The BenCen Blog

Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

Month: October 2017

Lawn Signs Lie: A Constitutional Convention Will Not Threaten Teacher Pensions

The biggest threat to democracy these days isn’t the faltering executive branch of the United States government. Rather, Gerald Benjamin, founder of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, echoes Franklin Roosevelt and says the biggest threat is fear. Fear of losing rights rather than understanding, as he puts it, “We’re living in a moment of great civic engagement. It’s been sparked by Trump and it means people are alive to both the threat to their rights and to the possibility of what can be done.”

And these two poles — fear of what could be lost as well as the possibility of what could be gained — are playing out on the state level in New York State politics this year as the debate over the constitutional convention turns on a single issue: pensions.

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If You Want Diverse Representation, Vote for a Constitutional Convention

The last time New York held a constitutional convention abortion was illegal.

That was 1967. And despite the passage of 50 years the now legal practice is still under threat. The most recent action by the Trump Administration will, ironically, make it more common for women to need abortions (by making it harder to obtain birth control).

What’s changed since 1967, despite Trump’s actions, is that by an increasing majority Americans would like abortion to remain safe and legal.

This is even more the case in New York State. A recent Quinnipiac poll  found that New Yorkers favor a state constitutional amendment to legalize abortion by a margin of 68-27 percent.

Slam dunk, right? NYS Legislature should take this up immediately.

This right isn’t enshrined in New York’s constitution, because there has been no move to amend the sprawling document to this end. The amendment process requires two consecutively elected legislatures to vote in favor, and then the change must be voted on in a general election. While the majority of statewide constituents favor such an amendment, the NYS Senate is far more conservative than the state’s voters, making sure that abortion rights will not soon be written into the constitution.

But there’s another pathway to protect a woman’s right to choose, as well as the rights that every person of every race and religion is protected, and that LGBTQ rights are protected, even as federal efforts are actively underway to undermine them both by employers and in the military.

It’s called a constitutional convention and New Yorkers get the right to vote in favor of holding one every 20 years.

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Achieving Excellence: Schools Can Do More By Sharing With Each Other

Increasing Educational Opportunity — and Possibly Property Values — with a New School Model

Public education, like all public assets, is under tremendous fiscal pressure. Slashed school district budgets often lead to schools cutting courses. That can mean anything from not teaching the latest computer science to stinting on the range of languages offered. And if you cannot afford to send your child to private instructors or tutors for these subjects, your kid will be behind the curve vs. children who attend schools that do offer more variety. In New York’s Ulster County, enrollment has fallen in the past half decade and the county’s students have grown poorer, as well as more ethnically diverse. All of these factors put financial pressure on the schools, especially as they seek to give their students the leg up they need to compete in an economy that’s shifted toward white collar service work.

But Charles V. Khoury, District Superintendent of Ulster Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), who wrote a recent Discussion Brief for the Benjamin Center on solutions to this problem, says he has an idea for maintaining and even increasing the quality and variety of classes for all students in Ulster County. It’s called the Quasi-Magnet Model. Unlike, say, New York City, which uses magnet schools that focus on core subjects like science (and only teaches those classes to students of that particular school), a quasi-magnet system silos areas of specialization—a school within a school—then shares those classes across all districts within the county. Khoury says Ulster County’s eight school districts (or other school districts facing similar challenges) should work together to determine areas where each district could specialize—and then open those opportunities to all students in the county.

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Pot isn’t the Problem. Opioid Addiction Is. Medical Marijuana is Saving Lives and Money.

By Michael Frank

At a time when the Attorney General of the United States wants to harden prosecution of pot use in the United States, even in states that have legalized medical marijuana, it’s reasonable to ask: at what cost?

That’s part of the focus of a recent Benjamin Center Discussion Brief  by Dr. Eve Waltermaurer, Senior Research Scientist for the Benjamin Center and a PhD epidemiologist. Waltermaurer looked at the history of categorizing pot as a gateway drug, as the Attorney General continues to do, despite significant evidence to the contrary. In fact as the brief points out, there’s just as much efficacy to the idea that tobacco is a gateway drug to alcohol use, and in 2016 the National Institute on Drug Addiction announced it could not conclude that pot use led to the use of harder drugs.

Lacking scientific evidence, however, has never stood in the way of politicians wanting to grandstand about getting tough on crime.

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The Pros and Cons of Tech in the Classroom

By Michael Frank

The Second Annual SUNY Smart Schools Summit at SUNY New Paltz Highlights Everything from 3D Printing to Virtual Reality, but also Raises Thorny Privacy Concerns

For the second year in a row, the School of Education at the State University of New York at New Paltz, has convened an Ed Tech Summit on campus. It was led by Michael Rosenberg, Dean of the School of Education at SUNY New Paltz, Amy Perry-DelCorvo, CEO/Executive Director, The New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education (NYSCATE), and Kiersten Greene, Assistant Professor of Literacy at SUNY New Paltz, who teaches pre- and in-service K-12 educators how to teach reading, writing, and multi-modal text production.

But what exactly is “Ed Tech”? And why did SUNY New Paltz need to create a summit around it?   Continue reading

Every 20 Years New Yorkers Get to Vote to Fix Albany

A Constitutional Convention Could Radically Reduce Gerrymandering, and Give Your Vote the Punch it Was Designed to Have

While the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz is strictly non-partisan, in one sense its founder, Dr. Gerald Benjamin, is biased—in favor of democracy.

Benjamin says that while the New York State constitution is in need of a serious makeover, the state legislature has shown it won’t do this. Fortunately, however, revision and/or amendment can be achieved in another way. Benjamin explains that the NY State constitution stipulates that every 20 years voters have the right to call a convention to “take the temperature of their government.” Benjamin, who recently debated the merits of a constitutional convention at Siena College and then followed up that debate on Capital Tonight, has multiple insights into why we need the convention as a corrective for failures in state government, especially to reduce the blocking power of entrenched incumbents in Albany.

“We have a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. But we do have this direct democratic mechanism of review—that’s what the convention referendum question is. We get to say, ‘Hmmm, how are my representatives doing?’ I think if you asked most people they’d say, ‘Not very well.’ We have a failure on many levels, from the way laws are made to the failure of our institutions to adapt processes. That’s really no wonder: We haven’t revised the basics of how our government is structured in three quarters of a century.”

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How the City of Poughkeepsie Fell Short

The City We Imagined
Cities have to plan. To do so, they create documents. But looking back on Poughkeepsie, New York’s, 1998 roadmap for its future is like reading a love letter from a failed romance, an unrealized dream about a future that never came to pass.

How the City of Poughkeepsie Flunked its Own Test (Part 1)
If a comprehensive plan is a list of governmental goals, a measuring stick against which voters can assess how a city is growing, prospering, or failing, measuring Poughkeepsie circa 2018 against its 1998 goals is a tough lesson about the best-laid plans. This first part of a three-part series examines how Poughkeepsie did at keeping its promises on Housing, Zoning and Transportation.

How the City of Poughkeepsie Flunked its Own Test (Part 2)
The second in the series of assessments of Poughkeepsie’s Comprehensive 1998 Plan, and how the plan worked out for Cultural Resources, Parks and Recreation, and Historic Resources.

How the City of Poughkeepsie Flunked its Own Test (Part 3)
The third part of the series of assessments of Poughkeepsie’s Comprehensive 1998 Plan, and how the plan worked out for Main Street Revitalization, the Cottage Street Business Park, and Waterfront Strategies.

A New Comprehensive Plan for Poughkeepsie 
The final part of this series explores the potential for a new comprehensive plan for the City of Poughkeepsie, and what types of things might be in it.

New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure

Beyond Despair! New York State ELA Tests Are Failing Our Kids
The youngest children ensnared in New York State’s testing regime are eight. To understand how it’s not their fault that a huge percentage of them cannot comprehend the exams they’re sitting for — and shouldn’t be expected to — read this post.

Failing the Test
Did you hold your child out of New York State’s testing protocol? You’re not alone. Over 20 percent of the test population did so between 2013 and 2015. And our research indicates why you’re probably smart to have done so, and why until New York State’s Department of Education becomes more transparent about how and why they ‘ve rewarded testing contractors with tens of millions of dollars to force-feed your kid a flawed exam, more and more parents should refuse to let their kids prop up a broken system.

State Testing is Increasing the Achievement Gap

Perhaps no facet of the state’s failed testing regime should cause more scrutiny than the fact that the achievement gap between whites and Black and Hispanic students has roughly doubled under the past half-decade of mandated testing. Let’s make something clear: No matter what, tests that fail to narrow the achievement gap are already suspect. Tests that actually make it worse point to a total lack of conscience on the part of the State Department of Education, and to a dire need for reform.

Read and Weep

If you’re wondering why kids have such a difficult time with these state-mandated tests, read some of the passages yourself and see if they make any sense to you — let alone to an eight-year-old child. One of the examples here stumped nearly 25 percent of all test takers, and you need to see it with your own eyes to understand why these examinations are clearly age inappropriate.

 

Discussion Brief: TESTS ARE TURNING OUR KIDS INTO ZEROES.

If you’re wondering why and how student assessment became an industry, read this. You’ll learn not only that testing is inevitable, but apparently testing without accountability to the veracity and quality of the product doesn’t matter to state officials. Your child — and your tax dollars — hang in the balance of a deeply flawed testing system in New York State.

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