Monday, October 20, 2014

UK: LSE Union: the tyranny of the minority

The banning of LSE rugby club was puritanical – and quite possibly illegal.

The furore over the London School of Economics men’s rugby club leaflets, which referred to the ‘beast-like’ nature of female rugby players and advised members to avoid women who are ‘mingers’, rumbles on.

It all started on 3 October, when the LSE Students’ Union seized the offending leaflets, which were being distributed at a freshers’ fair. From the reactions of students, it seems that some saw the rugby club’s leaflet as moronic, and subjected it to criticism and ridicule. Given that students were able to make up their own minds, it’s not clear why the union set out to elevate this into a major incident in which, it claimed, students ‘suffered’.

A few days after the seizure, the union’s new general secretary issued a press release stating that there would be a ‘thorough’ investigation. Having encouraged press attention, both the Daily Mail and the Guardian covered the story early last week.

Despite the club offering an immediate apology, and acknowledging that the leaflet was ‘inexcusably offensive’, the union disbanded the club on Tuesday 7 October. The union’s general secretary issued a lengthy statement primly denouncing the club: ‘The booklets distributed by the rugby club are clearly sexist, and demonstrate a culture within a club that is unable to challenge misogyny, sexism and homophobia. This culture, and how leaders within the club have allowed it to prevail, has brought shame on to the club itself, the athletics’ union and the wider student community.

‘We have been so proud to stand together as a Union’, she continued, ‘and be able to discuss these issues and openly condemn acts of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, and classism’. She then concluded somewhat illogically: ‘The hosting of women-only and LGBT-only spaces is indicative of a union of students that wants to work together to be an inclusive, positive community.’

A ban on men

So now, while the LSE’s athletics union offers rugby to female students, no rugby is available to male students, who are deprived of the opportunity to play competitively for the LSE in the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Rugby League Programme. Not surprisingly, the club is appealing.

But it seems that neither the LSE Students’ Union, whose investigation was conducted with indecent haste, nor the university, whose president issued a statement approving the ban on 8 October, have addressed their minds to the law on equal treatment. The Equality Act 2010 expressly prohibits less favourable treatment on grounds of sex (see sections 11, 13).

Suppose that Muslim students of the Wahhabi school had taken over the union’s ruling body. Suppose they decided that women’s participation in sports was un-Islamic, and summarily dissolved all the women’s sporting societies, citing women’s ‘immodest’ dress and behaviour. Imagine the outcry.

Yet what happened last week is not so far removed from such a scenario. For a start, it does not appear to have occurred to anyone at the LSE that to ban male students from accessing a sport available to female students is itself a form of sex discrimination. Sorry men, you can’t play competitive rugby, because we don’t like your laddish (that is, male) behaviour off the pitch. This sounds pretty sex-specific. Ironically, it seems that those who run the union are so dominated by an ideology of oppression politics that they cannot recognise the possibility that they acted unfairly.

Resorting to the media to issue public admonishment to students is also excessive. Such public shaming could be seen, should you be so inclined, as a form of bullying. Again, this does not appear to have occurred to the union, which seemed more preoccupied with its own spin-doctoring.

Mischief, whoredom, and whatnot

Tactless though the club’s leaflet was, this was as nothing compared to the cardinal sin of failing to tame its inner party animal. This is what has appalled the modern-day Puritans, who run the LSESU. The club’s real crime was taking the piss out of a prevailing culture of political correctness at the LSE, whose union’s general secretary was one of two students calling for Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ to be banned last October, on the basis it promoted ‘rape culture’.

And what of the rugby club leaflet itself. It spoke of the Three Tuns Bar, which had some ‘tasty’ barmaids, and the Zoo Bar in Leicester Square where, provided members could cope with the ‘mingers’ (slang for ‘ugly people’), they could pull a ‘sloppy bird’. It called LSE women rugby players beasts – slang for ‘awesome’ (the motto of the women’s club being ‘play hard, party hard’). And it made some comments about not participating in ‘homosexual debauchery’.

This is mild, as some gibes between students of Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield suggest: ‘I’d rather be a poly than a cunt’; ‘I’d rather be a cunt than unemployed’.

The LSE Students’ Union later cited as further justification the fact that, over the years, the men’s rugby club had been guilty of hedonistic excess and bad-taste parties, running naked through the university, and having strippers at end-of–year events. It bemoaned the fact that it had tried to ‘rehabilitate’ the club, without success.

But an earlier incident in which the club had apparently caused substantial damage to university property sounds rather more serious than a silly leaflet. Why wasn’t a swift apology enough this time? And to what extent is it legitimate, or even lawful, for student unions to police male students’ social lives and speech?

The primary aim of any sporting society is success on the field. There is no suggestion that the club had treated opponents outrageously during matches. If the union really wanted to improve take-up of the sport among the student body, it could have required the club to work with the BUCS to ensure that its recruitment practices were sufficiently inclusive.  What the union really wanted to attack was the club’s après ski. In an unselfconscious throwback to seventeenth-century English Puritans, its real target was a form of student Saturnalia.

What is the union?

As with students’ unions up and down the United Kingdom, any student admitted to a university is automatically deemed to be a member of their local student union. The rule is ‘opt out’, not ‘opt in’. A student can terminate their membership by giving notice.

The result is that university union memberships consist of people who are co-opted automatically, without real consent. Unions are companies limited by guarantee, which operate a sophisticated set of constitutional rules, memoranda and articles of association, and by-laws. They can achieve registration as charities. But they can also become a vehicle for various forms of ‘issue advocacy’.

The underlying problem with these unions, then, is their undemocratic nature. The LSE is a good example: it has 9,500 full-time students, but on a union motion such as the ‘Blurred Lines’ ban last year, only 89 students voted: 40 against, 49 for. This is an infinitesimally small number, compared to the overall student body. In a very real sense, such actions by student unions represent the tyranny of an over-zealous minority over the majority.


For Second Time, High School Forced to Reverse Ban on Christian Student Group

High school students in Long Island, N.Y., were recently denied the right to establish a club for Christian students by their school administrators. This marks the second time they’ve run into trouble.

Last year, John Raney, a 17-year-old student at Ward Melville High School, created Students United in Faith as an extracurricular club where Christian and non-Christian students could come together to discuss faith and pursue hunger-relief charity projects.

“I wanted to start the club because I thought it would provide a safe space for Christians to meet and talk about their faith,” Raney told Fox News.

Administrators at Raney’s high school were at first unwilling to allow the Christian club because of its religious nature. Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich later lifted the ban, however, and apologized after the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal organization dedicated to defending religious liberty, threatened to intervene.

Just a few weeks into the new school year, Raney received news that he and other Christian students were prohibited from forming a club yet again.

Upon being contacted by Raney, the Liberty Institute sent a letter to the school district advising it to accommodate the Christian club under the Equal Access Law, a federal statute enacted in 1984 mandating federally funded educational institutions to allow such clubs.

“Simply put, public schools cannot discriminate against religious clubs and must treat them equally, and provide them equal access to school facilities, as non-religious clubs,” wrote Attorney Hiram Sasser in the letter.

“I feel like they have something against me and my faith. I feel marginalized,” Raney told Fox News.

According to a chart published by the Liberty Institute, Ward Melville High School has 33 recognized extracurricular clubs ranging from the Women’s Forum and Robotics club to the Gay Straight Alliance.

School administrators told the National Catholic Register that “financial limitations” and the club’s failure to have 20 members were the primary reasons behind the decision to ban the club.

“The Constitution doesn’t start at the number 20,” Liberty Institute’s senior counsel Jeremy Dys told the Register. “[H]ere they are using majority numbers to kick minority students off campus: It’s wrong, it’s unconstitutional, and it has to stop—and we’re happy to take them to court to make sure that does stop.”

John Sheahan, an attorney for the school’s board of education, responded to the Liberty Institute via email Thursday declaring the district as having decided to “alter its position on this issue.”

“[T]he district will grant [Students United in Faith] recognition as a student group for the 2014-15 school year and reverses any contrary decision,” wrote Sheahan.

Ward Melville High School did not respond to The Daily Signal’s inquiry on their decision to  reverse the ban for a second time.


The Costs of Common Core Testing

Endless testing doesn't make education better

Common Core educational standards, like all recent attempts to expand federal control of the education system, rely heavily on standardized testing in their efforts to improve the competitiveness of American students. It seems that bureaucrats on educational boards are capable of no more creative idea than that repeatedly drilling facts into children’s heads and then testing them to within an inch of their life is the only way to improve educational outcomes.

The theory itself is grossly flawed and ignores entirely the myriad ways in which children learn and succeed, but the federal fixation on testing persists, and now we’re all going to have to pay a price for it. I speak not only of the price to the students’ sanity, to the teachers’ flexibility, and to parents’ peace of mind, all of which have been written about extensively, but the purely fiscal cost to state governments as well.

In Montana, a new analysis reveals that Common Core tests are going to cost $27 per student, which adds up to $2 million for the state budget. In New York, the cost is $25 per test, totaling a $129 million bill for the state.

“But we’re investing in our children’s futures!” I can already hear you crying. “How can you put a price on that?” This point would have more weight if the money was actually going to teach children more, to reduce class size, to improve school choice, or to acquire better teachers. It’s not. This is money that is spent solely on testing.

Why are states willing to shoulder this financial burden in order to implement standards that are confusing, infuriating, and ineffective? Well, increasingly, they aren’t. More and more states are adopting legislation to withdraw from Common Core in favor of state based standards or a rethinking of the entire system. Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah have withdrawn, with many other states considering legislation to follow.

But the states that remain committed to the standards do so because of federal threats to withdraw funding from Race to the Top grants to any state that doesn’t comply with Common Core. These grants can amount to hundreds of millions of dollars per state, outstripping the testing cost associated with adoption of the standards.

Testing is not the same thing as education, and extracting taxpayer money to implement more standardization and centralization without addressing the root problems with the school system is irresponsible and wrongheaded.

Of course, testing is not the only cost associated with Common Core. In total, the standards are expected to cost between $3 billion and $12.1 billion nationwide. It’s just another example of Washington throwing good money after bad, the latest in a series of failed education policies that stress the “common” in everything but sense.


CA: Marshall Tuck wants to disrupt bad public schools

At last month’s gubernatorial debate, Republican hopeful Neel Kashkari praised Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris for using their discretion not to appeal a court ruling that overturned California’s same-sex marriage ban. Kashkari then chided both Democrats for failing to use that same discretion when they appealed the Vergara court decision. The suit is named after Beatriz Vergara, one of nine students who sued to eliminate the state’s teacher tenure system.

Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu found that the state’s tenure and seniority system protect grossly ineffective teachers to an extent that “shocks the conscience.” He ruled that the system is unconstitutional. Brown and Harris appealed. Kashkari said: “Nine kids sued, Gov. Brown, and said their civil rights are being violated by a failing school. You sided with the union bosses. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

That exchange put Marshall Tuck in a quandary.

A Democrat running for California superintendent of public instruction, Tuck voted for Brown in the primary, even though he agrees with Kashkari on tenure. From 2002 to 2006, Tuck was president of Green Dot charter schools. Then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa enlisted Tuck to head the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools to improve 17 public schools. In that role, Tuck saw how last-in, first-out policies led to huge teacher layoffs in inner-city schools. These schools, like Markham Middle School in Watts, hire a disproportionate number of young, new teachers. Tuck supported a successful lawsuit to stop those layoffs. Now he supports the Vergara students. Tenure, Tuck argues, is bad for urban students and bad for good teachers.

The incumbent state schools chief, Tom Torlakson, like Brown and Harris, filed an appeal to the Vergara ruling. At a recent Santa Clara forum, Torlakson dismissed the lawsuit as “blaming the teachers.” Torlakson is the beneficiary of $3 million campaign donation by the California Teachers Association before the June primary. Torlakson often frames the state’s sorry academic showing as a function of poor funding. The way to improve our schools is to “invest” more, he argued on KQED’s “Forum” on Thursday.

Tuck says that money without reform won’t serve low-performing students. That doesn’t make him anti-teacher, or even anti-labor. Green Dot charter schools is the rare charter shop that employs union teachers.

I’ve put off writing on Vergara for a few reasons. I support the concept — that is, I agree with critics who argue it should not take years and as much as $450,000 to get rid of grossly ineffective teachers. As Tuck argues, it should take longer than two years for public schools to grant tenure. Yet well-intentioned court rulings have been known to produce complicated formulas that undermine local school autonomy and fail to produce the intended effect for children. The bench isn’t supposed to write laws — or negotiate with unions. Sacramento and local officials should reform the system, not a lone judge.

While a skeptic, I do appreciate that Tuck doesn’t think the state Department of Education should use precious resources to defend a retention system that shortchanges students in inner-city districts. It’s a system not worthy of defense. “Vergara should never have to happen,” Tuck told me. Elected officials should have stepped in and gotten rid of last-in, first-out rules and granting tenure after just two years. Community colleges grant tenure after four years. State universities wait six to 10 years. That’s why, Tuck said, “The state should absolutely not be appealing this case.”

As for Torlakson, he seems too busy defending public schools to think about fixing them. Torlakson actually has attacked Tuck for working on Wall Street during his first two years out of college. That’s the sort of nasty salvo that made it easy for every major newspaper in California, including The Chronicle, to endorse Tuck.

Californians have a choice: Tuck comes across as a nimble problem-solver with a clear-eyed understanding of the terrain; when Torlakson complains about blaming teachers, he sounds like a mediocre teacher.

Over the week, Americans have had an ugly look at the U.S. Secret Service, an institution so beholden to its workforce that its leadership lost sight of its mission. Watch Torlakson defend the tenure system and you feel as if you are watching former Secret Service director Julia Pierson tell Congress she was serious about whipping her inept bureaucracy into shape.


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