On this day in 1983 Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple, reviewed in The Nation by the cultural critic Dinitia Smith the previous year:
I wish Walker had let herself be carried along more by her language, with all its vivid figures of speech, Biblical cadences, distinctive grammar and true-to-life starts and stops. The pithy, direct black folk idiom of The Color Purple is in the end its greatest strength, reminding us that if Walker is sometimes an ideologue, she is also a poet. Despite its occasional preachiness, The Color Purple marks a major advance for Walker’s art. At its best, and at least half the book is superb, it places her in the company of Faulkner, from whom she appears to have learned a great deal: the use of a shifting first-person narrator, for instance, and the presentation of a complex story from a naive point of view, like that of 14-year-old Celie. Walker has not turned her back on the Southern fictional tradition. She has absorbed it and made it her own. By infusing the black experience into the Southern novel, she enriches both it and us.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.
“We are horrible,” a TV producer covering Hillary’s first day of campaigning, at a community college in Iowa, said after watching a version of the clip above, according to Slate. “Why do we do this?”
The usual explanation is simple competition: ratings and advertising dollars and keeping your increasingly scarce media job demand it.
There’s always been a certain amount of media fear and self-loathing on the campaign trail. From the press complaining about suffering from “Clinton fatigue”—which it acquired from obsessing over Hillary’s every pore—to Maureen Dowd’s vampire-like columns that feed on Clinton blood, the Beltway media herd has always been pretty horrible, especially to Bill and Hill (and I say this not as one of their fans).
As much as the media would like the 2016 elections to turn on Hillary’s authenticity or Jeb’s brotherly love or Marco’s youth, the 2016 presidential contest may actually depend on ideology and practical concerns.
This week a video slugged “This Tea Party Patriot May Vote For Hillary” hinted at how little personality and cultural wedge issues may matter anymore. James Webb, who runs a YouTube gun channel (Hot Lead retired), told his followers that the Democrats, and specifically Obamacare, have helped him in a very personal way.
Hello, YouTube. I’m kinda having a difficult decision…. I don’t know whether to go for a Republican or a Democrat—and I’m serious. Because I asked myself, I said, “Which party has helped me out the most in the last, I don’t know, 15 years? Twenty?” And it was the Repub-, err, Democrat Party. The Democrats….
The Republican Party, they ain’t done nothing for me, man. Nothing. So, I’m leaning toward voting for Hillary. Unless something major comes up. I don’t trust the Republicans anymore. They’re wanting to repeal the Obamacare. And, I don’t want them to do that, man, ‘cause then I’ll have to go to work again.
Sure, some commenters on Webb’s channel slam him for retiring at only 50 and call him a welfare cheat. But Obamacare has been doing exactly what the Congressional Budget Office said it would: It’s allowing people to quit jobs they stuck with only for the health benefits and to do something more fulfilling.
Even as the MSM went on a chipotle break over Hillary’s “listening tour” of Iowa, other pundits—including Krugman and Chait—turned up evidence that the polarization of the two parties had begun to tilt the field permanently to the Democrats’ advantage in presidential elections. Economic issues and the trend towards voting against the other party rather than in support of any party leadership have made personality coverage seem increasingly irrelevant.
Recent polls confirm these shifts. The job-approval numbers for Indiana Governor Mike Pence, hailed for his regular “Hoosier sensibility” when he won in 2012, have dropped almost twenty points since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act fiasco. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, the GOP presidential favorite just a month ago, has seen his job approval ratings drop sharply at home and is running 12 points behind Hillary Clinton in the state; the same Marquette University Law School poll finds that in a possible 2016 Senate rematch, former senator Russ Feingold (D) would beat current Senator Ron Johnson (R) 54 to 38.
Drawing conclusions from polls this early is itself a media horribleness, and I’m part of that. And of course analyzing the personalities of politicians can tell us a lot about their politics and character, and it’s enormous fun.
But as Clinton’s campaign takes shape, I find myself wondering whether 2016 is already baked in. When both parties were filled with a swinging mix of liberals and conservatives, you could give a pol a wedgie and bring him down. But in a Haves vs. Have-nots contest, actually accomplishing something for the most people is a real advantage.
So here’s an idea for the political paparazzi press: Take some of that energy you put into literally chasing pols and put it into investigating them on the issues that affect people’s lives.
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Hillary Clinton has backed NAFTA-style “free trade” agreements and she has opposed NAFTA-style “free trade” agreements. Like many other prominent Democrats, she has been inconsistent in her support of what is best for workers, the environment and human rights.
But Clinton has a chance to get trade policy right when it matters.
And when it matters is now.
As she launches a 2016 presidential campaign in which she seems to be interested in grabbing the banner of economic populism—going so far as to complain in her announcement video about how “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top”—Clinton can and should stake out a clear position in opposition to granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority to negotiate a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Despite overwhelming opposition from labor, farm, environmental, and social-justice groups, Congress is preparing to consider whether to provide Obama with the “fast track” authority he seeks to construct a “free trade” deal linking the North American and Asian nations of the Pacific Rim. Imagine the North American Free Trade Agreement on steroids and you get a sense of what is at stake. Yet, so far, Clinton’s office has offered only a statement about how she is “watching closely” as the debate evolves and a suggestion that she wants “greater prosperity and security for American families, not trade for trade’s sake.”
That’s not a clear commitment one way or the other on fast track or the TPP. And the coming congressional debate demands clear commitments not just from members of the House and Senate but from those who seek the presidency.
In many senses, it is remarkable that Congress would even consider surrendering its authority to make amendments, to provide oversight, and to check and balance the executive branch on so vital an economic and social issue. Yet, the legislation has now been introduced and the White House and corporate interests are gearing up a massive campaign on behalf of fast track. If it succeeds, the TPP will be negotiated behind closed doors and with inadequate oversight from Congress.
No matter what anyone thinks about “free trade,” as it is currently arranged to benefit multinational corporations that seek a race-to-the-bottom economics, or “fair trade,” as it should be arranged to protect workers, the environment, and human rights, no one who believes in openness, transparency and democracy should be on the fence regarding fast track .
The practical arguments against “fast track” are clear enough. As Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says: “[Americans] have seen these type of ‘free trade’ deals rushed through Washington before, and we saw the results firsthand: closed factories, depleted industries and lost jobs. We cannot make the same mistakes of the past. If the administration wants to get the approval of Congress for this new agreement, we must take the time to conduct the careful and thorough oversight this measure requires.”
The political arguments against fast track are, if anything, even clearer. Mark Perrone, the new president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, explains that “no elected official, regardless of political party, who is truly interested in making the economy better and fairer, can responsibly support the TPP. Simply put, this trade deal, like so many others, is bad for our workers, families, and shared future. In the end, while we may not be able to change every mind, we will remember those elected officials who stood with America’s workers by voting for jobs and against another destructive trade deal. More to the point, we join with the AFL-CIO and other unions that refuse to support any member of Congress that decides to put narrow self-interests above the interests of hard-working families.”
So far, Clinton cannot be counted as a supporter of fast track, or as a foe. The statement emailed from a Clinton spokesman to media outlets says that she is “watching closely to see what is being done to crack down on currency manipulation, improve labor rights, protect the environment and health, promote transparency, and open new opportunities for our small businesses to export overseas.” More generally, it explains, “Hillary Clinton believes that any new trade measure has to pass two tests: First, it should put us in a position to protect American workers, raise wages and create more good jobs at home. Second, it must also strengthen our national security. We should be willing to walk away from any outcome that falls short of these tests.”
That’s good language, as is the reminder from her office that Clinton believes “we shouldn’t be giving special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers.” But none of this amounts to a statement of opposition to fast track or the TPP.
Critics of the deal are pushing for specifics.
On the day after the fast-track legislation was proposed in Congress, one of the most outspoken opponents of NAFTA-style trade policies called on Clinton and other 2016 contenders to state their opposition. “My strong hope is that Secretary Clinton and all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, will make it clear that the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be rejected and that we must develop trade policies that benefit working families, not just Wall Street and multi-national corporations,” said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been exploring the prospect of challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Framing his call in the language of economic populism that Clinton has sought to echo, Sanders argued that a strong stance by candidates was necessary because, “For decades, corporate America has been pushing disastrous trade agreements on the American people. The result: millions of jobs lost through outsourcing, lower wages and the collapse of our middle class.”
Former labor secretary Robert Reich presumes that Clinton is in a tight spot. As Obama’s Secretary of State she talked up trade deals, including the TPP initiative. As a senator, she backed some and opposed others. Reich says the question of whether to stick with Obama or to oppose his fast-track request “could definitely be a headache for her in 2016 because it is so very unpopular among progressives.”
Democracy for America’s Jim Dean summed up the centrality of the fast-track debate when he said, “Like a vote for the Iraq War or statements of support for the Social Security–cutting Bowles-Simpson plan, a vote for fast track and the TPP will never be forgotten…”
Presumably, that goes for the positions taken by candidates, as well.
Politics requires hard choices—the title of Clinton’s memoir.
Clinton should make one. Instead of sticking with Obama on this issue (or, worse yet, trying to avoid taking a stance), she should stick with principles she embraced as a senator. In 2002, sheopposed granting President Bush fast-track authority. And, as a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, she won states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania at least in part because she declared that “The United States should be pursuing trade agreements that promote human rights and worker rights, not overlook egregious abuses.”
Notably, when she spoke to United Auto Workers members during that campaign, Clinton said, “Every trade agreement has to be independently, objectively analyzed.”
The first place in which trade agreements must be independently and objectively analyzed is in Congress—before they are adopted. Clinton can and should state this truth, as she makes the hard choice to oppose the president she once served and side with the Democrats she proposes to lead.
There is plenty of skepticism about Hillary Clinton’s much-discussed but at this point scantly articulated embrace of economic populism. She can address at least some of that skepticism right now, at the start of her 2016 campaign, by opposing fast track.
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The US military machine spends around $600 billion a year on national defense, but somehow it couldn’t stop a Florida mailman from landing his airborne protest right on the Capitol lawn. Doug Hughes arrived in a slow-moving, light-weight gyrocopter that he flew right past all the elaborate checkpoints and high-tech security monitors. His message to members of Congress: you and your institution are utterly corrupted by political money and we, the people, are coming after you.
“I’m just delivering the mail,” the Florida postal worker said with a touch of whimsical humor. “This isn’t my regular route.”
The guardians of national security said they saw him coming on their radar screens but thought he was probably a flock of geese. Stand-up comics should have fun with that.
But I expect Hughes’s imaginative assault on politics-as-usual will scare the crap out of a lot of Washington politicians. They have spent trillions to deploy a mighty military and awesome weaponry to protect American citizens from hostile foreigners. But how do politicians protect themselves from the hostile American citizens?
Hughes is not a dangerous fruitcake. In fact, he is a small-d democratic idealist who went out of his way to alert the authorities in advance of his so-called “Freedom Flight.” He shared his plans online and with his local newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, which wrote about his ambitions and kept police informed.
Hughes may be naïve (or even delusional), but he actually believes citizens can take back their government and drive off the monied interests that have captured congressional politics. “Because we the people own Congress,” says the website called The Democracy Club, where Hughes and others post their critiques. His arguments are rational and he addresses them not to ideological radicals but to “moderates united by faith in principles of democracy.”
A populist fever is rising in the land. That may scare off regular pols, but I have seen and heard from many other discontented citizens plowing similar furrows. I admire them. They are trying to rediscover how people act like citizens. They are conscientiously attempting various approaches. They often make common cause with more established thinker and activists, like legal scholar Laurence Lessig who founded “Rootstrikers” to battle the money influence and get at the roots of democratic decay.
Or Trevor Potter, former chair of the Federal Elections Commission, who is promoting a model reform measure, the American Anti-Corruption Act. Or Wolf PAC, which is pushing in many states to promote a constitutional amendment banning corporate money from elections.
The quality most of the home-grown reformers seem to share is deep skepticism toward both political parties. Democrats and Republicans have both adapted themselves to the necessities of big-money politics and neither shows much appetite for deep reform. Indeed, a potential convergence of left and right is probably more possible among rank-and-file voters at the grassroots. For all their angry differences, Tea Party adherents and working-class Dems share many of the same enemies and same frustrated yearnings.
Doug Hughes, for instance, is clearly on the liberal side of the spectrum, but many right-wing conservatives would be comfortable with his critique. The evidence of corruption, he argues, is obvious in the fact that nearly half of retired members of Congress are subsequently employed as lobbyists, that is, getting paid big salaries for voting right as senators or representatives. They are thus participating in “legalized, institutionalized bribery,” he charges.
Many right-wingers would also agree with Hughes about the complicity of the major media. “I think there’s an alliance between the national media and supporters of the corrupt status quo,” Hughes wrote. “That’s the political parties and the ad money they command and the election industry which runs 365 days a year. The national media is sold out.”
The risk in the rising populist temperament is that some people will take their anger to extremes and people will get hurt or worse. Doug Hughes may make sure that he is not inuring anyone with his gyrocopter antics, but the same techniques could be used to create bloodshed and mayhem—a domestic front for terrorism.
I suspect congressional leaders are pondering these possibilities right now and will take stronger security measures to protect senators and representatives and their staffs. The trouble is, fear-driven protections that is justified for public officials can amount to shrinking free expression and public space for angry citizens. History tells us that, once an ugly cycle of repression gets underway, it can feed a dangerous hostility between the governors and the governed.
Doug Hughes was arrested, as he expected he would be. But he said this would not dampen his enthusiasm for small-d democratic agitation. “I see this as my life’s work,” Hughes said beforehand, “assuming the flight doesn’t kill me and I don’t get a lengthy prison term.”
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An NBC News journalist is involved in a harrowing scene of battlefield danger. The journalist’s first-person story serves as the dominant narrative for years—but it turns out to be wrong, very wrong. Sound familiar? This isn’t the Brian Williams scandal. It’s worse: the story of the December 2012 kidnapping and rescue of Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, in Syria.
The prevailing narrative held that, as Engel reported immediately after he was freed, a group of Shia militiamen loyal to Basher Assad’s embattled government had kidnapped and mistreated the star reporter and his colleagues. Engel pointed to the language his captors used and other pronounced signs of their allegiances, ranging from graffiti scrawled on the wall of their prison to the coffee cups they drank from.
But the narrative was false, a set-up by a Sunni rebel group opposing Assad. That much became clear on Wednesday night, when NBC quietly posted a piece to its website where Engel corrected the record. “The group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia,” Engel wrote. Curiously, the piece is posited as producing “new details” about the attack, not as a correction; there was no retraction of or apology for earlier errors in reporting, as is customary.
Far from answering all the questions about the episode, Engel’s update piece did not give a full accounting of the story from NBC’s perspective. Those gaps were filled, in part, by a subsequent report in The New York Times. The resulting picture looks very bad for NBC, in many ways worse than Brian Williams’s fall from grace due to self-aggrandizement of his now-infamous helicopter incident in Iraq. This was war propaganda spread by NBC, a respected institution in American news. And if the Times’s account is to be believed, the network let the false story stand for years knowing full well that it was at least questionable, if not entirely false.
In Engel’s clarification of his original version story, he wrote:
About a month ago, we were contacted by The New York Times. The newspaper had uncovered information that suggested the kidnappers were not who they said they were and that the Syrian rebels who rescued us had a relationship with the kidnappers.
But in the Times story that subsequently hit the Internet, some part of NBC’s operation was well aware of the doubts over the culpability of pro-Assad forces (with my emphasis):
NBC executives were informed of [known Sunni rebels’] possible involvement during and after Mr. Engels’s captivity, according to current and former NBC employees and others who helped search for Mr. Engel, including political activists and security professionals.
Engel explained in his update piece that the “group that kidnapped us put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen.” That may be so, and one can hardly blame Engel, amid and immediately following his ordeal, for falling for such a ruse and reporting what he believed to be the facts upon his release. As any conflict correspondent can tell you, the fog of war is very real for journalists working in war zones, and discerning the truth can be difficult.
What’s difficult to fathom is how NBC executives who had this information allowed Engel’s report to air without immediately getting on the phone to demand that the story be walked back. Such a move would only have been appropriate considering the information that they had themselves gathered (detailed by the Times) and, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out yesterday, the fact that at least two prominent voices—the popular blogger As’ad AbuKhalil and the Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer—had cast serious doubt on the involvement of pro-Assad militias.
Why is this so much more serious than the Brian Williams scandal? At stake in l’affaire Williams was merely the reputation of a veteran journalist—Williams himself—and not decisions of war and peace for the United States. In the Engel saga, the aim of the rebels who kidnapped his crew clearly became to demonize the Assad regime (an aim, it bears mentioning, whose realization hardly requires spreading falsehoods) with the goal of goading the West into military intervention against Assad.
This is exactly what other rebel commanders, once they became aware of the kidnapping, hoped to accomplish, according to the Times: “Several rebels and others with detailed knowledge of the episode said that the safe release of NBC’s team was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support.” (Engel, too, acknowledged this: “it is clear we were…released for propaganda purposes,” he wrote.)
Engel noted in his piece last night that the new account “underscore[s] the treacherous and violent nature of the conflict inside Syria.” It’s a shame that whichever NBC executives were aware of the (ultimately true) counter-narrative chose to do nothing to revise the original story quickly, instead opting to shield their viewers from this picture, even at a time when more robust military support for the so-called Free Syrian Army was being hotly debated in the United States.
NBC News’s failure to quickly correct the record made the network into a willing conduit for pro-war propaganda by a murky coalition of Syrian rebel groups. (And let me repeat that the executives who apparently failed to impose a course correction despite the information they had acquired, rather than the correspondent and team on the ground, deserve the blame.)
“An NBC News spokesman said the network would have no comment beyond the statement posted on its site,” reported the Times. That’s a shame, too, because there are still plenty of questions NBC News’s audience deserves answers to.
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Just beneath an editorial titled “Mr. Kennedy’s Opportunity,” heralding and welcoming the election of JFK as the country’s 35th president in November of 1960, The Nation published a brief article citing evidence provided by Stanford professor Ronald Hilton that the US was training Cuban exiles in the forests of Guatemala. The article, as well as another editorial in January of 1961, were almost entirely ignored by the mainstream press. File this one, with our March 11 entry on the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, under “Hate to Say We Told You So.”
Cuban history is full of filibustering expeditions from the United States which have failed. Even though we may arm the anti-Castro groups to the teeth, we have no guarantee that they will succeed militarily. If they fail, the United States will lose face in an almost irreparable way.
Flags flew at half mast, schoolchildren recited the “Gettysburg Address” and for a few hours on April 15, America paused to remember that a century and a half ago this country lost its 16th president to an assassin’s bullet.
Now, Americans can finish with the pause and begin to fully honor Lincoln.
The place of beginning is with an embrace of the work of reconstruction that was imagined when Lincoln lived but that is not—even now—complete.
President Obama proclaimed April 15 as a National Day of Remembrance for President Abraham Lincoln, declaring, “Today, we reflect on the extraordinary progress he made possible, and with one voice, we rededicate ourselves to the work of ensuring a Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Obama was right to focus on Lincoln’s great preachmenton behalf of American democracy. It directs our attention toward the mission to which small “d” democrats of all partisanships and ideologies must rededicate ourselves.
One hundred and fifty years after the moment when a still young country saw the end of a Civil War and the assassination of a president, the events of April 1865 continue to shape and challenge the American experience.
With Lincoln’s death, an inept and wrongheaded vice president, Andrew Johnson, succeeded to the presidency. Had it been left to Johnson, who vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the progress extending from the great sacrifices of the Civil War would have beenimperiled. But the rough outlines for securing the victory were not left to a president. They were enshrined in the US Constitution.
Three amendments to the founding document were enacted during the five-year period from 1865 to 1870. These “Reconstruction Amendments”were transformational statements—even if their promise has yet to be fully recognized or realized.
The first of the amendments addressed the great failure of the founding moment: a “compromise” that recognized—and effectively permitted—human bondage.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution affirmed that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Those words confronted the indefensible “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which was outlined in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution as it was framed in 1787. That paragraph did not speak specifically of slavery, but instead referred to two groups of Americans: “the whole Number of free Persons” and “all other Persons.”
The 13th Amendment was an essential step toward an official embrace of Thomas Jefferson’s “immortal declaration”of 1776—that “all men are created equal.”
But it was not enough.
To the 13th Amendment of 1865 was added the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, which confirmed that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The 14th Amendment, remarkable in its clarity and detail, provided for due process and equal protection under the law.
But it was not enough.
To the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 and the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 was added the 15th Amendment of 1870, which avowed that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Congress was given the power to enforce these articles by appropriate legislation.
But that was still not enough, as became obvious with the collapse of Reconstruction and the establishment of “Jim Crow” segregation in states that had been part of the Confederacy. With these ruptures came overt discrimination against voting rights.
But that was not enough.
Despite the protections delineated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution (which in 1964 formally banned poll taxes), headlines remind us that the right to vote is “still threatened.” The US Supreme Court has mangled the Voting Rights Act, and the Congress has failed to repair the damage done. The Brennan Center for Justice has determined that at least 83 restrictive bills were introduced in 29 states where legislatures had floor activity in 2014, including proposals to require a photo ID, make voter registration more difficult, reduce early voting opportunities, and make it harder for students to vote.
“The stark and simple truth is this—the right to vote is threatened today—in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” said President Obama.
The great American process of forming a more perfect union is far from complete. The events of 150 years ago were not the end of anything. They were a pivot point that took the United States in a better direction. But the was incomplete, and insufficient to establish justice. So the process continues.
That is why Congressmen Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have proposed to amend the Constitution to declare clearly and unequivocally that
“SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
“SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”
The Pocan-Ellison amendment will not, in and of itself, form a more perfect union. But it provides a tool for those who understand that we best honor our history by recognizing unmet promises—and seeking, finally, to keep them.
“A core principle of our democracy is the ability for citizens to participate in the election of their representatives,” explains Pocan. “We have seen constant attempts by some states to erode voting rights and make it harder for citizens to vote. This amendment would affirm the principle of equal participation in our democracy for every citizen. As the world’s leading democracy, we must guarantee the right to vote for all.”
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Public school students in New York State are supposed to be taking standardized tests this week, but more than 100,000have been absent. In protest of mandatory high-stakes testing, parents are pulling their children from the classroom, and in numbers high enough to invalidate the results. More than 80 percent of students in the Comsewogue School District in Long Island have refused to take the test; 70 percent of students at the West Seneca School District near Buffalo opted out; several districts in the Hudson Valley reported that at least a quarter of their students did not show up.
Meanwhile, in the capital, members of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions have spent the week debating a proposal to replace No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that sanctified the use of standardized tests to evaluate and punish teachers and schools. On Thursday afternoon they voted unanimously to send a new bill drafted by Washington Democrat Patty Murray and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander to the floor. Congress failed to revise NCLB as expected in 2007, and since then the Obama administration has reinforced much of its underlying ideology via programs like Race to the Top. This year lawmakers are committed to replacing the law (which is a version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed 50 years ago by President Johnson). It’s a rare opportunity for the parents, teachers, and public-education advocates who are desperate for relief from the high-stakes testing regime.
The Senate bill has a new name—the Every Child Achieves Act—but whether it drives a stake through the heart of NCLB is a matter of debate. So far many NCLB critics, including major teachers unions, are voicing cautious optimism about new version. “We’re very, very pleased,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, after the first day of markup. “We still have a long way to go, but from where we started with ‘No Child Left Untested’…for the first time in thirteen long years we’re seeing hope.” Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers called the committee vote “a big deal, an important step forward and the most positive development we’ve seen in public education policy in years—because of both its content and the committee’s very intentional move to leave partisanship at the door.”
But other public education advocates say that the proposal is “haunted by the ghosts” of the failed law; that while it does make it more difficult for the federal government itself to penalize schools, it doesn’t necessarily do away with test-based accountability. Nor will it stop the diversion of public funds to privatized charters. Instead, it provides for three new grant programs to support charter schools, without implementing strong measures to increase transparency and accountability at those institutions.
The most significant changes in the bill have to do with scaling back the power of the federal Department of Education and handing it to the states. Annual testing will still be mandatory in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but the proposal allows states to determine how the results are used. That means that some states may take advantage of the opportunity to adopt non-punitive, comprehensive forms of assessment—and there is support for alternative assessment in the Senate bill. It also means that other states may simply continue to use a barrage of narrow tests to judge the progress of students and discipline teachers and schools based on the results. Given Governor Andrew Cuomo’s fierce advocacy for high-stakes exams, for instance, it seems fair to say that the Senate will solve few of the problems motivating the New York opt-out movement.
That said, there are a few ways that the bill encourages shifts away from purely test-based school assessment. One provision, accepted as an amendment during the markup, has the NEA, the country’s largest teachers union, particularly excited. It requires states to consider indicators of student supports and resources in their accountability systems, such as access to school counselors, nurses, and arts and physical education. “We know there is an opportunity gap” for students in under-funded schools, said García. “But we’ve had nothing that says, ‘and look what those affluent kids have in terms of support services.’”
The bill won’t fix resource imbalances inherent in a system that ties school funding to the local tax base, but García doesn’t think there’s much more the federal government can do about that. “The responsibility to solve the funding inequity lies with governors and state legislators. The federal role is to provide transparency,” she said. “Where are the resources? Where’s the opportunity to learn? Which children have everything they need to learn, and which don’t?”
There is some reason to think that shifting the battleground for fights about testing and resources from the federal to the state level will boost the power of public education advocates. As NCLB critic Diane Ravitch wrote, that’s “where parents can make their voices heard.” It’s certainly a win for Hillary Clinton (who defended her vote for NCLB on Tuesday in Iowa) and any other national candidates hoping to skim the surface of the debate over testing and the privatization of public education, as City University of New York professor Ira Shor pointed out in an e-mail. “The reauthorization shows both parties seeking cover for the 2016 election cycle,” Shor wrote. “Both parties need to shelve education as a contentious issue boiling from the grass roots. This reauthorization pushes ESEA and the intense bottom-up conflict to a lower register.”
I’ve covered only broad strokes here, and the bill could still change in significant ways. (Mercedes Schneider has a detailed five-part rundown on the 601-page bill that begins here, though keep in mind it has since been marked up.) Members of the HELP committee left the most divisive issues for the floor debate, including vouchers for private schools and how federal dollars targeted at poor students are distributed. Given the current makeup of Congress and President Obama’s insistence on preserving the annual testing mandate, it’s not surprising that the revised bill signifies in a shift more in power than in philosophy. That makes state and local resistance to high-stakes testing and the corporate education reform all the more significant.
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What will be the repercussions if Minsk II fails? In this segment of The John Batchelor Show, The Nation’s Stephen Cohen discusses the potential violence and growing humanitarian crisis that will ensue if the ceasefire does not hold. According to Cohen, the dissolution of the ceasefire would “almost certainly” lead Obama to, despite his reluctance, send billions of dollars of weapons to Kiev, spurring Russia’s further involvement in the Ukrainian civil war in the east.
“If Minsk fails, events will logically follow that will cross everyone’s red line—Putin’s, the West,” Cohen said. “And we’ll be in a situation much closer to actual war with Russia.”
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After months of back-room negotiations, key congressional negotiators are finally ready to unveil legislation that would fast-track approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The bill would prohibit Congress from amending the trade deal, and would require a simple-majority vote for passage, but would in exchange set a variety of negotiating parameters.
If the architects of the legislation—Senators Ron Wyden and Orrin Hatch and Representative Paul Ryan—are at all worried that members of Congress will feel fast-track leaves them out of the process, they are doing a pretty terrible job of addressing those concerns.
A Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday morning featured top US trade officials—but occurred before the legislation was even unveiled, and was called with almost no notice. This drew some unusual and strong rebukes from Democrats on the Finance Committee over an unfair process.
Hatch and Wyden, the chairman and ranking member of Senate Finance respectively, called hearing on Wednesday night that was ostensibly about “Congress and US Tariff Policy.” It featured several top US officials that deal with trade: US Trade Representative Michael Froman, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Members of the committee thus suddenly found themselves in a fast-track hearing without knowing it—and before they saw the legislation. Many of them didn’t like it.
Senator Chuck Schumer, likely to be the next Democratic majority leader, opposes fast-track and objecting in the hearing to “rushing” the legislation. Senator Sherrod Brown said “We got twelve hours notice on a bill we haven’t seen…you can’t fast-track fast track.”
Senators appeared unsure if they would even get to see the legislation before a vote. Senator Debbie Stabenow asked if the committee would have to vote “on an agreement that we have not yet even seen and that hasn’t been reached,” according to the Huffington Post.
As the hearing was going on, six Democratic members of the committee took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement objecting to the hearing they were sitting in on:
“With millions of jobs on the line, American workers and manufacturers deserve more than a hastily scheduled hearing without an underlying bill. Congress should undergo a thorough and deliberative committee process for debating trade agreements that account for 40 percent of our world’s GDP. And we should be debating a bill that has seen the light of day and contains strong provisions to protect American workers against illegal trade practices like currency manipulation.”
Schumer, Brown and Stabenow, along with Senators Robert Menendez, Ben Cardin and Bob Casey attached their names to the statement.
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