Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sham leads to shame

Beverly Hall, who just a few years ago was the nationally lauded superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, has been indicted along with 35 other teachers and administrators.   The "miracle turn-around" of performances on standardized tests that led to all the awards and praise has now been shown to be a sham, based on cheating by the teachers, not by the children.   And the sham has turned into shame for the city.

But, more important, what has been revealed by the four year investigation is that Atlanta's children were cheated out of the educational help they needed.   Examples are given of a child who scored poorly and then, on the next test, showed surprising improvement.  So the remedial help that this child needed was not provided because she had now passed.  And yet she was not able to do the work in the next class.

Pressure came from higher up, of course, starting with the Bush administration's Texas-based model that focused on standardized testing and rewards for improvement.  But Superintendent Hall's personal greed for fame and personal gain led her to put extraordinary pressure on the teachers and supervisors for improved test scores.  If they didn't produce the results, or cooperate with the cheating, they often were fired or threatened with termination.   These, at least, are the charges in the indictment, which remain to be proved in court.

We have known, or suspected, that this would be the outcome.   The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has done much of the investigative reporting that brought all this to light.  But the indictment of the top official, Beverly Hall, on charges of theft, perjury, and racketeering ** still comes as a bit of a shock.

This shock comes in the same year as the shocking revelation that the Emory University Director of Admissions had for years been reporting false data to the U. S. News and World Report, which issues the annual rankings of colleges and universities.

What has happened to the integrity of teachers?   Can it be explained by the increased pressure of competition that measures only numbers?   Or has something seeped into our educational system from the cultural attitude?   Have we become so obsessed with evidence-based systems and ratings that we have lost the soul of education as well as business?

"Everybody cheats, which makes it all right -- perhaps even necessary."  Is that what we have come to?


** The crime of racketeering has in recent years been extended to include public officials who use their office for personal gain.

Evolving views of marriage equality

It becomes clearer all the time:   the most important factor in people's changing their views about marriage equality is getting to know someone on a personal level, seeing them and their lives as individuals rather than the stereotyped images one had held previously.

Among the wave of senators changing their positions, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is a prime example.   Here is his explanation, in his own words:
"You know, I spent most of my life – and I’m 56 years of age – on a farm 12 miles west of Big Sandy;  and over the last six years . . .  I’ve gotten to know a lot of different people, a lot of folks that I normally wouldn’t know, . . .  it’s broadening the horizons that I had before that’s gotten me to this point.

"I think it’s just the people you run into, the people you meet, the goodness in people and the example they set. . . .   I just don’t think it’s our role in the government to say no you can’t be married. They love one another just as much as my wife and I love one another or more. And I think it’s important that we give them that ability to be happy."
That's it, exactly.  Thank you, Senator Tester. . . .   Montana?    For marriage equality?   Wow.


Friday, March 29, 2013

Boehner cherry-picking Lincoln quote

I do believe that Republicans are far worse than Democrats at cherry-picking favorable data or quotations to make their points.   Here's a glaring example from John Boehner.

Boehner released a memo warning of the perils of increasing governmental debt by quoting the young Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, who wrote:
[Government debt] is a system not only ruinous while it lasts, but one that must soon fail and leave us destitute. . . .  An individual who undertakes to live by borrowing, soon finds his original means devoured by interest, and next no one left to borrow from –- so must it be with a government.”
That's fine, as far as Boehner goes, but he stopped too soon.   Lincoln also wrote:
"By this means a new national debt has been created, and is still growing on us with a rapidity fearful to contemplate -- a rapidity only reasonably to be expected in time of war. This state of things has been produced by a prevailing unwillingness either to increase the tariff or resort to direct taxation."
I rest my case.   You can say anything by selectively quoting the dictionary, you know.


SCOTUS and gay marriage #6: Chief Justice can see no evil.

Chief Justice John Roberts must live in a bubble.  He seemed incredulous that Congress could have had any biased motivations or moral judgment in passing DOMA, despite the language in DOMA that says specifically that one of the governmental interests is "defending traditional notions of morality."  The 1996 text includes the following:
"Civil laws that permit only heterosexual marriage reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality. This judgment entails both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality." 
Roberts seems to be unaware that many people in our society experience discrimination, deprivation, hardship, and injustice.   To him, the world is simple, and it is basically good.  He has lived a privileged life, apparently without hardship, worked in the White House and elite law firms, where he mostly handled appellate briefs for the strong and privileged, not the oppressed.

He has previously made comments from the bench, or in written opinions, that imply he sees no problem in some of the discrimination cases brought before the court:
"Things have changed in the South," he wrote in striking down a section of the Civil Rights Act, despite relentless efforts in the South and elsewhere to make it difficult for minority voters to cast their ballots. 
John Roberts needs to have some real world experience outside his comfortable bubble that sees no evil and no deprivation or discrimination in our world.   Otherwise, he is going to lead our highest court into an unreal view of the world that has real world consequences for people in need or those treated unjustly.

I'm putting my faith in the three women on the court, however.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who experienced the discrimination against women in her young professional career;   Sonia Sotomayor, who grew up living in housing projects without a father;  and Elena Kagan, who by sheer strength of her intellect, made it into the highest levels previously closed to women (first female Dean of Harvard Law School, U. S. Solicitor General).   They should, over time, be able to broaden Robert's horizons -- if he will listen to them.

He's not a bad man;  just limited in life experience and biased by his political philosophy.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

This is NOT about SCOTUS and gay marriage

The Republican primary race for nomination to replace retiring U. S. Senator Saxby Chambliss is shaping up to be the battle of the docs.

So far, Paul Braun, MD has announced his candidacy.   He is a general practitioner.   Now Phil Gingary, MD, a former obstetrician, has jumped in.   And another likely prospect is Tom Price, MD, a former orthopedist.

Not sure what that means, if anything;  but it's interesting -- and something different to think about.

On the Democratic side, the only name I've heard talked about so far is Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn.   She is the co-founder of HandsOn Atlanta and is a pioneer in organizing volunteers for social service.   She now heads Points of Light, the world's largest organization dedicated to volunteer service.


SCOTUS and gay marriage #5: DOMA and the military

Here's the deal clincher on DOMA that I had not considered before.  Rachel Maddow made it a centerpiece of her coverage of the SCOTUS hearing last night.

For civilian same-sex, legally married couples, there are over 1000 benefits that they do not get that opposite-sex married couples do get, including tax benefits, next-of-kin rights, etc.

But for military same-sex couples -- which are now quite permissible since the end of DADT -- it is multiple times worse.   BECAUSE, if you are active duty military, the federal government is in charge of your whole life.

It can makes a difference whether your children are eligible to go to schools for military families on foreign assignments, whether your spouse can get medical care or shop in the commissary, whether he/she would be notified in the usual way if you are killed in battle.

At this point, scores of military brass themselves signed an amicus brief asking the court to overturn DOMA -- because it is a bureaucratic nightmare, in addition to the humanitarian side of it, to try to administer different rights and benefits for their dependents, based on the sex of the spouse.

That, alone, should make the case for overturning DOMA.

And we heard it, again on Rachel Maddow's show, fr0m Nicole Wallace, who was communications chief for George W. Bush and senior advisor to the McCain-Palin campaign.  She is very much in favor of overturning DOMA and joined other important Republicans in an amicus brief.   She and Rachel agreed that, if SCOTUS does not overturn DOMA, it is possible that Congress will itself vote to repeal it.  

It seems that anti-gay positions are an embarrassment now to Republicans, and they would like to take the issue off the table.   They used to be in the majority in opposing gay rights;  now they are in a minority -- and it's becoming a bit embarrassing for them.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

SCOTUS and gay marriage #4: Effect on children

We can be grateful that Justice Clarence Thomas does not speak in court hearings.  We are thus spared a second voice of anti-gay bias as we heard from Justice Antonin Scalia today.

In addressing the effect on children of living with same-sex parents, he said:  "There is considerable disagreement among sociologists," and we just don't know whether it harms children or not.

Well, that's just not true.  He may be thinking about the junk science "studies" that the other side submits.   But all of the major mental health organizations have adopted policies favoring adoptions by same-sex parents, backed up by extensive research reports.

Just this past week the American Academy of Pediatrics announced its support and cited research that shows a positive impact on children whose same-sex parents are allowed to marry.   And this builds on extensive studies supplied in the numerous amicus briefs filed by multiple mental health professional groups.

Those who don't want to hear that DOMA should be overturned will selectively pick their junk science and give it equal weight to the scientific research cited by reputable professional organizations.   And Scalia is probably most vehement in declaring that his judgments are completely based on the law and have no subjective component.

Well, that's just not true, either.


SCOTUS and gay marriage #3

Another interesting day of arguments on marriage equality before the Supreme Court.   Again, the justices (except for Thomas) were active in questioning the attorneys.

It seems likely that DOMA will be overturned one way or another.   Somewhat surprising, to me anyway, was the amount of time they devoted -- again -- to questions about jurisdiction and standing.   Was it proper that the case was even brought before SCOTUS?

This hinged primarily on the issue of federalism.   Since marriage is a matter generally left up to the states, what is the federal government's interest in it at all -- first, in having passed the law, and then in ruling on it's constitutionality?

So they could say it's unconstitutional on the grounds that DOMA should never have been passed in the first place.   Or they could rule it unconstitutional on the basis of unequal treatment.

One of the curiouser questions was from Chief Justice Roberts.   He was rather critical of President Obama and the Department of Justice for having decided that it was unconstitutional and therefore not to defend it in court, and at the same time to continue to enforce it.   Roberts said that, if a president thinks a law is unconstitutional, he should not sign it.   And if it's already in effect, and he chooses not to defend it, then why does he continue to enforce it?

I think those are both irrelevant questions in this case.  Either the chief justice was being theoretical or else he was giving a back of the hand to President Obama, perhaps for his rebuke in the 2011 State of the Union Address about the Citizens United decision.

But look at those questions practically:   (1) It was Clinton, not Obama, who signed the law;  so there's no way the first question applies.   And (2) think what it would mean not to enforce DOMA.   To start with, it would change hundreds of regulations for the armed forces about pay, pensions, base housing, etc.   And then the whole IRS tax code would have to be overhauled in thousands of places.

Suppose they did all that -- and then a year later, SCOTUS upheld DOMA, and all that had to be undone and rights taken away from people who had recently been given them?

So those are not practical, relevant questions, even if they are interesting to discuss from a constitutional law perspective.

One way or another, DOMA is doomed.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

SCOTUS and gay rights #2

Some highlights from todays SCOTUS hearing on the California Prop 8 case:

1.  The justices' line of questioning suggest that they will decide this case narrowly to apply only to California, with Justice Kennedy voting with the four liberals.   That is, it is unlikely to be a sweeping decision that will overturn bans in all states.  However, if they decide that the plaintiffs had no standing to bring the case -- thus letting the lower court decision stand that overturns Prop8 -- it might be more than a 5-4 decision.

2.  Mr. Cooper, the lawyer for the Prop 8 proponents offered no evidence at all that same-sex marriage would harm anyone.   The best he could do was to say we don't have the evidence yet to know whether it will cause harm, either to the institution to marriage or to children of such a marriage, and therefore we should wait.

3.  But that argument falls on its face, given that California already grants all the rights of marriage, including adoption rights, to same-sex couples.  And Justice Kennedy made an eloquent point, saying that 40,000 children in California are now living with same sex parents -- and they are asking for their parents' union to be recognized as marriage.   "There voices should carry weight, don't you think?" he asked.  I think, in his own decision, that will weigh heavily.

4.  Mr. Cooper also made the ludicrous attempt to argue against gay marriage on two grounds:    (1)  that marriage is for procreation, which Justice Kagan demolished by pointing out that if a man and a woman marry, and both are over the age of 55, there are not likely to be any children;   (2)  that marriage involves a commitment to fidelity.   Again Justice Kagan interjected, "where does it say that?"

As Rachel Maddow said on her show tonight:   the really important thing about today is what it predicts for the hearings tomorrow on DOMA.   The fact that there was no argument on merit for retaining bans on marriage equality bodes well for overturning DOMA.

Stay tuned.


Monday, March 25, 2013

SCOTUS and gay rights #1

On the eve of the hearings on two blockbuster gay rights cases before the Supreme Court, the momentum has definitely been building rapidly -- it almost feels like an avalanche -- for support of marriage equality.

Whether this will have any conscious effect on the justices' decisions, I do believe it will have at least a subtle effect on the two I consider swing votes on this issue:   Anthony Kennedy and John Roberts.

Kennedy wrote the majority opinions in both the Colorado Amendment 2 case and the Lawrence v. Texas that overturned anti-gay-rights and anti-sodomy laws.   He went out of his way, in the opinions, to say (1) that the amendment could only have arisen from animus toward homosexuals and (2) that the Bowers v. Hardwick decision had been wrongly decided in 1986 when it upheld the arrest of two consenting adults for having sex in the privacy of a home.  On the other hand, Kennedy is a practicing Catholic and is known to feel strongly about marriage.

Roberts' conservatism might ordinarily make him unlikely to support gay marriage;  but he has an investment in the legacy of "the Roberts Court."   So the growing public acceptance might have some influence.   On the other hand, he may feel he already "gave" on that issue in the ObamaCare decision and not want to seem too easily swayed by public opinion.

A possible other slight factor in Robert's subjectivity:   he has a lesbian cousin who will be sitting in the courtroom during the hearings tomorrow along with her partner.   They applied to Robert's office for tickets and got them.

So, we wait.


Why not? It's so simple.

Joe Nocera, New York Times columnist, has a novel suggestion that is so simple -- and it makes sense.   So:   Why not?

He starts with the question:   "Why can't we childproof guns?"  Then, at least, we could prevent all those deaths that result from a child innocently playing with a loaded gun he found in his parents' bedside table.   It could also prevent a thief stealing a gun and using it, or a robber taking a victim's gun and turning it on him.

The technology exists.  Guns can be made that can be fired only by the owner.  It's called "gun personalization."   Reportedly Attorney General Eric Holder recently had a meeting in which he was briefed on this technology.   There are even companies that are ready to produce such products commercially

Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) has plans to introduce legislation that would require that all guns conform to this within two years.   Of course there is zero chance of its being passed, given that we can't even get a vote on an assault weapons ban.

That's only because of the power of the NRA lobby.   What of the actual legal precedent for such requirements?   Nocera points out that Congress once cared enough about the safety of its citizens to pass laws requiring air bags in cars and childproof caps on medicine bottles

What's different?    So:   Why not do it?   We all know why.   The gun lobby.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

"No, you're the crazy one."

Billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given millions of his personal wealth in the effort to increase gun control legislation.  He supports universal background checks, ban on assault weapons, and better tracking systems.

NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said on "Meet the Press" this morning that Bloomberg has an "insane" approach to gun control.   He claims it is dishonest, will not work, and will only affect law-abiding citizens.   Then it gets a bit paranoid about lists being kept of gun-owners, which will get abused to creat a "registry" and that will get hacked and published.

And then the real crazies get into conspiracy theories about government control . . . and away we go to la-la land.

But Mayor Bloomberg is the crazy one.

Gee, then why is it that the public agrees with Bloomberg and not LaPierre?


For shame !!! # 2

Another shameful result of our dysfunctional Senate and its filibuster-as-obstacle:

Caitlin Halligan, President Obama's nominee as justice for the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals, has asked to have her nomination withdrawn.

The nomination has been pending since September 29, 2010.   Since that time, Republicans have prevented it from coming to a vote on the Senate floor by using the filibuster, which is nothing more than a hold placed on the nomination and requires 60 votes to move beyond.

It has not been possible to get 60 votes -- just to have an up or down vote -- for the nomination.    And she is not the first, of course.   Their objection:  she has a history of activism for liberal causes.

Excuse me, but what do you call Clarence Thomas when he goes around giving speeches against ObamaCare?  -- and his wife was paid a six-figure salary by a foundation for the defeat of it -- and he did not recuse himself from the case when it came to SCOTUS.  Is it all right for a sitting justice to be an activist if he is conservative -- but you can't even have a vote on the nomination of a liberal because, in private life, she was an activist?

This obstructionism leaves many federal judicial seats vacant.  And then the Republicans turn around and blame it on the president for not having submitted nominations they could approve.   Not a single one of them has been extreme (like the infamous Robert Bork).   They may be more liberal than conservatives want -- but this filibuster travesty is a way for the minority to rule.  And it is just plain wrong.

Shame on Republicans.  And shame on Harry Reid for not changing the filibuster rules when he had the chance at the beginning of this session of Congress.