Fear & the Electorate

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner TrumpFear sells. Ask Donald Trump. Or Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle whose two-line headline of inch-high bolded capitals declared “SECOND ROCHESTER MAN LINKED TO ISIS.”

Terrorism is certainly real and frightening. The self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), with its video beheadings and shrewd use of media (social and otherwise) must be taken seriously. And yet we can control our response to events and must avoid the temptation to overreact.

Consider the December 14 email sent to a number of school districts nationwide. Anonymously threatened with murder and mayhem, New York chose to treat this as a hoax. By contrast, Los Angeles cancelled school for 640,000 students, a decision that affected 1,087 schools. Events proved that NYC chose correctly. Students in LA learned a different lesson that day, that they are at risk and that any fears they may have are justified. “Why would the city have closed schools otherwise?

The D&C wasn’t alone in its breathless reaction to the “second ISIS recruit.” Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli, in consultation with Mayor Lovely Warren, cancelled the scheduled New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration, as the chief wanted the officers on the streets, presumably looking for other terrorists. Like the 640,000 Los Angeles students, Rochester-area residents were put on notice—be afraid. Read more »

What’s happening to the middle class?

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner As you’ve read elsewhere and heard from politicians ad nauseum, the middle class in America is shrinking. The consequences for society are significant and should not be underestimated. Let’s first review the facts, as reported recently by the Pew Research Center, then explore the reasons and possible consequences.

Share of adults living in middle-income households is fallingPew observes that the number of adults considered “middle class”—about 121 million—is now equal to the number both above and below them by income. Look back to 1971 and you’ll see a quite different distribution—instead of half, 61% of Americans were in the middle class.

Pause for definition: Pew considers “middle income” as two-thirds to twice the median household income. In 2014, the middle extended from $34,186 to $102,560 for a family of two. A family of four with income between $48,347 and $145,041 is “middle income.” You get the idea.

Middle income families today also take home a smaller share of total income. In 1971, with 61% of the adults, the middle class took home 62% of total income. Now 50% of adults, the middle tier takes home 43% of total income.

The winners, of course, are the upper income households. About 29% of adults live in the bottom tier today, a bit more than the 25% in 1971. The ranks of the upper income group grew substantially, however, from 14% of the total then to 21% today. Read more »

$15 Minimum Wage is Uncharted Territory

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerFightfor15I recently participated in a discussion of Governor Cuomo’s proposed $15 minimum wage on WXXI public radio’s Connections with Evan Dawson. A listener contacted the host, referred to the recently-passed increase for fast food workers, and said, “Hey, I’m a skilled machinist earning $18/hour. Why should someone at McDonalds earn nearly the same?” That’s an interesting question—it points out that the $15 minimum wage could have far more impact than we might think at first blush. First I’ll summarize what research tells us about the obvious and short run impacts, then tentatively explore the broader implications raised by this comment.

On the left, we’re led to believe that a minimum wage rise will significantly improve the well-being of the poor and that employment could actually increase as a consequence. The right declares that jobs for the most disadvantaged would disappear and that the increase might trigger a recession.

An across-the-board minimum wage increase to $15 an hour is very different from the incremental increase we’re experiencing right now in New York. The minimum wage statewide rose to $8.75 at the end of last year and is scheduled to increase to $9 on Dec. 31. The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25. Read more »

State Ed Test Opt-outs: What’s the impact on policy?

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner Choose to RefuseDissatisfaction with the NYS Education Department’s testing regime led many parents to allow their children to “opt-out” of state exams last spring. And now state leaders are engaged in a tactical withdrawal. With State Education Commissioner John King off to Washington—replaced by former Florida educator Mary Ellen Elia—Governor Cuomo is placing the blame for the botched Common Core rollout on State Ed’s doorstep and is calling for a reboot in time for his State of the State in January. Board of Regents Chair Meryl Tisch indicates her openness to changing the state’s teacher assessment system, the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR).

EliaElia has been touring the state on a charm offensive. While noting that the tests are not optional under state law, she recently announced that next year’s math test would have fewer multiple choice questions and the English language arts (ELA) test would include fewer reading passages. Read more »

Confessions of a Free Market Economist

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner I’ve a weakness for dystopian literature (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The premise of these books is a disaster thThe Roadat fundamentally alters the trajectory of the planet. The apocalypse is typically human-caused, some act that taps into our collective guilt about environmental degradation, warlust or technological hubris.

An economist’s dystopia is portrayed in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano. Instead of a despoiled planet or some biological or digital monster, Vonnegut’s first novel portrays a society nearly bereft of work. Set at a thinly disguised General Electric (where Vonnegut once worked), World War III prompts an acceleration in automation, allowing the U.S. to win the war. A decade later, automation has become near total. The only people needed are the very best engineers, who spend their days seeking new efficiencies, displacing yet more human involvement. They’ve been freed from work—utopia, right? Read more »

Faith v. Reason: The Pitfalls of Ideology

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner A friend characterized many policy debates as disputes between “faith and reason.” The political season—particularly the primaries—involves repeated “professions of faith.” Candidates appear before the high priests of their sect and are judged on purity and zeal.

Unfortunately, uncritical faith leads to irrational policy. Consider Republicans’ faith in tax cuts. The lesson of the 1964 income tax cut—a Kennedy initiative, I remind you—was that high taxes can discourage industry and that cutting tax rates can paradoxically yield more tax revenue as the economy expands. When Ronald Reagan followed Kennedy’s lead, the tax rate on the highest earners was nearly 70% and almost surely discouraged enterprise. Cutting taxes was a reasoned response. Now an article of faith in republicanism, raising taxes has become a sinful act that invokes moral sanction. Even closing some of the loopholes that riddle the tax code can be deemed “raising taxes.” Reason responds that taxation is necessary and must be balanced—reductio ad absurdum surely applies: Reducing taxes to zero would be absurd and would lead to a very different society than what we now enjoy. Read more »

A new commissioner takes the helm at NYS Education Department

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner Mary Ellen EliaNewly appointed NYS Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia will require the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, the confidence of Donald Trump and the guile of Machiavelli to succeed in her new job. The divisions both between and within stakeholder groups have never been deeper.

First, she has to figure out who she’s working for. Is there a more complicated reporting relationship in state government? The Commissioner of Education is hired by the NYS Board of Regents. Which is appointed by the NYS Legislature. Not the NYS Senate or the NYS Assembly, but the entire legislature sitting in joint session. As there are 150 Members of the Assembly but only 63 Senators, the Assembly really makes the decision. Since 2009, the Chancellor (the person who leads the 17-member Board of Regents) has been Merryl Tisch, ally of the formerly-all-powerful Sheldon Silver. After Silver lost his post, the Assembly has shown more independence, replacing two regents who were supportive of Tisch and her endorsement of the Common Core and strong teacher accountability. If you have to report to a committee of 17, you’d better hope that the committee is either unified or strongly led, conditions that appear to be waning. Read more »

More Diverse Schools can Create WIN-WIN for All

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

Donald Pryor If Great Schools for All had a mantra, it would be WIN-WIN. We don’t have to accept as inevitable huge gaps between winners and losers, where students’ success or failure is pegged to their zip codes and family income.

In a WIN-WIN environment, our community would rally around educational reforms and systemic changes that would reduce these disparities. That’s what GS4A is all about.

All children are capable of learning and succeeding academically, regardless of where they live, and we’re all aware of examples of bright, motivated kids who have risen up from impoverished backgrounds to succeed, despite the odds. But we also know, from decades of research, that the deck is stacked against students in high-poverty schools. When the poverty population of a school tips past 50 percent, the odds of success are statistically much lower.

And every school in Rochester far exceeds the tipping point, with predictable academic consequences in most. So why is our community willing to accept this situation?

The city has many successful students, and a number of successful, popular schools. But what if we could find ways to strengthen those schools, retaining current students, but expanding the socio-economic diversity in each? What if we could open more slots in these schools and offer them to more affluent students, to create a more diverse student body? Or replicate the most successful schools based on the initial models? We could create a WIN-WIN situation by offering, on a voluntary basis, well-regarded city programs such as School of the Arts, School Without Walls, Montessori, World of Inquiry expeditionary learning, and the International Baccalaureate program at Wilson Magnet School to students who have few or no such options even in well-off suburban districts .

And what if we were to create additional voluntary magnet schools across the county, based on models that have proven successful in other urban communities, offering opportunities that would not be available within most individual school districts, and that would be so exciting and unique that both urban and suburban students would want to attend?

The research makes clear that poor children perform much better in schools that are economically mixed than they do in high-poverty schools. And their success does not come at the expense of the middle class students in those schools. As one example, in Raleigh/Wake County, N.C., where 35 economically-diverse magnet schools have been created, subject to policies capping proportions of low-income students at roughly 45 percent per school, graduation rates for low-income and racial-minority students have steadily increased in recent years to more than 70 percent — some 30 percentage points higher than for comparable students in the more economically segregated Rochester schools. Meanwhile, the more affluent Raleigh suburban student graduation rates have increased slightly during those same years to more than 90 percent—rates comparable to Monroe County suburban rates. Disparities in rates have not been eliminated, but have been significantly reduced in Raleigh.

What is not to like about such a situation, and how would that not represent a WIN-WIN for all in Monroe County if we could move in such a direction?

In addition to enhancing academic performance, creation of more voluntary diverse learning environments would also expand cross-cultural understanding among all groups of students, and better prepare them—urban and suburban, black, Hispanic and white, well-off and poor—for the far more demographically diverse workforce that awaits them in the future. Students would have more academic choices than could now be provided by most individual school districts, and the economic vitality of our community would be enhanced by a larger pool of better-educated workers to populate our future work force.

Under more diverse voluntary-choice school scenarios, there is an immense upside potential for our community, with no obvious losers. Clearly the details of how this happens will be critical, but why would we not embark on this journey to explore a variety of possible solutions to reduce our odds of failure and significantly increase the odds of WIN-WIN outcomes for our community?

All of this is a work in progress. GS4A intends to talk with school district officials and survey parents and community leaders across the county concerning these issues over the coming weeks before any proposals are finalized. Anyone interested in joining the process, please email at contact@gs4a.org.

Previously posted on GS4A

Opt-outs Create Challenge for NYS Testing Regime

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner Choose to RefuseThe Common Core opt-out movement built up quite a head of steam this year. Although opposition to testing is hardly new, frustration over the Common Core standards, anger at Governor Cuomo’s budget power play over accountability and other factors spurred the formation of a large and diverse refusenik coalition.

State Education plans to use the tests anyway: “We are confident the department will be able to generate a representative sample of students who took the test, generate valid scores for anyone who took the test, and calculate valid state-provided growth scores to be used in teacher evaluations.” We’ll see. The Democrat & Chronicle reports the refusal rate for the math test was at least 25% for every Monroe County district but Brighton and Rochester. Read more »

Cuomo & NYSUT Go Nuclear

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner Nuclear OptionVladimir Putin’s most ominous bit of saber rattling over the Ukraine has involved allusions to the “nuclear option.” For him, that’s not a metaphor.

The problem with nuclear weapons is the collateral damage. Sure, you might win the battle. But everyone loses the war. I worry that both Governor Cuomo and the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) are playing with “nuclear” weapons.

Let’s agree, first, that public education in NYS could be, should be, must be improved. We’ll not make an impact on urban poverty, particularly in Rochester, if we don’t raise the levels of literacy and numeracy among children in poverty. Eventually, young people have to make their own way in the world and the labor market has no mercy on people without the academic basics. Second, let’s agree that both Governor Cuomo and New York’s teachers want children to succeed. The governor isn’t an evil megalomaniac clawing his way to national prominence on the backs of children. And teachers care about far more than just their paychecks and prerogatives. Read more »