Monthly Archives: May 2013

Pre-K helps US reality meet its myth

Pre-kindergarten programs, which are receiving increasing support locally and statewide, are an important step in restoring America’s view of itself as the land of opportunity.

Even when inaccurate, national myths are valuable. They are a reminder of what citizens want for their nation. As the myth and the reality grow farther apart, the pressure to change the reality grows.

Since its founding, a major U.S. myth — maybe the fundamental way in which we view our nation — is that it is the land of opportunity. From the humblest beginnings, a hard-working American can reach amazing heights. America has never believed in equality of outcome, but it always has believed in equality of opportunity. Income mobility is a part of our national fabric.

The fabric has come unraveled.

Income mobility in the United States is among the worst in the developed world. Absent unusual talents, a poor child is almost certain to be a poor adult and to have children who also live in poverty. The moral tragedy is that children who should have a fair shot at success no longer have one.

The social consequences of a myth that no longer has any connection to reality could be chaotic. Our nation was founded in part as a rejection of the class-conscious society in Great Britain. Generational poverty creates a class of people who are sidelined from the benefits of capitalism. They see the riches around them, but also see — in starkly personal terms — the statistical reality that those riches are beyond them. This creates an unhealthy tension — a destruction of national cohesion — that cannot end well.

The problems that led the national reality to fall so short of the mythology are many. Most of the solutions are complex and controversial.

One, however, is relatively simple and widely recognized as effective.

Universal, voluntary pre-K programs are startlingly effective in promoting income mobility. Study after study has found that investments in pre-K programs pay huge dividends. The children of many impoverished families enter kindergarten with a handicap they never overcome. It’s a gap that grows with each year of schooling, leading to higher dropout rates, a drastically reduced likelihood of attendance at post-secondary schools and a greater likelihood of imprisonment.

Increasingly, taxpayers are recognizing the wisdom of investing in pre-K. While the programs can be viewed as altruistic, they also make financial sense. Pre-K programs are far less expensive than the welfare services and prisons they help avoid.

Some organizations are not waiting around for taxpayers and politicians to wake up to the long-term financial benefits of universal, voluntary pre-K programs.

One such organization is the Decatur-Morgan County Minority Development Association, which hosted a fundraiser Saturday — its second of the year — to raise money to send children to pre-K programs. Its goal is $50,000, enough to enroll 18 children.

Pre-K programs may not solve the problem of generational poverty, but they help. They are a step in the direction of bridging the gap between the noble U.S. mythology of equal opportunity and a reality that falls far short.


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US needs open debate on budget

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, has been complaining for years that his Democratic colleagues would not pass a budget.

They finally did in March, and it became apparent immediately why they had not bothered to do so before.

The budgets passed by the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate are, of course, radically different. Legislative procedure requires such differences to be hammered out in a conference committee. In order to create a conference committee, the Senate must appoint committee members. Usually, the step is a minor one involving unanimous consent.

Not this time. Several Republican senators are blocking the appointment of committee members. Without a committee, there can be no budget.

To his credit, Sessions is calling for regular order. He demanded Democrats pass a budget, and now he wants Republicans to allow the conference committee to go forward.

Tea-party Republicans including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas; Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida are spoiling Sessions’ long-standing call for budget discussions. The inefficient result almost certainly will be a fifth consecutive continuing resolution, which overspends on some programs and underspends on others.

More important, the tea-party-aligned senators are preventing the nation from having an honest debate.

The budget is more than a bunch of numbers. It is a document intended to balance federal revenue and expense. Through their elected representatives, this is the time that Americans come to grip with their distaste for taxes and their desire to maintain government services. It is, in other words, the document that determines what size government America wants.

Ever since the tea party gained political prominence in the elections of 2010, Republicans have proclaimed the deficit is a result not of inadequate revenue but excessive spending. Mathematically, of course, it’s not so simple. While it is true the nation cannot indefinitely operate at a deficit, it also is true there are two ways to reduce a deficit. One is to cut spending. The other is to increase revenue.

Poll after poll demonstrates the political complexity of the issue. A large majority of Americans express their belief that the federal government is too big. Large majorities also, however, support the programs that consume most of the budget. Indeed, GOP leaders invariably fight to maintain spending for their own constituents even as they call for overall cuts.

Cruz and Rubio don’t want to have this debate. By blocking budget negotiations, they are trying to impose their inflexible desire for small government on a majority that agrees federal debt needs to come down, but wants to see details. Most Americans, according to multiple polls, suspect additional revenue must be part of the mix. Cutting expenses is desirable in the abstract, but Americans need specifics.

Sessions has it right. He properly demanded that the Senate pass a budget, but he recognizes open negotiations between the House and Senate are an important step as this representative democracy grapples with the best way to reduce debt.

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Filed under Conservatism, Deficit, Tax reform

Don’t blame Apple for profit

Legislators embarrass themselves when they criticize corporations for maximizing profit.
Some members of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations last week excoriated Tim Cook, an Auburn University graduate and chief executive officer of Apple Inc., for his multinational company’s “gimmicks” in avoiding taxes.
No question, the numbers were remarkable. According to a committee report, Apple avoided paying U.S. taxes on $44 billion in offshore income between 2009 and 2012.
“Apple wasn’t satisfied with shifting its profits to a low-tax offshore tax haven,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan said. “It has created offshore entities holding tens of billions of dollars while claiming to be a tax resident nowhere.”
Cook’s job is not to maximize tax revenue for the nation, but to maximize profit for shareholders. He does so by producing products people want and selling them at a price that generates the greatest revenue. He does so by keeping costs to a minimum, a task that requires him to hire as few employees as possible, to pay his suppliers as little as possible and to pay as little as possible in taxes.
Criticizing Apple for failing to pay more taxes than legally required is just as silly as deifying it as a “job creator.” Cook’s role — the reason he gets paid millions — is to make money for shareholders. That requires him to minimize costs. If he allows Apple to pay more in taxes than the tax code requires, he is failing his shareholders. If he spends more on workers than is necessary to maximize shareholder return, he is breaching his obligation to shareholders. It may well be that Apple does not pay enough in taxes. The company benefits from the laws, institutions and infrastructure of the United States. There is nothing wrong with demanding that it pay its share in maintaining them.
The problem with senators criticizing Apple for not paying as much in taxes as they think it should is that it improperly shifts the blame. On paper, the United States has one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the world. Thousands of congressionally sanctioned loopholes and a failure to deal with multinational operations, however, make its effective tax rate among the lowest.
If Apple is paying all the taxes it is legally required to pay but not paying its fair share in the upkeep of the nation, the fault lies with Congress. The job of balancing the budget requires revenue. Congress is tasked with writing the laws that dictate how much in taxes corporations must pay. If Congress needs more revenue to meet the federal government’s necessary expenses, then it needs to make changes to the tax code.
America’s economy does not simply allow corporations to maximize shareholder profit; it depends on it. If corporate executives are doing their job, their corporations will pay only those taxes they are legally required to pay. If Congress is doing its job, it will pass laws that require every corporation to pay a fair and adequate amount.
Cook deserves neither adulation nor censure from other American taxpayers. He’s just doing his job. Rather than criticize him, members of Congress should do theirs.

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An education from my daughter

I first saw my daughter almost 18 years ago. The image will never leave me.

She was barely in this world, but her eyes were wide open. She peeked between nurses, around a doctor’s hand. She was, it seemed, impatient at the nine-month delay. She wanted to see the world, and she wanted to see it now.

The image of those eyes — inquisitive even in infancy — slammed me Thursday night. There was my daughter in her graduation gown, once again impatient to leave one world and to learn all she could of the next.

As a father, I know I should have been teaching my daughter in the intervening years. It didn’t work out that way. She, instead, taught me.

That wide-eyed moment when she began her life was the beginning of the education I received from my daughter, a foreword to the textbook.

Lessons returned

My education is terribly incomplete, but as she walked across the Austin High School stage, her lessons returned to me.

She taught me to seek understanding. That is the subject at which she excels.

The pursuit of understanding, of course, is part of what gave her the right to participate in the ceremony, wide eyes showing annoyance at the pompous display, hand flicking the gold tassel that blocked her vision. Her appetite for academic knowledge is selectively voracious, consuming history and literature and music. Chemistry and math, not so much.

What she craves, though — and what she tried to pass on to me in a generational reversal — is an understanding of others. While doctors tell me it’s impossible because I was more than 18 inches from her in the delivery room, I know when our eyes met at her birth, she already was seeking an understanding of her awe-struck father.

At age 3, when she rescued an earthworm from my cruel shovel and kissed it tenderly, she was seeking both to understand it and to affirm its rightful place in the world. Her love of Disney’s Bambi turned into a horror that I would try to kill Bambi’s friends. My shotgun has not left storage since, although that could change depending on her next boyfriend.

Her empathy with animals never left her — she’s a vegetarian, except when the temptation of buffalo wings overwhelms her — but she eventually applied her quest for understanding to more complex subjects.

She would give my wife and I detailed accounts, almost psychological profiles, of her elementary classmates. What struck me was that her detailed analyses completely omitted what struck me as the preliminary observations. Black, white or Hispanic? Rich or poor? Good grades or bad?

Her eyes were still wide, but that’s not what they saw. She saw her friends’ fears or triumphs, their insecurities or strengths. She strained to see their soul, not the trappings that obstructed her dad’s cynical vision.

A child who can love earthworms and bullies alike is not well-equipped to live in this world. Survival requires a hard edge. I watched her develop it.

The first inkling that this sweet girl had the capacity for righteous anger came when two of her friends got in a middle-school tussle. One, who was white, shouted a racial epithet at the other, who was not. My daughter, neutral in the dispute until then, erupted in fury. She knew intuitively that race did not define either friend. Her wide eyes saw their character, not their color, and she was horrified at the blind cruelty of racism.

She knew and knows that stereotypes destroy understanding.

Soaked up stories

Many of her high-school friends are undocumented immigrants. She soaked up their stories, tales that usually involved a parent who overstayed a visa or sometimes entered the country in more dramatic fashion. But what she saw in those stories — what she relayed to me as we sat at the kitchen table — was the character of parents who would risk everything to find a better life for their children. She tried to understand the source of her friends’ courage as they faced prejudice and condemnation from classmates. She did not notice their hesitant English, but marveled at their proficiency in Spanish.

It was not long before the state Legislature began considering a law, which it eventually passed, targeting undocumented immigrants. She understood the legal issues. She comprehended the economic arguments. What she saw, though, was the character of the classmates that Alabama had condemned. She, a wisp of a woman, sought to protect them from the shovel that once threatened her lovely earthworm.

Quest for empathy

She has tried to teach me that prejudice — premature judgment — is evil. From childhood to Thursday’s graduation, she has been on a quest for empathy, a quest that has infected her family and friends.

Her wide-eyed innocence has not left her, but with maturity she has learned anger. Hers is not the anger of categories that comes so naturally to adults, like me, who have spent a lifetime identifying simplistic stereotypes to make sense of a complex world. She tends to reserve her fury for those who judge without understanding.

She will leave for college soon. I love her, so I hate to see her go. My education is incomplete, so I hate to see her go. Yeah, I really hate to see her go. Her combination of empathy and strength, though, is contagious. If she finds others who share her quest for understanding and her courage to demand change — and I know they are out there, wide-eyed and waiting for her — the world will improve.

So get moving, girl. Your mother and I will weep, but you have work to do.

Contact Eric Fleischauer at,120525

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Isaac Rus and the Accountability Act failure

It was a touching story that provided a needed gut-check on the policy debates over the Alabama Accountability Act.

The article — published Wednesday in the Mobile Press-Register and immediately broadcast statewide by Republicans defending their controversial law — told the story of a young mother who was grateful for school choice.

Dig a bit deeper, however, and the story underlined the failure of a law that is unlikely to provide school choice and will damage the public schools that remain the only option for almost all Alabama children.

Headlined, “Alabama Accountability Act a lifeline for one Montgomery family,” the story focused on a 5-year-old autistic child, Isaac Rus. His mother, Angie Rus, had been distraught over her son’s limited options when he enters kindergarten next year. He is assigned to a failing school and she does not like the public magnet schools which he could also attend. She has not applied to a private school and may home-school her child, but the prospect of a tax credit to help with tuition is enough to convince her to study private-school options.

By putting a face on the policy debate, the story performed a service. Alabamians may disagree over whether the best use of limited funds is to fix failing public schools or to subsidize private-sector choices, but the status quo is unacceptable. Every child deserves a good education, and some public schools are failing to provide it.

An analysis of whether the Accountability Act will provide the lifeline the Montgomery mother expects was beyond the scope of the story, but is important in evaluating the law.

The first problem is that she probably will not be eligible for the tax credit.

The law that passed Monday gives parents a right to a tax credit “to reimburse the parent for costs associated with transferring the student from a failing school.” Another provision limits credits to those who were assigned or enrolled in a failing school, but “subsequently transferred” to a private school. These provisions have been highlighted frequently in the debate over whether students already enrolled in private schools are entitled to the tax credit.

The argument Gov. Robert Bentley makes — and the one relied upon by legislators in compiling the Education Trust Fund budget — is this means a student actually had to attend a failing school the previous year in order to be eligible for the tax credit.

The alternative interpretation of the law would require the state to provide tax credits to families of students who already are enrolled in private schools. Estimates vary, but this would deplete the Education Trust Fund by over $25 million for students who not only have the choice of attending a private school, but already are exercising that choice.

Bentley’s view, though, is that the law only allows the Revenue Department to issue tax credits to the families of students already in failing schools.

The problem for Angie Rus is that her child has never been enrolled in a failing school. Her son, therefore, cannot transfer from a failing school. Bentley’s interpretation — which he claims also is the Revenue Department’s interpretation — means no parent of a kindergartner is eligible for the credit, because no kindergartner transferred from a failing school. Also ineligible, in their first year, are any students who move into a failing-school zone. Indeed, no student is eligible for the credit in the first year his school is deemed failing, because he will not be transferring “from a failing school.” If a student’s school is not failing in first grade but is deemed failing in second, it will not be until third grade that the student can transfer from a failing school and claim the tax credit.

Other issues further complicate the Rus family’s feel-good story.

The law specifically states that no private school has any obligation to accept a transfer student. Many schools already have said they will not accept transfers because they are worried state oversight will come with the tax credit. While Angie Rus may find a private school she likes, the school may not accept her child.

If her autistic child needs special services, the benefits of the Accountability Act diminish even more. The law specifically provides that the public school system — which already lost funding because of the tax credit — remains obligated to provide all special services to students with disabilities after they transfer. Even if a private school accepts her child, therefore, Rus may be shuttling the child back to the public school every day for special services.

The broad dispute between Democrat and Republican legislators seems to be on the best method of improving educational opportunities for children. Most Democrats prefer improving public schools. Most Republicans prefer tax-subsidized alternatives to public schools, such as the tax-credit plan created by the Accountability Act or charter schools.

The Rus story is a reminder that either approach — investment in public education or school choice — could provide benefits to students who desperately need them.

It also is a story, however, that demonstrates the miserable failure of the Accountability Act in advancing either strategy. It drains tens of millions of dollars from an already underfunded public school system, undermining any effort to improve public education in the state. It does so, however, without providing meaningful school choice.

Republicans won a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature. They had a right to pursue their preferred strategy of school choice.

They also, however, had an obligation to pursue that strategy responsibly. Belatedly, several Republican lawmakers realized the Accountability Act managed to gut public schools without providing the promised benefit of school choice. Bentley — who signed the first version of the Accountability Act — recognized his mistake and tried to delay implementation for two years, which would have given the Legislature a chance to repair the damage. Several senators who initially voted for the law agreed with Bentley, including Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.

The Legislature ignored the protests and overrode Bentley’s executive amendment.

Parents like Angie Rus were left with the worst possible result. The muddled law removes any possibility that the failing school to which her child was assigned will improve. It will likely decline, along with excellent public schools, as it cuts teachers and programs to pay for the Accountability Act. Yet Isaac Rus is unlikely to receive the promised benefit of school choice.

The problem with the Accountability Act is not that it promotes school choice. The problem is that it damages the public schools that almost all Alabama children attend, and does so without any meaningful benefit.


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Filed under Alabama politics, education

‘Republicans are making headlines’

As the final day of the Alabama legislative session wound down Monday, House Speaker Mike Hubbard sent out a mass e-mail with the subject line, “Republicans are making headlines.”

They are indeed, something they were unable to do as a minority party.

The Alabama GOP has an absolute lock on state government. It has a supermajority in both houses. Republicans hold every statewide office.

This is, of course, a relatively new state of affairs. For 136 years, Democrats had complete control. Republican lawmakers, as a minority, could sponsor crazy bills and nobody cared. Like Alabama Democrats today, they had the luxury of irrelevance.

Republican legislators chafed at their invisibility, as do all lawmakers with the inability to exert control. What makes this group unique is that it continues to crave headlines, spurning the less glamorous work of governing.

They have too often failed to recognize their responsibilities changed when they became the majority. This failure has harmed the state and disappointed the solid conservatives who voted them into office.

Republican legislators made headlines by passing a law that forces employers to allow employees to bring guns into employee parking lots, removes almost all limits on where people can carry guns and limits the authority of sheriffs in denying handgun permits.

How will the next mass layoff go over, when all those who receive pink slips — some despondent and some angry — potentially have guns in nearby cars?

How will employers balance their moral obligation to protect employees and customers against the legal requirement that they allow guns on their property?

Legislators made headlines by passing a law that claimed to give students trapped in failing public schools a way out. But the law cuts $25 million from all public schools to give unlimited scholarships to students who transfer from public schools that are not failing. It shifts tax money for public schools to private schools, financing student transfers even when they are not trapped by low income.

They made headlines with the same law by subsidizing religious schools with money from the Education Trust Fund, despite a state constitution provision stating, “No money raised for the support of the public schools shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian or denominational school.”

Before 2010, a Republican minority’s support for these measures would not have made headlines because they would not have become law.

They made headlines this session because it seems inconceivable that a party with complete control over a state could pass such reckless laws.

They made headlines because, three years after becoming the majority, Republican legislators continue to rule as if they are a minority.

For the good of a state that is desperate for leaders who place a higher priority on governance than headlines, the Republicans in Montgomery need to accept the responsibility that comes with power.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education, Gun control

Bentley tries to undo Accountability fiasco

Gov. Robert Bentley made a mistake, owned up to it and now is trying to correct it.

Lawmakers, who made the same mistake, should follow his lead.

Bentley’s mistake was signing the Accountability Act into law. Along with other lawmakers, he deliberately hid the bill from the public and from educators who could have pointed out its obvious flaws. In the space of less than two hours, a good bill providing flexibility to school districts became an enormously expensive law purporting to provide school choice to students in failing schools.

The law defines “failing” so broadly that it includes excellent schools with disadvantaged populations — including Decatur Developmental — and leaves 10 percent of Alabama schools on a perpetual failing list. The 80,000 students in these “failing” schools can transfer to private schools. The parents of all who elect to transfer will receive a voucher worth about $3,500 to apply to tuition. Another part of the law sets up a $25 million scholarship fund, payable to private schools.

All of the money for the program comes from the Education Trust Fund, which already has shrunk by 22 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2008.

The law is riddled with inconsistencies. One portion, for example, suggests families of students already enrolled in private schools — regardless of their income — can receive the tax credits, while another part suggests the opposite. The Department of Revenue has yet to make a decision on an issue which could end up in the courts. The answer to this one question could drain $42 million from the ETF.

The numerous flaws in the Accountability Act led to the passage last week of a replacement, House Bill 658. The bill narrows the list of failing schools, but it does not address the question of whether families of students already enrolled in private schools can claim the tax credits. It broadens the ETF-funded scholarship program, making it available to students in schools that are not failing.
Cost estimates range from $40 million to $110 million.

On Wednesday, Bentley finally stepped in. With one day — Monday — left in the legislative session, Bentley filed an executive amendment. The amendment would preserve the flexibility portion of the law, but delay for two years implementation of the portions of the law that subsidize private schools.

The two-year delay provides the time needed to correct the numerous drafting errors, this time with input from educators and tax experts.

The delay also gives the flexibility portions of the law time to work.

Both versions of the Accountability Act go into effect immediately. Neither the Revenue Department nor the Education Department have written regulations on how to implement the confusing law.

Local school districts must send notices to families of children in failing schools before school starts in August. Without regulations, however, they do not know which of their schools are failing. The notices must give instructions on how to claim tax credits, but the Revenue Department does not know who is entitled to the credits.

Bentley deserves plenty of criticism for signing the Accountability Act. Finally, though, he has recognized the mistake and has offered a solution.

He needs support from legislators of both parties. On Monday, they should provide it.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education