The BenCen Blog

Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

Your Most Important Vote this November is Hidden on the Second Page of the Ballot

Partisan gerrymandering — incumbents drawing legislative districts to keep control of legislative bodies — destroys democracy by assuring that majorities don’t rule. It has been described as elected officials choosing their voters, instead of their voters choosing their representatives. 

At the national, state and local levels our governments are made undemocratic by gerrymandering; despite widespread protest, those in power in both major parties keep doing it so that they can stay in power. Repeated efforts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to undo this practice have failed, though surely it is unconstitutional.

What most people in Ulster County may not know is that we are among the handful of places in the country that doesn’t have this problem. That’s because our county charter gives us a process for neutral non-partisan legislative redistricting. And it has worked. The districts for the current, closely divided county legislature were drawn through this non-partisan process. But in doing this the first time around we found out that there were some flaws in our design, and we needed to take further steps to be sure that it was more inclusive and effective while remaining non-partisan. 

Under the leadership of County Executive Michael Hein, a commission headed by Kingston attorney Rod Futerfas was formed to work on this. Continue reading

In New York State’s Tests The Achievement Gap Has Grown Worse

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

New York’s Common Core testing has failed our children. Our recent series,  New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure, shows that many students are unable to effectively answer questions on the written portion of the English Language Arts (ELA) tests.

Our analyses show that a substantial percentage of children, particularly third and fourth-grade kids, were unable to write comprehensible answers to three or more written response questions out of the nine or 10 on each ELA exam. That is, they received a zero score on at least three of these questions, which were billed as measuring analytic reasoning and critical thinking. A zero means that a trained scorer deems a response to be “totally inaccurate, unintelligible, or indecipherable.”

If that’s not disheartening enough, we found that the news was even worse for black and Hispanic students in NYC. New York City data allowed us to look at the impact of the exams on different groups; we found that black and Hispanic students received high percentages of zeros on at least three of the questions. It is not insignificant that black and Hispanic students comprise 68 percent of the citywide test population.

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As the Supreme Court Swings Right, Where is the Pendulum on Women’s Equity in New York? There’s Good News and Bad News

Despite the #metoo movement, the nation continues with a president who has been accused repeatedly as a sexual offender and now a just confirmed Supreme Court judge also so accused. Add Kavanaugh to Thomas and now one-third of the six men on our highest court have been accused of sexual misconduct. This generally leaves women in the United States with a lot to fear. We in New York have been told that state law can potentially protect us if national protections disappear. Is this so?

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Beyond Despair! New York State ELA Tests Are Failing Our Kids

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

New York’s Common Core testing hasn’t worked.  The tests have consistently failed our children, especially the youngest kids, English Language Learners, students with disabilities and minorities. In our most recent research on this subject, we found that far too few students are able to tackle the written portion of the English Language Arts (ELA). For a closer look at this subject, see the entire series, New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure.

This series and report examined results for all 1.2 million students in grades 3-8 across New York State from 2012–2016 when Pearson, Inc. was the test publisher. More detailed information was provided for children in New York City by its Department of Education. Students there make up 37 percent of the test population. This allowed us to analyze data within subgroups for the questions that required students to construct a response.

Our analysis shows that a substantial percentage of children were unable to write comprehensible answers to five or more questions out of the nine or ten on each ELA exam. That is, they received a zero score on at least five of these questions, meaning that their responses were deemed to be “totally inaccurate, unintelligible, or indecipherable” by trained scorers.

We call this criterion the Threshold of Despair.

A dramatic change occurred when exams were aligned with the Common Core. NYC’s overall data show that in 2012 fewer than five percent of third and fourth graders crossed this threshold. But, with the advent of Common Core-aligned exams in 2013, the percentage more than doubled: yes, that means it got worse, not better.

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The Attorney General’s Actual Job

When you vote today for New York Attorney General, ask yourself: What’s their actual job?

Based on the campaigning by candidates in the Democratic primary it’s clear they think voters value independence from the executive, so that they can end corruption in Albany.

While all the candidates for the post have campaigned on acting as the state’s chief prosecutor, there’s no such description in the state constitution. There are some limited statutory powers that support the prosecutorial role. Eliot Spitzer, for example, rediscovered the attorney general’s extensive powers under the Martin Act, passed in 1921 to counter rampant securities fraud. Because New York is an international financial capital, the state’s AG is uniquely situated to be a major player in policing the national economy. Here’s one place where independence does count. Spitzer’s aggressive pursuit of abuses by big Wall Street brokerage houses and investment banks, followed by Andrew Cuomo’s and Eric Schneiderman’s after him, made the New York attorney general a nationally important figure.

But what about promising to crack down on corruption in Albany? Read the candidates’ campaign literature and you find that all say that once in office they’ll fight for constitutional and legal changes that would give them that latitude.  Right. How is that going to fly? Will the Legislature and the Executive easily yield to this oversight?

The attorney general’s actual bread and butter is anything but independent criminal investigation. The main job is chief lawyer, representing the executive branch of state government in court and advising state agencies on legal matters.

This requires coordination with not independence from the governor. The AG’s office has in the past declined to act on the executive’s behalf, but should it, and if so when and why? (You can read more about the history of the AG in our post on the Gotham Gazette.)

Also know that when you vote today, you may be voting for our next governor.  Despite the fact that Spitzer had to resign in disgrace and Schneiderman’s own sexual abuse scandal cost him the AG job, it has become the track to the executive.

You’re also voting for a check on the White House.

Because Donald Trump is a New Yorker the AG can directly investigate Trump for his pre-presidential personal and professional financial practices. One result is the current lawsuit seeking the dissolution of the Trump Foundation for persistent illegal practices over at least a decade. Further, it’s widely assumed that whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will not only win the statewide office in November (Democrats hold a nearly two-to-one majority in the electorate), they’ll go after Trump directly. Zephr Teachout has campaigned openly on suing Trump on violations of the U.S constitution’s emoluments clause. And while she didn’t have standing in her pursuit of this angle when she brought emoluments charges in 2017, as AG she or whoever else wins the office would presumably have standing as the representative of all New Yorkers.

So this office is incredibly powerful and relatively unique because it’s a state office with federal reach. Just know that whoever wins may have more power to impact corruption on Wall Street and in Washington than in Albany.

How the City of Poughkeepsie Flunked its Own Test (Part 3)

Twenty years ago the City of Poughkeepsie debuted a Comprehensive Plan meant to be a road map for revitalization. If you look at Poughkeepsie today you can see, broadly, how well or poorly the City followed its own plan. Look around and there are indeed pockets of vitality — but also far too little of it. To spoil the plot, Poughkeepsie veered from the plan it devised for its own rescue, and it did so comprehensively. This three-part post seeks to grade these efforts. The first will evaluate Housing, Zoning and Transportation. The second will evaluate Cultural Resources, Parks and Recreation, and Historic Resources. The third will evaluate Main Street Revitalization, the Cottage Street Business Park, and Waterfront Strategies.

At the end of the 1998 City of Poughkeepsie Comprehensive Plan there is a list of initiatives listed for each of its recommended strategies, as well as a rating of their priority. The list also indicates if the initiative is an immediate goal, a short-term goal, a mid-range goal, or a long-term goal. It has been 20 years since the plan was adopted, enough time to have some impact. So we decided to grade the city’s performance. To do this we assigned 5 points to high priority initiatives, 3 points to medium priority, and 1 point to low priority. This post will focus on Main Street Revitalization, the Cottage Street Business Park, and Waterfront Strategies. (Editor’s Note: The BenCen’s entire series How the City of Poughkeepsie Fell Short, with three prior chapters, is now live and can be explored in depth here.)

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How the City of Poughkeepsie Flunked its Own Test (Part 2)

Twenty years ago the City of Poughkeepsie debuted a Comprehensive Plan meant to be a road map for revitalization. If you look at Poughkeepsie today you can see, broadly, how well or poorly the City followed its own plan. Look around and there are indeed pockets of vitality — but also far too little of it. To spoil the plot, Poughkeepsie veered from the plan it devised for its own rescue, and it did so comprehensively. This three-part post seeks to grade these efforts. The first will evaluate Housing, Zoning and Transportation. The second will evaluate Cultural Resources, Parks and Recreation, and Historic Resources. The third will evaluate Main Street Revitalization, the Cottage Street Business Park, and Waterfront Strategies.

At the end of the 1998 City of Poughkeepsie Comprehensive Plan there is a list of initiatives listed for each of its recommended strategies, as well as a rating of their priority. The list also indicates if the initiative is an immediate goal, a short-term goal, a mid-range goal, or a long-term goal. It has been 20 years since the plan was adopted, enough time to have some impact. So we decided to grade the city’s performance. To do this we assigned 5 points to high priority initiatives, 3 points to medium priority, and 1 point to low priority.  In the last post Housing, Zoning and Transportation were evaluated.  This post will focus on Cultural Resources, Parks and Recreation, and Historic Resources. (Editor’s Note: The BenCen’s entire series, How the City of Poughkeepsie Fell Short, is now live and can be explored in depth, here.)

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How the City of Poughkeepsie Flunked its Own Test (Part 1)

 

Twenty years ago the City of Poughkeepsie debuted a Comprehensive Plan meant to be a road map for revitalization. If you look at Poughkeepsie today you can see, broadly, how well or poorly the City followed its own plan. Look around and there are indeed pockets of vitality — but also far too little of it. To spoil the plot, Poughkeepsie veered from the plan it devised for its own rescue, and it did so comprehensively. This three-part post seeks to grade these efforts. The first will evaluate Housing, Zoning and Transportation. The second will evaluate Cultural Resources, Parks and Recreation, and Historic Resources. The third will evaluate Main Street Revitalization, the Cottage Street Business Park, and Waterfront Strategies.

At the end of the 1998 City of Poughkeepsie Comprehensive Plan there is a list of initiatives listed for each of its recommended strategies, as well as a rating of their priority. The list also indicates if the initiative is an immediate goal, a short-term goal, a mid-range goal, or a long-term goal. It has been 20 years since the plan was adopted, enough time to have some impact. So we decided to grade the city’s performance. To do this we assigned 5 points to high priority initiatives, 3 points to medium priority, and 1 point to low priority. Let’s see how the city did. (Editor’s Note: The BenCen’s entire series, How the City of Poughkeepsie Fell Short, is now live and can be explored in depth, here.)

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The City We Imagined

The Rip Van Winkle Apartments as proposed in 1969, as an example of unmet expectations.

In 1998 the city of Poughkeepsie underwent a planning process that culminated in an updated comprehensive plan, and that plan is the current plan used by the city.

A comprehensive plan is meant to be a shared vision of what a city should be, and a tangible roadmap of how to get there. Comprehensive plans are long-term, very broad in scope, and expresses the city’s collective public policy preferences on transportation, housing, land use, recreation, utilities, historic preservation, economic development, environmental protection, sustainability, and resilience, among other areas of focus. The vision is derived after input from the public, policy makers, and stakeholders; from these sources, the plan is drawn. The public is thus both informed on the ongoing creation of the plan, and a source of input that informs its creation. Typically, in New York State the adoption of a comprehensive plan is the precursor to overhauling the zoning code so that it conforms to and facilitates the new plan. (Editor’s Note: The BenCen’s entire series, How the City of Poughkeepsie Fell Short, is now live and can be explored in depth, here.)

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What You are Voting on in Tomorrow’s School Budget & Board Elections

Tomorrow, people across New York State will head to the polls. On the ballot? The election of school board members to govern local public school districts. And – very importantly – there will also be the chance to vote “yes” or “no” on the only budget directly put before the electorate, the one to support K12 public schools.

Think about this as you’re “pulling that lever”: the local share of school budgets, the part paid for by your property taxes, has been increasing over time because the state has been paying proportionally less towards the general fund, effectively pushing off a greater portion of the tab to you and your property tax paying neighbors.

Overall, too, we’re still under-funding our schools, with an impact that falls more heavily on schools in poorer districts where there are fewer local resources. Here is the trend over time in local, state, and federal funding, as a percentage of total revenue, for our Ulster County school districts:

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