We’re Not Even Spending Enough to Educate Our Service Members’ Children

Between 2002 and 2008, USAID spent $408 million on schools in Afghanistan. A significant chunk of $857 went to Iraqi education in the first several years after invasion.

Yet as American service men and women have been overseas protecting these school building projects, their own children’s schools have been neglected.

The Pentagon has placed 39 percent of its 194 schools in the worst category of “failing,” which means it costs more to renovate than replace them, reports to Congress show . Another 37 percent are classified in “poor” physical shape, which could require either replacement or expensive renovations to meet standards. (See the full list of poor and failing schools here)

Schools run by public systems on Army installations don’t fare much better: 39 percent fall in the failing or poor categories, according to a 2010 Army report .

A Defense Department task force is evaluating the 159 military base schools operated by local public systems.

Not surprisingly, the school conditions–as well as the special needs that arise from having parents gone for extended periods–has contributed to declining performance.

At specific schools, principals said the impact on academic performance is unmistakable. Vern Steffens, who heads Fort Riley’s Jefferson Elementary School, which already has a “poor” rating for its deterioration, said he worried about low test scores as well. He noted that as the proportion of students with a deployed parent rose over the last two years, from 23 percent to 41 percent, reading test proficiency rates plummeted 23 percentage points.

Because of that drop, in 2010, Jefferson did not make what’s known as “adequate yearly progress,” a measurement of how well schools are meeting standards required under the No Child Left Behind Act. At the time of state testing, 2,800 soldiers in the post’s Combat Aviation Brigade were in the process of deploying — including 175 parents at a school with 349 students.

“They were focused on their dads leaving,” said Steffens, not on tests.

DOD knows this is a problem. But Congress has not funded DOD’s plan to fix it (to say nothing of funding the public schools that serve bases but are funded locally).

Over the past decade, as the nation waged two wars, annual military spending skyrocketed 150 percent to $729 billion while money for the military’s schools has risen less quickly — about 50 percent, to $1.9 billion. Money for school construction has amounted to even less, an average $81 million annually from 2001 to 2010 — barely the cost of a RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance vehicle, the latest “drone” used by the U.S. Air Force. That’s only enough money to replace two of the more than 130 substandard schools each year. At that rate, it would take 67 years to replace or renovate all 134 poor and failing schools. By then, of course, there’d be more of them.

Last August, the Defense Department’s education agency unveiled a plan that could take up to seven years to replace or renovate its failing and poor schoolhouses — at $3.7 billion. “Military personnel already make a lot of sacrifices,” said Fitzgerald, the acting director, explaining the Defense Department’s “good news” investment. “What the department is trying to do is to make sure their children are not sacrificed as well.”

But Congress has committed only $484 million for the current fiscal year, enough to repair or replace 10 schools.


Meanwhile, the government each year spends another relatively small amount, $30 million, on “impact aid” for public schools with students whose parents work in the military.

It’s bad enough that we’re not even taking care of these kids while their parents serve. It’s bad enough that we’re not making a special effort for the kids struggling with their parents’ multiple deployments.

But the military remains one of the few remaining routes through which working class families can break into the middle class. Yet if, by joining the military, service members consign their kids to inadequate schooling, even military service won’t help their kids achieve a middle class lifestyle.

At some point, funding our empire over funding our country will become unsustainable, even for those policing our empire.

Is “National Security” a Good Excuse to Pursue Policies that Undermine the Nation-State?

Here I was steeling myself for a big rebuttal from Benjamin Wittes to my “Drone War on Westphalia” post on the implications of our use of drones. But all I got was a difference in emphasis.

In his response, Wittes generally agrees that our use of drones has implications for sovereignty. But he goes further–arguing it has implications for governance–and focuses particularly on the way technology–rather than the increasing importance of transnational entities I focused on–can undermine the nation-state by empowering non-state actors.

I agree emphatically with Wheeler’s focus on sovereignty here–although for reasons somewhat different from the ones she offers. Indeed, I think Wheeler doesn’t go quite far enough. For it isn’t just sovereignty at issue in the long run, it is governance itself. Robotics are one of several technological platforms that we can expect to  greatly enhance the power of individuals and small groups relative to states. The more advanced of these technological areas are networked computers and biotechnology, but robotics is not all that far behind–a point Ken Anderson alludes to at a post over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Right now, the United States is using robotics, as Wheeler points out, in situations that raises issues for other countries’ sovereignty and governance and has a dominant technological advantage in the field. But that’s not going to continue. Eventually, other countries–and other groups, and other individuals–will use robotics in a fashion that has implications for American sovereignty, and, more generally, for the ability of governments in general to protect security. [my emphasis]

Given DOD’s complete inability to protect our computer toys from intrusion, I’ll wager that time will come sooner rather than later. Iraqi insurgents already figured out how to compromise our drones once using off-the-shelf software.

Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

It may not take long, then, for a country like Iran or an entity like a Mexican drug cartel to develop and disseminate a way to hack drones. And given the way other arms proliferate, it won’t be long before drones are available on the private market. (Incidentally, remember how some of the crap intelligence used to trump up a war against Saddam involved a balsa-wood drone? Great times those were!)

So Wittes and I are in pretty close agreement here; he even agrees that the larger issue “ought to be the subject of wider and more serious public debate.”

But shouldn’t it be, then, part of the question whether facilitating this process serves national security or not?

In the interest of fostering some disagreement here–er, um, in an interest in furthering this discussion–I wanted to unpack the thought process in this passage from Wittes’ response to Spencer with what appears to be Wittes’ and my agreement in mind:

The point with merit is the idea that drones enable the waging of war without many of the attendant public costs–including the sort of public accounting that necessarily happens when you deploy large numbers of troops. I have no argument with him on this score, save that he seems to be looking at only one side of a coin that, in fact, has two sides. Ackerman sees that drones make it easy to get involved in wars. But he ignores the fact that for exactly the same reason, they make it easier to limit involvement in wars. How one feels about drones is partly conditioned by what one believes the null hypothesis to be. If one imagines that absent drones, our involvement in certain countries where we now use them would look more like law enforcement operations, one will tend to feel differently, I suspect, that if one thinks our involvement would look more like what happened in Iraq. Drones enable an ongoing, serious, military and intelligence involvement in countries without significant troop commitments.

As I read it, the logic of the passage goes like this:

  1. Drones minimize the costs of involvement in wars
  2. We will either be involved in these countries in a war or a law enforcement fashion
  3. Therefore, we’re better off using drones than large scale military operations

Now, before I get to the implications of this logic, let me point out a few things.

First, note how Wittes uses “what happened in Iraq” as the alternative kind of military deployment? Read more

The Mackinac Center’s Assault on Academic Freedom Is a Stunt

As TPM first reported, MI’s institution of wingnut stupid, the Mackinac* Center, has FOIAed the labor studies departments of three universities.

A free enterprise think tank in Michigan — backed by some of the biggest names in national conservative donor circles — has made a broad public records request to at least three in-state universities with departments that specialize in the study of labor relations, seeking all their emails regarding the union battle in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, TPM has learned.


The Mackinac Center For Public Policy, based in Midland, Mich., submitted the FOIA requests last Friday and Monday to the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan and the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University. A third FOIA was directed to Michigan State University, which has a School of Human Resources & Labor Relations.


The parameters for the request, from a version of the FOIA obtained by TPM and confirmed by Mackinac, cover emails that mention:

“Scott Walker”; “Wisconsin”; “Madison”; “Maddow”; Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin.

The request covers all faculty emails from “January 1, 2011 to March 25, 2011.”

Read the entire FOIA sent to UM here.

Now, there are three odd things about this FOIA that suggest it is not a serious request, but instead a stunt designed to intimidate academic and political speech and probably sow conspiracy theories.

First, as TPM alluded to but didn’t fully consider, MI recently had a high profile email FOIA decision, Howell Education Association v. Howell Board of Education–in which the Mackinac Center was involved–that found emails to be exempt from FOIA.

This is a difficult question requiring that we apply a statute, whose purpose is to render government transparent, to a technology that did not exist in reality (or even in many people’s imaginations) at the time the statute was enacted and which has the capacity to make “transparent” far more than the drafters of the statute could have dreamed. When the statute was adopted, personal notes between employees were simply thrown away or taken home and only writings related to the entity’s public function were retained. Thus, we conclude that the statute was not intended to render all personal emails public records simply because they are captured by the computer system’s storage mechanism as a matter of technological convenience.

The decision also ruled that personal emails about union actions, while a misuse of the school district’s usage policy, still constituted private messages exempt from FOIA.

Now, the Appeals Court invited the legislature to clarify whether emails should be included in FOIA. Unless I missed it (it’s possible–Lansing has been generating a lot of under-discussed shit of late), the Republicans in Lansing haven’t yet done so (and couldn’t have by the January 1, 2011 start date of the FOIA request).

So unless I’m mistaken about there being a new law on FOIA in this state, the Mackinac Center knows this FOIA is junk.

In addition, while it may or may not affect this case, MI’s universities have some of the strongest autonomy among public schools nationally. While there have mixed decisions about what this means in recent decades (usually litigated on whether MI can offer abortion coverage or same sex partner coverage to its employees), I suspect university autonomy would make this FOIA claim an even weaker case than it was in a K-12 school district.

Next, look at the terms of the FOIA:

It asked for all emails discussing:

“Scott Walker”




Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin

And the request start date is January 1, before Scott Walker was even inaugurated as Governor, and well before Scott Walker formally introduced his assault on collective bargaining on February 11.

Is the Mackinac Center trying to suggest–with a FOIA request that will go nowhere–that MI’s labor professors dreamt up the response to Walker? And dreamt up Rachel Maddow in the bargain?

Note what else doesn’t appear in the FOIA: “Snyder,” “EFM,” or “Emergency Financial Manager”–terms as least as likely to have been discussed in this state, but also terms that would clearly have even greater protection as personal emails (since the professors speaking about such topics–particularly in Wayne County, one of the targets for such legislation–would presumably have a personal, as well as a professional interest in what happens in their own state).

I don’t know what to make of this–maybe in his effort to pretend he’s not as conservative as the rest of the Republican governors ruining the Midwest, Snyder asked the Mackinac Center to exclude him–but I find it curious that a Michigan-based “think tank” isn’t asking for emails that would be more likely to appear and more relevant to the public interest of the state.

The likelihood that this is some kind of stunt seems all the more likely given the squirminess from the Center as to their purpose.

Jarrett Skorup, the Mackinac Center research associate whose name is on the FOIA, told TPM he helped write and then filed the FOIAs at the request of his bosses, but he wasn’t sure what they’d be used for in the end. He suggested the Mackinac Center was looking for chatter about the Wisconsin labor situation from state professors paid to study labor relations.

“I would imagine just to see what the people in the labor studies dept are thinking about stuff in Wisconsin,” Skorup said when asked the purpose of the FOIAs.

His boss, Mackinac Center newsletter managing editor Ken Braun, refused to comment on the FOIAs.

“I’m not going to release what we’re writing about,” he said.

I’m not trying to say this isn’t dangerous or a troubling assault on academic freedom.

But there’s something that stinks even beyond the request on its face.

*Odd as it may seem, “Mackinac” is pronounced “Mackinaw” in these parts. Since we’ll be hearing a lot more about the Mackinac Center in upcoming days, please try to get that right, because otherwise we here in MI will be screaming and holding our ears and so won’t hear what you say.

Crist’s Morrison Pardon: 21st Century Fox In A Lizard King’s Henhouse

Hey, being pretty much a sentient life long Doors aficionado, I am all in with pardoning Jim Morrison, which there has been a flurry of scuttlebutt emanating, cool and slow, with a backbeat narrow and hard to master, out of the instant swamps of Florida, regarding.

Oh, and when I heard the subject brought up by the patently unhip, plodding Blue Dog, holier than thou, I’m a better Democrat than you, scold Larry O’ Donnell on his craptastic bloviathon MSNBC show, that was just too fucking much. The backdoor rumor is Charlie Crist, who may or may not have eaten more chicken that a man has eve seen, is pondering giving the Big Scooter Libby Get Out Of Jail Free card to the Most Right Reverend Snake King Jim Morrison.

Outstanding. And long over due. Because if some fucking little germ boy, bear cage child threatening, functionally traitorous subservient to Cheney blank like I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby can get a walk from a complicit President of the United States in order to mask apparent criminal behavior, then why not a posthumous hall pass for James Douglas Morrison? Seriously.

If you are comparing and contrasting facts and circumstances, one was an entertainer who may or may not have, for a fleeting moment, exposed himself in 1969 to a Miami audience at the end of a Doors concert that truly could not only have cared less, but were bummed they had not done so earlier. The other, Cheney’s toy Scooter, conspired to expose and out a classified top CIA clandestine agent working on the most critical issue of the day, the existence of nuclear and/or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and/or Iran. You know, the fraudulent reason the very same Mr. Cheney and wooden operated mouthed George Bush relied on to affirmatively, aggressively and illegally start a war against Iraq for the sins of 9/11 that Iraq not only did not commit, but had actual avarice for the people who did.

That Scooter Libby.

So, if Scooter Libby can skate and, in the process, serve as a firewall for the immorality and illegality of the Bush/Cheney Administration, there is no reason the Lizard King should not be posthumously exculpated.

No tears, no fears, but a lot of ruined years. Charlie Crist made clear intimations he wanted to do this when he took office. Being a gutless politician at heart he, of course, never did it as Governor of the rockin state of Florida. Instead he cowered to the perceived sensabilities of the people in rockin chairs. And lost his ass, soul and electability in the process. Douchebag. Crist is toast. But if he wants to belatedly clean up the halls of the Morrison Hotel, well then I am all for that. Mr. Mojo is rising; Charlie Crist is not. Lizard Kings rule; political blanks drool.

We have constructed pyramids in honor of this escaping. Let the spirit of Mr. Mojo fly Mr. Charlie Crist. It is about the only thing of merit, morals and guts you can do at this point. Get on with it you ineffectual political chameleon stale fish.

America’s Dilemma: Teachers or Food

Remember that important NYT story from early this year describing the growing number of Americans whose sole income consists of food stamps?

About six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid — no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay.

Their numbers were rising before the recession as tougher welfare laws made it harder for poor people to get cash aid, but they have soared by about 50 percent over the past two years. About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.

Well, months after that report came out, some genius in the Obama Administration, according to a very shrill David Obey, proposed offsetting funds to keep teachers in the schools by cutting food stamps. Said genius wanted to cut these people’s only safety net so Arne Duncan could go on privatizing our schools.

The secretary of Education is whining about the fact he only got 85 percent of the money he wanted .… So, when we needed money, we committed the cardinal sin of treating him like any other mere mortal. We were giving them over $10 billion in money to help keep teachers on the job, plus another $5 billion for Pell, so he was getting $15 billion for the programs he says he cares about, and it was costing him $500 million [in reductions to the Race to the Top program]. Now that’s a pretty damn good deal.

So as far as I’m concerned, the secretary of Education should have been happy as hell. He should have taken that deal and smiled like a Cheshire cat. He’s got more walking around money than every other cabinet secretary put together.

It blows my mind that the White House would even notice the fight [over Race to the Top]. I would have expected the president to say to the secretary, “look, you’re getting a good deal, for God’s sake, what this really does is guarantee that the rest of the money isn’t going to be touched.”

We gave [Duncan] $4.3 billion in the stimulus package, no questions asked. He could spend it any way he wants. … I trusted the secretary, so I gave him a hell of a lot more money than I should have.

My point is that I have been working for school reform long before I ever heard of the secretary of education, and long before I ever heard of Obama. And I’m happy to welcome them on the reform road, but I’ll be damned if I think the only road to reform lies in the head of the Secretary of Education.

We were told we have to offset every damn dime of [new teacher spending]. Well, it ain’t easy to find offsets, and with all due respect to the administration their first suggestion for offsets was to cut food stamps. Now they were careful not to make an official budget request, because they didn’t want to take the political heat for it, but that was the first trial balloon they sent down here. … Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice. Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change. [emphasis original]

As a reminder, here’s David Dayen’s summary of the squabble between Obey and Duncan.

One of [the amendments in the war spending resolution] included this social spending money, comprised of:

$10 billion for an Education Jobs Fund, $4.95 billion for Pell Grants, $701 million for border security, $180 million for innovative technology energy loans, $163 million for schools on military installations, $142 million in additional Gulf Coast oil spill funding, $50 million in emergency food assistance, and $16.5 million to build a new soldier processing center at Fort Hood.

You can read the full summary from David Obey of the Appropriations Committee here. There were some underlying provisions from the Senate war supplemental that appropriated funds to disaster relief, victims of Agent Orange, mine safety, the oil spill, and other areas.

This money in this amendment is entirely paid for through rescissions in various programs, and actually reduces the deficit by $439 million. But in order to pay for the education jobs fund and save 140,000 teachers, House appropriators dipped into $500 million of the Race to the Top fund. Arne Duncan has been sitting on $4 billion dollars in stimulus money for over a year so he can bribe states into changing their education policies. In the meantime, state budgets are in absolute crisis and hundreds of thousands of teachers could lose their jobs. Read more

The Comey College Of Prosecutorial Knowledge

This one is for Mary, who sent me the link from the road. As everyone knows, once you earn your bones in the Bush DOJ on torture and/or illegal wiretapping, you get a plum position in the private world. As Mary has consistently pointed out, Jim Comey got jumped in to the gang that couldn’t torture straight when he invoked state secrets to cover for Larry Thompson and other malfeasants in the Maher Arar case. For that fine work, Comey is now General Counsel at Lockheed Martin Aerospace while Thompson had to settle for the General Counsel slot at PepsiCo. But today is about Comey’s current crew, Lockheed.

The Wall Street Journal has an article out describing the fine educational possibilities provided the world community by the American military-industrial complex:

Lockheed Martin Corp. became the nation’s No. 1 military contractor by selling cutting-edge weaponry like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Its latest contribution to the U.S. arsenal: training prosecutors in Liberia’s Justice Ministry.

The U.S. government has hired the defense contractor to test an emerging tenet of its security policy. Called “smart power,” it blends military might with nation-building activities, in hopes of boosting political stability and American influence in far-flung corners such as Liberia.

Yep, the makers of strike fighters, cruise missiles and other niceties of global thermonuclear war, are gonna school up the new justice class in Liberia. Really, what could go wrong??

Defense firms are eager to oblige. “The definition of global security is changing,” says Lockheed’s Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Stevens. He wants the maker of the Air Force’s most advanced fighters to become a central player in the U.S. campaign to use economic and political means to align countries with American strategic interests.

Last year, Lockheed had two of its highest profile programs, the F-22 Raptor fighter and a fleet of presidential helicopters, ended by the Obama administration. Now, Lockheed is one of several defense firms expected to bid for a State Department contract to support “criminal justice sector development programs world-wide,” that could be worth up to $30 billion over five years.

Well, that does seem like a promising business opportunity and, hey, why should Halliburton and Blackwater/Xe get all the fun and Ferengi profit?

Morgan Stanley defense analyst Heidi Wood says Lockheed’s early push into this realm sets it apart from competitors. It is too soon to pinpoint a financial impact, she says, but the moves will pay off. “It’s a complete paradigm change.”

Yeah, ya think?? I wonder what kind of homework the Lockheed law professors assign? Read the entire WSJ article, it is worth it.

Now, to be fair, Jim Comey is not specifically referenced in the comprehensive article, but there is little question but that he is the top prosecutorial experience Lockheed possesses and, really, a joint with the history of Liberia would be the perfect place for former Bush/Cheney prosecutors to impart their “special” skills. It could all fit so nicely.

Happy Stimulus Day to Susan Collins, Who Killed Billions in School Funding

ThinkProgress has an absolutely devastating report on 111 Republican members of Congress who have attacked last year’s stimulus bill, but who have since taken credit for it. Click through for details on Republican hypocrisy close to you, but for a taste, here are the MI GOP stimulus hypocrites.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) Signed A Letter Hailing Stimulus Funds As An ‘Important First Steps For Individuals And Their Families.’ The letter, signed by other members of the Michigan congressional delegation, was sent to the Director of Recovery Auto Workers and Communities. [Letter from Michigan Delegation to Ed Montgomery, 5/6/09]

-Rep. Upton Voted Against The Recovery Package Twice [Roll Call Vote #46; Roll Call Vote #70]

Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) Signed A Letter Hailing Stimulus Funds As An ‘Important First Steps For Individuals And Their Families.’ The letter, signed by other members of the Michigan congressional delegation, was sent to the Director of Recovery Auto Workers and Communities. [Letter from Michigan Delegation to Ed Montgomery, 5/6/09]

-Rep. Ehlers Voted Against The Recovery Package Twice [Roll Call Vote #46; Roll Call Vote #70]

Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) Signed A Letter Hailing Stimulus Funds As An ‘Important First Steps For Individuals And Their Families.’ The letter, signed by other members of the Michigan congressional delegation, was sent to the Director of Recovery Auto Workers and Communities. [Letter from Michigan Delegation to Ed Montgomery, 5/6/09]

-Rep. Camp Voted Against The Recovery Package Twice [Roll Call Vote #46; Roll Call Vote #70]

Rep. Thad McCotter (R-MI) Signed A Letter Hailing Stimulus Funds As An ‘Important First Steps For Individuals And Their Families.’ The letter, signed by other members of the Michigan congressional delegation, was sent to the Director of Recovery Auto Workers and Communities. [Letter from Michigan Delegation to Ed Montgomery, 5/6/09]

-Rep. McCotter Voted Against The Recovery Package Twice [Roll Call Vote #46; Roll Call Vote #70]

Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) Signed A Letter Hailing Stimulus Funds As An ‘Important First Steps For Individuals And Their Families.’ The letter, signed by other members of the Michigan congressional delegation, was sent to the Director of Recovery Auto Workers and Communities. [Letter from Michigan Delegation to Ed Montgomery, 5/6/09]

-Rep. Miller Voted Against The Recovery Package Twice [Roll Call Vote #46; Roll Call Vote #70]

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) Signed A Letter Hailing Stimulus Funds As An ‘Important First Steps For Individuals And Their Families.’ The letter, signed by other members of the Michigan congressional delegation, was sent to the Director of Recovery Auto Workers and Communities. [Letter from Michigan Delegation to Ed Montgomery, 5/6/09]

-Rep. Rogers Voted Against The Recovery Package Twice [Roll Call Vote #46; Roll Call Vote #70]

But I think another Republican–along with her “moderate” buddies, Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Arlen Specter, and Claire McCaskill–who deserve some scorn today. Among the $100 billion they demanded be stripped from the stimulus package before they’d support it was money for school modernization and state fiscal stabilization funds.

We now know that–as predicted–states are reeling with budgetary problems to an extent that may cause 900,000 further job losses.

States are looking at a total budget gap of $180 billion for fiscal 2011, which for most of them begins July 1. These cuts could lead to a loss of 900,000 jobs, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com.

Granted, the money that Collins took out of education stimulus last year would not have made up the difference in the cuts we’ll see from states in the upcoming fiscal year. But Collins and her buddies do deserve a reminder that their so-called fiscal moderation last year has lasting effects on the Americans losing their jobs.

Pay $25,000 and become a "Best School" in Michigan

This is a story about the intersection between market-driven public policies and dying journalism. As those two forces have intersected, nine Michigan school districts have paid $25,000 to a PR firm for the privilege of calling themselves–and getting local TV coverage as–the “Best Schools” in Michigan.

There are two things you need to know as background. First, like much of the world, the Ann Arbor area is losing its dead tree press. Last year the Ann Arbor News closed down. Detroit’s main papers, the Free Press and News, cut their home delivery back to three days a week. There are a series of weekly papers tailored to outlying areas.

Second, Michigan has what is called a “schools of choice” program that allows districts to choose to enroll students from outside their district in either certain programs or all of the schools in their district. Each child from outside the district that enrolls brings all state funding with him or her. It’s a way for districts to fill out under-enrolled schools and bring in additional funding. If you believe that choice, per se, improves education, then I guess it’s a way to reward better districts. But, as we will see, it’s also a way to let hucksters to make a profit off of public education.

A couple of days ago, AnnArbor.Com (the online outlet that has effectively replaced Ann Arbor News) reported that a local school district, the Lincoln school district (in Ypsilanti’s suburbs) had paid PR agency Sussman Sikes $25,000 for the privilege of appearing on a paid half hour program on the local ABC affiliate calling them one of the best school districts in Michigan.

The banner ad across the Lincoln school district’s website proudly proclaims it has been recognized as one of the best school districts in Michigan.

The criteria for Lincoln and eight other districts being selected?

A $25,000 check.

Nine southeast Michigan school districts paid $25,000 each to a Detroit-area public relations firm to be “named,” a top school district. That firm, in turn, bought airtime on a Detroit-area television station to broadcast a feature on the state’s best schools. A website – bestschoolsinmichigan.com – also features the nine schools.

Mentioned nowhere on the videos or the website is the fact that the districts paid for the honor.

Lincoln, which participates in the state’s “school of choice” program, appears to be paying the bulk of its PR budget in the hopes that the coverage on ABC will attract the three students–each worth $7,300 from the state–to the school district, thereby paying for the investment. Read more

Corporatist Dems Killing another Public Option

This story is several days old. But I wanted to go back and show how, after a pack of lobbyists killed one attempt to get government to use its power to save money and improve health care, another pack of lobbyists are trying to do the same with higher education.

Eric Lichtblau (who, IMO, does much better at digging out DOJ scandals than reporting legislative battles) describes how the plan to replace privatized student loans–in which the government guarantees student loans that lenders then repackage and profit off of–with direct loans form the government is in political trouble.

But an aggressive lobbying campaign by the nation’s biggest student lenders has now put one of the White House’s signature plans in peril, with lenders using sit-downs with lawmakers, town-hall-style meetings and petition drives to plead their case and stay in business.

House and Senate aides say that the administration’s plan faces a far tougher fight than it did last fall, when the House passed its version. The fierce attacks from the lending industry, the Massachusetts election that cost the Democrats their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and the fight over a health care bill have all damaged the chances for the student loan measure, said the aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The effort to return to using direct loans to students rather than using government guarantees to support student loans stems from a series of scandals under the Bush Administration. Loan companies gave school administrators kick-backs to make their loans preferred at the schools, regardless of whether those loans made sense for the students. Lenders manipulated a subsidy (and churned some loans) to take advantage of a 9.5% profit guarantee that they weren’t otherwise entitled to. And, given a revolving door between the industry and DOE, students had little protection against fraud. As a result, students were paying far more than they should have for loans, and when they ultimately faced default, they had far fewer options for getting out of that debt assumed under what were basically fraudulent conditions.

By passing government-backed loans through private companies rather than lending money directly, students became captive consumers to an industry with little real competition and even less protection against fraud. The whole scheme turned college education from a necessary step to achieve a middle class lifestyle (and more broadly, to keep America competitive internationally) into a mere profit center for the finance industry.

The legislation before the Senate would curtail that system, replace a corporate welfare program, and use the savings to support the same number of loans plus many more education programs.

The money that would be saved by cutting out the private-industry middlemen — about $80 billion over the next decade, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis — could instead go toward expanding direct Pell Grants to students, establishing $10,000 tax credits for families with loans, and forgiving debts eventually for students who go into public service, administration officials say.

The bill would also shift tens of billions of dollars in expected savings to early learning programs, community colleges and the modernization of public school facilities.

So back to my parallel with the battle over the public option.

The choices now being made in health care risk making the same mistake we’ve made in the student loan industry. Captive consumers will be asked to support higher overhead (20% or more, in the case of the Senate bill) without adequate regulatory controls to make sure those consumers get the health care they’re paying for in return. A public option would have served as one check on this system by offering consumers one option that didn’t include that 20% overhead that also benefited from more direct government oversight. It would have saved $100 billion–in the same neighborhood of savings we’ll get by reverting the student loans to direct government assistance. But corporatist Senators like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman killed that plan, and as a result, we have to hope (assuming a bill passes at all) the HHS Secretary proves better at regulating a powerful industry than the Secretary of Education under Bush.

And now, having seen how easy it was to kill the public option, a solution that would save the government money and better achieve the underlying goal–health care (as distinct from insurance)–some of the very same corporatist Senators are turning their sights on direct student loans.

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The Fraud Of GOP Tax And School Choice Policy Shown In Arizona

Last May, I had the privilege of getting to know the Sidney Hillman Foundation when I was in New York with Marcy Wheeler to see her receive the Hillman Prize. One of the announcements at the May ceremony was an expansion of Hillman Foundation activities to include, in addition to the yearly Grand Prizes, a monthly award, known as "The Sidney," for outstanding progressive journalism and an ongoing blog, Full Court Press, featuring press writers and critics Charles Kaiser and Sydney Schanberg.

Here I want to draw attention to the August winner of Hillman’s "The Sidney", an investigative series by Ryan Gabrielson and Michelle Reese in the East Valley Tribune Newspaper, from metropolitan Phoenix, about taxpayer subsidized school tuition credit abuse in Arizona. One of the constant refrains emanating from the conservative right is "school choice" and, of course, their standard refrain on tax policy. Both areas are flimsy fronts for class warfare and further unjust enrichment of the already privileged. Gabrielson and Reese have exposed a dirty example of this particular area of the GOP mantra.

In the mid to late 1990s, a group of dogmatic conservative Republican leaders, led by Arizona Congressman Trent Franks and a leading GOP school reform and voucher advocate, Lisa Graham Keegan, saw an opportunity to implement some of the pet school reform projects of national conservative Republican think tanks in the Arizona school system as test cases. The results were as predictable as they are bleak:

The state’s Private School Tuition Tax Credits program covers the cost of private education, often for children whose parents could afford to pay it themselves – while allowing affluent families to reduce the amount of income tax they pay into the state’s general fund.

To date, Arizona’s main bank account has lost $350 million to private schools. The price tag is growing as the state grapples with the most serious financial crisis in its history, and people who depend on the general fund – public school children, the disabled, the poor and the sick – face severe cuts in services.

Under the program, taxpayers give money to nonprofit charities called school tuition organizations, or STOs for short. STOs give scholarships to children for private school tuition, and the state provides donors a dollar-for-dollar tax credit in exchange for their contribution.

The tax credit law, signed by Gov. Fife Symington in 1997, is touted as a tool to make private education more accessible to families who could not otherwise afford Read more