Failing the Test

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center

It’s that time of year again.

This week, approximately 1.2 million children in grades 3-8 sat for the annual New York State tests in English Language Arts (ELA). Math exams will be given in early May.

The State Education Department (SED) has been testing students in reading and math for decades. But in 2013, SED began administration of Common Core-aligned tests. In 2011, NCS Pearson, Inc. was awarded a five-year contract to develop these exams. Pearson received $38.8 million for its work.

From the outset, some parents and educators questioned the value and impact of Common Core-based testing. Parents and teaching professionals were concerned about the ambiguity and inappropriateness of the questions, the length of the assessment, the frustrating experiences English Language Learners and students with disabilities had with the exams, and the lack of transparency that thwarted scrutiny of the testing program. There was particular concern about the developmental appropriateness of the reading passages and items used to assess eight- and nine-year-old students in grades 3 and 4.

Initially, these complaints were dismissed by officials as unfounded, the scattered griping of overprotective parents or a sign of low expectations for children. But eventually the Education Department made some adjustments in its program – it shortened tests by one or two questions, removed time limits and, this year, testing will take place over four days instead of six.

Still, after several years of implementation, it is fair to investigate the quality of this ongoing program, which targets more than one million students each year and costs taxpayers millions of dollars. Student performance on these instruments is widely reported and commented on. We need to flip the accountability question and now ask, “How did the tests perform?”  Continue reading

The Tangled Web of Administering Veterans’ Benefits in New York 

In 2014 the State of New York sent 6,347 soldiers into the U.S. military, widely considered the best trained, best organized armed force on the planet. 

Unfortunately a recent study by the Benjamin Center’s Dr. Gerald Benjamin and Timothy Toomey, both veterans themselves, found that New York state’s own organization serving our veterans once they return from service is disorganized and dysfunctional. And among the findings of the recent discussion brief, are that although service members are required to receive lengthy separation counseling, where they also learn of multiple support systems that include state and federal networks ranging from health care to education, employment, and financial and legal benefits, all too frequently these new veterans get fire-hosed with information. 

As one analyst noted:

… [M]embers of today’s military have many resources at their fingertips when they separate, but it’s often incredibly overwhelming. Transitioning service members are trying to change careers, and may be moving themselves and families across the country, all while doing their day jobs up until terminal leave. Many service members may still be trying to figure out exactly what they want to do.

It’s not just that veterans may not hear of benefits they’re qualified for, either. Toomey and Benjamin’s research shows that veterans may be victims of fraud as a result of getting conflicting information, or they may over-pay when they’re entitled to benefits. For instance, in New York state law requires that localities offer veterans partial exemption from property taxes; there are specially focused programs for veterans with service-related disabilities, and for those who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system.

The problem goes beyond information overload, however. Too frequently New York’s State Division of Veteran Affairs overlaps county entities, and the agencies are either at cross purposes or frequently not in communication with each other, or literally feuding over turf instead of working in unison. Rarely are these layers of bureaucracy in touch with each other, working from the same databases, or even aware that they’re offering similar services to the same constituent base.

A further problem is that there’s a fundamental lack of accountability Continue reading

The Supreme Court and Gerrymandering: What about New York?

 

The Supreme Court may be on the verge of enacting a standard to block (or at least limit) partisan gerrymandering for state legislatures. There’s just one problem: This “uniform” standard simply does not work for New York State. Or perhaps more ironic, the Supreme Court may choose not to adopt the standard for determining fairness in districting in the Wisconsin case before it now because it is not universal, because it doesn’t work for at least one state, our very gerrymandered Empire state.

New York State has a centuries-long tradition of partisan gerrymandering for its legislature. The 1894 Constitutional Convention cemented a redistricting process for the state’s Senate and Assembly that the great Democratic Governor Al Smith later said made the legislature “constitutionally Republican.” It was not until the U.S. Supreme Court one-person-one-vote decisions of the mid-1960s, 75 years later, that the door was open to a period of Democratic control of the Assembly; that dominance became firm in the famous Watergate election of 1974, and was entrenched in the decennial redistricting following the 1980 census. Meanwhile the Senate remained in GOP hands. And since then, until recently, largely as a result of bipartisan gerrymandering achieved by the collaboration (collusion?) of the partisan majorities in the two houses, New York has had divided control of its legislature, with the Democrats dominant in the Assembly and the Republicans in the Senate. 

A complex state constitutional amendment “reforming” the redistricting process in New York was adopted in November of 2014. There remains a good deal of skepticism, however, about its value in blocking gerrymandering, because it leaves the final word on district design with the Legislature. We will see its impact after 2020. 

Interestingly, even if Senate Democrats manage to patch up their differences, gain a majority and keep it through the redistricting following the 2020 census, it is likely that partisan gerrymandering will persist. Even the most reform minded members in a new Democratic Senate majority are likely to think “now it’s our turn.”

That is, unless the U.S. Supreme Court decides to change the rules. Until now, it has been reluctant. The court acknowledged in Davis v. Bandemer in 1986 that a partisan gerrymander might be so egregious that it would have to step in, but has as yet not found a case in which it was willing to do so. In addition to a reluctance to enter the “political thicket” the court has been concerned about identifying a clear, straightforward useable standard for fairness in districting that might be applied without generating massive amounts of litigation. See Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004).

Very good measures of districting bias devised by political scientists have as yet not found favor with the Supreme Court. Perhaps this is because Chief Justice John Roberts is not the only one on the high bench who regards political science as “sociological gobbledygook.” Yet Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, Continue reading

The Real Problem with Our Gun Problem

We need to stop conflating school shootings and drug-related gun violence. They are not the same, nor are their causes.

In the later 1980s and early 1990s violence was classified as epidemic in the United States. The U.S. Surgeon General declared it to be a public health problem. Money was available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to study nationally and in New York and other large cities what was then called “weapon-related (i.e. gun) violence.” 

In the 1990s I was a violence epidemiologist for the New York City Department of Health assigned to do this work. With a few others, in hospitals and medical examiners offices, I counted the injuries and deaths caused by violence. Our work opened doors. For example, we were invited to very elaborate anti-gun events packed with well-dressed urbanites, with open bars and such highly esteemed speakers as Jim Brady. Brady was the presidential press secretary shot when an attempt was made on President Reagan’s life. The 1993 Brady Bill was named after him, and it sought to restrict gun sales through increased background checks.

This particular posh New York City event was triggered by a 1997 mass assault on the Empire State Building, where one person was killed and six were injured. As I sat and listened to the heated discussion about gun violence and its impact on Jim Brady and tourism, and as I looked through the gun violence pamphlets and posters throughout the room, I was taken by the apparent absence of focus, let alone discussion, let alone mention, of the real problem: near-daily shootings in inner cities, where most of the victims were minority young men and boys. Today, just over 20 years after that NYC event, as I march and attend panel discussions about gun violence, I fear we have not come as far as I hoped we would have.

I realize I am not the first to note that though school shootings did not begin with these events, they began to draw media attention when the victims were mostly white children (now Parkland, and – back to when media first got excited about school shootings – Columbine). What is missed is that by lumping all gun violence together, as if they all have the identical root cause, we’re clouding our vision for finding a workable solution.

Continue reading

Dutchess County Jail is Among the State’s Worst Offenders

Dutchess County Jail is Among the State’s Worst Offenders

 

Our recommendations to address mental health care and education—without cost over-runs

The New York State Commission of Corrections (SCOC) recently named the Dutchess County jail as one of the five worst in New York State (The Worst Offenders), one that “pose[d] an ongoing risk to the health and safety of staff and inmates, and, in instances, impose[d] cruel and inhumane treatment of inmates in violation of their Constitutional Rights.”

This news comes a full seven years after the Benjamin Center (then called CRREO) published its study on A Collaborative Approach to County Jailing in the Hudson Valley. We were looking for, and found, ways that counties could collaborate to control or diminish operational costs while continuing to fully assure safety and professional operation. What did we recommend?

Overcrowding and boarding inmates out at great expense were big issues. They’re being addressed so we won’t look further at them here. The jail currently operates under a variance given by the Commission that allows the use of temporary dormitory pods, pending completion of a new jail addition. Construction is still in the planning phase, with completion pushed back from 2017 to 2023.

Mental Health Services:

By circumstance, rather than design, jails have become the default local institutions that confine citizens with mental health problems. A major reason is that, as a result of changes in policy enacted over decades, many state-run mental hospitals and psychiatric facilities have been shut down or severely downsized. Jail managers in our region in 2011 reported that as much as 80% of their inmate population was being treated either for mental illness or drug and/or alcohol addiction. Currently, drug and alcohol detoxification, as well as mental health treatment for all but the worst cases, is done at the jail.

The Commission report referenced two inmate suicides since 2011. It cited the jail’s medical contractor, Correctional Medical Care (CMC), for failing to identify and act upon one suicide risk (despite a documented history of suicide attempts and signs of intoxication). In the second case, jail staff and CMC failure to identify a mental illness despite the inmate reporting a mental health history, and acting strangely at his admission. Later. a CMC staffer who followed up also failed to recognize signs of mental illness, and jail staff failed to recognize signs of acute mental illness after an incident in a hallway where the inmate could not properly follow commands.

When an inmate is assessed as at risk for suicide, either at booking or at a later time, he or she must be placed on one-on-one watch for his or her own protection. One-on-one supervision (or constant watch) means what it says: 24 hour per day supervision with one officer constantly watching one inmate. This is very costly; it’s done almost exclusively by officers on overtime. Dutchess would need a major remodel to allow a single officer to monitor two or three inmates simultaneously. This requires sight lines with no blind spots, with spaces usually designed specifically for this purpose. Once an inmate is placed on one-on-one watch, he or she cannot be taken off without the authorization of a mental health professional.

In 2011 we recommended creating an intermediary secure mental health facility in the Hudson Valley that might accept inmates in need of treatment that goes beyond what a jail might effectively provide (e.g. mandating medication), but not so extensive as to warrant sending the inmate to a specialized secure mental health facility run by the state in central New York. Such a facility could provide video psychiatric evaluations at the admissions  intake of the inmate in order to determine if it is deemed appropriate to refer the inmate to the regional facility. The opportunity to seek regional solutions is diminished each time we make massive investments in another county jail.

Education:

New York State mandates that each county provides schooling for minors in jail. Worst Offenders says that Dutchess County has done an especially poor job at this.

We found that Orange County maintained an extensive education facility in its jail, and contracted with Orange County BOCES to operate a full-time school. Minors from 16-20 were mandated to attend. They were instructed in three groups defined by level of education and learning ability. Classes were held from 8-11am and 1-3:30pm. Going beyond the mandate, all inmates between the ages of 16-21 were encouraged to take vocational courses at the jail.

At any given time, the Orange County jail school enrolled 55-75 minors and 50-100 adults in its educational courses, ranging from GED and Regents high school courses to baking and podcasting. The program boasts a 97% pass rate for the GED (due to the high recidivism rate within the minor inmate population, this is a considerable number of students). Ironically, recidivism added value to the use of technology and assured some continuity in the jail’s education program. All students’ work was stored on a server so that if they left jail before the completion of their schoolwork, they could pick it up where they left off if they returned.

Implementing the collaborative regional jailing solutions we recommended for youth, women (not mentioned by the Commission) or mental health and other health services remains a heavy political lift, though it is intriguing that the state is now pushing harder than ever on counties and localities for increased collaboration, and that Dutchess has one of the strongest records in the state for its local governments working together. But even without taking such a big step, the county might get some ideas for improvement its jail operation by looking back at our 2011 study.

This is important because it was the poor screening by the medical contractor that led to the two suicides.

The End of Cheap Water

Aging Infrastructure is Driving Up Costs in the Hudson Valley

New York State has some of the oldest water and sewer networks in the country. But unlike roads and bridges, where we see the direct effects of what that means (like an axle-smashing pothole that causes accidents and lawsuits), leaking pipes are underground. We know that sometimes the water coming out of our faucets can be rusty or brown, that water main breaks can unexpectedly disrupt our commutes or errands, and that our water bills may have slowly increased through the years. But despite these impacts on our daily lives, we rarely recognize the connection to our aging infrastructure.

Or, as is the case in Flint, Michigan, and Newburgh, New York, we only know there’s a dire problem after the fact, when the water turns out to be poisonous.

Continue reading

What We Lost When We Vetoed a Constitutional Convention

 

Calling a state constitutional convention is New York’s long established method for fundamental, systematic governmental reform. Yet in a period of pandemic corruption and enormous anger at government, with demands for change from all across the political spectrum, New Yorkers rejected the convention option by a margin of 5-1 this past November. In essence, if 2016 was a year of great demand for change, the regret set in quickly afterward, and 2017 became a year, at least in New York, of holding fast to a system that people perceived to be less frightening than yet more change.

Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin, co-authors with Christopher Bopst of New York’s Broken Constitution, and strong convention advocates, sat down a few weeks after the election for a post mortem. The reasons for the crushing defeat of the convention question, they thought, were both structural and political. Most voters didn’t even know there is a state constitution; they don’t distinguish between it and the revered national document, which most of them certainly don’t want to be touched in an era in which basic rights are threatened. New York has no initiative process; referenda are limited in use and unfamiliar to many as a way of making decisions. The wording of the convention question, mandated in the constitution for use every twenty years, requires that everything be on the table if a convention is called.

This scares those who have constitutionally guaranteed benefits or favored policies that they don’t want to risk.

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Partisan Gerrymandering in New York

On Monday, October 3rd, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a potentially landmark case concerning partisan gerrymandering in redistricting the Wisconsin state legislature. Partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of legislative district lines to favor one political party over another, has long been commonplace for legislature at all levels of government. The Supreme Court has previously said the practice might be unconstitutional, but has never overturned a districting plan on this basis.

In New York State the redistricting process is done by LATFOR (The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment). It is no secret that there is an agreement between the Republican-led State Senate and the Democratic-led Assembly that each house majority does their own redistricting and signs off on the other. This bipartisan gerrymandering has been the practice for a long time; the outcome in Gill v Whitford is therefore very important for New York.

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Are Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore Our Fault?

November continued an unabated, grim chronicle of sexual assaults perpetrated by powerful men against women in positions of relative weakness or outright dependence. It’s easy (and justified) to condemn the offenders, but does the society in some measure have itself to blame as well? Dr. Eve Waltermaurer of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz has been studying violence in intimate relationships for twenty years. The results of her recent Views on Women (VOW) poll offers disquieting insights into the social context for these acts of sexual assault.

The VOW poll—supported by the Times Union’s Women@Work —randomly surveyed 1,050 New Yorkers across the state. Findings from VOW identify a far deeper societal struggle about rape and sexual assault than most of us realize, chiefly that we tend to blame the victims of these assaults, and not solely the offenders, according to Waltermaurer.

For instance, when asked if a woman dressing in provocative clothing contributes to her being raped, over 60 percent of men aged 18-35 believe it does. But it is not just men who hold these attitudes. Strikingly, Waltermaurer found that just under 45 percent of women in the same age bracket agree with this sentiment.

These disturbing poll responses, Waltermaurer says, are unfortunately part of a pattern we’ve been unable to break. And while we hear many young women speak out against these abuses and for women’s empowerment, Waltermaurer has found that younger women may actually subscribe to negative attitudes toward women who are victims of sexual violence more frequently than their older counterparts. “One reason older women more frequently reject the idea of sexual and domestic violence as ‘normal’ is that as they gain self-confidence over time they realize, ‘I don’t need to accept this.’ A younger woman, in terms of relationships, has not quite achieved this confidence.”

A chief problem is that even today, Waltermaurer asserts, we do not know how to talk about these issues, especially when sex is involved. Sex is shunned Continue reading

Elected Officials and Social Media Use: Should There be Rules?

Social Media can make government better, more accessible, more transparent, more accountable, all good things. But when elected officials decide that government social media accounts are theirs to use as they please, we may be in very different territory. Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum reminded us of that this week.

In 2015 the Benjamin Center studied how local governments in the Mid-Hudson region use their websites and social media. We found that nearly 97 percent of the towns, villages, and cities of the region had some digital presence. At the time of the study 60 percent of local governments had a Facebook presence, but barely one fifth were on Twitter. (This was in the sleepy pre-Trump era of Twitter.) In general, we found that the more open governments are with constituents, the more they engender trust.

Even though our study was conducted barely two years ago, it came against a very different societal backdrop. President Obama was behind the push for government at all levels to communicate electronically with the goal of increasing trust and accountability. These days cities like Kingston and Poughkeepsie maintain fairly active Twitter accounts and post frequently. This seems appropriate: In our fast-paced era, when even Facebook seems too onerous to peruse, governments that can blast quick info to constituents (especially missives that can be read on a phone) are reaching people quickly and simply.

But what happens to the trust that openness engenders when the public official steps out of his or her governance role, and uses official social media platforms to advance personal views, or agendas?

Once Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, sheriffs around the country have felt emboldened to use social media to express their own views, sometimes using government platforms as their bullhorn. The latest but hardly the most inflammatory missive came this past weekend when Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum used both Facebook and Twitter to tell citizens to boycott the NFL because, he argued, players taking a knee during the national anthem were being unpatriotic.

This isn’t nearly as disturbing as sheriffs in Oklahoma trying to thwart criminal justice reform through use of official social media communications.  Continue reading

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