Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Common Core "Slippery Slope"

The Common Core opens the door much wider for Washington to meddle in schooling. The experience of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act is instructive. Initially, NCLB limited federal authority over how states would set standards, select tests, and improve teacher quality. In recent years, however, the Obama administration has used its ability to issue “waivers” from NCLB to push states to adopt the Common Core, sign onto certain tests, and evaluate teachers in specified ways. There’s much precedent for worrying about slippery slopes.

In fact, for all their lip service to federalism, few Common Core advocates give the impression that they worry about extending Washington’s reach. Many have avidly supported Obama initiatives that have increased Washington’s authority. The “state-led” talking points look more like advocates trying to address a short-term political problem.

The result is a dishonest debate, in which advocates refuse to acknowledge what they really think it’ll take for the Common Core to deliver on their grand ambitions for the program. That can create problems of its own: See the troubled rollout of health-care reform, where promises made for political reasons have yielded fierce backlash and immense implementation challenges.

The comparisons to both the federal health exchange and President Bush's No Child Left Behind are apt. The driving ideology behind these kinds of initiatives is that the top-down technocratic elite (usually in Washington DC) can set policy and make rules better than the people who actually live in the states that will be affected.


Scapegoating Israel, Again

'Tis the season of the long holiday for toilers in the Groves of Academe. Learned professors of the American Studies Association (ASA), who recently adopted a call for a boycott of contact with Israel's academic institutions, presumably to protest Israel's "treatment" of Palestinians but perhaps because they just don't like Jews very much, should take a break from grading papers, or partying with academics who think exactly as they do, and use the time to reflect on something important. One such topic should be why they single out the one democracy in the Middle East for criticism of its imperfection.

These academics teach interdisciplinary approaches to history, religion, literature and philosophy in the American culture, but many of them obviously missed their own critical study of intellectual history. How else to explain why they're unable to distinguish between scholarly arguments and arguments extracted from their own attitudes, prejudices and uninformed opinions?

Perhaps they've been too busy researching scorn to heap on the United States for presentation in a learned paper at their next convention. The latest call for ASA "scholarship" is to provide papers on "The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post-American Century." (You might want to wait for the movie, which is not likely to be coming soon to a theater in your neighborhood.)

It's a long time since we've looked to tenured professors to guide moral thinking on anything, but this recent ASA resolution is political posturing of the worst order. Not even Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, favors the boycott of Israeli professors, who actually teach a multicultural mix of students in their universities, including, in addition to Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Ethiopians and exiles from despotic countries who are enjoying academic freedom for the first time.

For an organization devoted to cross-disciplinary study, the ASA boycotters might refresh their recollections with unpleasant anti-Semitic models of intellectual boycotts, such as Hitler's order against patronizing Jewish businesses in Germany in the 1930s, or the Arab League's boycott in the Middle East in 1948, when it still held high hopes of seeing the extermination of Israel.

It's particularly bizarre for academicians to single out Israel to be the most imperfect of imperfect nations, because Israelis debate with each other, with a passion that would set off a rush to the fainting couches in almost any American university, such subjects as the treatment of the settlements, prospects for peace and the two-state solution. But the ASA academics are so accustomed to listening to each other compete to scorn America and Israel that outrages across the world never intrude on their intellectual isolation.

They share their prejudices and attitudes with colleagues on smart phones and laptops made in China, which imprisons dissenting academics who speak their minds. The Palestinian Authority does not allow discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Palestinian schools and colleges. Iran executes dissenters, Russia imprisons outspoken feminists, neither gays nor women can be hired at a university in Saudi Arabia, and dissenters are treated brutally in Cuba. There's rarely a peep from the faculty lounges about any of that.

The boycotters singled out only academic institutions in Israel, "whose universities have affirmative action programs for Palestinian students and who boast a higher level of academic freedom than almost any country in the world," writes Alan Dershowitz in Ha'aretz, the Israeli newspaper. Larry Summers, who was bounced as president of Harvard because he urged an honest discussion of why women often don't do well in math, observes that boycotts that single out Israel are "anti-Semitic in their effect, if not necessarily in their intent." Prejudice is as prejudice does.

It doesn't really matter whether anti-Semites see themselves as hating Jews; it's how they manifest their prejudice and how others react that ultimately count. To their credit, many members of ASA have dissented from the boycott, along with academic institutions including the American Association of University Professors, and at least eight past presidents of the ASA, cutting across political persuasions.

Brandeis University and Penn State Harrisburg have dropped their ASA memberships. Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, urges his colleagues to reject this "phony progressivism" as dishonest and morally obtuse. Many professors worry that the prejudice inherent in the boycott will "stain" the reputation of scholars in American studies, an argument hard to refute. Henry Kissinger famously observed that "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." The professors who voted to boycott academic contact with Israel expose their own vicious small-mindedness, which hurts them most of all.


Controversial Ohio Homeschool Bill Withdrawn After Grassroots Tsunami Opposes it

Sponsor vows to leave homeschoolers alone. Forever!

On Wednesday I wrote about SB 248, an offensively intrusive bill introduced in the Ohio Senate by Senator Capri Cafaro. The bill, named Teddy’s Law for 14-year-old Teddy Tedesco who was brutally tortured and murdered by his mother’s boyfriend, would require all homeschooling families to submit to background checks and interviews with social workers before being permitted to homeschool or enroll in an online school in the state. Parents and children would be separated for interviews and any finding by a social worker that homeschooling was not “in the best interest of the child” would be grounds for denial of the right to homeschool or enroll in an online school.

In a stunning reversal, Cafaro, the bill’s sponsor, announced on Thursday that she intends to withdraw the bill. Declaring that the bill was never meant to provoke a policy debate on homeschooling, Cafaro said,

After consultation with Teddy’s family, we have collectively decided the best course of action is for me to withdraw SB 248, and instead pursue a more comprehensive approach to address the current challenges in the state’s social service and criminal justice system.

Ohioans for Educational Freedom (OEF), a statewide PAC that supports homeschooling, began telling Ohio homeschoolers and other supporters of freedom in education about the bill at 10:35 p.m. on Monday night. By Thursday afternoon the bill was dead.

The evolution of SB 248 from the time the Ohio education community first learned about it until the moment Cafaro announced she was abandoning it is an excellent example of what the grassroots can accomplish when they speak with one voice and work with laser-like focus on a single issue. Mark Stevenson from OEF reported:

By Tuesday morning, we sent around to all the Facebook home school groups we were in contact with. By Tuesday afternoon, the news had traveled so fast and furious that all the typical e-mail lists were sending out our RED ALERT quicker than we could keep up with.

CHEO [Christian Home Educators of Ohio] put out a thorough Alert of their own and it seemed most of the Ohio home school population became fully aware that this was the biggest encroachment of home schooling rights in Ohio.

By Tuesday afternoon Mike Donnelly from HSLDA [Homeschool Legal Defense Association] put out a statement saying ”This is the biggest over reach I’ve seen in a very long time if ever in the area of imposing regulation on home schoolers.” Later that evening, HSLDA sent out their evening e-mail that announced a headline of ”Worst-Ever Homeschool Law Proposed”. We were receiving intel reports that Cafaro’s office had been overwhelmed and inundated with phone calls all day on Tuesday and it was continuing through Wednesday.

Stevenson reported that his website received more than 300,000 hits in two days and the group’s Facebook group gained several hundred new members. The story was shared on blogs, newspapers, Twitter, and talk radio — I received several requests to discuss the issue on radio as a result of my article here. Opponents set up several Facebook pages to share information and a petition at received almost 1400 signatures in a day.

By Tuesday, Cafaro was already backing away from the bill in Facebook posts at the Teddy’s Law page, saying:  "I have no desire to have any power over anyone. And, there may need to be some significant changes to the bill to avoid possible constitutional challenges."

I spoke with several legislators who told me the bill had no traction whatsoever — D.O.A. It failed to enlist even one Republican co-sponsor and it became clear within a few hours that public sentiment was strongly opposed to the proposed law.

The backlash against Cafaro’s bill — by the public and by her fellow legislators — must have been overwhelming. In addition to saying she would pull the bill, Cafaro vowed to leave homeschoolers alone. Forever:  "I will not include any content related to education in the home in a new bill, or in any other bill."

She added that she will work to craft a new bill to “honor Teddy’s legacy and to protect vulnerable children like him in the future.”

Hopefully Cafaro will follow through on her vow to reform the social service agencies that failed to act on multiple reports of Teddy’s abuse over several years, including while he was enrolled in public school. Of course, that will mean going up against those in union-protected jobs, but she needn’t worry, because, as she breezily declared in another Facebook post this week, “I am term-limited and am unlikely to seek another elected office in the near future.”

May it be so.  And may we see a whole lot more of this overwhelming grassroots cooperation and coordination in defense of our liberty!


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