The Propaganda War Against Obamacare, Citibike and the Common Core

I generally don’t pay much attention to the sludge of misinformation and deception that now passes for politics and journalism. I prefer to try to figure out what is actually true myself. But suddenly last weekend, it occurred to me that the massive propaganda war against Obamacare, Citibike and the Common Core are essentially the same. Those waging it may be different – the Tea Party, Tabloids and Teacher’s Union – but the goals, tactics and vested interests are more alike than different.

In each case, an attempt has been made to delay and then kill a different way of doing things before it got started, not because it might fail but because it might succeed. In each case, the group putting out the propaganda has an interest in keeping things as they are: older and wealthy Americans who already benefit from massive direct and indirect government health care spending on themselves and don’t want any benefits for others. Those who believe their own driving and parking is the most important (and only valid) use of the public streets that everyone pays for. And a New York City teacher’s union that has provided the people of New York City with inferior schools for nearly 50 years, generally in exchange for low funding but more recently – over the past decade — in exchange for high funding. And the similarities don’t end there.

In each case the privileged group has attempted to convince the unaffected, or potentially positively affected, that they would be the real victims of the new policy.

In the case of Obamacare, the Tea Party has claimed that unless today’s young people are allowed to be uninsured (or to in reality be uninsured despite paying for bogus low cost insurance) and have their future old age benefits taken away while paying taxes for today’s seniors to get those benefits, they will never get jobs. (Somehow I think a collapse of consumer demand due to 30 years of exploding public and private debts followed by a financial crisis has more to do with it).

In the case of Citibike, the claim was made that an increase in the number of people riding bicycles would lead to a huge number of pedestrians killed and crippled, not drivers and parkers inconvenienced. The soon-to-be former Comptroller claimed that Citibike would thus lead to a wave of litigation against the city, causing huge tax increases and service cuts. None of this has happened, of course, but that doesn’t mean the same claims will not re-appear in the media.

And in the case of the Common Core, the teacher’s union has pushed the idea that having a common curriculum and test will lead to hundreds of thousands of middle class kids being labeled dunces and having their careers ruined, and the high quality schools in much of New York State outside New York City being wrecked. They have formed their own Astroturf groups to push this point, dominate the conversation and shout down those who disagree, demanding that the city and state “listen to parents.”

In each case, the privileged, self-interest groups pretend to have the best interest of the disadvantaged at heart.

The Republicans claim they will come up with a fairer and more effective set of policies for the publicly financed and subsidized portion of health care – but only after Obamacare is repealed or delayed. Just like they did back in the mid-2000s when the controlled the White House and both houses of Congress? Back then they cut taxes for yesterday’s rich while enriching Medicare benefits for yesterday and today’s seniors, and then announced that due to soaring debts federal old age benefits will have to be slashed for those under age 55. More and more public money was going to fewer and fewer people, even as those who were made to pay for it were increasingly uninsured.

In the case of Citibike, the tabloids, and the interests whose propaganda they published, all claimed to be in favor of people being allowed to ride bicycles safely if they chose. Just not there, and not there, and not there, and not there, and not without a few decades of public consultation and $millions of dollars of consultant reports for every bike lane and Citibike stand.

And the United Federation of Teachers claims it in favor of high standards, better schools, and accountability – but is merely against any and all specific attempts to implement them, including those they previously claimed to be in favor of back when attacking some other alternative.

Back when teacher evaluations were based on the bosses’ (the principal’s) opinion, as it is for the rest of us, the union was against that — because all the principals are biased, incompetent, racist, sexist tyrants. The UFT successfully litigated the idea that any teacher could be told that their effort or ability wasn’t good enough out of existence. Education “reformers” took the bait and introduced the change in learning based on standard tests as an “objective” measure separate from the opinion of one human being. But now the teacher’s union is against basing evaluations based on tests.

In fact, the union has claimed it is unreasonable to evaluate and hold accountable any individual teacher, because teaching is done as a team. Until the Bloomberg started holding the teams accountable by closing schools, and then the UFT was against that too because it is unfair to individual teachers. But like the Republican alternative to Obamacare, and bike lanes and facilities installed after “listening to the public,” any form of evaluation and accountability the UFT would agree to would either be phony or would remain over the horizon, indefinately.

The implementation of each of these new policies has had initial glitches. And in each case the glitches were followed by calls for the policy to be delayed due the glitches (until the political situation changed and they could be eliminated without the beneficiaries knowing what they were missing).

A large number of states have done everything they could to screw up Obamacare, which (unlike Medicare for today’s seniors) is run by states, and with a little help from low implementation funding and bad federal contractors they seem to have succeeded for the moment with regard to health insurance marketplaces run by the federal government.

Since the cooperating states seem to have information systems up and running, however, it might be a good time for the Obama Administration to make a few phone calls offering a few $billions for the best of them to simply be replicated in the states that refused to build their own. While telling the federal contractors that if things weren’t fixed and pronto, not only would their work be scrapped and replaced, but also if they didn’t give back all the money they were paid their reputation would be so destroyed in ensuring lawsuits that no organization would ever hire them again. A la the outcome of the Citi-Time fiasco in New York City, after the public employee unions used contractor glitches to try to kill the new system, because the old system was conductive to time card fraud.  But later the new system succeeded.

For Citibike, the city chose a relatively small business (everyone loves small business don’t they?) that was overwhelmed with the scale of the New York program. Citibike was delayed for a year due to software glitches, and then downsized due to equipment destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. This of course led to calls for Citibike to be delayed – into the next administration when it could be scrapped by the next Mayor because it “didn’t work.”

But darn that dictator Janet Sadik-Khan, Citibike did get started and has been wildly successful while gradually working out the glitches and improving every month. Some claim that success means the “bikelash is over.” But I see it as seasonal, due for a return in winter when fewer people are riding bicycles and diminished sunlight and winter precipitation provide a new set of challenges for Citibike to overcome.

With regard to the Common Core, the first glitch (not an actual glitch in fact) was giving the tests as a diagnostic baseline before schools started teaching the new material. The second is that with states across the country implementing the Common Core at once, not enough of the new teaching materials available for every New York City school at the start of the school year. Thus, the outcry to “delay” the Common Core, not have the tests (and thus not any tests since the old ones are gone) used to assess either students or teachers. Or – in some states – to eliminate the Common Core altogether.

I agree with the outcry over the information provided in the Common Core rollout in one respect.

Here in New York City, though the vast majority of teachers go all out to do their best for the children, a substantial minority cannot or will not do so. But they have a “right” to continue to be paid to not do their work, and despite all the noise I understand and accept that that will never, ever change. The UFT simply has too much power, particularly in the state legislature, in UFT elections the retirees outvote the active teachers, and among the active teachers the grifters make all the noise. Having one or two of these teachers (along with a couple of novices who will only last a year) can really screw up a kid’s education. And now that we are going back to a Democratic administration the practice of those with connections getting into the better schools and getting the best teachers is likely to return – if it ever ended to begin with.

Parents need to understand this essential truth before deciding to send their kids to a New York City public school. And they need to be empowered to do something to make up for it if their kid ends up with a teacher who does not teach.

Back in the mid-1990s, when we were evaluating our education options, there were 35 kids per class down at the local elementary school, one teacher who decided not to teach math for a year (after a new contract provision prohibited principals from examining teaching materials), and one “special subjects” teacher who basically never showed up. (I knew about this because I had neighbors whose kids went to the school, one of whom later became a UFT teacher, and I volunteered as a tutor one morning a week for a year). I think the principal got in some corruption trouble too. (Before posting this I used an internet search to find that actually there were two principals who were brothers and were each involved in a scandal — the one at the local school was the guy who would be screaming over the intercom while I was tutoring. Oh to go back to that pre-Mayoral control Garden of Eden!).

Knowing these realities, I went in to see the replacement principal and asked if I could get a copy of the curriculum, with the idea that if the school failed to teach our children something my wife and I could do it for them. He told me that he could show it to me, but unfortunately I was likely to be disappointed. And I was. From pre-K to 6th grade, all there was to it was a few pages of educationalese, and nothing useful.

Now, according to the New York Times, the Common Core is “a grade-by-grade outline of what children should know to be ready for college and careers.” OK, so where is it? Where is a detailed list of what kids should be taught in each grade, down to lists of spelling words and arithmetic operations, with worksheets, exercises, and sample tests? Shouldn’t that all be online somewhere? Shouldn’t there be exercises and examples from teachers all over the country? That is something that not only might be useful for teachers who want to do their job, but also for parents whose kids get stuck with the rest. But what I have seen when I tried to find it, even with an assist from someone who knows more about it than I did, is little better than what I saw 20 years ago at PS 154.

Meanwhile, according to 60 Minutes, one person and then later a non-profit he founded has been putting up all kinds of educational material online – more and better it seems than the entire public school system with its millions of education graduate school trained workers. If nothing else, the city of state should have a website that directs people to the information that is available subject by subject and grade by grade, even if it is unable to provide that information itself. h

Parents are going to need to be able to teach their children themselves, through home schooling, education co-ops, or as a supplement to whatever the schools will still be able to provide, and will deserve assistance as the least that can be done for the taxes they pay. Because in some ways all the drama over the Common Core and “school reform” in general is merely a sideshow to distract attention from, and avoid talking, about the most important realities that will be facing public education over the next 20 years.

Due to the retroactive pension enhancements, pension underfunding, and debts of the past 15 to 20 years, schools will be facing huge fiscal pressures and an ongoing financial crisis – despite high spending on “education.” Basically, the future education funding has already been grabbed off the top in the past, this time not just in New York City (as in the 1970s) but also in much of the country.

New York City is still in the “deny, deny, deny” phase of the crisis – underfunding and enriching pensions while deferring (and thus increasing) some of the eventual pain. To see where that ends up, you need to pay attention to what is happening or will soon happen to public education in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and the state of Oklahoma – places where the pension funds are as underfunded as in New York City. Thanks to the retroactive enrichment of the pensions of the teachers who failed to educate the majority of a generation of past New York City children, the “you will pretend to work and we will pretend to pay you” deal of the pre-2000 years is bound to re-assert itself — “due to circumstances beyond our control.”

In our case we found a lifeboat – our church, the Catholic Church, was able to educate our children through the 8th Grade. That lifeboat, however, is taking on water – squeezed between the inability of the city’s working people to pay, more and the inability of the schools to pay their teachers an adequate wage unless they charge more. So the private alternative will be available to fewer non-wealthy New Yorkers during this triumph of the public education producers over the public education consumers.

Now I’m not an education expert and am not sure what is in the Common Core. What I have heard makes me nervous – teaching “critical thinking” rather than just memorization. The New York City public schools seem to have perfected the use of “magnet” and “gifted” programs to shepherd the brightest children (and the children of the most politically connected parents) on to their future careers as doctors, lawyers, computer scientists or Goldman Sachs employees – while dumping everyone else in the social landfill. The skilled tradespeople and middle-class office workers in New York City, the former average rather than gifted students, generally come from the suburbs, from the Catholic schools, or even from poor foreign countries. Vocational education has never been restored in the city’s schools, and all you hear from the New York State Board of Regents is “college, college, college.” I hope that the Common Core is not an expansion of this kind of school system nationwide. But whatever it is, it ought to be online in great detail, not covered up like the secrets of the Krelim.

Getting back to the backlash, one difference between the Common Core and the Bikelash is that New York City’s mainstream media is not playing along. This New York Times editorial, in fact, figured out the similarities between the war on Obamacare and the war on the Common Core months before I did, and is an example of where the media stands. It puts the United Federation of Teachers together with the Tea Party as opponents of fairness and progress.

To me, however, the financial implications of the 25/55 deal for New York City teachers in 2008 means that “school reform,” however one chooses to define it, is essentially over anyway. The UFT has successfully “de-funded” it irrevocably in a way the Tea Party opponents of Obamacare could only dream. It’s game over, and the only question is whether the UFT will add ongoing deception about the actual state and future of the schools to the list of its met demands. Battles over “school reform” give a false sense of hope and can be considered a dishonest attempt to dissuade those parents in a position to do so from ensuring the education of their children by seeking alternatives. Particularly since with the UFT adopting the Charles Murray philosophy that education dollars spent on poor children are wasted since they probably won’t learn anyway, and Governor Cuomo seeking to cut property taxes in the rest of the state through some kind of “son of STAR,” New York City’s share of state school aid is likely to be cut again.

So since the game is over anyway, I’m prepared to give them one on the Common Core, as long as the blame is properly assigned to them. Basically replicating the cancellation of Select Bus service on 125th Street in Manhattan after a political backlash by the privileged, later reversed after that cancellation generated a reverse backlash by the serfs.

I suggest that the State of New York move forward with implementation of the Common Core and its related tests in the public schools in the rest of the state, in Charter Schools, in the private school, and for the homeschooled. But that it give the regular New York City public schools a five year waiver before any of the Common Core tests are given, and anybody is expected to teach the Core Curriculum. In those schools, perhaps the city’s schools could “respect teachers” by eliminating any idea they are supposed to teach anything in particular, and parents by just skipping the “high stakes tests,” as is occurring in states such as Oklahoma and Alabama.

If NYC parents wanted their children to be taught what just everyone else was being taught, they could move elsewhere, pay for private school, or get online assistance to teach the kids themselves. And while the NYC schools would not offer the test – or any test since there would be no state test to replace it – the state would pay for parents who chose to have their children tested and graded outside the city schools. This way, at least the UFT would not really be holding anyone else back. And that outcome – everyone else moving ahead and New York City left behind — would be highly educational for all involved, with regard to the realities of our institutional collapse.