A Visual Aid to Prevent Future Core Shock

While almost certainly not intended to do this, yesterday the Council of Chief State School Officers – one of the creators of the Common Core – held a revelatory panel discussion with four state superintendents. Revelatory, because Core-supporting two state superintendents said pretty much what many Core opponents have long explained: Even if the standards are of outstanding quality, the Core won’t work because “accountability” won’t be rigorously implemented.

Starting around the 30-minute mark of the event video you can start catching comments from Tennessee Supe Kevin Huffman, and New Mexico’s Hanna Skandera, lamenting past failure to translate high standards into performance, and the abandonment of Common Core testing by teacher unions. Huffmann seems especially shocked and angry that state unions he thought were on board with the Core and all its attendant accountability measures are suddenly fighting tooth and nail against it.

Said Huffmann, whose state is on the brink of delaying Core testing: “Our union leadership, which started out…in support of the standards and the assessments…has quit on the process. And they have come out against the transition to more robust assessments….I find that a shocking deviation from the past.”

Alas, had Huffman and other Core supporters been listening to opponents such as myself, or Jay Greene at the University of Arkansas, they would not have been the least bit shocked by this. For instance, as I wrote in the 2010 report Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards:

[T]eachers and administrators whose livelihoods depend on public schooling are highly motivated to focus on education, and so exert outsized power over politicians on education issues. And because employees are naturally averse to management raising the standards for their performance, it is unsurprising that teachers’ unions and administrators’ associations use their political influence…to keep standards low.

I should note that in the now-blistering Common Core battle, I sympathize with a lot of the substance that teacher unionists offer against the Core, such as one-size can’t fit all; the Core is totally untested; and the standards were implemented with barely a semblance of a “democratic” process. All those very valid concerns aside, however, I also don’t think you can expect people to willingly subject themselves to outside accountability if they don’t have to. It’s not evil. It’s just human.

Anyway, Jay Greene has offered pretty much the same analysis, especially to conservatives who have long decried the outsized influence of public school employees over public schooling politics. As he colorfully put it in 2011 testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives:

Second, to the extent that there will be change in a nationalized system of standards, curriculum, and assessments, it will be directed by the most powerful organized interests in education, and probably not by reformers. Making standards more rigorous and setting cut scores on assessments higher would show the education system in a more negative light, so teachers unions and other organized interests in education may attempt to steer the nationalized system in a less rigorous direction. In general, it is unwise to build a national church if you are a minority religion.

Mr. Huffman, you were warned.

So that folks like Mr. Huffman – and the whole country – can avoid future bracing slaps in the face by the political process, perhaps a visual aid would help to understand the likely effects of top-down efforts to impose “rigorous” standards and accountability. Thankfully, my long-ago introduced “Top-Down Standards Outcomes Matrix” is just such an aid:

So be shocked no more, Core supporters! It will now take but a moment to see why top-down plans won’t work out the way you want.  

Federal Government Often Selfish, Not Selfless

A new Rasmussen poll finds that just 19 percent of voters think that the federal government “does the right thing nearly all the time.” The poll also finds that two-thirds of voters think that the government “looks out primarily for its own interests.”

These public perceptions about the federal government are correct, as frequent stories in the Washington Post confirm. Today, the newspaper has front-page stories about how the Navy’s Blue Angels may have been a “hotbed of hazing, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination,” and how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been apparently acting corruptly at the highest levels.

Regarding the Blue Angels, the Post reports:

… an internal military document that a Navy official inadvertently e-mailed to a Washington Post editor states that a former member of the Blue Angels filed a complaint last month accusing [Blue Angels commander Gregory] McWherter of promoting a hostile work environment and tolerating sexual harassment. The complaint described an atmosphere rife with sexually explicit speech, the open display of pornography and jokes about sexual orientation. The Navy officer is the latest in a string of senior military commanders to come under investigation for sexual misconduct or other misbehavior.

It does sound like top Pentagon officials are taking a harder line than in the past against such bad behavior, no doubt due to all the negative press these sorts of incidents have been generating.

Further Thoughts on Schuette v. Coalition

A few more notes on the Michigan higher education racial-preferences case already covered in this space by Roger and Ilya:

Justice Scalia could hardly have set the rhetorical stage more vividly: “[In this] jurisprudential twilight zone… we confront a frighteningly bizarre question: does the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbid what its text plainly requires?” Some readers will be let down to discover on proceeding further that the case doesn’t actually turn on that question: all eight participating Justices agree at least formally that the issue this time was not whether Michigan voters could end racial preferences at all, but instead whether they chose a method of doing so (constitutional amendment, in this case) that itself survives Equal Protection scrutiny.  

A technicality? To me, it made the case far more interesting. So many big cases have tackled the constitutionality of racial preferences as a matter of substance that anyone who cares has had ample opportunity to reflect on those big questions. By contrast, there’s been far less attention to the Hunter/Seattle “political process” line of Equal Protection cases, by which the Court occasionally and selectively intervenes to strike down democratic processes as unfair after they arrive at the “wrong” policy conclusions. (Hunter v. Erickson (1969) and Washington v. Seattle (1982) descended from Reitman v. Mulkey (1967), in which the Warren Court decided 5-4 that California voters had no right to enshrine freedom of association in their state constitution as a way of heading off then-new “fair-housing” enactments.)

Scalia and Thomas regard this line of cases (and I agree) as unprincipled, un-administrable, and lacking in any particular stopping point: the “radical logic” of Hunter and Seattle (to quote the syllabus) would lead toward general judicial review of any and all government action on the basis of whether it has “disparate impact” on minority residents, no matter how unintended. The two Justices are accordingly ready to overrule this bad line of cases directly as a mistake of its era; the plurality, for better or worse, are not (yet) willing to do so, and instead recharacterize the cases’  facts to limit their reach in ways that neither Scalia nor Sotomayor find logically defensible.

Sotomayor’s mantra “Race matters” is likely to thrill some readers — it has already been in use for a while as a catch-phrase in academia and elsewhere — but as a device for organizing a legal opinion, it’s at best – how shall we say? – imprecise. All the Justices agree that race matters, but disagree on how. As Ilya Somin and David Bernstein point out at Volokh Conspiracy, Sotomayor also gerrymanders the word race itself in a way convenient to her purposes, using it to include Hispanics (who, as official forms remind us, “can be of any race,”) while breathing not one word about Asian-Americans (a more widely racially classified group whose situation of being both historically disadvantaged and discriminated against in university admissions cries out for recognition).

“Race matters,” indeed. 

[adapted from Overlawyered]

White House Helicopter Fleet

Did you know that the White House has a fleet of 19 helicopters? The Washington Post today discusses efforts to replace this fleet of aging Sikorsky’s with 21 new vehicles yet to be procured. The fleet is used by the president, vice president, and cabinet secretaries.

The size of the helicopter fleet seems excessive. For one thing, I understand that cabinet secretaries have become mere minions to presidential aides, so I’m surprised that they would generally need access to such high-cost transportation.

The Post story focuses on the $3.2 billion flushed down the drain the last time the White House tried to replace its helicopter fleet:

The last time the Pentagon tried to upgrade the president’s coolest ride — the fleet of helicopters that drop him at his doorstep on the South Lawn of the White House — it didn’t go well. Costs doubled. Delays sparked ridicule, then outrage. And President Obama, then just a few weeks in office, said it was “an example of the procurement process gone amok” before defense officials killed the program outright.

It was an embarrassing debacle that cost $3.2 billion and produced no usable helicopter, turning an iconic symbol of presidential power into an illustration of government waste and incompetence … 

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, replacing the helicopters — which fly under the call sign “Marine One” when the president is aboard — became a priority for the Pentagon. In 2005, a team led by Lockheed Martin won the contract, beating out Sikorsky, which built the helicopters currently used in the Marine One program.

But soon it became a case study in how not to build a helicopter, analysts say. The design became so overloaded with new requirements — to be able to hover longer and at high altitudes, travel great distances without refueling, and defend against missile attacks — it essentially became an impossible task. “Too many people had a seat at the table,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Fairfax-based Teal Group …

Obama’s Clemency Project

Today, James Cole, Deputy Attorney General of the United States, announced a new “Clemency Initiative.”  The gist is that the Obama administration is soliciting more clemency petitions as a part of its “Smart on Crime” plan to address our “vastly overcrowded prison population.”

According to Cole, Obama is anxious to commute more prison sentences, but something has been amiss thus far.  To respond to Obama’s new directive, Cole tells us that a new team of lawyers will be taking over the Office of the Pardon Attorney within the Department of Justice and the new team is going to expedite clemency applications for Obama’s consideration.

The new initiative is aimed at inmates who meet the following criteria:

1.  Presently serving time federal prison.  (Inmates in state prison ineligible).

2.  Would have received a lesser sentence if current sentencing rules had been in place when they were sentenced way back when.

3.  No significant ties to gangs, cartels, or mafia families.  “Low-level” offenders.

4.  No significant criminal history.

5.  Record of good conduct while in prison.

6.  No history of violence prior to, or during, prison stay.

7.  Must have already served 10 years of prison sentence.

The administration is really hyping this initiative and raising expectations about dramatic moves by Obama as this gets underway. I remain skeptical for a few reasons.  First, I question the narrative that it has only recently occured to Obama that there ought to be more meritorious clemency petitions on his desk. 

Second, I note that the administration is expecting to receive thousands of petitions and applications.  That language is important.  Later on, Obama’s people may say, “As expected, we received thousands of applications! We never said there would be hundreds or thousands of commutations.” 

Third, there’s just no way of telling how the criteria are going to applied.  What are “significant ties” to gangs?  “Significant” criminal history?  A “history” of violence?  For example, maybe there is a guy who was caught driving a truck full of marijuana.  Maybe he was sentenced to 20 years in prison because of the amount of drugs.  Suppose he had no real ties to any gang or cartel and suppose he has already served 12 years for the non-violent offense.  Good candidate?  Wait, there’s a problem.  While in prison, he was disciplined a few times for fighting with other inmates.  (The prison authorities couldn’t tell whether the candidate was only defending himself, as he claimed, or not.)  According to a strict reading of the criteria, the candidate’s petition will fail #5 and #6 above.  But is it wise to keep a person like this locked up?

Obama deserves some credit for turning his attention to clemency.  But we will have to await his actions.  For many non-violent drug offenders, the wait has already been too long. 

For related Cato work, go here and here.  More background at the PardonPower blog.

Reflections on Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

Right on cue, the New York Times editorialized this morning against yesterday’s Supreme Court decision upholding the right of Michigan’s citizens to amend their constitution to prohibit the state from engaging in affirmative action, which they did in 2006 by passing, by a large margin, a proposition prohibiting racial, gender, ethnic, and national origin preferences in public employment, education, and contracting. The Times was not alone, of course. NPR’s lament this morning was a solo interview of Lee Bollinger, president of my undergraduate alma mater, Columbia University, and the defendant in the 2003 Gratz and Grutter affirmative action decisions when he was president of the University of Michigan.

It was a bad day for affirmative action, but a good day for the Constitution. Yet neither of those commentaries, nor any of the five opinions that issued from this split decision, came to terms with the discrimination that is inherent and hence inescapable in government undertakings as such, and is at the core of this problem today.

Among other things, the editorialists at the Times note that “the justices disagreed about whose rights were at issue: the minorities who would be affected by the ban or the majority of the state’s voters who passed it.” Justice Kennedy, writing for a three-judge plurality, sided with the voters, taking no position on the constitutionally of race-conscious public practices. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg in dissent, wrote that “Our Constitution places limits on what a majority of the people may do,” such as when they pass laws that “oppress minorities,” the Times adds.

Risking Taxpayer Dollars on DOE Loan Guarantees

In February, I highlighted the Department of Energy’s issuance of a $6.5 billion loan guarantee to build a nuclear power facility in Georgia. At the time, the project was behind schedule with cost overruns, and the project’s owners had already secured private financing. Yet DOE issued the loan guarantee anyway.

Now we’ve learned that DOE’s actions were even more foolish than previously thought. DOE waived the credit fees charged to the company—which are meant to offset the risk to taxpayers—when it issued the loan.

According to the Washington Examiner:

“Developers of a Georgia nuclear project didn’t have to pay millions of dollars in fees designed to prevent risk for taxpayers when it secured $6.5 billion in loan guarantees from the Energy Department in February, the agency confirmed Tuesday to the Washington Examiner.

The DOE calculated a zero dollar “credit subsidy fee,” which protects taxpayers if developers default, for electric utility Georgia Power – a subsidiary of Southern Co. – and Oglethorpe Power Corp. to spur completion of two large, next-generation nuclear reactors at the Vogtle power plant in Waynesboro, Ga.”

This isn’t the first time that DOE has been criticized for the handling of its loan guarantee programs, and thus risking losses to taxpayers. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office said, “if DOE underestimates these costs [credit subsidies], taxpayers will ultimately bear the cost of default.” GAO said that DOE did not follow its own processes for handling applications “potentially increasing the taxpayer’s exposure to financial risk from an applicant’s default.”

Energy loan guarantee programs should be eliminated, but closing them doesn’t seem likely under the current administration. But you would think that even this administration would favor DOE following sound lending practices to try and minimize taxpayer losses.

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