Monday, December 14, 2015

In remembrance of Newtown: Schools are becoming prisons

December 14th marks the three year anniversary of the terrorist attack at
Sandy Hook Elementary School, and nothing has been done to prevent it
from happening again.

If you follow me regularly, you know that every week I update (when necessary) and post this piece as a protest/plea to President Obama and officials anywhere and everywhere to stop gun violence. But as we've seen far too many times—most recently in San Bernadino—this country is run by the NRA, and until that changes, the massacres and bloodshed will only continue.

Next to public education, gun violence is an issue about which I care deeply and passionately. It started with Sandy Hook. I was eating my lunch at my desk and catching up on the news, when I heard about it. I shared my experience in an open letter to America's elected officials
I stood in the hallway of my K-4 school and said to a coworker, "Did you hear? There was another shooting—at an elementary school. They shot kindergarteners." I remember looking at the little ones who were passing us on their way to class and thinking, it could have been them; it could have been us.
Nothing has changed since then. The terrorist attacks continue; the empty rhetoric from the NRA and the politicians they've bought continues; and so do the prayer vigils. 

While elected officials everywhere refuse to act, our schools are becoming prisons. They have to, because we never know when and where the next terrorist attack will occur. Instead of spending money on educating our students, school districts are now forced to spend far too much upgrading school entrances, fitting them with more security cameras and equipment, including bullet-proof glass. 

No longer do we only have fire drills, we now have lock down drills, where kids practice hiding from terrorist invasions. A far cry from the 1950's 'duck and cover' drills against nameless, faceless Communists who were thousands of miles away. We now have to hide from people who could be our neighbors: that strange guy, that angry teenager.

Classroom doors in many districts must now remain closed and locked at all times. And that's so much fun in the warm weather when there's no air conditioning. Staff must use a key to lock and unlock every door in the building, even storage closets and copy rooms.

Many districts now have high-tech devices that scan the drivers license of every visitor. And police regularly walk the halls.

All this does not make me feel safer. Quite the contrary, I feel less safe because it reminds me we live in a very violent society. We have to do all this because some nut job with a gun could force his way into my school at any moment and blow us all away. We have to do this because a powerful minority is holding this country hostage just so their members have the 'right' to own WMDs. I'm sorry, I didn't sign up to be a prison guard, and my students aren't prisoners. But that's what it's become because elected officials are too afraid of losing all that NRA PAC money and possibly losing their next election.

After the terrorist attack in San Bernadino, The NY Daily News posted this front page headline that quickly went viral:

It reminded me of the joke about the guy who is in his house praying to God to save him as the flood waters are rising: 
A police vehicle arrives and offers to help him evacuate. "No", he says, "God is going to save me." Then as the waters rise, a rescue boat arrives. Again, he refuses to go because God is going to save him. Then the flood waters rise some more, and he moves up to the roof. A helicopter arrives and again he refuses help because God is going to save him. Finally his house is submerged. He's floundering in the flood waters and angrily shouting to God. "Why didn't you save me?!" To which God replies, "What more do you want? I sent the police, a boat and a helicopter, and you wouldn't go!"
We don't need to pray to God to fix this. We already have the power to do so. All it will take is for elected officials to stand up and do something about it. The second amendment says: 
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The key words are "well regulated". Right now in the United States, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" is more important than the right of the people to live. And it is not well regulated.

Time for elected officials to come out of hiding and do their damned job!

"The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything."
~ Albert Einstein

The Star Ledger's double standard on organized labor

Yesterday's Star Ledger editorial page is a case study in the double standards it applies to organized labor. On the one hand, they make an impassioned and completely justified plea in support of the unsustainable wages earned by SEIU 32BJ's 7,000 custodians and janitors who are fighting for a $15 minimum wage; while on the other, they excoriate Sen. Sweeney for pushing for a constitutional amendment to fund NJ's anemic pension system, and as usual, beat the war drums for public employees to pay more for less. 

But this is nothing new. The S-L editorial board, led by Tom Moran, has a long history of union bashing—especially teachers. Just search this blog or Jersey Jazzman's for a list of Moran's rants. Who knows why he hates us and loves others. And now that Sen. Sweeney has proposed the amendment that would require quarterly pension payments, Moran is at it again, spinning his ill-informed, teacher-hating rhetoric to unsuspecting readers:
But public workers continue to receive health benefits that are far more generous than those enjoyed by the typical taxpayers. The cost is about 50 percent more than the average plan in the private sector, according to Tom Byrne, a former Democratic state chairman and member of the governor's bipartisan reform commission.
First, I beg to differ on those generous benefits. The days of 'Cadillac' benefits are long gone thanks to Chr. 78 (more on this below). Second, does anyone else see the subtle fracturing here? The blaming and shaming of middle class workers? The pitting of public vs. private sector? The brainwashing of the general public that the financial crisis would go away if only we could get rid of those pesky, greedy unions? 

Those in power, including Moran, have done an admirable job of convincing private sector, middle class workers into thinking that labor is the problem, when instead, labor is the solution. If more middle and working class people belonged to unions, wages, benefits, workplace safety and morale would be up, and so would the economy (more on this below). The middle class was built on labor, and the glory days of the middle class in the mid 20th Century are a perfect example. 

But Gov. Christie and other anti-union leaders, corporate heads and the newspapers they control have done an admirable job of convincing the general public that labor is the problem. The message goes something like this:
How dare you want. How dare you expect anything more than what we elected officials and corporate heads feel you deserve. How dare you expect us to sacrifice when we are so important and—well—wealthy? 
We are the job creators. We can't sacrifice anything because we provide you with your ever increasing workloads and ever decreasing salaries and benefits job, and you should be grateful. After all, times are tough, and we all have to "share the sacrifice". (Notice how you never hear that phrase anymore. Could it be because the only people who were sacrificing realized they were also the ones getting screwed?)
We're sorry we have to screw you cut your compensation, ship jobs overseas and lay off employees, but those greedy unions have negotiated contracts just want more and more, and we would have to take less in salaries and bonuses can't afford that. So, we're hoping that if we cut your compensation enough you will speak out against their greed and selfishness so no one notices that new yacht we just purchased because they are destroying NJ. 

Now, about those benefits: if they are so 'generous', then why did NJ Spotlight report this last year?
Today, however, while the cost of New Jersey public employee health insurance coverage remains the third-highest in the nation, most New Jersey public employees are paying more than the national average for state government workers toward their health insurance costs, an NJ Spotlight analysis shows. 
In fact, the average New Jersey government employee is paying more for individual health insurance coverage than government workers in any other state and the 10th-highest average premium for family coverage in the country.Further, state and local government workers are paying a much higher percentage of the cost of their individual health insurance policies than private-sector employees in New Jersey have been paying, and not much less than the percentage paid by the state’s private-sector workers for family coverage. 
The health benefit payment schedule set by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) as part of the controversial 2011 pension and health benefits overhaul established a complex premium-sharing formula based on “ability to pay” that is the most progressive in the nation — one that ranges from a low of 3 percent of premium cost for those earning under $25,000 to a high of 35 percent of premium for those making over $110,000 for family coverage. 
“Public employees are paying more for their health insurance in New Jersey than in most other states, but we made sure that the premium schedule is based on ability to pay. That’s important going forward,” Sweeney said in a comment aimed squarely at Christie’s pension and health benefits panel. (all emphasis mine)
And don't think for one minute that we're paying more because we're getting more. Far from it. Labor has had to give back a lot over the past 5 years. Co-pays, premiums and deductibles are up, and services are down. I can put you in touch with many public employees who are in the same boat as private sector workers—paying more and getting less. Sinking all ships instead of raising all boats makes everyone drown. 

Moran continues...
The problem with Sweeney's amendment is that he answers the key demand of the unions – to fully fund the pensions – without asking for cuts in health spending in return. 
Why should public employees—and all middle and working class families for that matter—have to sacrifice to the point of unsustainable living while America's 1% is making more now than at any other time since the Great Depression? Why isn't anyone questioning the near loan shark tactics of health insurance companies that jack up premiums by double digits seemingly overnight? Why has this country not yet moved to a true universal healthcare system so that everyone has access to quality, affordable healthcare? (Yea, I know... I know... that's a convo for another day) How much more can public employees—and all workers for that matter—sacrifice and still pay our bills? How much more can we be forced to give back while Gov. Christie gives billions in tax cuts to corporations? How much more can we do without before it becomes impossible for us to do our jobs? Why should public employees, the majority of whom have seen a net decrease in take home pay, give back one more penny while Christie refuses to keep his end of the deal, opting instead to give his Wall St. buddies/GOP donors huge bonuses for their lackluster returns on our deferred compensation? 

None of this is the fault of public employees, who built the middle class, yet we are blamed by people like Moran who have a hidden agenda and either don't know or are in denial about all the facts. 

But this hypocrisy is nothing new. In Jersey Jazzman's latest he reminds us of the S-Ls bizarre-o endorsement—and later retraction— of Christie for governor in 2013, and eviscerates Moran for criticizing The New Hampshire Union Leader for its recent endorsement of Christie:

Tom Moran ignored Chris Christie's many, many failings and endorsed him for reelection as governor for one reason: Christie was willing to go to war with the New Jersey Education Association. In Moran's bizarre world, Christie's jihad against the teachers union was more important than solving the pension problem, or adequately managing Sandy relief, or keeping the state's credit rating up.
Tom Moran is the most shameless type of hypocrite imaginable. He looks down his nose at another newspaper for ignoring the facts about Chris Christie — the same facts Moran ignored just so he could stick it to teachers and their union. 
Look, as a registered Democrat and proud union member, I was incensed when Sweeney and other Trenton Democrats sold us down the river on the Pen-Ben deal. They turned their backs on the core values of our party and those for whom they are supposed to fight. But, I'm not going to sit here and rehash that, especially when the clock is ticking on the pension fund time bomb (see my countdown clock at the top of this page). The fact is that Sweeney is taking steps today to fix this mess by ensuring that the state finally does what it promised. Are there political aspirations tied to it? Probably. But, it's a helluva lot more than Christie ever had any intentions of doing.

With corporate money now controlling virtually every aspect of American life, it's only natural for the news media to spin tales of union greed as the downfall of civilization, when in fact, that downfall is being caused by corporate greed. Robert Reich's documentary film, Inequality for All lays it all out in devastatingly simple language and stresses the importance of organized labor as a key to building a strong middle class. Here's the trailer:

Everyone should watch this film. 

Public employees are not the cause of this financial crisis. Instead of sinking all ships, Trenton should be trying to lift all boats—both public and private. If unions die, so does the middle class. We are the last vestiges of a workforce that can stand up to corporate greed, and fight for fair wages, benefits and working conditions—for everyone—because as go the unions, so goes the middle class. But private sector workers have been turned against us by the likes of Moran and the S-L editorial board who spew hateful and derisive rhetoric. 

Millionaires are not fleeing NJ in droves. On the contrary, they are the only ones who can really afford to live here comfortably. NJ is home to over 600,000 public employees who contribute to local, county and state economies every day. But, unless the pension system is fixed—without any more public employee sacrifice—many middle class people will be forced to leave because we are the ones who can't afford it. But that's an inconvenient truth Moran is all too happy to avoid.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Is the NJDOE protecting Gov. Christie's POTUS run?

As those of us in NJ know, Gov. Christie will do anything and everything to side with the prevailing right-wing opinion-of-the-day. So, with his poll numbers in the toilet—not only for his job as governor, but for his POTUS run—is he pulling out all the stops to ensure he protects his image as an ed 'reformer' on the national stage?  

The front page of today's Star Ledger contains an article on NJs PARCC opt-out rates. The state has been less than forthcoming on releasing the numbers despite the fact that Colorado did so last month. 
And we still don't have that all-important data that's supposed to prep students for the March PARCC test "drive instruction" and magically make every single student "college and career ready" (whatever that means). 

The state DOE estimates that 15% of high school juniors, 7% of freshmen, and 4.6% of students in grades 3-8 refused to take the test. But based on anecdotal reporting and comparing '14-'15 enrollment numbers to the actual number of tests completed, NJEA and Save Our Schools NJ put those numbers at around 110,000—the second highest opt-out number in the nation in our first year of testing. New York was number one with 240,000.

But there is absolutely no reason for the delay. The state has the data. So, why have they not released it? Save Our Schools NJ speculates
Could they be protecting Governor Christie's presidential campaign from the embarrassment of NJ having the second highest opt out rates in the country?
Remember, Christie gave an $82.5 million tax break to Pearson to stay in NJ. What else was promised? Big participation numbers? Who knows? But numbers like that will surely put a chill on all those high-powered cocktail parties, fundraisers and glad-handing. And we can't have that now, can we? With only 12 states left in the consortium, and an estimated 500,000 students across the country refusing the PARCC last year, Pearson needs all the help it can get. And with his POTUS campaign verging on life support, so does Christie.  

As Save Our Schools NJs, Julia Sass Rubin stated in the article:
There is no reason why we should all be speculating. They should just put it all out there. They clearly have the data. The people have a right to know this.
Also quoted in the article was Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest:
The notion that (New Jersey) can't put out data until January of 2016 for a test that was administered in early spring of 2015 is ludicrous.
For those of you who are old enough to remember: