Tag Archives: united states

An Education in Education

4 Jun

Speaking of education, here are a few things I learned over the past few weeks. 

1. When Clarence’s school board decided to submit an above-cap budget for 2013-2014, it could only be passed by a 60/40 supermajority. The practical effect of that is that my yes vote is worth only about 5/8th of a no vote. That’s not “one person/one vote” and that’s not fair. There is a bill in the Assembly to right this wrong

2. Elections that are governed by the election law, which includes races for school board, are barely regulated and shadowy groups using untold amounts of money can operate with absolute secrecy. If, for instance, you want to spend more than $25 towards the election of another person who is running for a school board, you’re prohibited from doing so. But the penalty for breaking that law is non-existent. For an ultra-right wing group that wants to take over a school board or defeat a school budget, unlimited people can spend unlimited money to do it. In Clarence, that’s happening right now. 

3. There are no exceptions to the tax -cap legislation to allow for, e.g., paying court orders and school safety.

4. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is based in Maryland and was set up by one of the founders of UPS to, “build better futures for disadvantaged children and their families in the United States. The primary mission of the Foundation is to foster public policies, human service reforms, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today’s vulnerable children and families.” Frankly, the sort of things a government should be doing. AECF ranks states in terms of the quality of the education children there receive. New York is number 19.  Clearly, there is work to do. 

5. The United States spends over $600 billion on educating its next generation every year. By contrast, our elective war in Iraq cost over $2 trillion.  The difference is that no one got to vote in a referendum on the tax levy for the Iraq war. Using 2007 numbers, the United States spent less than only Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries per pupil. 

6. In a recent ranking of education quality, the United States came in as “average”. The top countries are Finland and South Korea. This has an adverse affect on kids’ abilities to compete in a global marketplace where their peers abroad are simply educated better. 

When it comes to education, “rah-rah US is #1” is untrue and just as jejune as allegations that kids can do well in school regardless of the quality of teachers or class sizes if they come from the right home in the right neighborhood with the right family makeup with a nice income. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement; especially if you live in a place like Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, or Nevada. The report which ranks education quality country-by-country comes up with these conclusions

  1. There are no magic bullets: The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement.

  2. Respect teachers: Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.

  3. Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.

  4. Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education: Parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.

  5. Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.

Clearly, there is work to be done, and each side in the debate in the US have at least one point, but we’re missing the bigger picture because it’s difficult and time-consuming. Note that American teachers are paid wages below the world average. 

The solution, however, is not to cut teachers or to treat them like fast-food workers. It is not to cut programs that encourage learning, fitness, or creativity. We can work for systemic improvement while not sacrificing the quality of education that kids are receiving now. Testing and more testing isn’t the answer, nor is pitting teachers’ unions against everyone else. 

I don’t know whether Carl Paladino’s baseball bat or AFP’s decimation of public schooling are precisely the right solution.  But one thing I do know – I’m embarrassed and ashamed for having not paid closer attention to these things before, especially as it relates to my own town. 

The Dollar Coin

5 Feb

George-Washington-Presidential-Dollar-CoinCanada long ago abandoned its dollar bill and now has Loonies and Toonies instead. It’s easier to buy a soda from a vending machine or feed a meter with coins in larger denominations than a Quarter. Our neighbors across the river are now in the process of eliminating a coin – the penny is being phased out of circulation in Canada, and transactions will hitherto be rounded up or down, as appropriate.  In Canada, it costs 1.6 cents to make each penny, so money will be saved. 

Here in the US, recent efforts to introduce dollar coins (Susan B. Anthony, Sacajawea) have failed because we did not concomitantly withdraw dollar bills from circulation. The Dollar Coin Alliance argues that doing so would save the government billions. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded

We estimate that replacing the $1 note with a $1 coin would provide a net benefit to the government of approximately $5.5 billion over 30 years, amounting to an average yearly discounted net benefit of about $184 million. However, this benefit would not be achieved evenly over the 30 years. In fact, as shown in figure 3, the federal government would incur a net loss during the first 4 years. Yearly net benefits begin to accrue in the fifth year of our analysis, and in the tenth year (2020), the initial start-up costs are paid back and overall net benefits begin to accrue.

And that estimate might be low. Consider, 

In 1985, for example, the Canadian House of Commons estimated that the conversion to a $1 coin would save the government $175 million (Canadian) in total over 20 years because it would no longer have to regularly replace worn out $1 notes. Canadian officials later determined that the Canadian government saved $450 million (Canadian) between 1987 and 1991.

Dollar bills have a short shelf life – they remain in circulation for about 22 months before they are shredded and recycled or sent to landfills. Coins can be melted down and recycled indefinitely. Dollar coins don’t jam in the vending machine. The GAO has recommended this switch consistently for 22 years, and Washington hasn’t yet gotten with the program.  

Eliminating dollar bills and pennies would save billions and reflect economic reality; we don’t have 5-and-dimes anymore. 

An extremely simple step that would save the government billions of dollars at no additional cost. The only question is why it hasn’t been done already.  Write your Federal Representatives via this link.


Barbrady Science

16 Nov

A BBC documentary television series called “Frozen Planet” will soon air on the Discovery Network here in the U.S.

Well, most of it will.

U.S. audiences will not be shown the last episode, which looks at the threat posed by man to the natural world.

It is feared a show that preaches global warming could upset viewers in the U.S., where around half of people do not believe in climate change.

The Daily  Mail points out that 53% of self-identify Republicans refuse to believe the science establishing that humans contribute to global climate change, and the number leaps to 70% among the so-called “tea party” ultra-right wing.

Sir David Attenborough presents and authors the series, the seventh episode of which, entitled ‘On Thin Ice’, looks at how the planet’s ice is changing and what it means not only to the animals and people at the Poles but also the rest of the planet.

How about that. Only 32% of Americans support the Tea Party movement, which is perceived favorably by 28% of Americans. Only 29% of Americans self-identify as Republicans. Most Americans (38%) self-identify as “independent”.

I don’t quite understand, then, why a small minority of Americans gets to drive the nation’s scientific bus over the cliffs of ignorance.

Poloncarz on Jobs

2 Nov

We like to tout how immune we’ve been from the global financial crisis and recession, but I don’t think 50 years’ worth of economic, commercial, industrial, and population decline and treading water are much to be proud of.

And while the right wing in this region like to blame the “failed policies” of Democrats, let’s remember that we have had exactly one Democratic county executive in the history of Erie County, and under Dennis Gorski we had budget surpluses. Twice, Republican County Executives have plunged the county into economic crisis through tax cuts paired with increased spending.

Republicans don’t like or trust government because they don’t know how to govern. Democrats understand and recognize that government has a role to play in our economy.

Well, that’s not totally true.

Republicans like Chris Collins also think that government has a role to play in our economy, but that role is limited to stuff suburban people like, such as toboggan runs and golf courses. Stuff poor city people need? That we privatize, regardless of the financial realities.

And that’s a central issue for me – if you’re supposedly for smaller government, as Collins and other Republicans claim to be, wouldn’t it be the frivolous recreational things that should go first? Aren’t golf courses and toboggan runs the types of items that can be privatized or sold off to the private sector? On the other hand, feeding the poor, treating the sick, and ensuring that we have a healthy, educated population are things that government has to do, and do well. That doesn’t mean throwing money away, it means getting rid of what doesn’t work and promoting what does.

As the quote above suggests, Collins promised to grow our population and make the region more job-friendly. Through his machinations to manufacture majorities in the legislature, he has few excuses.

In the beginning of his term, Chris Collins proclaimed, “[w]e must grow as a community or we will die.”

He also said the public should hold his administration “accountable for [their] promises,” adding, “just like we do in the private sector.”

Mark Poloncarz has a plan to grow jobs, our population, and our economy. He has a plan to use our natural advantages – economic, social, and geographic – to grow our economy. We need a unified, regional approach to business development, not one that enables one town to poach business from another. That figurative re-arranging of Titanic deck chairs is usually touted as a “win”, but it’s not – not if that win is at the expense of another WNY community.

Poloncarz wants Erie County to better link our economy to that of Southern Ontario and Toronto. We need to be – and should be – the natural US headquarters for Canadian corporations looking to do business here, like Labatt USA is.

As County Executive, Mark Poloncarz will make it the top priority of his administration to create new jobs for Erie County – not just move jobs from one part of the county to another, as has been the practice under Collins’ tenure. Mark will task his administration to bring in new businesses to the region which will generate new jobs and to create an atmosphere that will add jobs to existing businesses. Mark will also work to consolidate myriad of industrial and municipal development agencies that currently exist to make it easier for out of area businesses to view Erie County as a viable option for business development. Currently, Erie County has six Industrial Development Agencies (“IDAs”) that often poach businesses from one part of the county to another.

Instead of working together as a County and doing whatever possible to attract new business to relocate into the area or grow and sustain current businesses, we are acting as individual towns and cities fighting among ourselves to attract businesses. The reality is we are not creating new jobs, we are merely shifting existing jobs to one town at the expense of another. This practice is not sustainable and it must stop.

Back in 2006 during the debate over the Erie County Charter, there was a consensus that someone in the Rath Building should act in the manner of a county manager – someone apolitical who can be a good administrator, while the elected official promotes the region. Poloncarz wants his Deputy County Executive to be in charge of promoting and growing jobs in the region. More jobs means more people means community growth.

Collins’ reign has been punctuated by gimmicky Six Sigma, which has cost millions and generated no savings whatsoever. He ran as someone who is “not a politician”, but has been more political than even his predecessor. He rejects regionalism, which in turn promotes fractured, redundant government and delivery of services.

Election Day is next Tuesday the 8th. People are saying they don’t want to hear about dirty tricks anymore, they want to know about issues. Over the next several days, I’ll be highlighting the issues and why I’m voting for Mark Poloncarz for County Executive.

Jobs, regional business development, a one-stop office for business attraction and incentivization, growing and enhancing our contacts with business and government counterparts in Ontario, and creating a more business-friendly environment to help WNY better compete against other regions in the US will be among Poloncarz’s priorities when he is sworn in as County Executive in January.

Nation Building

21 Oct

Libya’s Gadhafi was the bin Laden of the 80s. Yesterday, thanks to a Libyan rebellion and NATO help, Gadhafi met the fate he had long deserved, not only for murdering innocents abroad, but those at home as well.

As a partisan Democrat, I’ll point out that bin Laden and Gadhafi were both eliminated either by America or with American help, yet with no American casualties. In the 90s, NATO made quick work of ending the Serb nationalist socialist expansionism throughout the Balkans.

As we wind down in Iraq, and build up for the eventual wind down in Afghanistan, it’s time to re-visit the Powell Doctrine and, perhaps, codify it. War isn’t just dangerous, it’s expensive – we’re spending $300 million per day in Afghanistan. Almost $110 billion per year – it would be better if that money was being spent by the government domestically on infrastructure or education.

The Arab Spring reminds me of the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the way in which each country’s specific personality or situation dictated the way in which its revolution came about. Tunisia deposed its ruler, while Libya’s was shot. The Poles, Czechs & Slovaks, East Germans, and others peacefully built a mass movement, the Romanians had to take up arms – while Husak and Honecker and Krenz retired, went on trial, and/or were exiled, Ceausescu and his wife were shot like dogs – an altogether reasonable way for those two to go.

Now that Gaddafi is gone, Saleh in Yemen and Assad in Syria cling to power in the face of popular uprisings. Iran’s people tried valiantly, but were defeated once the secret police began killing them. Once the people in these countries bring change about and rid themselves of their oppressors, there is hope that regional peace might again have a chance. Without cynical authoritarian dictators at the helm, there’s hope that the new governments will stop blaming Israel for all their people’s woes and start building a modern, free, prosperous, and democratic Arab world.  I’ve always believed that, for the most part, average people in most countries just want to have a job, a home, a family, some vacation time, and the ability to drive to that country’s version of Denny’s for a Grand Slam every once in a while. They don’t want to live like serfs, and they don’t want to fight endless wars. (Neither should Americans, by the way).

You’ll note that the Arab Spring hasn’t brought about Talibanesque Islamic Republics; these people don’t seem eager to replace one form of despotism for another. Maybe the United States will have learned from its recent successes and failures in nation building and provide needed assistance, if invited to do so.

I know it’s unlikely, but one can always hope.

Rewind: Good News for Buffalo (2004)

28 Sep

This is actually very good news for Buffalo. In my opinion, it’s tantamount to placing the cornerstone on the new Peace Bridge.

WASHINGTON – The United States and Canada on Friday announced a pilot project at the Peace Bridge that will shift U.S. Customs and Immigration officers to Fort Erie, Ont., where they will inspect all U.S.-bound cars and trucks.This means that the primary and secondary inspections of vehicles entering the country being done on Buffalo’s West Side will – at a date to be determined – be carried out at the big preclearance yard across the Niagara River in Canada.

Ideally, when the program is implemented, U.S.-bound cars and trucks will be able to roll across the bridge into Buffalo without stopping for tolls or inspections and proceed directly to the Niagara Thruway or into the city.

Besides making Buffalo a more convenient and economical entry point for commerce and tourism, the move will also sharply reduce pollution and noise from idling vehicles.

(Originally published on December 18, 2004).

Class Warfare

20 Sep

Demanding that multimillionaires with offshore accounts pay taxes on their income, just like you or I, is not class warfare.


GOP Demands Tax Hike for Wage Earners

22 Aug

The Republican Party has shown its true colors. Even as it advocates strenuously against a modest rate hike on the richest Americans, it seeks to roll back a payroll tax cut that puts an extra $1,000 per year in the pocket of workers earning $50,000 (as an example).

I don’t know how it’s going to play out for them to self-identify with the wealthy and the ignorant, but it should make for a real barn-burner of a lowest common denominator, 18 month-long Presidential campaign.

NOM Targets Grisanti, Voters Think Differently

15 Aug

An extremist religious political sect, which misleadingly calls itself the “National Organization for Marriage“, is sending out lying mailings to voters in the 60th state Senate district. Apart from containing hatred and lies, the mailers ask people to send ready-made postcards to Senator Mark Grisanti, threatening to punish him at the polls for his vote to legalize same-sex marriage.

Some voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic district are choosing instead to send modified versions of NOM’s postcard to Senator Grisanti. This appeared in my Facebook feed on Saturday:

Byron Brown’s Own Process

11 Aug

Yesterday, this story appeared, revealing that Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown had vetoed a Common Council plan, adopted 9-0, to distribute $200,000 to city-based cultural organizations. Here’s why:

While the mayor has “no problem” with any of the groups on the Council’s list, DeGeorge said, Brown believes that he should have the right to establish his own process for distributing the $100,000 that his office is providing.

As Councilmember LoCurto aptly put it,

“I would hope that the mayor will stick to the Fund for the Arts figures and not use ‘his own process’ to reward friends and political allies,”

This is identical to Brown’s earlier opposition to the installation of a restaurant at the base of the Naval Park and Museum at Canal Side. The excuse given for that:

Brendan R. Mehaffy, director of the city Office of Strategic Planning, wrote shortly afterward to the Naval Museum. He expressed the city’s concerns about needing to be part of the process, and raised potential health and safety concerns about putting a restaurant in the museum.

Cunningham said he subsequently was asked where the museum had advertised for a vendor, and noted it had been in the Amherst Bee, the Challenger and other publications.

“I was asked to send the RFP to Mattie’s Restaurant, which we did,” Cunningham said. “That was the only one we were asked to go back and send [the RFP] to.”

George and Mattie Holt, owners of Mattie’s, were out of town Tuesday and unavailable for comment. However, Alessi said Mattie’s later responded in a letter that it was not in a position to consider operating a restaurant in the Naval Park.

Savage said mentioning Mattie’s was not improper. The mayor, who had not been involved in the RFP process, was simply making sure a variety of restaurateurs had had a chance to respond.

Chris Smith has a piece up asking philosophical questions about the direction of Buffalo. I think that the above examples are a perfect example of the city’s direction. A lack of vision and controlling how to spend public money in a way best suited to exact political gains is what it’s all about, in the end.

It’s sad, really. Here we have a smart, likeable Mayor who seemingly couldn’t care less. The only time he’s ever shown any passion in his tenure? When Mike Bloomberg said Buffalo was a sad little place with a housing glut. Regrettably, Mayor Brown has the political capital and apparatus at his disposal to do really great things in this town, but he’s completely unwilling to do so.

What a waste of time.