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Political Monday with John DePetro, No. 31: Sick Outs and What It Means to Be a Democrat

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, last week, the topics were the Warwick sick outs, my ethics complaint, Josh Miller’s view of the Democrats, Raimondo’s remorse for hurting journalists’ feelings.

Open post for full audio.

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Prepare for Another Innovative Way to Take Your Money

Katherine Gregg’s Providence Journal interview with Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo contains a number of interesting tidbits, but the most significant section may be the round of questions on school infrastructure funding:

“The question … is how much money is needed to do the school construction properly — over what period of time — and where are we going to get that money … to which I don’t have an answer for you today,″ Raimondo said. …

Raimondo does not favor a surcharge on the sales tax or any other major tax, but says she is considering other ways to create a dedicated revenue stream.

The article cites $628 million as the bare minimum funding we supposedly need, and she mentions (but does not “favor”) the Massachusetts approach of devoting a penny of the sales tax to the matter.  Noteworthy, in that context, is that Rhode Island’s sales tax was implemented in the first place in order to give teachers raises and resolve financial crises in the cities and towns.

Whatever the solution that the governor ultimately proposes, this being Rhode Island, we should expect to see some scheme to increase revenue, not redirect it from some other expenditures are of lower priority.  The incentives of government ensure that low priorities are always the first to be funded.

Note that Raimondo isn’t even floating a comprehensive fix (at least not yet) as she did with pensions or roads and bridges, just “a dedicated revenue stream.”  Rhode Islanders pay enough in taxes to have our school buildings maintained and well staffed.  The problem is that the money is being redirected in ways it shouldn’t be.

Nobody should believe any claim that this new tax, fee, or scheme will be the one that actually accomplishes what government promised decades ago.  The pressures of the unnecessary or extravagant expenditures are now becoming such that the state keeps looking for ways to add new sources of money to pay for the basics.  But the waste, fraud, and abuse will continue to grow and expand, making it inevitable that corrupt insiders will come for this cash, too.

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Surreal, Unhealthy Sexism on the Opinion Pages

Today’s Newport Daily News reprints an op-ed that that Suzanne Fogarty, the head of the private Lincoln School in Providence, first published on the Web site of the Girls Scouts of Southern New England.  Now, in the spirit of practical consideration, we should remember that Ms. Fogarty has a (very expensive) school to promote, so we can only go so far in begrudging an all-girls school its sales pitch.

That said, this paragraph reads like a text that one might come across from some society that had succumbed to a strange bigotry.  Enlightened moderns can’t help but see the injustice and incongruity of the ideas, but even the most enlightened within the thus-tainted culture may not have been able to see it through the haze of their environments:

While I believe the Boy Scouts’ decision to admit girls is a step toward gender equity, that move in no way devalues the remarkable female-first environment that the Girl Scouts is committed to providing. Some people believe that if their daughters go to an all-girls school, then they will not be prepared for the co-ed world. The opposite is true. Lincoln students and Girl Scouts are more prepared because they are encouraged to be themselves every day in a culture that knows and supports them. They practice the hard stuff of trial and error, which leads to resilience, and resilience in turn leads to confidence. This becomes part of their DNA, which girls take with them into the world of college and beyond.

Denying boys a space in which to be themselves in a “remarkable male-first environment” is “equity.”  Granting girls such a space is “empowerment.”  Sure seems like we’re writing off one half of a generation. That an educator would do this so casually illustrates how far we’ve gone into the haze. Given that most Boy Scouts are veritably guaranteed to be of lesser socioeconomic advantage compared with Lincoln’s clientele gives the double standard a more insidious feel.

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Bad Week for the Narrative: Big Revisions of Graduation Data

It wasn’t a good week for the narrative.  The number of jobs based in Rhode Island slipped back below the pre-recession peak, eroding the governor’s talking points about economic advancement.  And now Dan McGowan reports this on WPRI.com:

The R.I. Department of Education disclosed Thursday the state’s four-year graduation rate for the 2015-16 school year was 82.8%, lower than the 85.3% mark the department announced in February.

The change means the percentage of students who entered high school during the 2012-13 school year and completed it during the 2015-16 school year is lower than the 83.2% graduation rate announced in the previous school year. The revised number shows the rate actually dipped slightly in 2015-16, rather than rising.

Charles Murray’s book, Losing Ground, looked at the effects of government policy on families’ well-being.  It would seem Rhode Island could use a bit of that same thinking, emulating both the focus and the policy implications.

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MA Test Results: About the Test or Sign of Trouble?

We’re so used to hearing good education news out of Massachusetts that this AP report from Steve LeBlanc might jar against our expectations:

Just half of Massachusetts students in grades three through eight met or exceeded expectations on the new “next generation MCAS test” in math and English — the first time the test has been administered.

Massachusetts education officials publicly released the spring 2017 test results on Wednesday.

Educators were quick to caution against making direct comparisons between a student’s performance on the new test and the original, nearly 20-year-old, MCAS.

Of course, new tests can’t be compared with old tests.  In Massachusetts, however, the MCAS results were backed up by nation-leading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Those scores have been stagnant, however, since around 2006, when then-governor Deval Patrick diluted accountability measures on behalf of the teachers unions.

When the next round of NAEP scores come out we’ll have some indication of whether the new state-based test is just overly challenging or the results really do indicate a state that’s losing ground and needs to renew its education-reform vows.

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Is Transitioning Kids Really a Policy That Should Be Rushed?

As Rhode Island’s Department of Education moves to satisfy radical activists by making its guidance on transgender students into a mandatory regulation for all districts (hopefully not going after private schools) — guidance that encourages teachers to help students plan their transitions and hide it from their parents — one supposes the bureaucrats won’t pay much genuine attention to the arguments of doctors like those whom Adelaide Mena introduces in an article from the Catholic News Agency:

Emphasizing the importance of rooting medical practices in science rather than ideology, [Washington University of Medicine professor of Pediatrics, Endocrinology, Cell Biology and Physiology Paul] Hruz noted that no randomized controlled trial or consistent findings have shown that puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones are the best treatments for children with gender dysphoria.

“The reality is there is no science to back this drastic change.” He also noted that as many as 90 percent of youth outgrow gender dysphoria by the end of adolescence and realign their identity with their biological sex.

Think of how astonishingly quickly the progressives in and out of government have been rushing to impose their worldview on our children with this issue.  When it comes to reforming our education system, with some sort of flexibility for families and accountability for the unionized employees, we get decades of baby steps that special interests can easily undermine.  When it comes to reinforcing children’s rejection of their natural bodies and putting them on a path to irrevocably change them?  Well, on that we can rush right in, and with zero direct legislative authority needed.

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Parents of Special Needs Students and School Budget Battles

Entirely by way of connecting observations from multiple districts, this detail of Katie Mulvaney’s  article on Superior Court Judge Susan E. McGuirl’s ordering Warwick teachers to stop their sick-outs is worth lingering over:

Ellen F. Polo, head of the Robertson parent teacher organization, said she is fully behind the teachers, as are 80 percent of the parents she knows.

“I fully support the teachers,” Polo said Monday, citing the union’s push for smaller class sizes and concerns about compromising special-education services. “If there’s a strike, I’d support it.”

The district has been eliminating teaching assistant positions that are crucial to meeting students’ needs, said Polo, whose oldest daughter is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

I’ve noticed that the parents of special needs students are often prominent supporters of (even warriors for) local school districts, backing the regular push for more funds all around.  They are understandably grateful to the district, generally, and the teachers in particular, and they have incentive to push back against budget pressures.  One such parent estimated on social media that her child receives $100,000 worth of services annually from the local school system.

Most Rhode Islanders will agree that these are services we should support, although the specifics of what and how should, of course, always be under review with an eye toward improvement and efficiency.  Similarly to school building maintenance, however, the fast ratchet of personnel costs that politically active labor organizations have succeeded in building into the budgets of government, including schools, ensure that budget pressure never ends and everything always feels insecure.  (Indeed, a general sense of insecurity is necessary for unions and other special interests and political organizations to maintain their influence.)

Personal gratitude notwithstanding, reforming our education system so that its focus is more convincingly on the students and their families shouldn’t be seen as a threat to those with special needs students.  Indeed, NAEP trends show that “disabled” students are losing ground in Rhode Island, having fallen from above average, among states overall, to below average.  Holding on to the status quo, that is, carries more risk than working together to find a new path.

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Warwick Teachers Now Go After the Little Ones

Warwick Schools’ strange rolling illness — which apparently hits large numbers of teachers one school at a time for just a single day each time — has now moved to the elementary schools, with students far too young to be left without some sort of care during the day.  Three schools for small children are closed today with no notice, at least one of them because of teacher absences.

That is, the event appears to be a deliberate “sick out” as a consequence of the district’s unionized labor force.  The public could reasonably see that as a form of actual illness, at least a mental illness akin to membership in a cult.

I think it was Gene Valicenti on WPRO who asked the local union leader, Darlene Netcoh, whether the union planned to hit one school at a time.  She professed no plans that were technically union-approved, but the rumors appear to have been accurate.  One wonders whether the district closed two other elementary schools as a preventative measure.

The bottom line is that this sort of thing simply shouldn’t happen, and the only reason it is allowed to happen is that the school district can take money from taxpayers whether or not they use the service.  Taxpayers can’t stop paying the bill.  Parents can only seek more-reliable options if they are willing to move or pay for private education above and beyond their taxes.  And the labor unions are part of a formidable national network dedicated to preventing our political system from working against their selfish interests.

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Warwick School Conditions and Problematic Personnel

The local news media is all a-buzz this week with reports that the members of the Warwick teacher’s union have shut down another school with a “sick out,” this time Veterans Junior High School (affecting even younger children than those whose lives the teachers disrupted last Friday at Pilgrim High School).  This part of John Hill’s report in the Providence Journal should raise additional questions:

Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh said if the sick calls were a job action and not due to actual illness, the move had not been sanctioned by the union.

“It’s not an organized sick-out,” she said. “There was no vote.”

She said Veterans has had health issues in the past, with parents complaining about conditions in the building.

Upon inquiry from The Current, Hill replied that he’s working to verify Netcoh’s claim about the junior high’s especial difference from other Warwick Schools.  The superintendent’s office provided The Current with the following statement:

We have received no formal complaints from parents or staff of health issues related to the condition of Veterans Jr. High School.  In response to numerous unspecified statements, the District contracted with an independent agency last year to test air quality levels in the building.  All tests came back within normal ranges.  Additionally, substantial work was done over the summer replacing the school’s heating system with a new, state of the art heating and air conditioning system.  This work has resulted in significant improvement in the air quality as well as the movement and flow of the air in the building.

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s recently released assessment of school buildings in Rhode Island actually rates Veterans as being in the fourth best condition of the district’s 21 schools, with a repair-to-replacement ratio of 40.6%.

To be sure, that rating is not desirable, falling in the report’s “poor” category, and Warwick’s schools overall are fourth worst among Rhode Island districts.  Far from excusing the teachers’ labor union action, however, this fact suggests that more of the city’s limited resources should go to building repair and maintenance than to problematic personnel.

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Are These the Employees You’d Hire to Influence Your Children?

One can understand, I guess, why a certain type of person would want this sort of leverage in negotiating for more money:

Warwick School District superintendent Philip Thornton confirmed Friday morning that classes were canceled due to a “sick out,” where dozens of teachers called out sick over ongoing contract negotiations.

74 of 145 teachers in total called out Friday, causing the superintendent to cancel school over insufficient staffing.

What isn’t so easy to understand, however, is why we not only tolerate such behavior, but even give labor unions structural advantages in our laws.  “Sick outs” by well-paid, white-collar “professionals” are a form of extortion founded in greed.  (According to the contract on the district’s Web site, a step 10 teacher in Warwick makes $76,601, with large additions for longevity and graduate education as well as opportunity for more through other activities, all with a government employee’s stellar benefits and a 180-day work year.)

Imagine a private business that allowed your children to become pawns in a negotiation and could disrupt your entire life on a moment’s notice like this.  Couple that with the system’s institutional intention to indoctrinate its students, and it isn’t difficult to see why the education establishment so desperately fears school choice.  Only by forcing families to pay for their service can they get away with this level of abuse.

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School Choice Works and Should Expand in Rhode Island

Washington Examiner editorial highlights some evidence that school choice is increasingly likely to become a broadly implemented policy.  Here’s a key piece:

The latest fissures are created by a study of the country’s largest private school choice program. According to researchers, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which provides vouchers, increased college enrollment rates by about 6 percentage points for students who participated at all. For those who were in the program for four or more years, the college enrollment rate was as much as 17 points higher.

Before anyone leaps to suggest that this really just means those schools cream off the best students, opponents of school choice should know that children in the program disproportionately come from families with low incomes and, before joining the program, were mostly at bad public schools and did poorly on tests.

Add in a possible Supreme Court ruling this session that might put new pressures on public sector labor unions (by, again, increasing choice, in this case among workers) and public support for school choice policies, and opportunity may finally come to students who are poorly served by government schools.

As with much else, Rhode Island could be a leader in this area.  The state’s size and population density should make it fertile ground for the growth of schools serving nearly the whole state, with a plethora of options for families no matter where they live.

Evidence that I’ve seen out of Vermont and among Jewish communities (forgive the lack of links on a busy Monday) suggests that people will make decisions about where to live in order to take advantage of school choice.  If Rhode Island really wants to attract innovative companies and capture a “spillover” of the Massachusetts economy, policies that favor people, not special-interest insider groups like teachers unions would do the trick better and with much less waste and corruption than attempting to buy off those companies and people with offers to make them complicit in our state’s corruption.

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We Must Require a Definition of “Accountability”

Earlier today, I mentioned Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s recent appearance on WPRI’s Newsmakers program and his heavy reliance on buzz phrases and jargon.  One such term — which needn’t be jargon, but can be used that way — was “accountability.”

Wagner’s use of the word came to mind when I read an excerpt on National Review Online of a book by Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City Councilwoman and charter school founder:

While I was already convinced that the district schools weren’t in good shape, preparing for the contract hearings was nonetheless an eye-opener for me. Interviewing principals, superintendents, and teachers helped me understand just how impossible it was for them to succeed given the labor contracts, and how job protections created a vicious cycle. Teachers felt they’ve been dealt an impossible hand: their principal was incompetent or their students were already woefully behind or their textbooks hadn’t arrived or all of the above. They didn’t feel they should be held accountable for failing to do the impossible so they understandably wanted job protections. However, since these job protections made success even harder for principals who were already struggling with other aspects of the system’s dysfunctionality to achieve, they too wanted job protections. Nobody wanted to be held accountable in a dysfunctional system, but the system couldn’t be cured of its dysfunction until everyone was held accountable.

In that context, the question is unavoidable:  What does “accountability” mean?  It must have clear and predictable consequences, or it’s worthless.  As Wagner used the term, “accountability,” one couldn’t be sure what it entailed, suspecting that the idea might rely on the assumption that teachers and administrators would feel guilty about bad results and consider themselves as having been held accountable.  Or maybe the consequence would be a written-more-in-sadness-than-anger letter of disappointment from Department of Education.

Accountability should mean that people lose their jobs or that entire schools are threatened with going out of business because students are going elsewhere.  Unfortunately, that necessity goes against the sine qua non of government employment, which is job security.

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School Repairs and Where the Money Goes

So Democrat Governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo wants Rhode Islanders to make a “once-in-a-generation investment” to fix our substandard school buildings, and I can’t help but wonder:  Where is all the money we’re already spending going?

Rhode Island’s public schools need $627.5 million worth of major repairs to simply put students out of harm’s way, according to a major independent study commissioned by state officials.

But it would cost $2.2 billion to bring schools to an ideal condition — buildings that are energy-efficient, offer the right mix of technology and provide plenty of sunlight and fresh air.

The first thing to note is that $2.2 billion isn’t all that much higher (relatively) than the $1.8 billion that the state proclaimed a few years ago.  Suffice to say that it’s a lot of money and that this isn’t a surprise.

But again:  Where is all the money going that we’re already spending?  This whole thing has the feel of a government scam.  The first marker is that, by just about any measure, Rhode Islanders pay a great deal in taxes.  How can that not be enough to cover basic maintenance and improvement of something that’s long been considered a central function.

The second marker that raises questions about this new ask for huge taxpayer expenditures and debt is how we’re coming up with these numbers.  Tiverton, for example, is listed as having $46 million in “deficiency costs,” but the town is already paying off $54 million in debt for construction and repairs.  How did we reach the point of requiring $100 million in school repairs for a district serving about 1,800 students?

Something isn’t right with this whole pitch across the state, and Rhode Islanders should insist that elected officials figure it out before agreeing to put themselves into even more debt.

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URI Honors Colloquium’s Narrow Explication of Everything

The graphic accompanying the Web page for this year’s honors colloquium at the University of Rhode Island appears to be ironic.  It’s a sketch of a star with a face faded into it, all superimposed on a field of stars.  Given that the title of the colloquium is “Origins: Life, the Universe and Everything,” one might assume the speeches would include some discussion of philosophy or even theology, but the list of presentations would seem to suggest otherwise.  (An email to one of the coordinators for confirmation of this observation went without response.)

Basically, all 10 speakers are concerned with science of one form or another, which is fine as far as it goes, but it raises the question of what the underlying philosophy of the colloquium is.  The fact that there must be such a philosophy implied can be seen in the advertisement that the speakers will help “to shed light on our current best understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos.”  Whatever useful information scientists might provide, that one is well outside of their purview.

Indeed, the insinuation that science can answer such questions seems like an attempt to smuggle in the academic elite’s popular variation of nihilistically tinged materialism.  The extent to which scientists can tell us our “place in the cosmos” is precisely the extent to which they can do the same concerning rocks or elements.  That is, they must first reduce us to mere things.

Worse, an institution that presumes to take up a topic such as the origins of everything without providing students some philosophical discourse as to (arguably) the most important question in their lives — not what or how, but why — does them a tremendous disservice.  Even those who won’t attend such colloquiums will pick up the institutional message that this critical question for self-exploration and human development is unimportant.

That gets to a core reason I send my children to Catholic schools, and in keeping with my theme of today, it represents a disappointing missed opportunity.

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You Will Be Made to Conform

If you need any evidence that progressive organizations like the Rhode Island ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Rhode Island Working Families, and the State Council of Churches have no intention of leaving any room whatsoever for people to hold different beliefs than theirs, consider that they are working to have the Rhode Island Department of Education to make mandatory its guidance on transgender students.  Apparently, one-quarter of Rhode Island schools have yet to implement a “comprehensive policy,” and that’s just not acceptable to the Conform Now crowd.

Mind you that these schools may follow the progressives’ beliefs in every detail without having formalized policies.  Moreover, they may have had no reason to make this a pressing issue that demands distraction from other priorities (such as overcoming the state’s abysmal record for educating children).

More importantly, keep in mind how radical, oppressive, and intrusive the “guidance” actually is.   Not only does the state Department of Education call for schools to impose reeducation on any students who might be uncomfortable with transgenderism in bathrooms and changing areas, but it actively encourages teachers to attempt to discern the beginnings of transgender feelings in students and to draw those feelings out, working to hide the process from parents if the government-run schools think that the parents might not agree.

The basic promise of the American system is that everybody has a right to form their own beliefs about life and reality and to live under a system of government that respects those beliefs.  Progressives only partially agree.  To them, you’re free to hold any belief… as long as they agree with it.

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