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
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 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
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.
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.
By Michael Frank
There are more than 150 groups that are in opposition to the proposed ballot amendment for the constitutional convention. Pro-choice groups and anti-abortion rights groups. Pro-union groups and anti-union groups. Pro-gun rights groups and gun control groups. The common thread? Political power. The only logical reason these folks don’t want a New York State Constitutional Convention – a Con Con – is that they presently enjoy a toehold in Albany that they very much like. Upset the system and they have to reestablish a network and grapple with a new order where they may not have as much juice, and the last thing interest groups like is change, because it means that the power has shifted away from their control.
You know what that’s called? Democracy.
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.
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.
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.
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.”