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Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

Category: The Benjamin Center (page 1 of 4)

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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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

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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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

Why Republicans Fear a NYS Constitutional Convention

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.

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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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