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Getting the Worst of Both Sides

Looking at the political and economic system of the United States, especially when it’s not doing so well, I wonder whether we don’t end up getting the worse attributes of our two competing political philosophies.  Something similar came to mind while reading a “Weekend Interview” that Tunku Varadarajan conducted with University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer:

Mr. Zimmer attributes this campus intolerance to “the national mood,” as well as a change in “the ambient environment” in which universities exist. He describes a sort of national attention-deficit disorder: “How much is the national environment amenable to long-term thinking and investment, versus just responding to particular issues, particular needs?” The importance of education and research, he says, “has certainly come under question” in recent years, in part because “the entire tone of the country has shifted toward people being more focused on the immediate and the short-term.”

Of course, the importance of education has also come under question because it has become more expensive at the same time that the news is increasingly filled with other worldly stories from America’s campuses and people observe much of the garbage that fills lists of degree offerings and curricula.

But to the point, it occurs to me that short-term thinking and short attention spans might be the combined effect of capitalism in a prosperous society, having become dislodged from a daily struggle to survive and a culture of modesty, and the practical advantages of campus activists.  The first trains us to focus on the now, and the other thrives when people demand change immediately, with limited consideration, and without a long-term perspective on whether a given course of action will produce the desired result.

Zimmer also believes that America is becoming a less attractive place for people to head when they want to thrive, and I tend to agree.


Imaginary Discrimination Bill is “Progressive Land of Make Believe Bad Bill of the Week”

This week’s bad bill is a thorny issue, but one that highlights yet another danger of the progressive-left’s agenda to control our lives via a government driven by political correctness. In our American society, this means a direct threat to free speech and free thought.


Needed After Portsmouth: A Clear Picture, Not a Narrative

I didn’t plan to take up the former student’s assault of a Portsmouth High School teacher again, but something missing from the Providence Journal coverage of the released police report really should be part of the public discussion.  Specifically, reporter Katie Mulvaney leaves out the following, from the report (which I saw in full earlier but now can’t find):

[The suspect] was banging on the doors and she opened the door to redirect him to the main office.

We still don’t have sufficient details to offer a fair opinion of blame.  If the teacher recognized the former student, for example, it might be difficult to fault her for letting her guard down.

That said, what we know from the police report is that the teacher made it possible for her assailant to enter the building, and the school resource officer trailed behind the incident until it was over.  Those are very important details to keep in mind as people proclaim their opinions on what should be done following this incident.

Adding new personnel and security measures would come at a cost, not only in the money that might go to more useful purposes, but also in the environment under which students live, affecting their sense of community and expectations of the world.  Meanwhile, no security system will be immune to human error.


Vitality Is in the Eye of the Person Who Didn’t Do Much

There’s something sadly typical about the claims that the “resource officer” at Portsmouth High School makes regarding a former student’s strange assault on a teacher as he attempted to enter the gymnasium:

The school resource officer sprang into action and soon arrived to find a physical education teacher in hysterics, saying she had just been assaulted by a man trying to get into the gym. The teacher told [Maddie] Pirri the suspect had left and ran towards the school’s main office. …

[Marcus] Schlip, 22, denied the assault, according to Pirri, but because of multiple 911 calls from students identifying him as the perpetrator, she arrested him. A 7-inch, military-style blade was found in his backpack. …

“As soon as I entered the main office, I did observe the suspect in the main office sitting down,” Pirri recalled. “Just casually sitting.”

In summary, the dedicated on-campus police officer did pretty much nothing.  A teacher stopped the assailant from entering the gym; students called 911; and the suspect walked to the main office and sat down of his own volition.  The claim of Shaun Towne and Steve Nielsen’s WPRI headline — that the incident “shows why [the resource officer] position is vital” — could be fodder for an Onion article or a comic skit.

Sure, one could imagine circumstances in which her presence was critical to a relatively desirable outcome, but then again, one could imagine circumstances that were the opposite.  If Schlip had panicked upon seeing a single cop coming toward the office, he could have become dangerous again or run, whereas a larger police presence — even if it arrived a few minutes later — may have prevented that outcome.  Or not.  We don’t know.

The point is that, in the scenario that actually occurred, we find evidence on the side of those who argued that putting a police officer in every school at great expense in response to Sandy Hook was generally a waste of resources.  Other security measures along with changes in patrol routes (for example) could ensure at least the same security without the cost in pay and benefits (including pensions) and without giving kids the sense that they must live always in the presence of uniformed police.


Politically Correct Anti-Tobacco Regs: How Many People Might Die Because They Were Denied a Less Harmful Choice?

Better something that is less harmful than more harmful. But to some, innovative new products that reduce health risks – should be banned. In the tobacco and nicotine industry, the politically-correct anti-tobacco movement is advocating for the suppression of individual rights and elimination of less harmful choices, via restrictions and outright bans on products that could improve public health.


The Wrong Mindset on School Repairs

Somehow, I don’t expect Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s “bold plan” increased school construction funding to emphasize a change in priorities that leads to spending reductions elsewhere.  The quote in Shiina LoSciuto and Sarah Doiron’s WPRI article is better seen as a cause for alarm:

Raimondo said she plans to unveil a proposal next week for funding the rebuilding of schools across the state.“I plan to present a bold plan to the legislature, to make a once in a generation investment in rebuilding our schools,” Raimondo said.

This is entirely the wrong mentality.  We don’t want to repair schools once a generation.  We don’t need “an investment” as much as we need reform.

Maintenance and repair should be ongoing.  The problem is that the incentive in state and local government is to spend as much money as taxpayers will tolerate on ongoing operations and then hit us with a crisis in order to ratchet up the revenue.  One photograph of a flooded classroom suddenly makes disappear the consequences for three decades of letting maintenance slide while spending on other priorities.

And then moving forward, this “once in a generation investment” will be built into our state and local tax bills, which won’t go down when all the work is done and all debt is paid off.  Instead, as the cost of the emergency subsides, the government will find ways to spend the money elsewhere and let the schools deteriorate again.  Meanwhile, whatever mental space Rhode Islanders allocate toward thinking about education will be distracted by the excuse that children can’t learn in crumbling schools and then palliated by the fancy new buildings, even as the level of education continues to be substandard.

We have to stop falling for this ploy.


Teacher Unionization Hurts Boys, Especially Minorities

Iain Murray highlights part the abstract from a new paper by Cornell researchers:

The earnings estimates for men indicate that teacher collective bargaining reduces earnings by $149.6 billion in the US annually. Among men, we also find evidence of lower employment rates, which is driven by lower labor force participation. Exposure to collective bargaining laws leads to reductions in the skill levels of the occupations into which male workers sort as well. Effects are largest among black and Hispanic men, although white and Asian men also experience sizable negative impacts of collective bargaining exposure. Using data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, we demonstrate that collective bargaining law exposure leads to reductions in measured cognitive and non-cognitive skills among young adults, and these effects are larger for men.

In other words, exposure to unionized teachers in one way or another tends to reduce boys’ exposure to the skills that men tend more often to need on the job and generally lower abilities, especially in minority populations.

That seems like a data point that ought to be part of the public discussion on education.


The Complexities of Answering Students’ Actual Needs

An important part of my general philosophy on our education system is the principle that resources should go toward the actual needs that students have.  If, as teacher union advocates claim when results prove poor, the missing ingredients are parental involvement and relief from poverty, then society should redirect resources from teachers who have no chance to penetrate those barriers to services that will.  We can debate how those needs can best be met — what programs, private sector versus public sector, and so on — but the basic idea is a managerial truism.

Those who agree with the foregoing can’t be entirely opposed to this approach by the Providence School department, as Linda Borg reports it for the Providence Journal:

The Providence School Board has hired six school culture coordinators at the district’s middle schools.

They are part of a new initiative by Mayor Jorge Elorza and Supt. Christopher Maher to promote a positive school climate and increase student engagement. The hiring of a seventh coordinator is expected to be approved at the board’s January meeting.

School culture coordinators serve as liaisons between the school and the community, including parents, during the middle school years, when students often begin to lose interest in learning. School culture coordinators aim to support youngsters as they transition from cozy elementary schools to larger secondary schools, with the goal of boosting engagement and reducing chronic absenteeism.

A little skepticism is in order, of course, when school departments start spending on administrators and other non-teachers.  How much are these “coordinators” going to be making?  Will they be unionized?  What, specifically, are they going to be doing?

Some of these questions might be alleviated if the coordinators weren’t directly employed by the school department, because there’s no reason to assume that an agency (ostensibly) competent to teach children is also competent to address the needs of their parents or communities.  On the other hand, if the new positions represent a shifting of resources, rather than another excuse to collect more, leaving them within the school department may be the only realistic option.