is really running the operation, he found that one of the two purported “founders” –Tina Descovich –is a communications and marketing professional. The other–Tiffany Justice (surely not her real name)– is a former Florida school committee member. He also discovered a third, “silent” founder, one Bridget Ziegler, whose husband just happens to be vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party and the owner of a political marketing firm. He has boasted that Moms for Liberty will provide crucial ground support for DeSantis’ re-election.

Another part of the test revolves around whether the genuinely grassroots folks suckered into joining the organization have any clue what the organization is  really all about. Moms for Liberty may have “activated and harnessed” actual anger and grievance, but–as the article notes–that doesn’t mean those people understand that they are being manipulation for partisan political purposes.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the author’s “deep dive” into the bona fides of Moms for Liberty is the identification of the nefarious network of which it is a part:

Then there’s the odd coincidence of so many grassroots parents organizations arising at the same time with similar missions. Parents Defending Education is Koch-connected. The Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council claims credit for the havoc wreaked by anti-Critical Race Theory legislation. The Council for National Policy’s Leadership Institute commenced its own program to take over school boards. The Council for National Policy-connected Turning Point USA initiated a School Board Watch List for reporting “woke” school boards.

Reading all this, I vacillated between disgust and grudging admiration. These interlocking astroturf organizations are dishonest and manipulative–but they’re effective. You’ve got to give the Christian Nationalists credit for their success in controlling the narrative, and making it far more probable that America will continue to be dominated by a minority of truly despicable theocrats.

Meanwhile, the people I consider to be “the good guys” are happily forming circular firing squads and scrounging for five-dollar donations on Facebook. If Soros is funding any of them, I’ve missed it.

Have I mentioned that I’ve been hitting the booze more frequently since 2016?